FOR CENTURIES Christians have pondered what it means to be created in the image of God. Throughout my own academic career, I’ve been haunted by the mystery of Genesis 1:27: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB).
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What does this passage reveal about us, and consequently, what does it reveal about God? The second half of the passage is equally contentious and challenging. Does “male and female God created them” imply that men and women reflect the image of God equally?
While Genesis 2 to 3, with its narrative of sin and betrayal, is captivating, there is something about the simplicity, mystery, and implications of Genesis 1:27 that resonates even today. I would argue that Genesis 1:27 is the foundation of an egalitarian anthropology where male and female are at the center of theological reflection, where they reflect the image of God without hierarchy or preference. The existence of distinctive genders in humanity does not imply any sort of sexuality within God. Instead, the metaphor retains the unknowability and mystery of God. It reminds us that there are similarities and great differences between the created and Creator. The metaphor “image of God” both reveals and conceals something about the nature of God—and the nature of humanity.
Genesis 1:27 has been a source of inspiration, debate, and controversy throughout the history of Christianity. The church fathers (writing between 150 and 500 C.E.) often implied that women must negate their very womanhood in order to reflect their creation in God’s image. These male writers in the early church viewed female bodies as an impediment to reflecting the image of God. Augustine of Hippo argued that although women spiritually share the image of God, they do soin spiteoftheir bodies—women’s bodies corrupt and diminish their ability to reflect the image of God. In this thinking, women reflect a distorted image; we are inherently deficient.
Centuries later, medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas were profoundly influenced by Aristotle, who viewed women as a lesser species than men. Aquinas described women as “defective” and “misbegotten.” In describing women as misbegotten males created solely for the purpose of procreation, Aquinas perpetuated an Aristotelian and unbiblical notion of humanity that leaves a mark on Christian theology today.
The traditional theologians and church fathers acknowledged the rationality of a woman’s mind but—because women are symbolically tied to their bodies—argued that her salvation must be seen as the negation of her nature. In other words, women are redeemed in spite of their femaleness. In this view, a woman’s reflection of the imago Dei is something she lost in the Fall and will only fully recover in the afterlife.
DESPITE TREMENDOUS spiritual growth and new understandings, both in science and theology, there are still aspects of Christianity that are overtly or covertly shaped by this kind of theological framework. Contemporary Christian notions of what it means to be male and female remain influenced by an obsolete misogynist ideological framework that views women as the passive recipients to the active male principle. This leads to a “separate but equal” mentality that maintains the male as primary.
An egalitarian notion of the imago Dei is the foundation for a theological anthropology that reflects a deeper understanding of Genesis 1:27. In order to achieve this vision of the human, the underlying patriarchal worldview that has shaped the Christian tradition must be acknowledged and transformed. One cannot simply add women as “equals” into a malformed patriarchy and produce an egalitarian anthropology. The distorted structure itself must be redeemed.
An emphasis on male or female bodies leads us to examine how humanity’s sexual embodiment contributes to the distinctiveness of our humanity. To put it rather bluntly, men and women are embodied in very different ways. If you take the body seriously, then you must examine how this distinctive embodiment shapes one’s theological anthropology. These differences between us do not automatically lead to a theology of “complementarity.” We need to understand ourselves as whole, not fractional individuals that are completed once we find our “other half” in the opposite sex.
Our deeper understanding of the egalitarian metaphor in Genesis 1:27 not only dramatically affects our human relationships, but it also has implications for how we understand God. The same misinterpretation from the Christian tradition that led to patriarchal church teachings (and therefore structures) has also led to a patriarchal image of God. The two feed off of each other, especially in the context of the imago Dei. To truly understand the imago Dei as a dimension of humanity that is shared by women and men equally, we must re-examine how we understand the divine.
When our interior image of God and our exterior references to God are exclusively male and “father,” we reinforce patriarchal constructions of the image of God that are based on a hierarchy that values men at the expense of women.
This has real-world effects. It leads to women not being allowed to preach, lead from the altar, celebrate communion, administer rites, pastor congregations, or teach, and a myriad of less-overt restrictions in the here and now. It’s seen in the manner in which women’s bodies are constantly reduced to objects of sexual temptation, sometimes with dire consequences. These attitudes can lead to greater violence against women, such as we see in the increasing exploitation and attacks on young women and how social media is used to perpetuate and document these horrific acts.
As the broader church reclaims the divine image shared equally between women and men, our symbols and language of the divine are transformed. When our image of the divine is transformed, then our human relations are also redeemed.
Human equality is a value held by most faith traditions. Even if some denominations or nondenominational movements limit women’s access to leadership or deny women’s call to certain forms of ministry, most still uphold the value that a woman’s sacredness is not diminished because of her gender. But if we say we believe that men and women are made in God’s image, then aren’t we required to make it a tenet of faith and take the necessary steps to put this aspect of our faith into practice?
Recently, thanks largely to the refreshing new spirit of Pope Francis, the question of women’s full participation in Christian life has been revived. (It never went away, but the spotlight has now returned.) In Pope Francis’ widely circulated September interview in La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, he called for the fuller participation of women in the Church. “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed,” he said. “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman ... The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.” Pope Francis appeared to critique the theology of gender complementarity that has dominated Vatican rhetoric, noting that it is too often “inspired by an ideology of machismo.” Yet this is tempered by his comment earlier in the summer that the issue of women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood is a closed matter, as well as by his upholding the investigation of women religious in the U.S. (at least so far).
Additionally, a movement has arisen in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) advocating that women be ordained. Despite Mitt Romney’s quip during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “binders full of women” to choose from for his gubernatorial cabinet, his church has not recognized women’s call to the priesthood. The Ordain Women website advances full ordination for Mormon women. “To deny women access to decision-making authority in any community—religious or otherwise—opens up a space for the more extreme forms of discrimination and abuse that millions of women in the world endure,” says Ordain Women’s Lorie Winder.
Statistics increasingly show that the rise of the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”—those who list their religious affiliation as “none of the above”) among Roman Catholics, Latinos, and youth across the United States is changing our religious landscape. Increasingly, youth describe Christianity as anti-gay and anti-woman.
The “nones” are challenging the values gap they perceive in the way churches put their faith into practice. As one “none,” who is young, Catholic, and a woman, put it, “I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the ‘nones’ is by becoming different churches.” Sentiments like these and the statistical trends in Christianity remind us that the issue of women’s role in churches and on altars is far from decided.
While some may decry a lost generation that has become morally bankrupt and less religious, I would argue that our youth are challenging us to reassess some traditional Christian habits—particularly those that stem from a patriarchal past and outdated customs.
ALL THIS BRINGS me back to Genesis 1:27. Through our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of creation, we reflect the image of God within us. This is not an uncritical and romanticized understanding of relationships. Not all relations reflect the image of God. Relationships that limit women’s full participation in their churches, that deny their call to ministry, or place women in positions of submission do not authentically reflect imago Dei relationships. Male and female reflect the image of God equally and express this image through their own historical, social, and cultural particularity.
As we look to the future of Christianity, we must lay aside theologies that are more rooted in male-oriented power structures than in Jesus Christ, our icon and mirror. Too often Jesus’ maleness becomes normative within a patriarchal theology. Making an idol of Jesus’ maleness has the effect of putting limitations on women reflecting the image of God. To deify maleness takes us back to the fundamental flaws in the church fathers who argued that men reflect God’s image more appropriately than women. Our theologies must draw all God’s creation toward the Creator—equally, fully—to be redeemed.
Women’s role in the home, workforce, and society are still contested in the United States. What is the “ideal” Christian woman celebrated in our churches? What messages are our churches sending women—especially the 75 percent in the U.S. who work to support themselves and their families? What messages are our churches sending women about their own moral agency, about stepping into authority, about ethical leadership, about preaching, teaching, and administering the Word of God? These are all clues into the still-limited manner in which women are understood within Christianity.
What will it take to break down the habits of machismo still present in Christian communities? Where in our churches is the genius of women restricted, curtailed, or even threatened? What steps can we take to fully embrace a “profound new theology of women”? Gratefully, we can find the roots of this transformation within the wealth of our Christian tradition itself.
Michelle A. Gonzalez is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. Her books include Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas and Created in God’s Image: An Introduction to Feminist Theological Anthropology.