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Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 20: The Ministry of the Imago Dei

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Why minister? preach? Why is it necessary to be a witness? Certainly there is the teaching function of it, sharing with a group of people new information or a fresh perspective. There is also the edifying function, uplifting and inspiring the people in their walks of life. But neither of these functions are unique to Christian witness alone. Even the in the secular world, teachers can expound wisdom, and speakers can encourage the masses. Christian preaching, therefore, has some additional function—additional purpose, and that is to transform lives, but not only that. Preaching ultimately is a participation in the restoration of the world and the creation of harmony.

In order to understand the purpose of Christian preaching, one should first look at what Christ preached. Mark 1:14-15 states, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is a hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” The gospel, the good news that he speaks, concerns the coming of God’s kingdom, that which was anticipated by the Old Testament prophets. Throughout the synoptic gospels, the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God are central to Christ’s discussions and parables; most of what he had to say dealt with the entry into the kingdom. It is both something that already exists—“the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21)—and something that is yet to be fully realized. Revelation says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (11:15). Moreover, this coincides with Revelation 21:1, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…,” which, in turn intends to fulfill Isaiah 65:17, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” Altogether, by Christ preaching the gospel, that is the coming of the kingdom of God, he is speaking of a restoration of creation. This is also visible in Romans 8:19 and 21: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the [children] of God…because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The purpose of bringing people into a participation with this life is why Christ preached.

Christ’s preaching, is transferred to his disciples. In the Great Commission, he states, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matthew 28:19). And in other places, when the disciples are sent out, he says, “…preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8). The Gospel of Luke likewise closely relates preaching the kingdom and healing as the purpose of the disciple’s ministry (9:2, 9:11, 10:9), as it was for Christ. Healing, of course, is the restoration of the body, and the many healings were signs of the kingdom’s presence.

But, besides healing, baptism is an important component of preaching the gospel, made available to those who receive the gospel. According to Paul, baptism is a participation, symbolically enacted, in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12). Thus baptism is meant to mark a person’s own recreation or restoration. Moreover, it unites one to Christ, dying with him and thereafter being raised with him (Romans 6:5). Being united, baptized into one body (1 Corinthians 12:13), those baptized become children of God, as Christ was the child of God, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ…,” thereby receiving the kingdom. What is more, if part of ministry is to baptize people, it should be more than guiding them through a ritual. Rather, to baptize someone is to take an active part in their transformative process, to support them and encourage them through the stages of dying an renewal (see Parts 16, 17, and 18)—which is, of course, to participate in someone’s healing.

But baptism is also associated with the power of the Holy Spirit. In all the gospels and Acts, it is said, in some form or another, that John baptized with water, but that the one who came after him—Christ—would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 1:5). According to many interpreters, such a baptism takes place on Pentecost when the followers of Jesus “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). And throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit is shown to be active through the hands of the apostles, giving them the ability to heal and raise the dead. It can also be posited that the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of God that first hovered over the waters in Genesis 1:2, therein being present at creation, if not a force of creation. The Hebrew word ruach can mean “breath” as much as it does “spirit,” and in a few places in the Old Testament, ruach is used to denote the “breath of life” (Genesis 6:17, 7:15; Ezekiel 37) something that would have been given by God’s Spirit in order to animate life. This is to say that if the Spirit of creation and the Holy Spirit are one and the same, then the role of the Holy Spirit has always been to enact life or new life. Therefore, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit is, in a manner of speaking, to be given the power of creation itself, which may be part and parcel of the original intention for humankind made in the image of God—to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, [having] dominion…” (Genesis 1:28). Human being were meant to be, in a sense, co-creators. Baptism of the Holy Spirit, following baptism and initiation into the body of Christ, restores a piece of that original role.

Preaching, then, should be directed at the continuation of creation. When Christ preached concerning the kingdom of heaven, he referred to the world about to be recreated. As an expression of this reality, Christ healed and did other miracles to restore life and health. Then he gave the commission to his disciples so that they may go and do the same. Such is the continued task of the preacher—to act as a vessel of the Spirit to restore and recreate.


Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 19: Becoming the Image of God

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Previous Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 18: Sanctification–Healing By Fire

In Part 8: Why Do Relationships Break?, I say, “The bottom line in any broken relationship…is that either person involved is unwilling to surrender their identity [to the relationship].” If you think about it, if we want to consider that matrimony is becoming “one flesh,” two individuals ought to be seen as one, which means that whatever would keep them as individuals ought to disappear. Now, on the practical side of things, it is impossible for two separate entities to actually meld their flesh together or even their personalities together. It is more likely, though, that they could unite their minds—rather their attitudes—as well as their sense of identity, to a certain degree. In Part 14b, I had described the Image of God as the unity of human beings rather than the human being itself, which is to say that, though we are created in the image of God, being image of God is not fully realized until human beings are more unified or also until an individual has unified the incongruent parts of himself/herself. This unity was exemplified by the joining of opposites: male and female—a hieros gamos (sacred marriage) so to speak. This unity of male and female presents us with a tangible conceptualization of completion.

That being said, what is completion? What is perfection? These realities only exist with God. In our mortal existence, however, perhaps we could best understand completion as harmony. One could actually say that completion could not be achieved without harmony first, for, while completion is a state of being, harmony is a living process. Likewise, peace is a state, but peace cannot be achieved without harmony. So then, what is harmony? Unlike peace, which is the absence of conflict, harmony is created by conflict. Harmony is an agreement between opposing forces; it is a balance of opposites—holding opposites in tension but in such a way that either side becomes mutually productive through the destruction of what is unnecessary or even toxic. The Chinese symbol of yin-yang attempts to capture this idea by showing that opposing forces cannot exist without each other with each side being a product of the other. True peace and completion—rather, perfection—do not and cannot exist in the created universe. As abstract concepts, peace and perfection are solely the domain of God’s core essence. The rest of the created universe is a perpetual struggle for balance—for harmony. Harmony, in my opinion, is the highest human achievement and therefore the most worthwhile goal. It is not something that someone could see in the world in one’s own lifetime. If anything, it could be a personal endeavor in regards to one’s own soul. As a living process, harmony is that which human beings ought to be pursuing as their creative project. In truth, the symbol of the male and female in unity is a symbol of this harmony—harmony with God, with other people, with the universe, and with oneself.

The Vitruvian Androgyny

To visualize this abstract concept, I propose what I call the “Vitruvian Androgyny.” An image born of my own meditations with some influence from alchemical and tantric ideas, the Vitruvian Androgyny is positioned to resemble Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” which was itself a mediation on the concept of perfect proportions described by the Roman architect Vitruvius. The word androgyne is the union of the Greek words for man and woman: aner/andros and gune/gunaikos respectively. The form of the androgyne—a human person divided into male and female halves—takes inspiration from the alchemical hermaphrodite, which, as I will describe, is the symbol of the completed opus—the philosopher’s stone. Finally, the entity is surrounded by an ouroboros which symbolizes eternity as well as the flux of creation and destruction. For me personally, the ouroboros is a symbol of God. The Vitruvian Androgyny is intended to be a symbol of the completed Imago Dei.

Vitruvian Androgyny

The symbol obviously portrays the hieros gamos and thus the concept of “one flesh,” but this sort of unity, even at the symbolic level, cannot occur without a particular transformation. In the previous post—Part 18: Sanctification–Healing By Fire—I declare that true transformation involves pain, which could be visualized by flame. In a personal journal, I once described a similar process through which a relationship between people may grow stronger. I called it the “Three Fires of Love.” The first fire is the fire of passion, the spark that is ignited when two people are drawn to each other or the excitement that occurs in getting to know new people. This is the fire of celebration, the fire of energy, and the fire of lust. As time passes, this intense fire turns into the second fire—the fire of destruction. Everyone knows that if a fire is not contained, it can do more harm than good. For our purposes, this is acceptable. As people grow more intimate, their sin natures begin to become more evident. People are never what they initially appear to be. If people want to remain in that intimacy, they will have to remain in that fire, and that fire will burn away everything that does not belong in the relationship. If everything is burned away, then there was nothing rock-solid ever holding that relationship together, and it was doomed from the start. However, for those relationships that survive the destructive fire, they are purified. In truth, a proper understanding of pain leads to wisdom.

I mentioned that the Vitruvian Androgyny was inspired by alchemy. In alchemy, the elements to be transmuted are regularly symbolized by a man and a woman—more specifically a king and a queen. An important stage in the alchemical work is the coniunctio, the conjunction or the melding of the elements into a single product. Naturally, the coniunctio can be described in sexual terms. This bears resemblance to some imagery that comes out of Indian Tantra. While the Western world has done more to sexualize Tantra, a significant portion of Tantric imagery involves the relationship between a god and a goddess—often Shiva and Shakti. Similar imagery appears in Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) as well. The unity of Shiva and Shakti is what I once described in a paper as the “destructive romance.” Both Shiva and Shakti are known for their creative and destructive aspects. Their love play both destroys the universe and creates it at the same time. Something new cannot be created without something else being destroyed.

In the alchemical process, the coniunctio is the stage where the elements must be broken down in order to be melded together. They are broken down by either fire or water (yes, we could make some allusions to baptism). The result is the hermaphrodite—a person with one body but two heads (not to be confused with intersex). One head and one side of the body is male; the other head and other side of the body is female. As I said before, the hermaphrodite is a symbol of the completed work—the philosopher’s stone or elixir of immortality for the alchemists. Psychologically speaking, as explored by Carl Jung, it is the cessation of mental dissonance—the harmony of opposites, getting in touch with the shadow, the anima/animus, and ultimately the Self. In Tantra, there is the image of the Ardhanarishvara: simply another human that is divided into a male and female half. This image is also essentially a harmony of opposites, portraying a paradox: naturally opposing forces are complementary and are actually dependent upon each other. Whatever tension may exist actually does not exist. The combination of the two becomes a single entity.

This brings me to the third fire of love—the fire of comfort, the fire of the home. When the destructive fire has been cooled and contained, it becomes the hearth, that which provides warmth, protection, and relief. A relationship in this stage becomes a sanctuary. This fire is also the fire of harmony. Altogether, the “Three Fires of Love” can be a symbol of the human relationship with God—as could also be said of the coniunctio and Tantric ideas.

I reiterate, the harmonious union of male and female represent the Imago Dei. Thus, they represent the union between humanity and God. In actuality, they represent the Church or the Imago Christi—that which has been unified to God through Christ.

Theosis: Becoming Divine

All this brings to mind theosis, deification—a prevalent concept in Eastern Orthodox tradition. Early church theologian Irenaeus said, “God became human that we might become divine.” Athanasius, proponent of the Nicene Creed, echoes, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” Perhaps the latter is an oversimplified remark. If anything, the process of deification, or theosis, is really a union with God rather than becoming a god. As stated by Veli-Matti Karkkainen at the beginning of his book One With God: Salvation as Deification and Justification, “All major religions agree on one thing: the deepest desire of the human person is to get in contact and to live in union with his or her God.”* If the human being is created in the image of God, it is natural to assume that the Imago Dei would seek out completion—after all, is that not what people want anyway? In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, theosis is the fulfillment of human creation. God created humanity to be co-creators (Part 14c), but at the same time God is continually creating humanity. Unity begins with a willing participation in God’s creative work. This involves the transformation that I have discussed in the posts up to this point. It ends it a mystery—the larger part of the creative effort being on God’s part.

For starters, let me clarify what it means to be “deified.” Psalm 82:6-7 states,

I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”

Jesus quotes this verse in John 10:34 in response to charges of blasphemy:

The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:33-36)

The word elohim in Hebrew actually has a wide semantic range. Not only does it refer to God—that is, Yahweh—it is also used to denote any number of “gods” or “goddesses.” Elohim is a plural word as it is. Besides those meanings, elohim can also refer to divine creatures that are not necessarily gods, such as angels, superhumans, or representatives of God—beings that reflect divine majesty and power (like a judge or a prophet). This latter definition is the most likely the most suitable for Psalm 82:6. It also is compatible with what I discussed in Part 14c about human stewardship. Likewise, the Greek theos has a similar semantic range—used for “God,” “gods,” and elevated humans—people deserving of reverence.

With this in mind, what did the Eastern writers mean by theosis or deification? While the language of Irenaeus and Athanasius appear to imply that human beings actually become deities, this is not actually the case. Instead, theosis may hardly be different than the Protestant view of justification or “making righteous,” while at the same time it is more profound—namely due to Eastern anthropology. The idea behind “making righteous” (see Part 18) is that God is restoring the covenant relationship between God and humanity that was broken because of sin’s corruption. Deification does not put the human being at the same level as God nor does union mean becoming absorbed into God to the point of being identical. Rather, to quote 2 Peter 1:3-4,

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.

Deification is a restoration of the Imago Dei status, or, in other words, bringing the Imago Dei to fruition. Furthermore, union is a restoration of the divine relationship—a participation in the divine nature. Unlike the Western Church’s tradition which uses a lot of legal and guilt terminology to describe the fall and redemption, the Eastern Church claims that human beings were never created perfect in the first place. Though created as the image of God, humans were created incomplete. Perfection was never something that was lost, as it was always something that had to be developed. To be the image of God is to be God’s creative agent in creation. Being a free agent, though, the human has the choice to be a participant in the divine relationship. When one does submit to God though, God is able to continue the creative process as is suits God. To quote Karkkainen,

God’s aim is rather to fulfill the purpose for which he created human beings, namely, to participate in God’s life. The earthly life is for growth and development for this eternal communion….This process would have involved an education in love, a free collaboration with God. Unfortunately, sin deflected humanity from this path and disrupted God’s purposes.

For deification to happen, the energy of a human person must be synergized with the energy of God (the Holy Spirit)—the energy of God ultimately being the solvent while the cross is the catalyst for transformation. The transformative power of the cross is a medicinal power (See Part 16: The Crucified Serpent), allowing for people to “escape from the corruption that is in the world” and be shaped into the true Imago Dei. In that Christ became that which Adam failed to be become, Christ himself renewed—or “recapitulated”—the image of God, fixing the volatile, and made it useful. In reality, what we called deification should be called “Christofication.” After all, the means by which a person may find unity with God is by conforming to the essence of Christ and thereby being adopted as a child of God.

Love and Harmony

It is clear from the Scriptures that progress towards peace and harmony is central to the believer’s purpose. Consider these verses from the New Testament:

• Romans 12:14-18: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
• Colossians 3:12-15: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
• Hebrews12:14: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Now, how does one achieve harmony? As Colossians 3:14 states, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” One achieves harmony through love—specifically agape or unconditional love. Paul defines agape in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Agape is the key to harmony and, as such, is the key to Christian living.

One of the greatest misnomers about Christian living is that it requires abiding by many rules. This perspective, of course, has been fuel for much rebellion against Christian living. However, generally speaking, rules do not exist on their own; they are formed by ethical reasoning which in turn are reflections on values/meaningful things. Christian living is about upholding certain values, for one who proclaims to be Christian proclaims that there are more important things in life than oneself—namely peace, harmony, and perfection/completion. So much of the New Testament is an encouragement away from rules/the law and towards a proactive life centered on love. If one loves, rules do not necessarily apply to him/her. Paul affirms what the Corinthians state, “All things are lawful,” though he clarifies, “but not all things are helpful…not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). So what is the correct understanding of Christian ethical living? Augustine of Hippo says, “Love, and do what you will” (Homily 7 on 1 John).


* When people generalize that all religions are saying the same thing, what they ought to say is that all religions are pursuing something similar (the differences being purely phenomenological). However, every religion and branch of religion suggests a different avenue towards that end with some overlaps. One need only look at the effects of the ideologies on a person’s day-to-day living to assess the applicability and success of any given ideology.

Final Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 20: The Ministry of the Imago Dei


Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 18: Sanctification–Healing By Fire

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

The ritual of baptism represents a person’s conversion/initiation into the life of the Church. However, baptism—especially as a symbol of death (see previous post)—signifies a much greater transformation that takes place throughout an entire person’s life. This process is called “sanctification”—making one holy or, in other words, worthy of/compatible with the presence of God. Let me start by bolding saying that one cannot enter the presence of God without being sanctified—not sanctified necessarily to a state of perfection. To be sanctified involves, at least, the opening of oneself up to the regenerative Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit in each human being, and in the Church as a whole, that produces sanctification. Conversion also does not happen in a single moment per se, as it takes a lifetime, nor is conversion that which justifies a person. However, all that being said, I do not treat sanctification as an ontological process—wherein our whole being is becoming set apart. Rather, I treat sanctification as a psychological process—one in which the psyche (the soul, life essence, or self) is being refined.

Justification—Making Righteous

Before I go in depth in this discussion, let me first clarify the difference between justification and sanctification. By saying that conversion is not that which justifies a person, what am I really saying? The New Testament—Paul in particular—makes it clear that humanity is naturally unworthy of God’s presence because of unrighteousness. However, the mission of Christ and the reason behind his death was to make humanity righteous (Grk. dikaio’o)—or to “justify” them/make them worthy/compatible before God. Look at Romans 5:6-11, 15-17:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation….But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

In many other places, Paul explains that humanity is incapable of collecting enough merit through good deeds to warrant entry into God’s presence (This is the mentality of practically all religions—including many expressions of Christianity). Salvation—or better yet, justification—is something given by God to humanity, independent of anything that humanity has done. It is the “free gift.” Thus, the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Taking my stance on the “pistis Christou” debate*, it is not human faith in Christ that saves a person (however much we are still called to trust God in our life journeys), it was the faithfulness of Christ that saves a person. Conversion is not a one-time event; one does not become “saved” by a prayer. Salvation, or healing, as a gift of God, is something that already exists. Now, though God, through the work of Christ, has labeled humanity as “righteous,” there is still the great possibility that one may remain separated from God. This leads us to that frustrating topic of judgment (clear in Matthew 25 and Revelation 20 as well as Paul’s various comments about those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God).

It is clear to human understanding worldwide that certain standards exist for what we would consider “good” or “bad,” “righteous” or “wicked,” or, in this case, “holy” or “unholy.” However, it is difficult to determine what those standards actually are. Particularly in the topic of judgment and separating out the holy from the unholy, at what point is a person considered to be holy enough to not be deserving of punishment? As I have just discussed, Paul eliminates the existence of such a standard by claiming that “none are righteous” and that it was by God’s grace that people may even be able to draw near to the divine, and yet we still have this notion of separating the worthy from the unworthy. This notion, of course, creates that terrifying question people ask themselves: “How do I know if I am saved?”

Again, I reiterate that salvation/justification is a state that already been created by God—it is something that already exists. But if you think about it, while the free gift exists for all people, it is only really Christ who has actually been restored/redeemed. Yet, we also have the concept of the Church—the body of Christ—those who follow the footsteps of Christ. Since the Church is Christ’s body, it is also the Church—the elect—that has been redeemed. What remains is a choice. It is up to an individual person to decide whether or not he or she wants to participate in the Church and therefore the redemptive, sanctifying process that restored Christ to life. Justification is given as a gift, but sanctification is chosen. The doors of the Church may be open to all, but only the Church inherits the Kingdom of God.

Sanctification And Related Symbolism

Now to the discussion at hand. I have called sanctification—that which actually makes a person holy—a psychological process rather than an ontological process. This is to say that it is not our essence that is changing; it is our minds/psyches. The Church, therefore, is more of a psychological reality than it is an ontological one. It is a shared comprehension rather than an actual, alternative reality. Certainly, resurrection may involve the acquisition of a new physical body made of “spirit,” but resurrection doesn’t happened until the sanctification process is complete, correlating with the eschaton (end times). Even then, we do not have a complete picture of what that is, let alone anything else to do with eschatology, so it’s hard to speculate about. Anyway, if sanctification is a psychological process, it is something that people must set their minds to. Sanctification purifies the psyche, purges it, refines it. To a great extent, this is by no means a pleasant thing, for sanctification may be described like passing through fire.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, generally speaking, views the relationship between Heaven and Hell this way: Heaven is a relationship with God; Hell is separation from God. That being said, Heaven and Hell are actually the same place. They are God. We can imagine God as a fire (which is largely biblical—just take Deuteronomy 4:24 for example). Granted, biblically speaking, the symbol of fire strongly signifies the judgment of the wicked—that is the image that is being conveyed. Then again, simply God’s presence and those otherworldly beings associated with God are also described as fiery (just look at the burning bush!), which means that fire can be a symbol of divinity (as it is in many cultures throughout the world). Let’s then hold these two meanings of fire in a tension, which, as a matter of fact, the Eastern Orthodox perspective does. On a slightly side note, let’s also consider Matthew 3:11: “‘I baptize you with/in 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/in the Holy Spirit and [with/in] fire.” There are conflicting interpretations as to what this last part means—to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Some have taken this to mean that they are two separate baptisms: the followers of Christ will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and everyone else will be baptized with fire—rather, punished with fire. The other interpretation is that they are the same baptism—the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a baptism with fire. The text itself does not provide enough evidence to prove either theory. I will point out though that “baptism” connotes a “washing” or “cleansing,” and it is difficult to think of the wicked as being “cleansed.” Nonetheless, we can, once again, hold the two views in tension.

The symbolism so far has some strong implications. God is a fire. Sanctification makes people holy, thereby making people worthy/compatible with God’s presence (which is fiery). Those who are not sanctified are punished by fire. The Kingdom of God—which at this point we can call a kingdom of fire—is available to all, but only a select number of people actually participate in it. Having the Eastern Orthodox view in mind, let’s paint a picture. All people experience the fire of God, but while some are cleansed by it, the rest are tortured by it. The difference lies in people’s willingness to accept the fire—to accept the Spirit of God. For those who wish to draw near to the presence of God, they will have to be refined—the fire will be cleansing, even healing. For those who do not wish to have a relationship with God, the fire is pain. This is not to say that the fire is not painful for those who are being sanctified. In fact, it may be more painful because the one who seeks God is more aware of his or her own sin, and it is that sin which must be purged. If they want to be close to God, they must be rid of those things that do not belong—all the dark corners must be touched by light. Everyone else who does not seek God is just in denial, finding distractions in order to avoid facing God’s chaos (see Part 13: God is Chaos), and they are condemned by their own ignorance. All this is to say is that, for the person undergoing sanctification, there is indeed a process of transforming, wherein the Holy Spirit, which a person has opened himself/herself to through the choice to be baptized, is shaping a person from their original sinful state to a state that is compatible with God’s presence. On a practical level, we experience this transformation as psychological change—a rewiring/renewing of the mind essentially—which is why I call sanctification a psychological process.

This concept is far more clear within the mystical traditions of Christianity. Generally, it has been the mystics in Christian history that have explicitly expressed the importance of sanctification, purification, or purgation. In her book Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill describes purification as “getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind…the self must be purged of all that stands between it and goodness: putting on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or ‘sin.’” This purgation involves two essential acts: “the cleansing of that which is to remain, the stripping of that which is to be done away.” This naturally involves an acceptance of suffering (some mystics took suffering to an extreme by becoming masochistic). The journey of life is not without pain, but suffering can create endurance. After all, did not Christ also have to suffer? If we were to translate this into psychological terms, the purgation involves an active, purposeful confrontation with one’s inner conflicts, first identifying all those things that could keep one separated from God. If the life in the Kingdom is a life of faith, where in one’s life is one not trusting God? In what ways are those weaknesses holding one back from drawing closer to God in faith? This can be painful insomuch as we might be faced with ideas about ourselves that we would rather not admit, or we may be faced with memories we would rather forget. All these things must be reconciled with (see Part 16: The Crucified Serpent). Furthermore, purgation involves an active surrender and “letting go” of those things that belong to the old self which has been symbolically put to death by baptism, doing away with personae/complexes, tending to insecurities, and taming unbridled emotions. Because so many thoughts and behaviors belonging to the old self are habitual, we essentially need to be rehabilitated and restored with new habits. As anyone who has tried to break a bad habit a form a good habit could tell you, it is no easy thing. The closer one gets to God, the more one will be exposed to where one is lacking. Sometimes it feels like one must go through Hell in order to truly be healed.

In that process where perceptions are changing, one can even change one’s attitude to the pain of purgation. Catherine of Genoa described it as the “divine furnace of purifying love.” Underhill explains, “This ‘divine furnace of purifying love’ demands from the ardent soul a complete self-surrender, and voluntary turning from all impurity, a humility of the most far-reaching king: and this means the deliberate embrace of active suffering, a self-discipline in dreadful tasks. As gold in the refiner’s fire, so ‘burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth.’” As painful as the sanctification process may be, it is ultimately for one’s own freedom—freedom from all those burdens that keep us weak. Another way that we can look at it is that the sanctification process is that process wherein we are actually being molded and shaped or even trained by God—trained by God to become Imago Dei.

I cannot help but also mention alchemical symbolism, which Carl Jung compared at length to the transformation of the psyche. In alchemy, one of the main goals was to transform a base metal (like lead) into gold—to transform something less valuable into something incredibly valuable. The central the alchemical process was the breaking down of materials from their crude form into a more pure substance which involved purification by both water and fire. So too the corrupted aspects of the psyche are broken down to be recreated into something new and glorious. I should also mention a common pattern in story telling wherein the hero must pass through an “underworld” phase—representing his or her death—in order to find that which would help him or her to succeed at the ultimate quest. The strengthening of anything involves first a deconstruction; weakness is cast off, and the new thing rises with newfound power. The fragmented pieces of the psyche are being brought into harmony. In the case of the Christian undergoing sanctification, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

For many individuals, the sanctification process has proven to be a controversy. Many so-called Christians enjoy the thought of justification but do not necessarily want to submit to the sanctification process. Many on the path to God stop and become stagnant because they are unwilling to face the darkness of the cloud (See Part 12: The Cloud Speaks–An Honest Encounter With God), the darkness of the self, and the darkness of having to die. In that they may actively acknowledge their own salvation and put trust in God, I would not say that any of these have “lost their salvation.” In fact, for anyone that we might want to say has “lost their salvation,” we must ask whether they had ever truly opened themselves up to the Holy Spirit’s creative work in the first place. However, for those who do not want to submit more of themselves to sanctification, they really sell themselves short of that bliss which can be achieved as one matures through the sanctification process. Furthermore, unfortunately, they may also be sending a poor message to other believers or non-believers about what the life of faith looks like—which could stagnate a particular environment, keeping it in dissonance. For anyone who claims to follow Christ and to belong to the Church, the sanctification process ought to be evident, for it is actually that which a believer commits to when being baptized into the body of Christ, all for the sake of creating harmony in oneself and in the world.


* The pistis Christou debate concerns the correct translation of a phrase that appears in Pauline writings. Pistis Christou can be translated as either “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ,” the difference being something human beings have versus something that Christ had. The issue lies with the genitive case of Christos. If the genitive is to be interpreted objectively, then the faith is directed towards Christ (therefore “in”), but if the genitive is to be interpreted subjectively, it is Christ’s faith that we are speaking about. Either way presents a different soteriological implication.

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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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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).

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

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

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

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.

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