For some time I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the way well-meaning Christian people have bandied about the term “imago Dei.” We’re made in the image of God, they say. The reason that we continue to fracture as a society, to fall into difficulties and troubles, is that we have an anthropology problem. We don’t understand the enormous implications of being made in God’s image. We need to respect that image in others and understand it in ourselves. It is the “image of God” that makes us worthy of love, that undergirds our obligations to each other, and that is the source of our lives and callings.
In the beginning, as I listened to this view develop, I was queasy but I didn’t know why. After all, it is true. “Let us,” says God in the first chapters of the Bible,
“make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
It is an astonishing and beautiful revelation of who we are and who God is. And then, just to heighten the drama, the narrative narrows in on the intimate and curious details of how the man and the woman were made. God scooped down into the dust and formed the man and brought him to consider all the world he had made. And yet the man lacked something essential. And so God put him to sleep and took his side and made the woman.
And there, for some reason, the Bible seems to stop abruptly. I mean, it doesn’t by any means stop there, but for emotional and theological purposes, the text seems to drop off like a precipice and no one reads any more of it with any comprehension until they get to Jesus being “corrected” by the Syrophoenician woman (that’s not actually how that story goes, but even some “conservative Christians” have adopted that reading). Sure, a great deal happens in the next two chapters of Genesis, but they are not nearly as significant as the fact that you are made in the image of God. The “imago Dei,” then, has come to represent the entire biblical witness. That’s all you need to know.
So anyway, it’s the first Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been given a felicitous blogging gift. Some person decided to deliver what looks to be a sermon, one that is a fine and generous illustration of this morning’s lections all of which come after the first chapter of Holy Scripture. I have been of two minds for at least an hour about whether to dive right into the Tweet, or whether to start with the text. Stuck as I am in my habit, I always like to start with the tweet. But in this case, I think it would be better to go the other way.
In the second chapter of the Bible, we learn that the Lord God planted a garden in the east and put the man there “whom he had formed.” He also put two trees in the garden. “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Then, for reasons that continue to perplex us all, God told the man not to eat of the knowledge of good and evil, for, he said, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Our lection skips all the way down to verse 25 because we don’t have time to read the whole Bible every Sunday, and gives us this shocking bit of information: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
Well, that’s fine. How charming for them. Since we had to have a second chapter that we didn’t ask for, maybe at least we could stop the Bible here. Let’s pack it in. But no, we have a third chapter in the Bible as well. Another character slithers on the scene—the serpent. Ah, you mutter to yourself, I did know about the existence of this part, but I don’t like it, except to be able to argue about the roles of men and women in the church and home. Or, perhaps, a la Glennon Doyle, to recast the serpent as the good guy who helps Eve “own her wanting” or whatever the phrase is.
I would just like to make one observation about American Christian culture with regard to this text. It seems to me that the creation of the man and the woman and their fall—the two crucial moments I think the Bible holds up narratively as of equal weight—do not evoke the same emotional resonance for very many Christians. God made us, but then, when he would have taken care of us, we rejected and repudiated him. We “fell.” Why should we care about this “fall,” when we could be talking about the preciousness of the imago Dei? Because, to put it in the words of St. Paul, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…“
The problem with sin—though it doesn’t feel so bad in the moment—is that it always leads to death. It’s jolly and nice to be made in the image of God, but if you die, what credit is that to you? You go back into the ground. You’re not “being and becoming” anymore. You’re not making things. You’re not thinking things. You’re not feeling the love tonight if you are dead. And it’s no good thinking that it’s not fair, that God set Adam and Eve up, that they should have been allowed to eat whatever they wanted, that having knowledge of good and evil isn’t even that bad. You can say all those things but you will still die because you are a sinner.
You have to try to get into the emotional space of seeing how wicked it was for Eve and Adam to do what God told them not to do or you can never be grateful for any of the rest of the scriptures—none of which point to you and your “imago Dei” but all of which point to the person who would come in our likeness to rescue us from our certain and eternal deaths.
I think this is as good a time as any to go look at the gift of Twitter. Here is the illustration, the way for you to understand that what Adam and Eve did was the worst kind of wickedness, to try to take what he had made and use it to overthrow him. Underneath, I’ve transcribed it so you can see it in its bald vulgarity:
God is gay.
God is a lesbian.
God is trans.
God is gender nonbinary.
God is straight.
God is cisgender.
God is black.
God is white.
God is middle-eastern.
God is Asian.
God is differently abled, mentally and physically.
God is able-bodied.
God is you.
And you are God because you are a reflection of God’s divine image.
The preacher, to me, looks dead inside as he delivers these blasphemous #thoughtsandprayers. But we must hear him, because that is the leap being made in all the discussions about the imago Dei. If you concentrate all your energy on the fact that God made you in his image, you will do the very thing that God commanded you not to do, which is to make God in your image, to build some kind of pathetic idol, to cast onto God all the qualities about yourself that you most love. You “discover,” in the desperate insistence that God worship you, that you are good in all the ways that God has told you that you are not good.
Thanks be to God, though, that the Bible didn’t end after chapter three either. It keeps going for pages and pages until we get to the Person we needed all along. Here’s how Matthew describes that cataclysmic encounter with that serpentine liar:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
He was hungry. Aren’t you hungry? Isn’t that why you’re casting about for something to satisfy you? Because you have a great lack that looking inward has never satisfied, though you try it every day as if maybe this time you will find something to satiate your hunger? Of course you’re hungry. You’re starving for worship, but you have got it upside down. You need to worship God, not the other way around, or you will starve and perish. This other man who never failed, who never fell, knows whereof you are made and the kind of food you need to eat. He answered the devil:
“It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Baffled, finally, after so many epochs of success in confusing stupid people, Satan took our Lord to the pinnacle of the temple and encouraged him to throw himself down, to prove himself, to live fully into his being and becoming, to show that the “liquid gold” of self-sufficiency isn’t really from the pit of hell but is more like that giant bucket of being into which all the grains of the sand of the sea…oh never mind it’s too ridiculous. Jesus, praise be, relied on God and would not “put him to the test.” And so finally the Prince of Darkness bore his fangs and told Jesus—very God of very God—to worship him.
That’s where this goes if you don’t read the whole text. That’s where you end up if you let the creeping crawling lies of self-sufficiency govern how you read the Bible. That’s where you end up if you make common cause with a world that hates the God who made it and would take care of it. There is only one answer to that clarion call for God to worship you:
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
The only way out of the pit you have been digging for yourself is to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. You can begin to do that by repenting, by saying you’re sorry, and asking for his forgiveness and help. He will always give it because not only did he make you in his image, he came in your likeness to die in your place. Imagine that! God himself, restoring the broken and shattered pieces of your life, doing down your certain death, giving you the knowledge you need most—him and his gracious will. It should be no contest. Seriously, go to church. It’s the only place for you.
Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash