Imago Dei

Iris – Picture by Buntysmum on pixabay

Way back, before I was born, before any of us were born, back before the Romans, before Moses, before Noah, there was a garden.  Whether this garden was literal or figurative doesn’t matter.  Within this garden, God created the first people.  We are told that these people were made in the image of God, meaning there is something of God in each of us, whether we are people of faith or not. 

What part is it about us, that we share with God?  Maybe it’s that we reflect something of His character, nature, personality, emotions, empathy/compassion, imagination, creativity, intellect, feelings – indeed any combination of those, or others I might have missed. 

Is it the concept of our having a soul – and what is that anyway?  Maybe, and it’s interesting to note that many pre-Christian faiths, e.g. Hinduism and Jainism, also have a concept that what makes us, US, is that they believe in the concept of everyone having a soul.  The soul is referred to in the Old Testament, but the writers were using that word with the concept that the soul is corporeal – that it is a physical part of us. Today we view the soul as being intangible, thanks to Socrates and Plato, who inspired some of the early church thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas, to think in terms of an immortal, non-corporeal, soul.  If you are interested, do an internet search for yourself.  As an overview, I found this article interesting:

Could it also be that it is the spiritual component/sensitivity, that many of us experience – whether we are Christian, Islamic, Hindu or whatever.  I don’t think so, because there are a significant number of people who have no idea what that feels like, and they too reflect God’s image.  Whatever component(s) it is that are built into us, in Latin, this reflection of God we call the Imago Dei.  The exact definition has been debated for centuries, so we have Irenaeus (living sometime around 120/140 AD/CE), Thomas Aquinas (born 1225), John Calvin (born 1509), and Karl Barth (born 1886), all taking slightly differently nuanced understandings of what the Imago Dei meant.  You can look up all these theologians and explore how their ideas differed, but it is too detailed for a “brief” blog like this!  For myself, I just take as simplistic stance that we are made in the image of God, and I let others argue exactly how that works!

Jesus tells us that if we want to know what God is like we need to look at what He, Jesus, was like (John 14: 9).  Frequently we think of God commanding this, or demanding that of us – a very domineering, overbearing and judgemental being.  But when we look at Jesus, we see someone who spent all his energies, carefully trying to repair relationships, bodies and people that had gone wrong.  In so doing, he brought them into a better understanding of what God was really like. In fact, when we look at Scriptures more closely we see that God too was very involved in trying to make things right again with people. He made covenants with Abraham, Jacob, with Israel via Moses, with David, and with everyone through Jesus, and this was foreseen in Jeremiah 31: 31-34. All these covenants were designed to bring people closer to God where they could be blessed by God.

All too often we picture God as a male judge or headmaster waiting to beat up on someone who has just done something a little wrong.  Perhaps the image is that of Gerald Scarfe’s Teacher or Judge in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (showing my age, but do an online image search for that!), or some Victorian or Dickensian character.  This image is totally wrong.  For one thing, this is not the picture of God that Jesus paints for us, and for another, although we almost instinctively think it, I don’t think we can take for granted that God is “male”. 

Indeed, I don’t believe you can call God either male, or female, using the normal criteria we use to assign gender.  Furthermore, you cannot make a point that God is straight, or gay or anything else, because he is not a sexual being.  So, sexuality cannot be a part of the image of God.  As I write on pages 132/133 of my essay – Changing Minds:- A Thorough Exploration of the Issues: To Reconcile being LGBTQ+ with the Bible:

So, what is God?  He is not a being that needs to reproduce, or expel processed fluids, so, on those grounds He won’t have genitals!  The only way you can argue for a male God is in terms of character, but that is a bit flaky, because we have a reasonable percentage of women exhibiting male characteristics, but we don’t define them as male!  We also have men with feminine character traits – does that make them female?  In our culture, of course not!  In addition, there are many times when God is described demonstrating what we regard as female characteristics.  Others will point to Jesus and say that Jesus said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ [Jesus is male so God must be male], but this is quite shallow [since God doesn’t have a human body].  Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about His own physical body, but the totality of what He is like: character, judgement, love, compassion, intent, etc. 

In the text, I go on to refer to the other pictures Scripture uses to depict God, like:

  • The shepherd (Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd…”
  • A soldier (Exodus 15: 3 “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name”
  • A mother (Isaiah 66:13 – “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you”
  • A fire (Deuteronomy 4: 36 – “From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire”  Remember also Moses and the burning bush.
  • A lion (Isa. 31:4 – “As a lion growls, a great lion over its prey— and though a whole band of shepherds is called together against it, it is not frightened by their shouts or disturbed by their clamour— so the LORD Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights”),
  • or a chicken (Matthew 23: 37 – “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”.  A very feminine picture.
  • Twice in Revelation the writer refers to God wiping away every tear (Rev 7:17 and Rev 21:4), which is not a particularly macho picture, and instead shows a compassionate, caring and loving God.

There are others, but those at least will get you started.  I then go on to say:

Just then I quoted Jesus saying, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’.  This is not a definitive description of gender, but it was perfect for the culture Jesus was ministering to.  There is no way Jesus would say ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father, but guys, when you are writing your Gospels, make it clear for those living in the far future, that God also has a feminine aspect, and in fact [shouldn’t] really be characterised as any particular gender.’  They wouldn’t have been equipped to understand what Jesus was saying.

Another problem is that we like to have some sort of mental imagery of God because it helps us to relate.  If you have had a penfriend, whom you have never met, or seen, you want to get a picture to see whether it matches the one conjured up in your imagination.  These days that is less likely because of social media, but there were times, such as when I was young, that letters could take six weeks to get to a destination in another country by ship, and then another six or more weeks for the reply to come back.  (Airmail was expensive.)  We enjoyed getting pictures as it helped us relate to them better.  Today I can text a friend in New Zealand and get a reply back almost immediately, assuming it is the part of the day when neither of us are sleeping!

As people we like mental images, but the problem is that these images (whether mental pictures or something made of wood, stone, metal or plastic, can become more and more important, and so themselves became idols.  Just to be a little bit controversial, I belief some people have made an idol out of the Bible – which sounds wrong.  However, for them, the actual words in the Bible have become more important than the teaching of Jesus – than the Spirit that lay behind the words.  Many of you will have seen how grace and mercy can be thrown out, in favour of verses that back up a person’s own outlook or worldview.  Jesus was angered by the Pharisees criticising the disciples, for picking seed off heads of corn because they were hungry (Matthew 12: 1-8; Mark 2: 23-27 & Luke 6: 1-5.).

Idolatry is spoken against throughout the Bible, and in this regard the Bible warns us not to create anything that you perceive reminds you of God.  Deuteronomy 4:16 warns us “do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman”, because ultimately, you will find yourself praying to that object instead of God.  If you can only pray when you are in front of a cross or crucifix, be careful.

I’m curious and I want to know what God looks like, but I haven’t a clue.  Sometimes I picture him like one of those spirit-type entities depicted on Star Trek, other times I picture my own conjured-up picture of Jesus, but usually I just try not to limit myself with any mental image. 

To get back to the gender of God, I believe God is both wholly masculine and wholly feminine, because by creating men and women, both are then created, in some way, according to His image. 

Although the Bible uses male pronouns for God, it would have been strange if it didn’t, given the Patriarchal culture of the day, the very male centric bias of history, and the humanness of the writers.  I can’t think of any example where the supreme being of any faith is feminine.  Yes, many faiths have goddesses, but they all seem to be lower-ranked than the supreme being of that faith.  Can you think of any examples that contradict this notion?   Faith structures across the globe seem to all have a male Supreme Being, whether that be Viking/Norse, First Nation, Judeo Christian, Islam, Hindu, Pagan, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikh, etc.  The idea of male dominance doesn’t seem to be a western construct but one that is prevalent across all cultures, throughout history, and globally, with only a handful of exceptions.  But that doesn’t make it right!

As I have said in the essay, because of the many inconsistencies in Biblical narratives I don’t see the Bible as having been dictated by God, because if God HAD written/dictated everything, there would be no inconsistencies.   He would also have been careful to use language, which, when translated, would have still been possible to accurately interpret today.  Instead, there are many places, where translators have no idea what some specific words mean and must therefore put in their best highly educated guess.  However, I do believe the writers were inspired by God when they wrote their parchments. 

Now, to get back on track, Genesis reports that the three parts of God create a being that is made in their image (hence, the word, “us” in the text.).  Genesis 1: 26-27 says: 26 Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, … 27 So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  31 … and it was very good”. (NIV)

Although we have been made in the image of God, many of us have been badly scarred and damaged by our life-experiences.  I know I have been left scarred by some of my experiences, and these leave me wary of putting myself back in similar situations where I might be hurt again.  At the same time scripture tells me to forgive not just once, but many times (Matthew 18: 21-35).  That doesn’t mean that if I am in a situation where there is a strong chance of being abused, I remain there.  No, keep safe and get out, and if you can’t, seek urgent help from someone (or an agency) you can trust. 

Although Scripture sees forgiveness as something you do on behalf of someone who hurts you, the perpetrator isn’t let off the hook.  Justice requires accountability and an acceptance of responsibility, and usually some form of penalty or restitution.  This is also true when things go wrong in churches/faith groups.   “… right before Jesus talks about seventy times seven, he gives a teaching about what to do if a believer sins against another believer.  He advises to meet with the offender privately, point out the offense and see if they repent.  If that doesn’t happen, one should gather two or three other believers, go to the offender again, and if that doesn’t work then “take your case to the church” (Matthew 18:17a).  If the offender still doesn’t repent, then “treat that person as a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17b).  Paul affirms the importance of church leaders rebuking church congregants who create trouble in his letter to Titus, telling Titus as the leader of the Cretan church to rebuke troublemakers (Titus 1:13).”  This paragraph is addressing the normal difficulties you find in many churches at some time or another.  This isn’t the modus operandi for tackling criminal offences.  In writing this, everyone will be projecting their own concepts of what constitutes severe, major and minor hurts and abuses and I cannot write something to cover everything, so I apologise, and ask you keep a sense of perspective.  I can only write in general terms.

However, the Bible is clear.  Forgiveness isn’t a free pass for the offender to re-offend.  There are consequences for sin, and expectations of radical behaviour change where the repentance is truly sincere.  Indeed, Jesus himself is quite blunt when talking about offenders, saying, once again, in Matthew 18: 6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!  Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (NIV.)  He is not talking specifically about children, but the tender language he uses includes us all, regardless of age, because we are precious to him, and he doesn’t want to see any of us hurt, although sadly, many have.

Last week, as I was doing my weekly grocery shop, I was listening to another podcast.  It was a talk by the theologian and former Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend N T Wright, who, when authoring non-academic work and broadcasts, is known as Tom Wright.  I was interested because he was talking about reflecting the image of God, and as I got to the self-service checkout he said:

If you [are] in Christ, if you [are] indwelt by the Spirit, you [right now], are just a shadow of your future self.  There is a real “you”, more like you than you’ve ever imagined.  And God loves that “you” and wants, by the Spirit, to help you grow into being.  And that’s possible, because all that hinders you from being that, was dealt with on Good Friday. 

…we’ve imagined that the only real question to ask about being human is: “Have we kept the rules, or not?”  And we all know the answer.  Of course, we haven’t kept the rules, so then, what’s going to be [the answer]?  “Jesus has kept them on our behalf”, or “Jesus has paid the penalty for that”.  Well fine, in a sense, but being human was never a matter, simply of keeping rules.  That is, to put the knowledge of good and evil, before the knowledge of God, which is precisely what Adam and Eve did in the garden.  Being human was always about being image bearers … reflecting God into the world and the praises of the world back to God. 
Extract from a transcript of Tom Wright from his “Jesus the Revolutionary” seminar at the 2017 London Bible Week recently rebroadcast as number 100 of the “Ask NT Wright Anything” podcast.

To expand on his comments (you know I’m good at expanding and not so good at summarising!) he’s saying that with the Spirit within us, drawing us closer to God, there is a future real “me” where I have fully realised God’s complete potential for me.  That may only come about with my Earthly demise, but that doesn’t mean that right now when I haven’t matched my image-bearing potential, I am not loved.  It’s like a gardener getting excited about planting this unusual species of Iris.  It may not look particularly great in earthly terms right now, but look at the potential, just imagine what it’ll do for the garden!  I’m therefore going to water it regularly, make sure no weeds grow around it.  I’m going to protect it from the frost.  And, Oh look!  I can see a shoot!  It won’t be long before it buds and then flowers.  This is a reflection of the imagery we have in Scripture about growing vines, and fig trees.

In the meantime, as people, we have a fixation on keeping the rules.  Go into any organisation or church and there will be rules to keep.  Often Churches and faith groups will have rules about who can join and who can’t.  Some of you will have been excluded from a church because of your gender, sexuality or orientation, and if not explicitly, then implicitly.  When I was between churches, I’d look at church websites (sometimes before a visit, and sometimes after I had visited and liked them enough to consider a second visit) and if there were “Belief” statements like “God made us, male and female” or that marriage was given as a “sacrament between a man and a woman” or, if people were praying that “the church in the UK would stop its slide away from the teachings of the Bible/towards apostasy”, I kind of felt there was no point returning, because you knew where they stood!  I love reading the Bible, but you get to recognise the hidden agendas.

The good thing is that Jesus has no such worries because he welcomes all who come, and the non-affirming church will just have suck it up because, as John tells us, in chapter 3: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, …”  That “whoever” word is so important.  No conditions whatsoever.  And as Tom Wright says, keeping rules is like putting “the knowledge of good and evil, before the knowledge of God.”  It is so much more important to focus on knowing God and having a healthy relationship with him than ticking those boxes.  Where is Grace if we can only be saved by keeping the rules?  It’s a denial of the repeated teaching we find throughout the Bible.

So, it doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight, Bi or Trans, ace, queer or whatever, you are made in the image of God.  You reflect God.  And whoever you are, you, like me, are called to bear the image of God and reflect Him to the community around us.  Take Pride in your calling to be a child of God and welcome the Holy Spirit to continue the work in your life.