Last summer, I had the privilege and delight of offering five Bible studies at the Methodist Summer Fellowship, Swanwick, England. A number of people have asked for copies. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll offer them as blog entries. Here is the first of them:
The world has seen extraordinary changes during my lifetime. In 1956, I was four years old and flew with my mother and sister to Singapore, where my father awaited us. We stopped in Brindisi, at Italy’s heel, at Beirut in the Lebanon, and then in Karachi and Calcutta in the South Asian subcontinent, before we finally arrived at our destination. It took four days. Nowadays, a direct flight between London and Singapore takes about thirteen hours.
Between 1975 and 1977, I lived in India, and wrote, by hand, a weekly letter to my mother and father. That was the affordable way to communicate. Email and mobile phones were, things of the future: the first email had been sent in late 1971, but emails didn’t become popular and relatively inexpensive (you needed to be able to buy the computer) until the early 1990s; the first handheld mobile phone, which weighed two and a half pounds, was demonstrated in 1973, but such devices didn’t become widely owned until the 1990s, or even a little later. When I lived in India, I never phoned home at all: it was too expensive. Now, when I visit there, it costs a few rupees to phone or take advantage of an internet café. A few moments ago, I referred to a prototype mobile phone weighing ‘two and a half pounds’; there’s another change, because you British residents have all been saying 1.13398 kilos since about 2000, or so I’m told.
Technological change is one thing. Social changes have been just as widespread and more problematic. When I took my African fiancée to meet my parents in rural Oxfordshire in 1980, she merited a second glance, for her color as much as for her beauty. Now, Carterton is as multi-hued as many a place in the kingdom, and nobody notices a person’s color. When I lived in London from 1977 to 1982, it was a divers city; now, even more so. In 2011, almost 40% of the capital was non-white. More languages are spoken there than in any other city in the world, and it’s the most religious, and also the most religiously divers, part of this otherwise rather non-religious country.
Until a handful of years ago, I didn’t believe that gay marriage would happen in my lifetime and, when I left these shores in 2001, I wouldn’t even have put money on civil partnerships, here or elsewhere. Yet now, even in the USA, a very traditional society: eleven states, the District of Columbia and three Native American tribes have legalized same-sex marriages. The very conservative Supreme Court of the United States recently struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, which has made it all but certain that gay marriage will soon be accepted nationwide, even though some states are trying to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible.
Such social changes aren’t accepted with the ease of technological change. They’re of quite another order, since they go to the heart of how we perceive that things should be and people should behave. Ironically, whilst concentrating on the rights and wrongs of social issues, whether abortion, or gay marriage, or how to handle immigration, or whatever, people often give a free pass to the malevolent results of technology. For example, the Edward Snowden affair is presented in the U.S. as an act of treason, and very few people there have debated the serious issues that it raises about the government’s knowledge of what we do, what it’s appropriate for politicians and their minions to know about us and what is none of their business. Contemporary misuse of science and technology has deep roots in the twentieth century, as when, for example, Nazis used them to decimate Europe’s Jewish population in the Second World War. The abuse of science as well as the abuse of religion is a troubling feature of the modern and contemporary world. Think of how al-Qaeda and its like use technological know-how as well as religious fanaticism in order to return us to a moral Stone Age.
It troubles me that, these days, the churches are usually on the wrong side of justice and of history. Though I should say that justice and history aren’t the benchmarks against which to measure how Christians should, to use Jesus’ evocative and allusive phrase, ‘do the truth’. More on that, in Bible study number three. Still, many Christians look and sound as if, instead of conserving truth from the past, they want to preserve all its worst practices. They want to preserve male authority over women; they insist on only one way to religious salvation, ignoring the many Christian expressions of truth as well as other human sacred ways; they narrow God’s love rather than celebrate its exuberant variety. They make religion seem vindictive and outdated.
Yet this need not be the case. Christians (and members of other religions, of course) have often been in the vanguard of social change; among other things, condemning slavery and working to end it, and seeking the equality of women. Such Christians are attuned to God’s celebration of diversity. God doesn’t favor monochrome.
In the USA, many judgmental and, to be candid, unthinking Christians convince themselves and others that their co-religionists who celebrate God’s generosity and dislike of uniformity aren’t bible-believers, and, as a result, often make the Bible seem to be a recipe book for a fearsome concoction of exclusive, intolerant and even violent behavior, from which people of goodwill recoil in horror and disgust.
The Bible needn’t be interpreted as a book of fanaticism. Indeed, I find it to be a library of hope, as I intend to show. If we bring to it, bile and bigotry, we’ll find examples of such inhumane convictions and deeds there. If, instead, we bring faith and a warm heart, we can be drawn into a world of meanings that upend all we thought we knew, and recreate us in the image of God.
Today, I want us to look at that idea of the image of God, and to explore what it tells us about being human. This will then give us a base from which we can explore other themes later this week.
That phrase, ‘the image of God’, is found in the very first chapter of the Bible. After God created the world and all that’s in it:
God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
Male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)
It may be fine and dandy to be made in God’s image, or else a vocation too appallingly onerous by far to live up to, but that’s not where I want us to begin. Far too many sermons or bible studies assume we know what it means to be made in God’s image, and so plunge into its consequences for us. But those consequences might be more clear and believable if we begin by asking: ‘What does it mean to be made in God’s image?’
Most ancient religions were willing to paint or mold God in sculpture, but not Jesus’ religion, which strictly forbade such visual representations of the divine. When the Jewish scripture talks of the image of God, it can’t mean that humans look like some sort of artistic representation of God, which would have been an obvious meaning of this phrase to most other religions.
Well, okay, you might say. We get that. Christians paint and sculpt God, unlike Jews, but we’re close enough to our religious older sibling not to think that humans are being told by the authors of Genesis to resemble, say, Anubis, the jackal god of Ancient Egypt, or Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. But if not that, then what? Many Christians suppose that being made in the image of God must mean to be like God, morally and ethically. That’s not a bad move, but maybe we make it too quickly. If we look at the opening chapter of Genesis, it has other, fascinating and important things to say about the image of God that are not exhaustively moral or ethical.
Above all, it’s a story of creation. Out of formless void, darkness, wind and water, God summons forth the heavens and the earth. God’s creative genius lies at the heart of this story and so, if humans are made in the image of God, then part of its meaning must acknowledge the creative genius of which we humans are capable. And we surely are capable of working with our hands, or with our minds, to bring forth order out of chaos, to understand how things work and why, and to use them. Agriculture, urbanization, great works of literature and philosophy, and many more human enterprises: these all witness to the human genius for creative work, thought and play. Since I’ve mentioned play, or recreation, re-creation, don’t underestimate the story’s insistence that God takes a day off after all his hard work of shaping the heavens and the earth. Re-creative rest is a reward for our creative genius and a way of recharging our batteries for greater creative endeavors. We know the continuation of the story: that after God made us to be like him, he had to save us from ourselves. However we have this far created our lives, we still have more to do in order to complete them as best we can, and will need time out to figure out what else we need to be and to do.
Towards the end of the story, God says:
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
The story delights in picturing humans as being creative, like God; and also, like God, having power over earth’s ecology, its plant and animal life. In fact, the story tells us that God cedes that dominion or power to us. We can guess at God’s willingness to let us take control of things with him or even for him: above all, he seeks sons and daughters to work with him for the common good rather than slaves who simply do what the master orders. Still, it was a risk. For: give a person power, and who knows what she’ll do.
In fact, the story offers two clues about how we should exercise power. But before we go there, let me offer two preliminary reflections about power itself that I’m sure would have occurred to the writers who were putting the book of Genesis together, four hundred years or so before Jesus, and indeed would have occurred to the original oral tellers of this creation narrative, centuries before that.
Preliminary reflection 1: people seek and need power. Long years ago, I stayed awhile in a small village in Pakistan, where people tilled the land and where it was a big deal to visit the local town. They weren’t desperately poor, but they were of very limited means. Yet each person wanted to have some control over her life. In a village where your religion, your marriage partner and your occupation was mostly decided for you by a conventional and somewhat static custom and practice, men and women alike hoped and dreamed, not to change these, for them, unalterable things, but to find space within them for their own flourishing. One elderly woman in the village, in the very small amount of free time she had, grew herbs, and used them for traditional medicine. She had raised a family, still looked after grandchildren, kept her home clean and welcoming. But the herbs? ‘This is what I can do’, she told me,’ This is me’. The world is full of foolish people who believe that they have complete control over their destiny, and many of them live in the USA, where this implausible myth of absolute free choice has taken deep root. Even so, it seems we can only feel and be truly human if there is space for us, as individuals, to have some say, however limited, in our own destiny. So maybe God gives us power to make significant, if sometimes very limited, choices, because she knows this.
Reflection 2 about power: many people abuse power. Humans want control not only their own lives, but, often inappropriately, over others’ lives, a theme to which we’ll return later this week. And power has this insidious capacity to make us both ridiculous and dangerous, tempting us to believe that, for example, when our job gives us authority over competent people, we know more than they do about their expertise. Since God cedes power to humans anyone, we must suppose that he thinks it worth the risk that some people, many people, will abuse his trust.
Bearing in mind that people both need some power over their lives but are often tempted to take crazy advantage of it when they can, let’s return to Genesis 1, and to the two clues it offers us about how to exercise power, if we’re to image God.
First, Christians see God primarily through the prism of Jesus, whom the author of the letter to the Colossians describes as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (1.15). So it’s his self-giving love that ought to guide us, not our desire to have our own way at any price, so long as others pay it.
Second, instead of seeing power as the opportunity to wield brute force, whether physical or more subtle forms of bullying, could we not see power as an art form? After all, this primordial story links power to artistic purpose, bringing forth, out of chaos, a riotously divers heaven and earth. This story of the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days is punctuated with God the artist stopping from time to time to enjoy and presumably improve upon what she’s done, and observing that it’s good. Power should be exercised creatively, as by an artist, who sees that what she does is done appropriately, proportionately, and reverently.
Reverently?: that’s an odd word to use, you might think; but, in truth, not so. The language of Genesis’s first creation narrative is poetic, repetitive, rather stately, very different in style from some later parts of the book. It’s the language of worship. At some point, this early account of how things came to be and why, was regarded as so important that it had to be told within the reverent context of prayer and ritual. This means that humans, exercising power on behalf of God, imaging God’s behavior, should do so reverently. We are, after all, temporary and delegated trustees of that power. We need a sense of awe, mystery, wonder, reverence if we are to exercise power as God modeled it for us.
Alas, I need to draw attention, as the book of Genesis does, to our failure to engage seriously with God’s desire that we should live up to the divine image within us. Ironically, although God creates, and sees that what she’s fashioned is good, we’re often not good. The Genesis stories of the world’s origins are followed by the creation of Adam and Eve, their disobedience, and a world consequently plunged into chaos and disorder. The Bible is masterly in describing the human condition, the glory of what we could be, and the shame of who we often are. But the Bible never loses a sense of hope, or, to be more precise, it tells us that God never gives up hope in us.
A while back, I observed that the consequences for us of being made in the image of God might be more clear and believable if we begin by asking: ‘What does it mean to be made in God’s image?’ We’ve seen that, if we are the image of God, a chip off the old block, it isn’t that we look like God, as I might look like my father or my mother. It is, surely, something to do with others seeing in us an action or attribute that seems godly or Christlike. This can’t be reduced to some facile moralism, but is, rather, demonstrating an action or attribute that‘s truly creative, poetic, allusive, reverent.
God’s image within us may be tarnished but, despite the handwringing of those gloomy Calvinists who see us at totally depraved, the Bible tells a different tale to those who come to it without that pessimistic agenda. The psalmist sings that fallen humans are only a little less than God (Psalms 8.5). In the New Testament, Paul picks up the Genesis story of creation, and tells us that in Christ, who is the image of God, we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). I suggest to you that, in as much as we mirror and reflect the self-giving love of Jesus, who embodies the artistry of God, we reveal, in however imperfect a fashion, the image of God in us. Our task, surely, is to represent or re-present the meaning of the first creation story of Genesis: to be creatively good, so that God’s creation can flourish.
Much contemporary religion is unbelief because it doesn’t take this story, and many other biblical stories, with the seriousness that it and they deserve. And there’s one element to many of those stories that much religion denies, to its cost. That element is the component of diversity.
Genesis insists that God creates, in a profusion of diversity. She gives birth, not only to many kinds of different things, but to variety within many species. She creates: light out of the darkness; the heavens and the earth; every winged bird of every kind; and so on. And, when God created humankind: ‘in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. We image God when we do so as men and women together. It’s not just that diversity’s good, though it is. More than that, we can’t be like God if we don’t acknowledge her creative diversity. If men oppress women, or humans exploit and rape the earth rather than act reverently towards it diversity, then we can’t and won’t understand much about God at all; certainly, nothing of God’s delight in diversity.
But there’s another, equally important thing about diversity. It expresses not only what God does, but also who God is. Some biblical scholars and theologians have pointed out that God said: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’. God sounds like Queen Victoria, using the royal we, and I am amused by that thought. These scholars go on to see a foreshadowing of the Trinity in this imperial utterance. I don’t buy it myself, but, whether you do or don’t, it can hardly be denied that God’s preference for a divers creation makes us wonder about what this variety reveals of God’s self. If we picture God as he emerges from this very vivid story n Genesis, I don’t see a white man in the clouds with a white beard having a bit of fun with his superhuman abilities, because he can. I have this, if you like, feminine and artistic image of, forgive the mixed metaphors, an ocean of being giving birth to a superfluity of creation that somehow reveals that which has created it. Humans especially, but not exhaustively, because of their creative gifts, bear the stamp, the image, of the creator, if we follow the clues given in the biblical story and stories.
And with that image, I will leave you to your reflections and discussions.
Points for discussion
- Why is diversity something to celebrate?
- Why did God create humans?
- What does it mean for us to be in God’s image?