Meaning of Imago Dei
Imago Dei literally means “image of God.” It’s often used in reference to Genesis where God creates humans in God’s image, or in the image of God.
Imago Dei isn’t something I was taught about, explicitly, growing up, but as I am studying it, I realize I have been taught indirectly through the liturgies of the traditions in which I was raised. Somewhere along the way, it was instilled in me that the imago Dei is a reference to the fact that I am human, as opposed to anything else in creation. As with most things in Churches of Christ (CoC), this was conveyed through negative comparisons. Just as we were CoC because we were not denominational and not Catholic, we were human because we were not dogs or cats or rocks, etc. Just as we were CoC because we did not merely praise God but were also orderly in praise, we were human because we were not merely instinctual but also intellectual. Etc.
To be bearers of the imago Dei meant to be human, and to be human meant to be physiologically and intellectually human. This meant that all humans are necessarily bearers of the imago Dei, regardless of what they do or what they believe. It’s an inherent, human quality that can’t be lost or gained. It simply is, because in the beginning, God made us so.
Today, we’ll explore an alternative understanding of the imago Dei, one that challenges the traditions in which I was raised in increasingly complex ways and calls into question what it is that truly defines the imago Dei.
Imago Dei Definition
The short of it is this: I no longer believe the imago Dei is found in our appearance, nor is it found in our being physiologically different from the rest of creation, nor is it found in our being intellectually “superior” to the rest of creation. The imago Dei does set us apart as humans from the rest of creation, but it’s in a particular capacity that we find our “holiness” as the image of the one true God: we have been blessed with the capacity to participate willingly, however imperfectly, in the missio Dei (the mission of God). The divine work of the creator is open to us in a conscious, willful way, and that’s not something I think anything else in all of this physical creation can claim.
This is, admittedly, a rather abstract interpretation, and it seems even more so when compared to the definitions I was taught growing up. Perhaps that’s because it was necessary for me, personally, that I might “shift to the left a bit” (to borrow James Smith’s language) and examine the imago Dei with fresh eyes. Regardless, I think it would serve all of us well who grew up in conservative CoC to stretch our imagination of Genesis (and all of scripture) a bit abstractly.
Imago Dei and the Trinity
A big part of this shift in the imago Dei is rooted in a consideration of the Trinity. I am assuming as a foundational posture that God operates out of, and in line with, God’s nature, and that nature is rooted in God’s Trinitarian identity. I believe that the Trinity is engaged in a constant and reciprocal, self-denying hospitality toward one another. Creating, then, is rooted in self-denying hospitality, because that’s the nature of God. This is true in relation to the missio Dei, as well. The mission of God is rooted in self-denying hospitality, and creating is part of God’s mission. God is making room at God’s table for creation, and in Christ, creation is brought up to share in the life of the Divine.
The imago Dei, therefore, finds its roots in that same hospitable nature. More precisely, God has placed in creation a created being capable of expressing the nature and mission of God toward creation: humans. It’s not in humanity that God is manifest; it’s through humanity that God is manifesting God’s image in creation. To be the imago Dei, we must engage in the missio Dei so that God’s image is made manifest among us and through us and to us.
Christians have a word for this sort of self-denying hospitality: Love.
Imago Dei and Scripture
Initial hints of this Trinitarian, missio Dei-imago Dei are seen in Genesis, where God creates humans as male and female, precluding a gender-specific definition of the imago Dei and expressing a communal definition of being human (“male and female God created them”). God instructs them to have dominion over the earth and to be fruitful, and then scripture says that God’s intention was for Eden to be tilled and kept, and it was not good that man should do this alone. Already, God’s Trinitarian nature is manifest in humanity, but not in their physical image. Rather, it’s in their communal and hospitable identity toward creation (and one another) that shines forth the imago Dei.
As the story of God unfolds throughout human history, God continually invites people into deeper and deeper participation. God’s covenant with Abraham was to benefit all peoples, and we see prophets essentially sitting at the decision-making table with God. They stand in the breach on behalf of the righteous and unrighteous, alike, and have “authority” to reason with God about the future of humanity. Even before Christ, humanity engages in the missio Dei; from the beginning of creation, humanity has the capacity to be the imago Dei.
Enter: Jesus. God reveals the heart of the missio Dei in the power of the cross. In conservative, CoC tradition, Jesus is the imago Dei in his being the physically manifested Son of God, but under this exploration of the imago Dei, it’s in something else that we see the manifestation: “the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” Jesus’s life and ministry is the purest revelation of God’s Trinitarian nature, not only in his relationship with the Father and the Spirit, but also in his relationship with creation and humanity. Jesus is God incarnate, yes, but as a human, Jesus bears the imago Dei in his submitted participation in the work of God and his determined, self-denying, hospitable nature both toward and with his disciples and all those who come to him. The drawing near of the Kingdom might not be simply God come to earth (Jesus) but the imago Dei being lived out among those who follow Jesus.
Imago Dei and Human Identity
Another major shift in my imagination of the imago Dei comes from my understanding of what it means to be human. Rooting the imago Dei in human physiology or intellect places humanity at the center of the story; God’s image is rooted in us rather than in God. This takes a lot of the pressure off humanity by making God look like us from the get-go. Without any work, we start off connected to the divine in a majestic and glorifying way — we are made in the image of God.
Part of being human, though, is existing as a created being. If I see myself as created and God as divine, then I can no more bear the image of God inherently than can anything else in creation. Perhaps that’s why it’s so tempting to imagine that the imago Dei has to do with being a human as opposed to a dog or cat. It’s simpler and cleaner and roots our inherent value in created nature.
When we allow ourselves to identify with creation, as creatures who are other than divine, we must find our inherent value in God’s undeserved love. The imago Dei, then, necessitates something beyond human nature, because God is beyond human nature. It’s in our imitation of God that we begin to bear the image of God and not otherwise.
Imago Dei and Smith
“Imaging God thus involves representing and perhaps extending in some way God’s rule on earth through ordinary communal practices of human sociocultural life.” — James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (quoting J. Richard Middleton)
This is perhaps the most succinct summary I have seen of the imago Dei, which I am attempting to describe. Smith continues, “The imago Dei is not a thing or property that was lost (or retained); it was a calling and a vocation that Adam and Eve failed to carry out.”
The significance in Smith’s argument is that he adds another characteristic to human identity, which I had neglected: embodiment. It’s important to articulate that aspect of humanity, because the imago Dei is an embodied calling. I have danced around the characteristic, but Smith attacks it head-on: “the shape of such image-bearing will be cruciform,” and the cross is an embodied act.
I think there’s tension here. I’ve argued that the imago Dei isn’t a physical characteristic or trait, but because embodiment is part of being human, any participation in the missio Dei is necessarily going to be embodied. The cross demonstrates that. While the imago Dei isn’t a physical characteristic, it’s inextricable from our being physical. It must be made manifest in our very bodies. I believe this is what Paul means when he says we are
“…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”
Ministry and the Imago Dei
If the imago Dei is an embodied participation in the missio Dei — a physical, sociocultural, communal practice— there’s a fundamental shift in my pastoral paradigm. For most of my life, I saw humans as individuals whose ultimate goal was to transcend physical suffering to attain spirituality. We were each spirits with bodies, and true maturity was to focus entirely on the spiritual. In that paradigm, physical actions could only ever be means to an end; they were inroads to helping people see what was truly important. If, however, the imago Dei is an embodied practice rooted in the hospitable nature of the Trinity, then embodied practices are not simply hooks to draw people in.
Smith makes a compelling argument that we are not simply “thinking things” but “being things.” We are shaped primarily by doing and experiencing, not primarily by rationalizing and studying. It’s precisely because of that distinction that the imago Dei challenges the old pastoral paradigm; embodied practices do not simply lead to pursuits of the mind. Rather, the embodied practices, themselves, are forming and transforming moments when the imago Dei is powerfully manifest.
The overriding goal of pastoral work, then, is to participate in the missio Dei in one’s congregation and communities such that the imago Dei is made visible in our mortal flesh. This means that evangelism isn’t just preaching and teaching. Nor is leadership simply telling people what to do, where to go, or what to believe. Worship isn’t just singing words or remembering Jesus by ourselves, in our own minds. Rather, evangelism necessitates sharing life with people — embodied participation in the realities of humanity that we might be cruciform in both mourning and rejoicing. Leadership necessitates communal discernment; what’s the Spirit doing so that we might participate? Worship necessitates intentional, liturgical practices that are rooted in Trinitarian hospitality.
There’s no room for buffered individuals in the imago Dei. I cannot reflect the Trinity on my own. I require embodied persons to interact with and dance with. Shared lives are required. Communal discernment is required. A sense of the calling is required. I keep hearing Matthew over and over in my mind, that God is among those who gather together. God has invited us to the table of the Divine, and it seems the one requirement to stay is that we turn and do the same with a cruciform, embodied love.
Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
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