9 November 2006

The Persistence of the Imago Dei

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 12:29 pm

Man as Creator of Meaning

God is creator; God created man in his own image: now man too is a creator – this is the dramatic climax of the Genesis 1 narrative and the crowning glory of elohim’s creation. As a biological species man isn’t that different from the other animals. As a maker of historical change, as a creator of meaning, as a user and interpreter of language, as a carrier and creator of culture, man is fantastically different from the other animals. Genesis 1 marks the turning point when man first came into his uniqueness, his reality, his godliness.

A lot of time has gone by since God created man – do we still share his image and likeness? Ever since the beginning man has been creating realities. Cognitively, linguistically, culturally – really – it’s as if we’ve become a different sort of being altogether from what the witness must have been like before the beginning. When God looks at humanity today, does he still see himself in a mirror? I suspect he does, in the same way that we humans recognize our image even in people from very diverse cultures.

Western tradition has long maintained that God established the meaning of life once and for all: to know, love and serve God, if my memory of the Baltimore Catechism is still reliable. Creating your own meaning was condemned by the defenders of religious orthodoxy as an act of existentialist or hedonist rebellion, a rejection of God’s right to declare who you are – your nature, your purpose, your destiny. Now, after careful consideration of Genesis 1, another possibility opens up: maybe it’s part of our job – our calling – to create meaning for ourselves and the world, even if it deviates from long-standing traditions. Maybe we creators aren’t just tinkerers and mechanics; maybe we’ve lost what it means to bear fully the image and likeness of elohim, who without hesitation or precedent went about the task of imposing meaning on raw material existence.

To be able to act not only in the world, but on the world – this is how gods walk the earth. Is it godly for us to suppress this inherent godlike characteristic? Are we demonstrating humility when we, made in the image of the creator, deny that we’ve been given the innate ability to create? Can we even claim to be partakers of God’s image unless we create? Commandments are plentiful in Scripture, but nowhere does God command humanity to create. Does that mean we should regard unbidden creation as an evil to be avoided? God doesn’t command the creeping things to creep, nor the swarming things to swarm – they just do it. They’re creeping things, so they creep. We humans, made in the image of the creator, are creating things, and so we create. Do we regard the swarming things as sinful when, unbidden, they swarm? It might be possible to swarm in a way that’s contrary to the will of God, but swarming per se would seem to be a spontaneous manifestation of a God-given nature. So too with human creating.

According to Christian theology the image and likeness of elohim has become distorted and corrupted within us. Though Augustine knew man to be a fallen creature, he wasn’t totally pessimistic about man’s potential: We must remember that the image of God in the human soul has not been so completely obliterated by the stain of earthly affections, that no faint outlines of the original remain therein. Even Calvin, persuaded by Scripture of man’s total depravity, saw some redeeming value: Truly there are many things in this corrupted nature which may induce contempt; but if you rightly weigh all circumstances, man is, among other creatures, a certain pre-eminent specimen of Divine wisdom, justice, and goodness.

Corruption of the Creatorly Imago

The witness became godlike by watching, listening, understanding, learning – in seeing God as someone like himself, the witness was able to put himself in God’s shoes. God may have been surprised, but he wasn’t disappointed: he was the speaker, the teacher, the one who made the witness in his own image. Maybe our corruption comes from striving to be godlike instead of simply acknowledging it, from competing for dominion instead of accepting its inevitability. The more we try to be gods, the more we prove ourselves worse than beasts. In our corruption what abominations have we created; in our redemption what possibilities lie before us?

In our reading of Genesis 1 the imago Dei manifests itself primarily as a God-like ability to create. Clearly man has not lost that ability entirely: we have subdued the earth after all, just as elohim foresaw. Still, most of us don’t create very often, or even very creatively. We make incremental changes in prior creations; we make more of what we’re already familiar with. We’re also not particularly receptive to others’ creations, especially if they come completely out of the blue. We’re drawn to what others are already drawn to, a phenomenon that Rene Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Even in presumably fad-free areas of culture like science, grant money and research projects and job offers accumulate around the hot topics. We have a difficult time rendering independent evaluations of new creations, waiting for the experts and the marketplace to weigh in first. Don’t get me wrong: chimpanzees are a whole lot less creative than we are. Human creation is disappointing only from an elohimic standard, from the unrealized potential of godlike creatorliness.

Is this diminished capacity to create a consequence of the Fall? Our exegesis of Genesis doesn’t get as far as the Garden; still, it’s not too far-fetched to see how immorality might result in an atrophied and corrupted creativity. A corrupt imago means a corruption in human creativity, resulting in a corruption of the cumulative works of human creation – of culture. To please self and others, to wield power and influence, to achieve social and material gain, to cooperate and to compete: often cited as incentives to create, these motivations might actually limit our own creativity and harden us to the creativity of others. Maybe the bohemians are right: orthodoxy and community standards don’t protect us from the self-glorification of the builders of Babel; instead they reinforce immoral tendencies toward conformity, shame, philistinism and squareness that already hamper our work as creators.

Renewal of the Imago

Renewing the Creation would mean reclaiming the original glory of human creativity through a redeemed, decorrupted imago – not the undoing of human endeavor but its restoration, not the decreation of the man-made world but its reclamation. There would be a renewal not just of the earth but of what man has done to the earth, of man’s cumulative creation across the millennia, of human culture in all its forms: language, art, science, government, philosophy, economics. In a word, renewing the Creation would mean renewing the human spirit of creation.


The postmodern evangelical church has begun reclaiming the imagination as a manifestation of godlike creativity. The tendency is to use imagination pragmatically in service of the church’s distinctiveness vis-à-vis the world: to make the church more visible in an already-flooded marketplace dominated by spectacle, to make church services more engaging, to make evangelism more effective. The church doesn’t see as part of its mission the unleashing of a redeemed human creatorliness in the world at large. No truth in the world, no progress, no good human culture, no good human nature – isn’t all this a nihilistic impulse that’s the destructive side of postmodernism? When Christianity barricades itself behind tradition and interpretive community and apophatic encounters, it insulates itself from the world. Is this what Christ had in mind? What elohim had in mind?


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