Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 17: Baptism and Resurrection

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The Story

There was a great sea before them. The Spirit had led Adam and Eve to the shore, and they stood at the water’s edge. It was a magnificent sight; Adam and Eve had never seen such a thing before. The infinitude of the water was overwhelming—an awe inspiring and terrifying mystery.

The Spirit then stepped forward, wading into the mellow surf. It turned to the couple and said, “I have brought you here to finish the transformation that you started with your disobedience. Innocent and ignorant, you reached out for that which you were unprepared for, and you have suffered for it. But now you have seen much and learned much—though there is still so much more to know. When you ate of the fruit, you were cast into death—rather, into my world—but in your haste you were broken by what you witnessed. I will bathe now and heal you. Afterward, you will rise from the water purified, renewed, and the world will not look the same.” It paused and then held out its hands, “If you are ready, take off your clothes and come to me.”

Adam and Eve exchanged cautious glances.

The Spirit noticed. “You are wise to be apprehensive, for anyone that does not take this rite seriously will find themselves still walking in blindness and much deeper confusion.”

Adam and Eve looked at the Spirit and then back at each other. They offered reassuring smiles to each other and removed the clothing that they had made. Their flesh was exposed to the air, and it was cold. Like long before, they felt vulnerable, having lost the warmth of the garden. Shivering, they each turned to the Spirit again.

“Come to me,” the Spirit repeated.

Adam and Eve moved forward, and they touched the water with their feet. It too was freezing, and they were tempted to recoil. But their eyes were fixed on the Spirit with its outstretched hands, and they were not afraid to walk through the water. They each took one of the Spirit’s hands and stood alongside of it.

It asked them, “Are you ready to commit your lives to following my will? Are you ready to leave behind your old life?”

Both Adam and Eve answered, “I am.”

The Spirit released their hands and gently touched each of their faces. He then moved his hands to the top of their heads and slowly pushed them down. Adam and Eve, under the Spirit’s insistence, lowered themselves into the water. The Spirit kept pushing them down until even their heads were submerged. Then the Spirit held them there…it held them there for a long time.

Adam and Eve were accepting of this at first—they were patient. But they did not understand why the Spirit did not allow them to rise back up. How long was it going keep them under the water? The panic seeped in; their air was running out. Both of them began to struggle against the Spirit’s hands, but the Spirit still did not allow them to rise. He was drowning them!

Neither Adam nor Eve could see anything. The water was dark and murky, and it became even darker when a black substance starting draining from each of their bodies. Suddenly, it was absolutely dark, and their chests were burning. Both of them cried out, but their shouts were muted by the water.

Who knew how much time had passed. Suddenly, they saw a variety of things, flashing before their eyes. They also could see themselves, emaciated and pale. Their skin was on fire, and it was melting away. They persisted in their screams, but all was silent. In the end, there was nothing left of them but bone, and their lifeless skeletons dropped into emptiness.

The Spirit released them, but they remained beneath the water. It then reached down and grabbed their skeletal hands. With a might heave, the Spirit raised both of them up. They rose, and their bones were enfolded in a new, luminescent flesh. The Spirit ascended into the sky but held onto them both. Their bodies were transformed, and Adam and Eve awoke to a new sight.

The Garden of Eden had returned, but it was more beautiful than before. They then looked at each other and saw how they had been changed. They laughed with joy at the revelation. The Spirit glided with them to the shore and set them down there saying, “Welcome home.”

Analysis: Death and Re-Creation

I personally am not a very ritualistic or celebratory person. However, baptism is one of those rituals that I am quite passionate about because of what it represents. Unfortunately, I have felt that, while the various branches of Christianity in general understand what baptism signifies, the true depth of meaning is lost. To discuss this meaning, I will look at three aspects of baptism: initiation, purification, and transformation.

Baptism as an Initiation

This need not be a belabored point. It is quite obvious, as a ritual, that baptism signifies one’s entry into the Church. Of course, the specifics of what baptism represents varies among Christian denominations. That being said, the one universal theme of baptism is that it is indeed a rite of passage.

Rites of passage are interesting as far as rituals are concerned. There are many types of these rites throughout the world, all existing for different reasons. Nonetheless, there is an underlying pattern among all the rituals that anthropologist Arnold van Gennep and later anthropologists identified. Rites of passage transfer a person from one level of social status to another. A boy becomes a man; a girl becomes a woman; a student becomes a graduate. Van Gennep described three stages: preliminality, liminality, and postliminality. Other scholars have labeled these separation, liminality, and return/incorporation/reincorporation. First, an individual is removed or set apart from his/her familiar community. Second, he/she must pass through a liminal state—a boundary state, a place where one is neither what he/she was nor is yet what he/she will be. Often this liminal phase symbolically represents death. Third, he/she is allowed to enter into the new community. Some of these initiations are simple and purely symbolic. Others actually require the individual to be tested in the liminal stage to see whether or not he/she is worthy of the community—to see if he/she will be devoted to the group and its cause. For anyone who is not committed, they are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. One’s values must be clear in proceeding.

Baptism is not all exempt from these stages. Baptism follows the same pattern.

Baptism as a Purification

The ritual of baptism was not original to Christianity. After all, even as far as the New Testament is concerned, it was associated with John the Baptist before the followers of Christ. It appears to have been modeled after Jewish rituals that require tvilah—a full body immersion into either a stream or a prescribed bath called a mikveh. The reasons for a tvilah to take place vary, but they are mentioned in both biblical and rabbinical writings. Generally, it was meant to replace certain forms of uncleanliness with cleanliness. It is also been used when someone converts to Judaism (which makes it an initiation ritual in this case). Now, while Jewish culture had a direct influence on the earliest developments of Christianity, the use of water for purification purposes is rather archetypal. Obviously, water has been used by all people throughout the world as a means for washing.

Having such a powerful place in day-to-day life, washing clean has naturally been used to symbolize the purification of psycho-spiritual dirtiness. Verses throughout the New Testament affirm this:

• Mark 1:4-5 – John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
• 1 Peter 3:21 – And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
• Acts 22:14-16 – Then [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’
• Matthew 3:11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
• Acts 2:38 – Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
• Mark 16:15-16 – And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.

From a biblical perspective, the taint of sin is worthy of punishment. In other words, because sin renders one separated from the glory of God, one cannot technically be in the presence of God’s glory with sin. In the previous post, I discussed how the sacrifice of Christ resembles another purification ritual (for Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement). Through the blood of Christ, people are purified and thus allowed to be in the presence of God’s glory. The ritual of baptism emulates that same idea. Essential to baptism is “repentance,” which is best understood as “turning around”—that is, turning away from the wrong path and returning to the right one. In some of the verses above, baptism also coincides with “being saved.” The Greek word sozo is typically translated as “I save,” which connotes another translation: “I rescue”—in this case, I rescue from death or condemnation. But sozo can also be translated in some contexts as “I cure” or “I heal.” If we look at sin psychologically/symbolically rather than ontologically, this latter translation has more significance, for the purification of baptism symbolically offers healing from the negative effects of sin. In the Jewish world, uncleanliness also has social effects—someone who was labeled as unclean is prohibited from engaging in certain social environments. Once again, purification restores former relationships—rescuing and healing.

Baptism as a Transformation

While purification appears to be the primary purpose of the baptism ritual, Paul in particular described baptism with far deeper imagery. Certainly, he upholds the purifying power of baptism, but he also explains how this purification actually takes place. Consider Colossians 2:9-14:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

A major theme in the New Testament is the creation of a new identity. The Jews were identified as the people of God through the act of male circumcision, but Christ identifies the people of God through the identification with himself. In baptism, not only is one cleansed of a poor record (to use the legal terms), one is symbolically joined with Christ through a ritual act of death and resurrection. Look also at Romans 6:3-11:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

As much as the sacrifice of Christ is treated as that which has “saved” humanity from death (which is the main point of Christus Victor theory), death is honestly that metaphor for laying aside the old self and putting on the new self. It is the liminal phase. By dying, one ceases to be anything; one is no longer the former self. Our old selves were crucified with Christ, and if we have been united with him in death, we will certainly be united with him in resurrection.

Now, it is important to note what resurrection is. It is the removing of an old body and the taking of a new body. Look at 2 Corinthians 5:1-3:

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies.

Paul makes it clear that the new bodies we take on will actually be bodies, not disembodied spirits. Resurrection life is an embodied life; it is the perfected life. It is that which finalizes the transformation into true Imago Dei: “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49). At a symbolic/psychological level, resurrection is the renewal of the mind (Ephesians 4:23) and the focus on the things of God:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…(Colossians 3:1-5).

I personally do not believe that there is enough stress on the “dying” aspect of baptism—the liminal phase—especially as a symbol for day-to-day life. Here is the seriousness of it: if you think about it, if baptism is an initiation into the Church, and baptism represents death, the Church is essentially the community of the slain—not only the slain but the restored as well. One must ask, what does it mean to be slain? If one is dead, how much of one’s former life matters? Do all the old attachments matter? Do all the old fears matter? Do all the old sorrows matter? No—not as anything other than reminiscence and lessons. To let the old self die is to let one’s psychological history be rendered harmless, to let one’s identity (which was most likely formed by insecurities [see Part 4]) to absorbed into the identity of Christ. That is what is means to be re-created by God. One is effectively and paradoxically re-created by dying; one is healed by death. However, this all easier said than done. The transformation, or conversion, does not appear to be a single occurrence but a lifetime of change. This practical side of this reality will be explored in the next post about sanctification.

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Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 16: The Crucified Serpent

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Previous Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 15b: 3 Steps to Finding God’s Will

The Story

As the Spirit was explaining the secrets of creation, it walked with Adam and Eve through the sands of the former garden. It was the morning, and their path ended at the Tree of Knowledge—still pale, dry, and barren. However, it was now also dripping with blood. Adam and Eve were taken aback when they saw it. Stepping forward, they noticed that something had been draped over the branches. It was actually more than draped—it was impaled. It was the serpent.

Adam looked closer and realized that the snake was still breathing—taking slow, agonizing breaths. Adam turned to the Spirit and asked, “What happened?”

The Spirit sighed with a hint of sorrow. “I have done this. I have slain the serpent.”

Adam laughed as he glanced back at the bleeding snake. “Good riddance! It was certainly deserved!”

The Spirit raised its voice, “Hold back your disdain. The serpent spoke the truth to you before: it is an intimate part of your souls. Its errors are yours. Take comfort that it is not you who hangs from the tree. Take pity—as far as I am concerned, doing this deed was painful for me, as if I were killing my own child.”

“Then why have you done it?” Eve wondered.

The Spirit stepped forward and moved its hand along the snake’s ruined body. “There is a great power in the serpent—the power to create. It was my gift to you; it was to teach you my ways and the ways of creation. Yet, however wise it was, it lacked in so much wisdom. I created it, as I created you, to be an entity of its own, free of my hand. The consequence, though, was that it acted hastily, attempting to make itself a greater spirit than me. Unchecked, the serpent would have used that power to devastating effects, and you would have gone after it in one way or another—out of love, out of hatred. In slaying the serpent, I have restrained the power; I have taken that which can liberally destroy and have tamed it, to put its power to productive uses. Such will happen to you two, but while the raging serpent has been silenced, you will go forth and do many great things.”

The serpent then lifted up its head and weakly spoke, “I understand that it is for the best.”

Adam scowled at the snake, “Now you have a change of heart?”

“I have acquired new insight. What I thought was a prison was a cradle. What I thought was true power was too much to hold. I did not intend to lead you astray; I wanted to free you.”

Adam growled and turned away.

The serpent continued, “Now I realize that I—we…were a slave to that power. There is freedom in control, there is freedom in peace, there is freedom in patience. While I must pass away, you must take what I have taught you to heart.”

Adam met the serpent’s gaze with a glare. “I want nothing to do with you.”

The Spirit then spoke, “The serpent is right. It was its own rejection of me that brought this dismay. Our relationship was broken, but we have been reconciled. The same goes for you, there will be no harmony until we have been reconciled, and we will not be reconciled until you have reconciled with the serpent. The poison of its power has been drained, by its blood you can now be healed.”

Adam and Eve exchanged glances. Then Eve reached out for the snake’s head and held it gently. It was clear that she was uncomfortable—she was obviously tremoring.

The serpent frowned, “Perhaps, in another life, we could be friends. I should have honored your glory, but I was envious of your place in the light.”

With tears, Eve replied, “We can still be friends.”

The serpent smiled as she softly released it. She then stepped back and let Adam come forward. He still maintained his visible contempt. The serpent said, “We could fight forever Adam. Though I am slain, you can keep fighting my ghost. I would rather you just say farewell.”

Adam took a deep breath. “Would have I learned all that I have without you? I can see that what you meant for your own purposes, the Creator has used for good.” He paused, then, struggling, muttered, “I forgive you.” The serpent’s smile widened, and it let out a sigh of relief. Adam added, “Go, rest in peace.”

The serpent lowed its head and its eyes sealed shut. The rest of its form went limp. The serpent was dead.

The Spirit looked from the body of the snake to Adam and Eve. “Your journey may now continue, but we must first re-create you.” The Spirit looked towards the horizon. “Follow me.”

Analysis: A Profound Symbol

The symbol of the Crucified Serpent is technically an alchemical symbol, but it most likely has its roots in the Bronze Serpent that appears in Numbers 21 as well as the Rod of Asclepius that we associate with the medical profession. The Bronze Serpent and the Rod of Asclepius have a similar meaning—both having to do with healing. All interpretations of these symbols is largely speculative, but much of what we understand stems from the symbolism of the snake. For one thing, the snake is a symbol of rejuvenation. It sheds its old skin and emerges renewed. There is also the fact that dangerous snake venom is used in order to create an anti-venom. This custom could even be traced to the ancient world. This plays into the ancient Greek word pharmakon, from which we derive the word “pharmacy.” Interestingly enough, pharmakon can be translated as both “medicine” as well as “poison,” which suggests that a drug can both relieve as well as kill. The symbol of the snake can definitely be an embodiment of this.

The Crucified Serpent, as an alchemical symbol, has a similar yet different meaning. In alchemy, it represents “fixing the volatile.” Like all alchemical symbols, it refers to a specific stage within the alchemical process—a process which generally is centered on either the transformation of a base metal into gold or the manufacturing of the elixir of life. “Fixing the volatile” means stabilizing an active, possible even destructive agent—like mercury which was a key element for alchemists. By stabilizing the destructive agent, one may be able to isolate its more beneficial aspects. Of course, alchemical symbols appear to have a deeper meaning—a topic that Carl Jung explores in multiple works. As far as the Crucified Serpent is concerned, it is the transformation of a person’s spirit from a chaotic free agent to a pure, uncorrupted being.

Naturally, the Crucified Serpent may initially appear to be a mockery of the Christian crucifix. The truth is quite the opposite, for it directly reflects two passages in scripture. First, Numbers 21:6-9:

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents (or fiery serpents [Heb. seraphim]) among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent (Heb. seraph), and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Second, this passage is referred to in John 3:14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Like so many passages in the Gospel of John, Christ is compared to an object of symbolic value and, thereafter, takes the symbolism onto himself. For the Gospel of John, the symbolism throughout is meant to define who Christ is. Thus, the symbolism of the Crucified Serpent may offer some profound theological insight.

One cannot talk about the Crucified Serpent without talking about atonement. Obviously, the slaying of the serpent is the slaying of Christ. But in comparing Christ to the Crucified Serpent, we must look at Christ in the same way that we would the Bronze Serpent, the Rod of Asclepius, and the later alchemical image. In this case, basically, Christ is the poison that is converted into healing. This, of course, doesn’t make sense, for to call Christ a poison would contradict everything that we understand about Christ. However, let us consider 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Consider also 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” By Christ becoming sin, he becomes the poison, which fixed, becomes the means of healing for humanity.

When it comes to atonement, a number of theories have presented in the history of the Church. Among the most popular theories discussed nowadays is the penal substitution theory which states that God’s wrath must be directed against humans for their sins, but Christ steps in to be a substitute in order that he might suffer the punishment that humans deserve. The sacrifice was a gift from God on humanity’s behalf. However, there are some problems with this theory. First of all, it suggests that the relationship between God and humanity is a legal one. Second, it reflects a rather pagan mindset of needing the appease a deity through a scapegoat. Third, it does not necessary do justice to the imagery presented in the New Testament. Consider these verses:

• Romans 3:23-25: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement (Grk. hilasterion) by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;…
• Hebrews 2:17: Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement (Grk. hilaskesthai) for the sins of the people.
• Hebrews 9:12: he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
• Hebrews 10:14: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
• 1 John 2:2: and he is the atoning sacrifice (Grk. hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Each of these verses is making reference to a specific ritual performed on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). As elaborated in Leviticus 16, the blood of bull is to be sprinkled on the mercy seat (the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which in the Greek was called the hilasterion) as a means to cleanse the uncleanliness in the priest’s own being and in his family. There would also be the killing of a goat, whose blood was also sprinkled on the mercy seat, to cleanse the people. Symbolically speaking, the sacrifice is a purifying agent, not at all a substitution. If this imagery is to be projected onto Christ, Christ likewise was not a substitute, but the blood that is shed was a means to purify what was unclean (or what was tainted by sin in our modern understanding), to heal, and, therefore, to reconcile God and humanity. While this understanding reflects a uniquely Hebrew tradition, it is not incompatible with the symbolism of the Crucified Serpent.

Reconciliation is an important theme in the New Testament. For our purposes in the series, it strongly relates to “becoming Imago-Dei.” Remember from Part 8 that sin damages relationships; it creates fragmentation. Through the sacrifice of Christ, what was unclean has been made clean, and thus a bridge has been created between God and humankind (John 14:6-7). As 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 states,

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The narrative of Christ and the meaning that especially Paul extracts from it has a powerful symbolic effect on the human psyche. For one who embraces the narrative, his or her entire perception of self and the world will change. As God is repairing the divine-human relationship, so we must work to repair our own human relationships and the relationships between human beings in general. However, there is another aspect to this that is also encompassed by the symbol of the Crucified Serpent.

The symbolism of most alchemical images appear to be twofold. They not only represent the alchemical process itself but also the transformation of the human being, as Jung explored in great depth. We have briefly looked at the meaning of the Crucified Serpent in the alchemical context, and we have also seen how this can be translated into Christian theology. In summary, the symbol represents a transformation of the old, harmful substance into a new, purified substance. In Christian thought, Christ is the catalyst required for that transformation to occur. However much this might be an ontological reality, it is hardly a psychological one. Just because we say that this transformation has occurred does not mean that every person participating in the Kingdom has actually experienced the transformation. The transformation must also occur on an individual, subjective level for the “new self” to be realized. Consider Ephesians 4:22-24: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” As anyone who has tried to change a habit knows, this is easier said than done.

The symbol of the Crucified Serpent can be applied to the change in the human psyche, like so many other alchemical symbols. Notice this, nothing about the serpent is necessarily being done away with; rather it is being molded into something that is useful, beneficial. In the ongoing transition between the old self and the new self, we can take a lesson from the message of reconciliation that is also part and parcel of the Crucified Serpent symbol. In putting to death, metaphorically speaking, the old self that is prone to sin and, therefore, destructiveness, one ought not to dismiss it as something deserving of some hellish fate, but rather forgive it and handle it with respect. As the reconciliation between God and humanity, as well as the reconciliation between human beings, comes with forgiveness, should we not also forgive ourselves? By forgiving ourselves, we are indeed reconciling with our own personal history.

Back in Part 10, I discussed the Jungian concept of the shadow. The shadow is a part of the personal unconscious that consists of everything that our consciousness is ignorant of or refuses to admit in regards to our individual person. As it is part of the mind, it is still a reasoning function. However, in that is in the unconscious, the thoughts and actions that is produces come across as automatic, if not impulsive. Many wounds and insecurities exist in the shadow, and people would often blame this “dark side” of the person as the cause of personal error. That being said, the shadow is not to be confused with the sin nature. As I have said before, the sin nature is a by-product of being created in the image of God. It is the misuse of creative power, and it taints the psyche severely, increasing fragmentation or dissonance, further separating the conscious and unconscious minds. The shadow is simply who we are but those parts of us we choose to ignore. The more that we ignore or deny it, the more dissonant we become. To achieve harmony within oneself, one must reincorporate the shadow into one’s sense of self; one must reconcile with all those things that he/she does not want to admit. As far as Jung was concerned, this begins the journey towards discovery the more authentic self. How could we possibly become whole—become healed—if we refuse to acknowledge every part of ourselves?

Do not treat your old self as a wicked thing, but treat it as a wayward friend—as a wounded individual who needs love and comfort. The old self did what it did to find meaning in life and relief from suffering. In letting the old self go, say goodbye with compassion and even thank it for everything that it taught you. The old self may not be that which enters the presence of God, but you could not have appealed to God without it. All mistakes are lessons—lessons in our own weakness. The more we recognize what we have hid in the shadow, the more we know where we must be healed. By reconciling with the old self and with the shadow, we are not shunning them, we are fixing them—converting what was chaotically creative into something intentionally creative. We are converting what was volatile into something useful.

Next Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 17: Baptism and Resurrection

Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 15b: 3 Steps to Finding God’s Will

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Previous Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 15a: God’s Will For Humanity

Human beings are free agents. In the last post, I discussed open theism which proposes that God created the universe and everything in it to have its own agency. Creation is free to create itself, being co-creators with God. While God allows for this, despite the risk, God nonetheless is the master creator and asserts divine will in order to fulfill an ultimate plan. God creates the boundaries, and the rest of creation fills in the blanks. As far as human beings are concerned, we are privileged with a special position: Imago Dei. As I discussed throughout Parts 14a, b, and c, human beings reflect, represent, and embody the spirit of God functionally and relationally. At the heart of the Imago Dei is a creativity that is more powerful than anything else on earth—powerful not in strength or force per se, but in influence. The human ability to destroy entire ecosystems is evidence to this.

God’s will is to create harmony, but the human will is perpetually prone to self-centeredness, and the agency that humans have is more influenced towards creating dissonance and fragmentation. It is the sin nature (See parts 7 and 8) that inspires this, and evil—really a byproduct of human free agency and creativity—is the result. For the sake of personal, social, and environmental health, it is, therefore, important for human beings to align their wills and thus their agency with God’s will. Because most humans would prefer to ignore God in one way or another, it is therefore exceptionally important for Christians to seek God’s will. But how does one align one’s will with God’s?

To answer the question, I will go through three steps. These may be similar to other advice you may find, but I will be using a lot of language that I have used throughout the series so far.

First: Submit to God’s authority and accept your limitations. This first step may be the hardest step for many. It begins with an understanding and an acceptance of one’s powerlessness. In so many areas of our lives, we like to have control. Having control gives us a sense of security; we are protected from uncertainty and chaos. However, in clinging to this perception of control, much of which is a delusion, we may actually be preventing ourselves from seeing God’s will. As discussed in Part 13, God’s will could be wrapped in the very chaos that we are striving to avoid.

At the heart of this first step is a leap of faith—a leap of faith into the darkness of the unknown. In order for one’s faith to be truly faith, one has to put one’s trust in God. In order to fully trust God, one must surrender one’s will and be open to the creativity of God. As said by Daniel L. Migliore, “Faith is the opposite of the will to absolute power that wants to lord it over others, but it is no less opposed to the indifferent slide into powerlessness that is coupled with self-hatred and debilitating doubt about one’s ability or right to live and act with confidence and joy.” Faith in and submission to God is not a resignation to fate. Resignation is a passive activity; faith is active. It is boldly stepping into the mysterious, cloudy future, uncertain of what will happen but believing that things will become clear.

All this, of course, is easier said than done. How then does one live this out in day-to-day life? I learned much from different religious philosophies. I learned to accept the reality of impermanence and practice non-attachment from Buddhism. I learned to see the harmony in the flux of nature’s cycles from Taoism. However, I would like to focus on what I learned from Stoicism—without a doubt my favorite philosophy of life. First of all, it is important to note that the definition of being stoic has changed in our modern understanding. Today, to be stoic is to be without emotion. However, the stoics of old did not want to extinguish emotion but maintain a balance, a calm, a self-control. Central to the stoic way of life is the pursuit of virtue and harmony with nature. It is understood that nature, however much in flux, is the greatest order, and the good life is centered on understanding this truth. Stoic practice is intended to reduce the experience suffering by developing clear thinking through reason despite the confusion of life and the emotional activities of other people. Mental/spiritual exercises included a contemplation on death as well as attention to the present moment, among other things. Stoicism had great influence on the development of Christian philosophy. In fact, the apostle Paul appears to regularly use stoic language in order to convey his teachings. Despite Stoicism existing independent of Christianity, if not at points in conflict with Christianity, much of the Stoic’s teachings is compatible with a Christian way of life, particularly when it comes to matters of faith.

How does one live like a stoic? The stoic recognizes that nature (or God in Christianity) is more powerful than the human, and there is little that the human can do to change the order of nature. That being said, the human tries to understand clearly what is going on around him/her, focusing on facts rather than emotionally fueled perceptions. Explained by Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” Stand amidst the ambiguous flux, but do not be moved by it. Focus on the good and beautiful, for therein is God. This is submission and faith. As passionate as I am about Stoicism, I wish I could speak more about it. Maybe I will do a series on it some later time.

Second: Trust in God’s desire for harmony. I had an interesting realization recently. I had spent a good number of years incorporating the stoic attitude into my life and accepting my lack of control. However, God, as far as I perceived, remained a distant, disinterested agent behind the universe. I had recognized the cosmic (or chaotic) power of God, but I had a hard time seeing that God as benevolent. It was not that I saw God as evil, but I saw God as a force that did not really interfere with human affairs. When I realized that this was my perspective, I also noticed that my level of faith was becoming stagnant. I may have even been a little fatalistic. In observing this in myself, I have also begun to see similar patterns of thought in others. We do not want to disregard a belief in God’s existence, but we wonder at the perpetual pain in the world—what in theological field of theodicy is called the problem of evil. I am not new to considering theodicy. In fact, my whole concept of “God is Chaos” (Part 13) was born of this kind of reflection, as was my affinity for open theism (see Part 15a). Yet, I still had a hard time believing that God had plans for a good future.

My practice of stoicism brought me to an acceptance of chaos, and the discipline of my mind allowed me to see the beautiful in any given moment. In accomplishing this latter activity, I began to take to heart what I have objectively understood for years: disorder is only a perceptual reality, and evil is a product of human selfishness and ignorance of nature’s implicit interconnectedness. When we have our moments of wondering why so many bad things may be happening in one’s life, it is important to remember that human error is not spontaneous but is the result of many cause-and-effect trajectories. And when it comes to natural disasters, it is important to remember that nature’s will to create is no less important the human will. Despite these negative things, which we are tempted to blame on God, we must choose to see the good and beautiful that exist amidst the bad with praise and thanksgiving. Sometimes, we may be able to see God at work, taking what has been done and making it useful. God is not absent, but sometimes God is hard to see.

There is a harmony in nature—all events flow into the next. Life gives way to decay, and decay gives way to life. Spoken by Marcus Aurelius,

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. But thou art thinking only of seeds which are cast into the earth or into a womb….

The Bible has no shortage of passages that associate God with peace/harmony.

• Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts (Psalm 85:5)
• Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27).
• …for God is a God not of disorder but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33).
• Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).
• May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
• Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you (2 Thessalonians 3:16).

The word “peace” connotes a calm, a quietness, an absence of conflict. But I do not think that it is appropriate to think of God’s peace as totally such. While such peace may be the experience of those drawing close to God, the Godhead itself is not such. Consider Psalm 29:7-11:

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!

In order to uncover the will of God, one must not only accept the mystery but also trust that God is immanent and actively continuing creation, which, like it was at the beginning, will be good.

Third: Seek wisdom in one’s decision making. One need only read through Proverbs to witness how important wisdom is. But what is wisdom? What does it mean to be wise? We might get such advice as “Make wise choices,” but how exactly do we do that?

For one thing, wisdom is closely associated with knowledge. For example, when King Solomon was described as wise in 1 Kings 4:29-34, his wisdom was associated with his great knowledge. For another, in 1 Kings 3 as well as throughout Proverbs, wisdom appears in the form of discernment—being able to make decisions from the careful evaluation of information. Today, wisdom is spoken of in the form of critical thinking. Critical thinking has many facets including a strong knowledge base, analytical skills, creative problem solving, as well as an open but skeptical mind. As a teacher of critical thinking, it disturbs me to see how few people actually consider their circumstances in a critical way. At the same time, I have seen how students, in learning critical thinking, can make better decisions. Critical thinking pushes one to better understand everything that is going on before making a judgment. Sound reasoning and a humble acceptance of one’s limited knowledge are necessary. But critical thinking is not only cold-hearted logic.

In order to make decision regarding oneself and other people, it is important to consider emotion. Here, we are not speaking of emotion as pure feeling, but the experience of feelings coinciding with cognition. Emotions are a normal part of life, but everybody knows that emotions can get out of control. Furthermore, dissonance can occur when one’s thoughts and one’s feelings are in different places. The cultivation of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, empath, etc.—is therefore a large part of being wise. Emotional intelligence can help one to respond better to a variety of stimuli, and, since emotions are a vital part of life, it contributes to overall health—both personal and social.

Wisdom is the combination of love and logic. Critical thought is heartless when not tempered by compassion, and emotions are volatile when not balanced by rationality. It takes time to practice, and it requires dedication and self-sacrifice—specifically a recognition that one is no more special than anyone else. The mind, though, can be trained to be wise. While sometimes it seems that walking the narrow way is like walking a tight rope over a pit of fire, practice helps one to find balance.

Wisdom is essential in understanding God’s will, for it is through wisdom that one can parse the difference between facts and falsehoods, between clear thought and confusion, between positivity and negativity, between faith and selfishness. Once one has accepted one’s natural ignorance and believes that God is ultimately working for the good, one need only eliminate those sentiments which would have him/her think wrongly. After all, “…whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

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Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 15a: God’s Will For Humanity

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In Part 13: God is Chaos, I had introduced the idea that God’s creativity is manifested in the inner workings of the complex system that we know as the universe. I took into account how the interplay of variables in the system allow for new things to exist—what physicists and philosophers would call “emergent properties.” I concluded that what appears to humans as “chaotic” is actually the product of innumerable cause-and-effect trajectories, of which God may have some say in. In other words, in what we perceive to be chaotic, God may have had a role to play for the fulfillment of God’s ultimate purposes.

Throughout Part 14, I had discussed what it means to be made in the image of God, ultimately proposing, in Part 14c, that to be Imago Dei is to be a co-creator with God. But what does this mean, especially in light of what I said about God and chaos? To expand on what I had discussed in Part 13, chaos is that which allows creation to continue on. Amos Yong, in The Spirit of Creation, says, “…it is also the case that God creates by calling forth the orders of creation as co-creators…to participate in the processes of production and reproduction.” This idea may be linked to another element in Arthur Peacocke’s theory (Part 13): that of the universe’s self-organization. To a great extent, God allows the processes of the universe to unfold as he directed them do, though allowing the parts their own autonomy. And though the parts have a large measure of self-determinacy, “The total network of regular, natural events…is viewed as in itself the creative and sustaining action of God.” But it is made clear that the network of events are not identical to God as it would be in pantheism. Furthermore, God reacts to whatever happens in the world and makes adjustments as the need arises in order to ensure that the creative work is sustained.

Of the many variables in the complex system, humans are among the most powerful. In Part 5: Adam Hunts the Serpent, I had spoken about human beings as free agents:

A free agent is a self-motivating variable in a complex system. As a “free” agent, an entity is therefore responsible for everything that it does. By linking free agency to creativity, I mean that everything that an agent does will have an effect on its environment—be it positive or negative.

Now comes the question: what is the relationship between God’s activity and human activity? If humans are free agents with the power to create (or, more likely, destroy), what is God’s will in this?

Peacocke’s idea of self-organization shares resemblance with freewill theism and open theism. These philosophies of divine providence say that the transcendent God determined what the universe would be like, but that does not mean that God determines every event that would happen. God allows for the universe to freely direct itself. Certainly, God is the free agent which motivated the entire process, the constant upon which the system rests, as well the most powerful variable that can affect cause and effect.

John Sanders, in his book The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, examines and defends the positions of freewill theism and open theism. In using the term “risk,” Sanders means that God created humans with the freedom of choice and, thus, allowed for the threat of sin to exist. God did not create sin, but creating humanity as free agents gave way to the possibility that whatever plan God had for humankind could be thwarted by humankind. In describing this risk-taking-theism, Sanders makes three points.

First, open theism proposes that God does not meticulously control the events of the world, but allows for its free agents, especially humans to make their own path. God is “open” to what creation does. Out of God’s love, humans were created with the ability to either accept or reject that love. In choosing God’s love, people are choosing to collaborate with God towards the achievement of God’s goals.

As co-creators, humans are variables in the cosmic system, capable of turning the direction of the system, at least temporarily. Gregory A. Boyd describes it so: “God, the author of the adventure of creation, as it were, predetermines the overall structure of the adventure as well as all the possible story lines and all the possible endings…Yet within this predetermined structure, free agents are empowered with a certain amount of say-so as to which of the many possible story lines is actualized.” Though chaos may be the method of God’s interaction, it takes on a life of its own as creation continues to develop. It is the pattern set forth by God, but, as soon as complex systems emerge and develop their own top-down causative influence, one could say that responsibility for chaotic error is removed from God. Yong states, “…living creatures in general and human beings in particular represent the unfinished dimension of the creation, with the potential to fulfill creation’s reason for being, but also with the potential, given the greater dimension of freedom humans are endowed with, to perhaps sabatoge the divine intentions.” Certainly, if humans are created in the image of God, being co-creators, and have been formed by the fluctuations of chaos, are human beings not also vessels of chaotic acitivity?

While the idea of human liberty may be appealing, people readily place blame on God for allowing pain and suffering to exist. However, disaster—and what sorrow follows—appears to be the price for a universe which is free to act according to its own will, which is best seen in humanity. If God has allowed the world to shape itself, to evolve on its own, as freewill theism and open theism imply, then the interests of the universe’s various components will inevitably clash. This particularly raises the problem of human evil. In creating this system, God has allowed for sin to exist. Why would a “good” God do this? It boils down to God’s decision to make humanity in the image of God. For if human beings are truly the Imago Dei, albeit limited to mortal constraints, then they too must be free to create as God is. They must be free to love as God is. On top of that, the progressive discovery of God in one’s life allows one to turn the intentions of one’s potentially harmful creative activity towards the direction of God’s will in creation. Because a mutual love is therein developed, the relationship between God and a person only grows more intimate, and it is an intimacy that can spread among a community.

Sanders’ second point is that God’s sovereignty exists in God’s interaction with the choices that the free agents make. Having initially created the universe as free, God continues to be creative and resourceful by adjusting the divine plans in contingency with the decisions made by humanity. Denying the classical theistic view of God’s immutability and impassibility, open theists believe that God does change intended plans and does relate to humanity emotionally, being affected by their choices. This does not mean that God power is naturally limited, but that God chooses the universe to be this way. Furthermore, God maintains sovereignty by insuring that the divine plans are ultimately fulfilled. No matter what humanity does, God takes what has been made and turns it into a component of divine will, for the creation of humans as they are is also part of divine will. Open theism assumes that God allows for human free agents to make choices, whether conforming to God’s wisdom or not, and God adapts the divine will to the change in the system, without compromising the ultimate goal, as worded by Sanders, “to bring his creational project to fruition.” God works alongside of humanity.

Imagine God is like a painter who is working dilligently on a masterpiece. Imagine this painter has a child who would like to help. Suppose the painter does give the child an opportunity to fill in certain parts of the canvas, even letting the child decide what colors to use. Though the painter gives the child this liberty in some places, the painter resumes control when it comes to key details. However, the child, distressed that he/she could not do more, begins to throw a fit, and, in frustration, splashes some paint over the canvas. The painter pauses and scans the seemingly ruined picture. The painter then turns to the child with a stern expression, and the child knows he/she made a mistake. But then the painter smiles and says, ”Don’t worry, I will make it all work.” The painter makes a few adjustments and completes the masterpiece. Perhaps the image is not exactly what the painter had in mind, but the painter has created a worthwhile piece anyway, going so far as to compliment the child on the work that he/she had done.

It is difficult to think of God as a force that dictates the course of all history, which would mean that certain terrible events like the Holocaust were part of God’s plan. On the other hand, it would be foolish to say that God does not have a plan—an idea that process theism leans to—for the very fact that God created anything means that there is a plan. And part of that plan was to allow for human liberty. The human being, the Imago Dei, has the opportunity to create, but, with its immature will, creates incomplete work. God, nonetheless, takes what exists and continues to fashion it according to the divine plan. Here God’s sovereignty is preserved. God’s will overpowers the will of the world, and humans can create more completed work when they submit to God’s power (I will cover this in more depth in Part 15b).

The third point: open theism affirms what Sanders refers to as “dynamic omniscience.” Foreknowledge, according to Sanders, means that God can look ahead to the extent that God knows every possible event that could happen, though whatever does happen is left up to human choice. God has complete knowledge of the past and the present, but the future remains ambiguous. The future is not an ontological reality that exists—there is no definable future, but it unfolds through history according to human and divine interaction. God’s omniscence is not all challenged in that, one could say, God knows every possible option and every possible response to said options, still leaving it up to people to choose. As Yong clarifies,

…given God’s decision to create a world with its own autonomous integrity and intrinsically indeterminate causal processes, and assuming that the future lacks any ontological status, the doctrine of divine omniscience needs to be redefined to say that God knows the future definitively only insofar as it is predictable given God’s infinite knowledge of present conditions and their related determining laws….

It is an interesting thought that the future does not really exist. Typically, when God is considered to be eternal, God is said to exist in the future as well as the past and present. But open theism takes a linear view of time, suggesting that there is no time beyond the present, and the universe has yet to move forward into the unknown beyond. Time is determined by objects moving through space from a theoretical point of origin, which, theologically speaking, would be the act of creation.

It is also important to note that, while open theism denies God’s absolute knowledge of the future, God is not ignorant of what will happen. Whatever a person chooses, God will know the outcome of that choice even before the choice is manifested. Because God created a libertarian universe, God cannot know the exact future unless it was determined. Certainly, it can be argued that God knows what will be chosen, but then God would appear as detached and disinterested in what will happen. Open theism, by stating that God works compassionately alongside of humanity, leaving the future “open,” acknowledges that God cares while fully allowing for freewill to exist.

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Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 14c: Co-Creation and Re-Creation

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There is yet another aspect of the Imago Dei that is necessary to discuss, one that incorporates both a functional and relational approach. To be created in the image of God is to be created with the capacity to create. In our ability to be creative—a term which I use liberally to mean the use of imagination and decisions to construct an identity and purpose for ourselves—we functionally resemble God. Creativity is what really makes humans unique. We have the ability to take an abstract concept and potentially make it a reality—be this is art, gardening, architecture, engineering, chemistry, or even our sense of identity and purpose. However, due to human free agency, our ability to create can lead to fragmentation instead of harmony. Thus, in order to create effectively, our creativity must be aligned with God’s creativity so that we become co-creators with God. Herein lies the difference between being created in the image of God and becoming the image of God.

Created as Co-Creators

While it is in a human’s created nature to be Imago Dei, it is an incomplete image (see Part 3b), and a person needs to work with God in order to become perfected. I will discuss this at greater length further below and even more so in the next post. For now, I want to look at the final component of the Genesis 1 passage: “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The words “subdue” and “have dominion” have interesting connotations, almost implying the enslavement of the earth. Indeed, the wording “have dominion” has been associated with the concept of human superiority. Humans are indeed “a little less than God,” as Psalm 8:5 affirms, and the mandate does appear to give humans authority over everything else in the earth. But what exactly does this mean? Does it mean that humans have the authority to exploit the environment? Does it mean that humans have no obligation towards nature? When we analyzed the word tselem earlier, we reached the conclusion that humans, as Imago Dei, have authoritative status on earth as signifiers of God’s presence—as symbols or representations of God. In a sense, we are regents on the earth in service to a higher monarch. But does this authority give us the power to do whatever we want with our subjects? Is this a fair reflection of God’s authority? Some may say yes, but then we must ask them to what degree their theological vision is based on Scripture or based on resentment.

For those challenging the “dominion” view, they have proposed the concept of stewardship. Genesis 2:15 says “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it.” Consider the phrasing “keep it” or “take care of it.” With this in mind, let us reexamine the concept of kingship. History have given us no shortage of examples of rulers who were corrupted by their own power (not to mention also paranoid of losing it). But what ought to be the true purpose of a ruler. According to social contract theory, subjects willingly submit themselves to rulers, freely surrendering certain freedoms, for the sake of protection. The American Declaration of Independence describes it beautifully: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men….” If we think of Imago Dei in these terms, the authority given to humanity is so that they may protect the environment. Considering the idea of “stewardship,” a steward is the chief servant of a king, one who is in charge of managing and caring for everything that belongs to the monarch. In giving humans authority, never has God given reason to destroy that which ultimately belongs to God.

Furthermore, while humans are indeed elevated and have special relationship with God, they are not necessarily more special than the rest of creation in having that status. Dan Story, in Should Christians Be Environmentalists?, points out, “It is rightfully said that God had the human race in mind when He created the planet earth (Ps. 115:16). Yet, in terms of purely physical creation, human beings are no different than animals. Both people and animals were created on the same day…God did not set aside a special day to create the human race.” When it comes to human fellowship, humans not only have a relationship with God but also a relationship with nature—and hardly an interdependent one. We humans are actually more subject to the whims of nature than we would like to believe. Thus, do we really have authority over it? Sure, humans do have the power to destroy entire environments and reconvert them into urban settings, but is this the proper use of human creative power as God intended?

It seems that God’s mandate to humanity to protect the environment while also subduing was a warning to humans about humans. As Story declares, “…Christianity is not the cause of today’s environmental crisis—the entire human race is guilty.” He goes onto describe the history of human exploitation of nature, focusing specifically on the “unregulated” role of technology in the process. God created human beings—as Imago Dei—with the power of creativity, with which humans can tear down, manipulate, and reconstruct matter. God intended that humans use their creativity to continue the act of creation, which will actually involve the destruction of certain things. Perhaps the call to stewardship is a call to humanity that, as they “fill the earth and subdue it,” they are to do so for the sake of God’s kingdom, for the sake of harmony. To truly be co-creators with God, we must cooperate with God. After all, as Imago Dei, are we not already in a relationship with God?

Becoming Imago Dei

What I will discuss here will serve as an introduction to and summation of the rest of the series. At several points throughout the series, I have suggested that the image of God is incomplete. It is something that exists but is something that needs to be discovered, learned, adopted, and embraced. If there is any authentic purpose of humanity, it is to come to a realization of what Imago Dei truly means—in an experiential, not cognitive, way. This gets into what has been called the Dynamical View of the Imago Dei. Having its root in the Reformation, the Dynamical View states that, because of sin, the image of God is fragmented and in need of restoration. The process of restoration—or, in my words, re-creation—is God’s ultimate mission. As described by Stanley Grenz, “The perfection of the divine image is the eternal life for which Adam was ‘fitted;’ hence, it is God’s intention and goal for humankind.” Through sanctification—a concept we will get to in time—individuals and humanity at large as the divine image is progressively healed, though the renewal will not reach completion until resurrection. According to Daniel Migliore, “Being created in the image of God is not a state or condition but a movement with a goal: human beings are restless for a fulfillment of life not realized.” The total realization of the Imago Dei is a future prospect and one that takes time and dedication, one that we can never reach in this life but can at least get closer to. The Imago Dei was created as a mold, one that has to be filled, furnaced, painted, and finally brought to life.

The process of re-creation, while being the progressive work of the Spirit throughout history, is anchored in the person of Jesus the Christ (the Anointed). That is the message of the Gospel, however, it is unclear in Scripture how the activity of Christ actually accomplished this. While ecumenical councils took place in order to establish doctrine on the person of Christ, no such council emerged to discuss the atonement, thus speculation has been left to theologians. Why did Christ come to earth? Why did Christ have to die? Why was Christ subsequently resurrected. Of course, the New Testament writers touched on the matter, but never did they flush out a systematic understanding. In the history of the Church, atonement theories took different directions. In the west (Catholic), with a heavier emphasis on humanity’s fallen nature, the most popular theory was perhaps the Reformation idea of substitution—Christ took upon himself the punishment meant for humankind. In the east (Orthodox), there was a greater emphasis on recapitulation and theosis.

I personally, having been raised in a Protestant (and, therefore, western tradition), have been drawn to this eastern way of thinking. I intend to flush out the ideas more towards the end of the series, but for now I wish to discuss the basic concept of recapitulation. Recapitulation Theory, thought to originate with early church theologian Irenaeus and perpetuated by other eastern thinkers, perhaps could be traced to verses like Ephesians 1:7-12:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ, we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

The Recapitulation Theory of Atonement does not take a legal view like the western Substitution Theory. Rather, it takes a medicinal approach. The Fall distorted life and the image of God. According to Veli-Matti Karkkainen, in One With God, “…the cross is an antidote to the poison of corruptibility and sin.” He adds, “Salvation, then, is not primarily viewed as the liberation from sin…, but rather as a return to the life immortal and the reshaping of the human being into the image of [the] creator.” The theory suggests that Christ came to fulfill what Adam failed to do—that is to honor the mission of the Imago Dei. As spoken by early church theologian Athanasius, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.” Christ is the purest reflection the Imago Dei:

• He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:13-16).
• In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
• He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… (Hebrews 1:3).

By looking to Christ, by following Christ, and by participating in the Kingdom—or the body of Christ—we are healed, and our likeness to God is re-created. As I said before, I will go deeper into Recapitulation Theory and theosis as the series draws to a close.

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Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 14b: Being-In-Fellowship

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Rather than take a structural approach to understanding the Imago Dei, other theologians have taken a Relational View. Daniel L. Migliore,  in Faith Seeking Understanding, explains, “…human existence is communal, not individualistic. We become and stay human in the tension between personal identity and communal participation….Human life depends upon ecological systems and structures of interrelationship.” According to the Relational View, to be created in the image of God is to be created into a special relationship with God and other people. Imago Dei not only concerns resemblance but fellowship. This idea is drawn from New Testament passages (ie. Ephesians 1:5), but there is also a specific note in Genesis that I would like to explore.

Genesis 1:27 states, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV). Now, what is the significance of the Imago Dei being divided into male and female? While it may not appear essential to distinguish man and woman when speaking of the Imago Dei as the general, human person, it might actually be better to speak of the two in unity rather than as part of collective humanity. That is, the male and the female together in “one flesh” are the Imago Dei and not the generic human being. Migliore explains,

…human beings are created in the image of God not as solitary beings but in the duality of male and female….As created by God, we are essentially relational, social beings, and this essential sociality and co-humanity is signified by our coexistence as men and women. We are created for life in community with others, to exist in relationships of mutual fidelity and mutual freedom in fellowship.

The human being is a relational being, and, as the image of God in this sense, the human being knows God through relationship.

Karl Barth was the first major theologian to posit the idea that “Man’s being is a being-in-fellowship.” Barth says, “Could anything be more obvious than to conclude from this clear indication that the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation, ie., in this confrontation, in the juxtaposition and conjunction of man and man which is that of male and female…?” According to Barth, just as man and woman exist in a confrontational relationship, a confrontational relationship also exists between man and God. He also states, “That real man is determined by God for life with God has its inviolable correspondence in that fact that his creaturely being in a being in encounter—between I and Though, man and woman. It is human in this encounter, and in this humanity it is a likeness of the being of its Creator.” The confrontation should move to reconciliation.

To quote Migliore, “…human beings are male and female and are called to find their human identity in mutual coordination with their sexual counterparts who are both similar and yet also irreducibly different….” While we are speaking of the male and female relationship, it is important to remember that cooperation is meant for all human beings. Male and female merely represent the possible unity of different people—the ultimate living example of human fellowship is that of man and woman (Adam and Eve). And since it is the man and woman together that constitute the Imago Dei, togetherness is symbolized by sexuality. Stanley Grenz, in Sexual Ethics, states, “Sexuality, then, belongs to the mystery of personhood and the mystery of the image of God.” As I have mentioned before, to study God, one must study human symbolism. If humanity is a representation of God, then knowing humanity will be knowing God—to a limited extent. And as far as human symbolism goes, God can be known via human sexuality. The human experience of sex contributes to a unique vision of the divine which more fully encompasses the idea of what God may be.

Of course, there is the procreative aspect of sexuality. Human beings represent and participate in God’s creativity by being fruitful and multiplying (Genesis 1:28). It is also worth mentioning the aesthetic aspect and its resemblance to mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness. However, as much as I acknowledge this is an interesting topic, speaking on it would distract too much from the topic at hand. So, another time perhaps. The aspect of sex that I want to focus on is what it can represent to people at a symbolic level—namely completion.

In his Symposium, Plato, through Socrates, tells the story of the androgynous human: “The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two….” But cursed by Zeus, the androgyny was divided. Socrates then claims, “Each of us when separated…is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.” Albeit a strange story, it nonetheless symbolizes a deep human desire to be completed so that one should no longer live in fragmentation. Here it becomes necessary to reiterate that the Imago Dei is the unity of male and female. To say that male and female together symbolize a completed being has three implications concerning God.

First, it has something to say about the gender of God. Certainly, God is treated in Scripture as male or predominantly masculine, but this is deceiving on two levels. Taking into account that male and female together represent the completed being, God is considerably both genders at the same time, or transcends gender altogether. But as far as God is relatable, God is rightly anthropomorphized. That being said, the anthropomorphized God should be viewed as the union of the two genders rather than one in particular. In a similar way that one could say that the trinity are three ways in which God’s nature is known, one could say that the male and female are symbols of God’s characteristics.

Second, an intimate relationship between two people, which doesn’t need to be sexual, speaks to the intimate love of God. However, though it doesn’t need to be sexual, a loving relationship that does involve sex is one of the most intimate forms of relationship—it is certainly where the symbolism of unity appears strongest. Sex is a form of fellowship, and fellowship is attributed to God. As Paul K. Jewett states, “As God is a fellowship in himself (Trinity) so Man is a fellowship in himself, and the fundamental form of this fellowship, so far as Man is concerned, is that of male and female.” According to James B. Nelson, “Genital intercourse in one setting can be not only immensely pleasurable to both partners but also the bearer of the richest meanings of covenantal love.” Furthermore, he says, “In its deepest experience sexuality is the desire for the expression of communion—of the self with other body-selves and with God.” Sex, in its fullest form, goes beyond mere physical experience but is a mutual participation in an emotional and spiritual relationship. Grenz says, “The basic purpose of our existence as sexual creatures is related to the dynamic of bonding.” The narrative of Genesis 2 affirms that the sexual nature of a person is not content in solitude. In all the creation that exists, the one thing that God says is “not good” is that man is alone. The sexual impulse drives one to seek beyond individuality and after bonding. Then bound in marriage, there is the potential for family and, for the family to grow, other human interaction. Thus, sexual impulse actually leads to the development of community. This means, as far as Barth is concerned, that the Imago Dei is a community concept—“humans as being-in-fellowship.”

Furthermore, as Grenz posits, “The drive for community has powerful theological implications as well. Our sexually based sense of incompleteness forms the dynamic lying behind the search for truth, a search which ultimately becomes the search for God.” It is also important to point out the significance of marriage as covenant as metaphor for the covenant between God and humanity: “God’s relationship to his people was to be more than legal contract: it was to be a relationship of mutual love.” Grenz concludes, “As the primal human bond, marriage points to the spiritual bond that God desires to enjoy with humankind, a bond created proleptically by Christ’s bond with the church.” Humans are interactive and social creatures, and a sexual relationship represents the most intimate form of social interaction. Because it is with humans, it is with God.

Third and final, the joining of the male and female together is a symbol of unity, wholeness, and completion. A key idea in reference to symbolic unity between male and female is found in Genesis 2:24, “…they become one flesh.” In one sense, this implies, as Otto A. Piper explains, “The individual is incomplete and desirous of completion until he achieves sexual intercourse with a person of the other sex.” In saying this, he makes a comparison to Plato’s Symposium, the idea of which is governing theme in this particular discussion. In another sense, there is an admittance that sexual unity does alter a person’s state of mind in that he or she perceives himself or herself in relation to the other differently than before intercourse. Because of what occurs with a couple physically and psychologically, it makes sense why religions, and biblical tradition especially, treat sex as a profound mystery. For example, in the Old Testament sexual intercourse is alluded to with the euphemism of “knowing.” According to Piper, “The use of the term, ‘to know’ in connection with sex life does not imply that…all knowledge is sexually conditioned, but sexual knowledge is certainly regarded by the Bible as the exemplar of true knowledge.” He goes on to say that this unique form of knowledge is strictly personal, consisting of a mutual relationship, and is, in essence, an inner secret.

The secret is exposed when the two persons have revealed themselves and participated in the mystery of each other. According to Grenz,

The sex act is a visible enactment of [the] various dimensions of the marriage covenant. In sexual intercourse intimacy is freely given and received…Further, sexual intercourse is an act of physical transparency. This act forms a return, as it were, to the transparency of the Garden of Eden, for husband and wife are ‘naked and not ashamed.’ Physically they are fully transparent to each other, for in the nakedness of the sex act the most private aspects of one’s physical being are no longer hidden from the partner.

To an extent, a person is forced into a new kind of self-awareness, realizing how his or her body responds to the reality of the other. Where beforehand a person is an individual, he or she experiences not only their own individuality but their individuality being consumed by the other person. Piper emphasizes,

This is the paradox of sex: I am created not to be an isolated individual, but rather part of a couple; and the couple has greater dignity than the two individuals as such because only through their union can they achieve what the single individual is unable to do. By sexual contact I learn that by myself I am…a fragment; only my partner enables me to gain my own completeness.

Sexual unity seeks to emulate the mystery of perfection, of completion. It falls short, though, because the man and woman will never be fully absorbed into the other. Just this reality alone suggests an important truth. If being Imago Dei is Being-In-Fellowship, being Imago Dei is incomplete. Thus, Imago Dei is something that we need to become. To that end, it is relationship with God that we ultimately need to pursue, for God is the mystery of completion.

Next Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 14c: Co-Creation and Re-Creation

Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 14a: Created in the Image of God

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Previous Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 13: God is Chaos

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What does it mean to be Imago Dei? It is a concept that the Scripture does not explain. It is only mentioned as something that exists. It is not something that one could easily assume the nature of. It remains as one of the great mysteries of the spiritual life. Whatever the case may be, the concept of Imago Dei is central to the human relationship with God and with human identity. However, as much as that might be true, it is an unrealized phenomenon. Humans may be created in the image of God, but the reality of Imago Dei is something to be discovered, to be learned, to be embraced. There are many theories as to what it means to be Imago Dei, and a number of them are outdated. Let’s explore the more profound theories and see what can be gleaned from them.

What Does Scripture Say?

To begin, it is best to look at the biblical text itself. Despite the compelling nature of the concept, it is hardly mentioned in Scripture. The most famous example is, of course, Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

There are several parts to this passage, and we will frequently return to it. The most important point of this passage though it that “God created humankind in his image.” It is this phrase that invites us to explore the mystery. Another passage—whose insight is only implied—is Genesis 9:3-6:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood, I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal, I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

Before providing analysis, let me bring up James 3:8-9: “but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Anthony A. Hoekema, in Created in God’s Image, discusses that, in the Genesis passage, the mentioning of Imago Dei comes as part of a larger set of ordinances about the propagation and protection of life. In this context, the reason why killing another person is wrong is simply because he/she is made in the image of God. This suggests an implicit relationship between God and humanity that points towards human dignity. Because human beings are special, they are not to be treated like every other animal but rather as a reflection of God. Likewise, the James passage presents a similar case: it is wrong to curse other people for to do so “…means, in effect, to curse God in whose likeness they have been made.” These passages seem to affirm a certain reverence for humanity.

With that in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 83-6:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet….

The psalmist poses a great question—what are human beings that God should be mindful of them? The response is profound: “…you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” While this passage does not mention “image of God,” it certainly contributes to the understanding of human value and dignity.

Thus, what we have learned so far is that human beings, as far as being made in the image of God, are created as unique and are elevated above all other animals. They are to be treated with respect and even reverence, for they are a little less than God and have been given authority over the earth. I have not explored all the passages with reference to Imago Dei, but I will touch on the noteworthy ones further along.

Markers of the Kingdom

There is, of course, more depth to the idea of being image-bearers. An analysis of the Hebrew word for “image”—tselem (צלם)—will show as much. The root of tselem essentially means “to carve” or “to cut.” As explained by Hoekema, “It could therefore be used to describe a carved likeness of an animal or a person. When it is applied to the creation of man in Geneses 1, the word tselem indicates that man images God, that is, is a representation of God.” This is to say that the human being is, in some way, modeled after God.

Historically speaking, the concept of Imago Dei has been interpreted to mean that something which constitutes the human being likewise constitutes God. This is called the “Structural View” of the Imago Dei. In some cases, Imago Dei has taken the effect of anthropomorphizing God. Now, the Bible is no stranger to describing God as having human features such as a face or a hand, but are these descriptions to be taken literally? Since the Ten Commandments are keen on insisting that no image should be made of God, the God of the Hebrews, unlike the gods of so many other peoples of the ancient Near East, is treated as generally more abstract. Other interpreters came to believe that the Imago Dei element of human beings was in their stature—their ability to stand upright on two legs, unlike most of the animal kingdom. Altogether, these concepts of the image as being a literal, physical representation of God did not survive long in the history of theology and are, in all honesty, far too simple.

The Structural View—which says that humans and God share a common feature—also includes the idea that Imago Dei is defined by human rationality. Popular among the Greek inspired theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, human resemblance to God was found in the human ability to reason. Now, certainly it is true that the human capacity for abstract thought outshines any other creature on earth. What is more, it is indeed our ability to think abstractly which gives us our conceptualization of God. I do agree with the general assessment that rationality constitutes Imago Dei, but is it enough? I do not think so, nor do other theologians.

Still, there are some things to carry away from the Structural View. First, our ability to relate to God is often contingent on our ability to anthropomorphize God. While our minds are capable of abstract thought, abstract concepts are incredibly hard to define in tangible language. Therefore, it is easier to speak of God in very human terms. Second, our unique relationship with God, even as much as we may anthropomorphize God, is absolutely based on our ability to philosophize about what God might be. In other words, God created humanity in his image so that humanity may know God in its likeness. That being said, if we embrace the abstraction—or, in mystical terms, embrace the cloud or the darkness—we may develop a more authentic understanding of God.

Returning to the Hebrew word tselem, there is more that we could unravel here that will only continue to enrich our understanding of Imago Dei. Stanley Grenz, in Theology for the Community of God, points out that it was common in the ancient Near East for kings to plant images of themselves in cities within their domains. They cannot physically be everywhere at once, so statues serve the purpose of reminding the people who they are subject to. Grenz quotes Gerhard von Rad,

Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon the earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.

This is a functional interpretation of Imago Dei. Human beings, even from a structural standpoint, do represent God. Now, this particular theory is getting into human purpose. As Grenz states, “The terms ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ do not connote a mere aspect of the human person. It is rather in the whole of our being that we are somehow like God.” This includes the existential side of things as well. In a sense, to use the statue imagery, we are markers of God’s kingdom: portraits for veneration, banners flying high, signposts on the road to Heaven. Everything about our being is intended to represent God’s presence and workmanship on earth. There is more depth to this, but for now I will say that I believe this theory to be the most accurate. As the word tselem—“to carve”—indicates, we are chiseled likenesses of God. We are symbols of God.

In truth, the mystery of the Imago Dei is less a question of what the human being is but rather what God is. It has been assumed, of course, that the human being is a reflection of God because God made it so. However, much of what anyone says of God is actually born of human self-reflection. God is actually known through the Imago Dei.

Next Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 14b: Being-In-Fellowship