Culture and Religion

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Who is Made in Whose Image?

Christian evangelicals sometimes reference man's connection to God by saying that man is made in the image of God. That comes from this reference, in Genesis 1:26,27: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

Googling the phrase 'image of God' can find many discussions as to its meaning. It is certainly not immediately clear how man, a physical being, somehow has the image of a supernatural God who must have no physical presence (or then God would be a person, not a supernatural entity). Later in Genesis 5:1-3 the terms are used again: "This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth."

This section uses the same English terms of likeness and image for linking God to Adam and then linking Adam to Adam's son Seth. The literal interpretation of the usage of "image" seems to be that God was a person just like Adam. Since Christian theologians and leaders wish that God remain supernatural, this logical explanation must be discounted. Instead "a 'widely accepted interpretation' is that the 'image' is our ability to make moral decisions, which involve self-awareness and social awareness."

Certainly man exhibits the use of reasoning not seen in simpler animals. However I question whether those few animals with a brain capacity similar to that of man, like dolphins and apes, might also exhibit a level of reasoning.

However, according the story of Genesis, man could not initially distinguish between good and evil. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent tells Eve: "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Only after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (first mentioned in Genesis 2:9, before Adam and Eve are created by name in Genesis 3) were they able to make moral decisions, those involving good and evil.

Putting aside such obvious inconsistencies at the start of Genesis, generally the phrase "image of God" is assumed to be in some way a statement that man had been given some qualities similar to those of God.

According to the Vatican, "For the Bible, the imago Dei constitutes almost a definition of man: the mystery of man cannot be grasped apart from the mystery of God." However, the rest of this dissertation tries to bring New Testament events and the life of Jesus into interpreting the phrase 'image of God' from Genesis. I am left without an understanding of what the writer of Genesis meant at the time the book was written. The apparent requirement to invoke subsequent works to interpret the first one implies the context for the first one must be unclear to the Vatican. Perhaps this is because in Genesis the terms image and likeness were applied to both Adam and then to his son thereby indicating the terms applied to physical features or characteristics, not inherent properties of human beings in a social structure (or "communion," the term used many times in this Vatican document). Since this Vatican document quickly diverges from imago Dei to imago Christi, there is very little about the context of book of Genesis.

What is the common image of God for a Christian? What is the mystery of God?

The ancient Jews lived in the Middle East amidst the Egyptians, ruled by hereditary dynasties headed by Pharaohs, the Persians, also ruled by hereditary dynasties, and the Babylonian Empire. Sigmund Freud wrote a book that made a connection between the Egyptians, the Jews and the Jewish religion, titled Moses and Monotheism (a book from 1939 that I have never read but is certainly relevant in that others have suggested this connection). The image of God that the early Jews developed was based on the template provided by these political rulers. A Pharaoh is an absolute, all powerful, all providing ruler. That simple definition is just like the common "image of God" commonly expressed in Christianity. The image of God as elaborated in the Biblical texts is just an extension of the Jewish culture and their political environment. Both Christianity and Islam also use the Old Testament books among their holy scriptures and have a similar image of God or Allah.

The other major ancient religions of the world arose within a different political environment. China did not unite within a large kingdom or empire until the 3rd century BC which is also a time that Confucianism took hold. Confucius was a philosopher that had lived several centuries earlier. This sage was not a prophet pushing a religion brought to humanity from a supernatural source, unlike the writers of the Old Testament. Confucianism is one of the influences of Chinese folk religion, considered the fourth largest religion in the world. Another significant influence is Taoism, the philosophy started by Lao Tzu who is one of the main authors of the Tao Te Ching.

India for much of its early history was not an empire or kingdom but was rather a number of small kingdoms and city states (see history of India and the 16 Mahajanapadas). Buddhism has been characterized as more of a philosophy and a way of life than a religion though it is considered the world's fifth largest religion. Hinduism is a religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent, is considered is the oldest living religion in the world and is currently the third largest religion in the world (citations in Wikipedia). Hinduism does not have one monolithic supernatural being like the God of the Old Testament that expects His Ten Commandments to be followed. For example, "God is called Brahman. Brahman is the Absolute reality: it is pure existence and knowledge. Brahman does not exist; it is existence itself."

One of my goals of this web site is to offer different perspectives on subjects that commonly arise in American culture. Having been raised a Catholic (and attending a Catholic grade school), I recall being taught at a young age that the Catholic Church is the one true religion, that the others are not the correct path to God and eternal salvation. However, at that young age I was never taught what all the other religions believed that was different than the beliefs of the Catholic Church, other a brief mention about some of the Christian derivatives that arose during the Reformation, which was a difficult time for the Vatican maintaining control of its dogma. Certainly none of the major religions of Asia were discussed in a Catholic grade school.

Alan Watts, in his book Beyond Theology (written in 1964), pointed out: "The presupposition that one's own religion is, even without examining others, the best and truest of all, however named, stupidity." Anyone claiming theirs is the one and only true religion is showing their arrogance and ignorance.

Supposedly man is made in the image of God and is thereby endowed with a capacity for learning and reasoning. At some point, hopefully very soon, that capacity for reason must be applied toward one's religion, especially the Western religions. In the 21st Century, a number of religious and political leaders are trying to instigate a so-called war of civilizations, a war between the religions of the Christianity and Judaism and the religion of Islam. Extremists on both sides are being allowed to frame this conflict. Many have died and many others are now living in misery (Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, with people in other countries also affected indirectly by acts of terrorism and their retribution, sometimes unjustly). If this insanity is not brought to an end soon, this war based on religious conflicts will bring death and misery to many more. An objective observer cannot but be astounded that such bloodshed achieves the approval of the supernatural God in whose name such acts are justified.

created - Oct. 2006
last change - 10/29/2006

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