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Holy Embodied: Being Made in God’s Image and Likeness

David Vincent Meconi

The hybrid nature of the imago Dei

Associate Professor of Theological Studies, St. Louis University / Director of the Catholic Studies Centre
August 21, 2015

As a two-faced deity, the Roman god Janus was invoked for blessings on new beginnings—looking not only behind from where one has come, but also propitiously gazing forward into the unknown future. Or take William James’ definition of the ever-elusive present moment—a “duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end” (Principles of Psychology. Harvard University Press [1890] 1981, 574).

Like Janus and like James’ image of the present, the imago Dei in every human person is also a binary being: made to be simultaneously one in union with God while always being other than God. Men and women are like God in that we are persons made for intimate communion; we are unlike God in that we are embodied creatures made for the sake of some superior reality. This is why each of our lives teeters between being citizens of heaven while still wayfarers on earth, creatures made to realize the eternal beauties of heaven in the ever business of the human.

 We are the only embodied persons: created consciences like the angels, but blood and bone like the brutes.

Humanity: Hybrid Creatures, “Little Worlds”

The first point of a distinctively Catholic theology of the imago Dei is therefore humanity’s unique hybrid nature. We are the only embodied persons: created consciences like the angels, but blood and bone like the brutes. For this reason the earliest of the Christian tradition saw in Adam a third kind of universe, a being in whom the spiritual and the material realms beautifully coalesced. The great Origen (d. 254) named Adam a new “little world” and the Cappadocian Fathers saw in him a micros kosmos—the cosmos in miniature, uniting both the heavenly and the earthly. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) expressed this well, seeing how God had

“took from already existing matter a body and placed his own breath within, which the Logos knew to be an intelligent soul and an image of God. This was a new sort of second world. God placed the man, great in littleness on the earth. God made him a new sort of angel, a mingled worshipper, fully initiated into the visible creation, but only partially into the intellectual. He was made a king over all the earth, subject only to the King above. He is both of the earth and of heaven, temporal and immortal, visible and yet rational. He is made half-way between greatness and lowliness. In one person is combined spirit and flesh: spirit, due to the kindness bestowed upon him, flesh, because of the height to which he had been raised” (Oration 38.11).

This creatureliness is essential in understanding a fully functioning human person. As those who image God, we are called to be “initiated” into creation as God’s good stewards (Gen 1:28), embracing things temporal and visible. We are not created simply to race to heaven. Some however do this.

The imago Dei is the truly Christian antidote to some strands of seemingly pious spirituality that reduce human bodies, human relationships, and earthly pursuits to temporary distractions from what they consider truly important. Our tradition is unfortunately full of such aphorisms and anecdotes. Think of the exhortation “God alone,” for example. While such a catchphrase may appear at first blush orthodox and salvific, we forget that in creating, God has chosen not to be the only being. He longs to share his life with others and with those visible creatures who find themselves in a world of flesh, fur, and feather. God longs to be the All-discoverable in all else (1 Cor 15:29)

Made to Be One

Yet as important as embracing the earthly is to a divine image, we have not been made in the image of anything created. We are made in the image and likeness of God and God therefore is the only relationship in which we can find our ultimate fulfillment. This is the second dimension of being made in God’s image—namely, that we are made to become one with God. Every lover and every widow knows this well: regardless how beautiful one’s beloved may be, that other cannot wholly and fully satisfy. For if one thinks she is made in the image of her beloved, she is always going to feel just a little unappreciated; if one thinks he is made in the image of his material success, he is never going to feel rich enough. This is a lesson that comes usually with age and experience, but it is what the ancient Church calls the doctrine of deification.

As a divine image, the imago Dei longs to become like God. St. Augustine’s “our heart is restless until it rests in God” (Confessions 1.1.1) is the best known image for this reality. The divine image and likeness in each of us longs to become like God, the one reality we still lacked at creation (and therefore the one unfulfilled promise the enemy could still use to tempt us—see Gen 3:5). All human actions have this propulsion built into them; we spend our lives (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) searching for the One who alone can rest that primal unrest. Because of our rebellion, however, we are in dire need of divine help. The first Adam therefore emerges as the foreshadowing of the New Adam still to come (Rom 5:14). The New Man enters creation in order to restore the image our disobedience diminished (but never destroyed completely—e.g., Gen 9:6) by becoming the “All in all” (Col 3:9-11; Rom 8:29).

This is why what it means to be a Christian is not only to accept Jesus or even to imitate him. It is to become Jesus: “Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians but Christ himself” (St. Augustine, Tractates on John 21.8; taught at the Catechism of the Catholic Church §795). Or, as the Catechism teaches elsewhere (at §460), the best of the Catholic Tradition have consistently taught that,

The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4): “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine [adoption], might become a son or daughter of God” (St. Irenaeus). “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius). “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (St. Thomas Aquinas).

This is the heart of the Faith. At Mary’s fiat, the Son of God came into the fullness of the human condition not simply to be gazed upon or to be listened to. He is not simply one more prophet or one more teacher. He is the Lord of all life who became human in order to share and thus continue his divine life with all those willing to come to him.

The Christ-Life: The Ultimate Purpose and Goal of the Imago Dei

This Christ-life is the entire purpose of the Incarnation, the Church, and our Christian faith. For C.S. Lewis, this incredible exchange was “mere” Christianity. As Lewis writes, the Son of God “came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has—by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else” (Mere Christianity IV.4). This is the ultimate purpose and goal of the imago Dei, to be fulfilled and completed in Christ.

For this reason alone God comes into this world and for this he has established his sacraments. As created images we are made for God as material reflections of his interpersonal love. As such, our bodies matter. All the commitments and craziness of being planted by God in this world matter. This is why we are saved by a material being, the incarnate Christ, and this is why he chooses to continue to save us through matter—water, oil, bread and wine, audible words of forgiveness and absolution, and so on. We thus become the Body of Christ only by receiving the Body of Christ (see Jn 6:53; Augustine, sermon 272). We become fully alive, become most truly who we are meant to be, only by allowing our image of God to be fulfilled by God.

Two-Faced Longing—Stretched Between Heaven and Earth

Deep within each of us is this two-faced longing. The imago Dei is a mirrored reflection of the Triune God, accordingly linking men and women both to God and to the created order from which we come. Both loci are integral and indispensable to our flourishing precisely as human. Like the two-faced god Janus, and like the mysterious moment of the present, we too are stretched between heaven and earth. But for this God has come to earth and in the Lord Jesus Christ has perfectly reconciled divinity and humanity. We humans therefore become divine only in Christ. We therefore become who we have been created to be only in the one for whom we were each originally made. For this God has come into our world. For this, each of us has come into God’s world.

More Information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology

Philosophers and theologians address the relationship between body and soul and its implications for theological anthropology, interacting with cognitive science, biological evolution, psychology, and sociology. Reflecting these exciting new developments, The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology is a resource for philosophers and theologians, students and scholars, interested in the constructive, critical exploration of a theology of human persons. Throughout this collection of newly authored contributions, key themes are addressed: human agency and grace, the soul, sin and salvation, Christology, glory, feminism, the theology of human nature, and other major themes in theological anthropology in historic as well as contemporary contexts.

Click here for a full list of contributors and essays.

Theological Anthropology

Reviews

‘An invigoratingly diverse collection of essays focused on the Christian understanding of human nature in general and its bearing the image of God in particular; it would serve as an excellent introduction to the developing interest shown by analytic theology in these and related topics.’
T.J. Mawson, University of Oxford, UK

‘This Ashgate volume, brilliantly crafted by first-rate scholars from multiple disciplines, is a paragon of excellence for research companions. Rigorous, well informed, and refreshingly insightful, it is a tour de force of theological anthropology!’
Chad Meister, Bethel College, USA

‘Excellent in breadth and depth of treatment of relevant topics, with an international group of contributors, senior scholars and scholars newer to their fields but already published therein, this is a superb contribution to the fresh interest in theological anthropology, which it expands, develops, and encourages.’
Keith E. Yandell, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA

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