Sermon given at Brookfield Unitarian Universalist Church
April 17, 2016
The Rev. Craig M. Nowak
“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26) These words from the book of Genesis form the theological basis for Imago Dei (image of God). This briefly stated, yet significant idea: that humanity is made in the image of God, and its meaning, has been debated for centuries.
In “Created In God’s Image”, feminist theologian Michelle Gonzalez, notes Hebrew scripture scholar Claus Westermann’s assertion that this idea has had many interpretations. According to Westermann, “To be made in God’s image has meant:
- Having certain spiritual qualities or capacities (soul, intellect, will).
- Having a certain external (corporeal) form (i.e. upright carriage).
4. Being God’s coun- terpart on earth; able to enter into partnership with God.
5. Being God’s representative on earth (based on royal theology; humankind as God’s viceroy/administrator.”
Rabbi Howard Cooper posits another understanding that I find compelling, which sees humankind mirroring God as Elohim (a range of creative and destructive energies) and Adonai (The One in which the creative and destructive energies are held in tension). Multiplicity within Unity.
Imago Dei has been used to justify and promote human rights and is a scriptural source of the first of our Unitarian Universalist principles, in which we covenant to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”
As I noted, the concept of Imago Dei came from the book of Genesis, the first book of both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Contrary to popular belief or assumption, the Bible wasn’t written in chronological order or by the same person/group of people. Indeed, the creation myth in Genesis 1 comes from a source identified in biblical scholarship as the Priestly Source and was written in the 6th Century BCE during the Jewish exile in Babylon.
In the context of this traumatic historical reality, the entire creation myth of the Priestly writers was meant to emphasize God’s power over chaos and inspire hope in a defeated people. Hope that was bolstered by the claim God created humankind in its own image in contrast to the creation myths of neighboring cultures in which humans were created as servants of the gods.
Imago Dei is a noble idea and an inspiring theological concept. We see it at work throughout the Bible and throughout history as people of faith have faced with and continually overcame relentless assaults upon human dignity.
Yet sometimes Imago Dei gets weird. When I made my first communion a neighbor gave me a children’s Bible. As you might expect it was illustrated. One image in that Bible stand outs in my mind to this day. Right in the middle of the Gospels was an illustration of…well the best way to describe is… Aryan Jesus: tall, white, with long blonde hair, neatly trimmed beard, and sparkling blue eyes. He was quite a looker! It didn’t phase me very much then, but today I wonder what the artist who painted that illustration looked like?
This may seem an extreme example; after all, who really thinks they are what God looks like physically? More likely, people identify with God in a way that God is/becomes like them personally as in the story Old Turtle. Recall the the breeze described God as wind, the mountain described God as a snowy peak above the clouds, and the antelope claimed God is a runner, “who loves to leap..” Then there was the tree who claimed God is part of the world always growing and giving and the island that claimed God is separate and apart and so on until they’re all arguing for a God that is more or less made in their own image and to the exclusion of other images.
When human beings do this God becomes Imago Hominis, made in the image of man or humans.
What happens when we create God in our own image?
Well, any number of things, I suppose, but three in particular come to mind.
First, we limit our capacity to empathize with others. A chaplain I once knew described a visit to a patient in which the patient talked about how much she missed being at home where she could sit and watch the birds and other animals in her yard each morning, a daily activity that brought her great peace and comfort. The chaplain said she tried to assess the patient’s spiritual wellbeing but with the patient wouldn’t talk about God, and instead kept talking about her yard and watching the animals. When I suggested the patient seemed to be communicating her theology by sharing her experience of sitting and watching bird and animals, the chaplain said no, she was just taking about nature not God. The chaplain could not enter the patient’s reality because the only image of God (and thus, religious experience) the chaplain could/would entertain was her own.
Second, when we create God in our own image we also Increase our potential to objectify and mistreat others.
Currently we are witnessing a rash of so-called religious freedom laws emerging from state legislatures that proponents claim are needed to protect the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of those who believe marriage is between one man and one woman. What these laws actually do, like many similar laws past and present, is privilege the proponent’s image of God, whatever that might be, over the civil rights of citizens.
Gods created in the image of human beings crowd the landscape of efforts to divide and disenfranchise people and constitute the pantheon of systematic oppression. These represent the gross misuse and immoral application of the religious freedom granted by the US constitution.
And third, when we create God in our own image, we place our faith in an idol.
Faith, according to the late theologian Paul Tillich, “Is the state of being ultimately concerned.” (Tillich, Dynamics of Faith) That is, faith is a state in which one is drawn by something which demands not only our attention but also our whole lives. The term “ultimate” implies that it is above all other concerns an individual may have; it is their god. In this sense we all have our god(s). Indeed as Tillich noted, everyone has an ultimate concern, "even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God.” (Tillich, Dynamics of Faith)
Similarly, as our religious forbearer, Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, is credited with saying, “A person will worship something.” Emerson further reminds us that what we worship will be revealed because, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character.”
Emerson, it would seem, had the Old English origin of the word worship in mind when he said this. That word, “worth-ship”, traditionally defined as “to ascribe worth or value to something”, when pulled apart can be read as “worth” (value) and “ship”, which in Old English means “to shape.” So what we value or worship, shapes us, prompting Emerson to caution, “Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
The warning Emerson seems to make here is not about choosing one religion or another, but in being aware of what we devote or direct our lives toward. For whatever that is, in whatever religious, spiritual or philosophical context we place ourselves, will shape and ultimately claim our lives.
Tillich offers a similar caution. As L. Scott Smith, commenting on Tillich’s idea, explains, “one can be ultimately concerned about anything, including but not limited to one’s personal success, a national sovereignty, a political and social vision, the quest for scientific truth, or the God of the Bible.
The content of faith, while of infinite importance to the believer, is not significant with respect to its formal definition. Yet elevating to ultimacy a concern that is merely preliminary defines idolatry. The problem with an idolatrous concern, according to Tillich, is that when ‘it proves to be a failure, the meaning of one’s life breaks down; one surrenders oneself . . . to something which is not worth it.” (L. Scott Smith Quodlibet Journal: Volume 5 Number 4, October 2003)
The story “Old Turtle” closes with an image of a God that is whole, in which every creature can see or recognize something of themselves in God and something of God in others. Gods created in our own image are rarely whole, but instead are composites of one or a few human attributes which its human creator values or feels he/she needs to achieve a desired end or sense of fulfillment. Thus, the human-made gods are always “preliminary”, to use Tillich’s language, and not “ultimate.”
They will always fail, eventually.
For contemporary UU’s who may or may not hold to a theology of Imago Dei, but who are nonetheless as susceptible as any other person to a theology grounded in Imago Hominis, we would do well to pause every now and then to reflect on what dominates our imagination and our thoughts, aware that these “will determine our lives, and character.”
To create a god in our own image and worship it, is to mistake or treat a small piece of a greater whole as complete or enough and to let that small piece shape and define us by our devotion to it. Which is about as far from Unitarian Universalism as one can get. “Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Amen and Blessed Be