Reflecting the Image of God
In reading some of the responses to my last post Embodied Theology, I was reminded of an essay I wrote for a class last semester, so I've rewritten part of it as a blog post to help clarify my position.
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Embodied theology is rooted in the doctrine of creation. Why did God create us? As some have proposed, God couldn't not create or love us -- it's just part of God's nature. As a relational giver and lover within the Trinity, God couldn't help but be the same thing in relation with humanity. Who we are comes from God. We are not by nature sinful broken creatures, but creatures shaped in the very image of God.
There is a vital distinction going on here as to what we are at our very core. When we simply see brokenness all around us, it can be easy to assume that brokenness is what defines us, and that our only hope is to escape that brokenness someday. But that assumes that there is a struggle in our inner-core between an identity of sin and an identity in God's image. But God created us, we are fully of God. Even in our bodies here on earth, there is no other way to be.
There is of course brokenness in our world. Our nature in God's image is distorted and obscured even as that core identity never changes. There is pain and suffering and injustice in this world. We don't always clearly reflect God's image. But we are nevertheless still on the journey of becoming better and better reflections of God's image that God created us for. Yes, we exist in time and space. We are human. And God deals with us as humans. So that means there is no magic God-wand that sprinkles pixie dust to make everyone instantly perfect like God is perfect. Adam and Eve tried to tap into instant Godlikeness in the garden and disaster ensued. Instead, we have to be embodied and relationally journey toward more fully reflecting the image of God as the finite creatures we are. That's just the way it works. It's a process. The journey isn't something we hope to escape someday or something we can opt out of now, it is the core of our identity -- the very thing we were created to do.
The world is hurting and because our very being is to reflect God's image we are to love the world just as God loves us. Being called to Godlikeness means to participate in who God is. This isn't just some inner warm-fuzzy that makes us feel close to God -- it involves action. If we are moving closer to God then we will act like God and care for that which is made in God's image -- in short God's creation. Not someday, but now -- as the embodied humans we are. Hurting others, destroying the environment, being greedy, achieving at the expense of others -- all these things don't acknowledge our identity as being made in God's image. Accepting who we are, our vocation as image-bearers, involves a responsibility to live for others and work for their good. God has blessed us abundantly, so by nature we are to bless others.
Rowan Williams has said that "being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art," because we can see the results of sin and individualism all around us where instead of living in embodied relation with others we defend ourselves against having to ever even encounter others in relationship. We call ourselves image-bearers but don't live up to the name as we pine for escape or withdraw from creation. It reminds me of that classic piece of theological reflection that my toddler has insisted we listen to on constant repeat every time we get in the car for the past few months -- the Veggie Tales "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything." In the song the pirates sing about all the piratey things they don't do (like bury treasure, own a parrot). They then critique their fellow pirate for singing about the non-piratey things he doesn't do (kiss chipmunks; throw mashed potatoes against the wall). They say, "We're supposed to be singing about piratey things, what do mashed potatoes have to do with being a pirate? That's just nonsense!" But of course the irony is that they too are not living up to what it means to be a pirate since they never do any of the pirate things they talk about.
To be created in God's image and to be on the journey of becoming more Godlike means that we as bodily humans in the world must act Godlike. As Kathryn Tanner wrote, "Christ forms us but what is so formed is our action." We live in community in relation with each other. We enact what it means to be Godlike in those settings. We give to each other out of what God has given us, always working to end the ways that sin prevents God's love and blessing from being received by all. Sometimes it means having a prophetic voice within our communities to reform, rebuke, and purify the community that is not living in embodied creaturely solidarity, but however it looks, it involves action; being made in God's image affects how we live.
So yes, the world looks broken and it can be hard to see God's image amidst the brokenness and the pain sometimes. It can be tempting to want to escape it all by denying the world in various ways. But reflecting on what it means for us to be created in God's image can move us past the negativity of assuming that we are at the core broken creatures into the affirmation that we are by nature reflections of God's image who are on the journey of becoming ever more Godlike. Assuming brokenness can lead to despair and resignation that the world will never change -- leading some to reject it all. Accepting our role as image-bearers leads us instead to loving action in community. We exist not just for ourselves but for all of creation. Living into that calling will make the world a better place for all.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.