“The chief end of [humankind] is to glorify God.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Readers of the Bible will recognize the title of this entry as a paraphrase of Genesis 1:26, the statement of God’s intention to create humankind. The paraphrase echoes a position often taken by critics of religion (Sigmund Freud, and more recently Christopher Kitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others), namely, that human beings simply project a super-human
father-figure deity to assuage the existential anxiety that seems to define us. The actual biblical statement and its paraphrase summarizes the polar alternatives for understanding what it is to be human.
The biblical assertion, which only begins in Genesis, contends that the Creator of the universe created human beings to be like God. This claim, though richly suggestive, is also extremely ambiguous. “Likeness” inherently involves “unlikeness,” as the next chapter in Genesis reminds readers. Human beings may be the pinnacle of the created order, but we remain, nonetheless, “living creatures” (Gen 2:7) like other “living creatures” of the animal world (Hebr. naphsot chayyot, Gen 1:24, 28), formed from the earth (Gen 1:20, 24; 2:7) yet endowed with “the breath of life” (Gen 1:30; 2:7). It is easy to see, then, although sometimes difficult to remember, that human beings are not “the measure of all things.” We are mortal animals; clever, but not wise; with a notion of “eternity in [our] mind[s],” but with minds too small to grasp the content of it (see Ecc 3:11). In fact, human beings most often make trouble for themselves when they forget this limitation on godlikeness.
On the other hand, although it is open-ended to such a degree that one must exercise caution in defining the likeness, the Bible elucidates its claim that human beings are “like” God and bear God’s “image” with respect to several specifics that have something to say about both who God is and who we are.
First, the biblical notion rejects any effort to identify God in finite terms. The very choice of the terms “image” and “likeness” involve a polemic that may be unclear to modern readers. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, both “image” (Hebr. tselem; Gen 5:3; Num 33:52; 1 Sam 6:5, 11; Ezek 16:17; etc.) and “likeness” (Hebr. demut; Gen 5:3; Ezek 1:5, 10, 16, 22, 26; 10:10, etc.) regularly refer to the idol images prohibited in the Decalog. The powerful criticism leveled against idol worship in Isaiah points out the absurdity of any effort to restrict, confine, or define the deity (“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? Isa 40:18 RSV). In a sense, Genesis 1 answers the question with the assertion that God can only be “likened” to living, dynamic, sentient persons. While the created order points to a powerful deity, human beings point to a personal deity, not to the impersonal abstraction of philosophy or deism.
Second, the fact that humankind (“let them,” 1:26) – individually, of course, but, better, in the aggregate – bears the image of God suggests the dynamic nature of God’s personhood. It also implies the respect necessary on the part of one human being for another as image bearers (cf. God’s understanding of what constitutes murder, Gen 9:6). Indeed, God created humankind in God’s image, “male and female.” Thus, the first chapter of the first book of the Bible contradicts, contravenes, and countermands any hint at male supremacy. Since all “likeness” language, all metaphor, is only partially true, to call God “Father” expresses only half (or less) of the truth.
In relation to who we are, Gen 1:26 (cf. 2:5) first identifies a functional similarity: human beings have the responsibility for managing God’s creation, for tilling the Garden. According to the account that parallels Genesis 1, God even extends to Adam the privilege of naming all the animals God creates in search of a companion for Adam (Gen 2:19). Genesis 1:28, containing the first “commandment” in the Bible, charges humankind to be prolific. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Bible’s depiction of humankind’s godlikeness involves community and communion with one another (“not good to be alone,” Gen 2:18) and with God (who visits in the Garden “in the cool of the day,” Gen 3:8).
Most importantly, of course, although not clear in every respect, the idea the humankind is somehow “like” God means that human beings can understand something of who God is and that the foundation of understanding involves personhood, relationship, and communication.
In the Christmas season, believers contemplate the wonder of the Incarnation, which depends upon the imago dei concept and transposes it into a higher key. Whatever the limits of human godlikeness, it is substantial enough that when God chose to reveal God’s self most fully, when God chose to speak God’s clearest Word to humankind, God “spoke” a human being. Jesus, Christians believe, is the supreme human image of God.
Christians believe…Freud, Kitchens, Dawkins and others challenge that belief with a counter-proposal. They argue that the universe, including immaterial phenomena such as human personhood, exists solely because of material causation. When the aftermath of the Big Bang had cooled sufficiently, sub-atomic particles formed. Later, these particles conglomerated as elemental atoms. Over time, with more cooling, dust clouds, then stars formed. Stars exploded ejecting heavy elements, which subsequently coalesced as rocks, then planets. On at least one of these planets, conditions were just right for the rise of prokaryotic life. A long period of evolution ultimately produced Mozart, Shakespeare, Monet, and Schweitzer. It produced human beings – who are sentient, moral, and self-aware; who can appreciate truth, beauty, and goodness; who can love even self-sacrificially; who long for meaning and purpose; who have a concept of “eternity in [our] mind[s]”; who find the “survival of the fittest” repugnant in human society.
Here is the fundamental question posed by any encounter with another human being: Does my counterpart incarnate godlike personhood or is personhood merely apparent? Is love merely a biochemical chain of events (see http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/science-jan-june09-love_02-13/) or does it manifest human godlikeness at its most profound?
Admittedly, some concepts of a deity seem to represent the projection of a “survival of the fittest” environment. These versions of the deity coerce, conquer, condemn, castigate. The God seen in the face of Jesus, however, seeks to make us the projection of God’s life, love, loyalty, laughter.
“But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).