What We’ve Failed to See About Being Created in God’s Image

Then God said,

Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

So God created humankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

All of humanity, male and female together, is made in the plural image of God.

Yet our bias for individualism causes us to assume only half the truth—that we are each individually created in the image of the one God. We tend to leave out that as the Father, Son, and Spirit are God together, the human community together bears God’s image.

And since God is a communion of love, it is in communities of love that we best reflect the divine community. The Imago Dei includes my individual expression, but it is about something much bigger than that, and much more inclusive than that. The Imago Dei includes my individual expression, but it is about something much bigger than that, and much more inclusive than that. Click To Tweet

Our bias for individualism has blinded us to the communal nature of the Trinity, truncating our understanding of what it means that we have been made in God’s (communal) image. I contend this is a root cause for why the Church struggles with embracing diversity and love of the other, and why Christians are prone to selfish individualism and consumerism. This has real consequences for the life and mission of the Church.

We are not simply individuals made in the image of an individual God, we are a human community made in the image of a communal God. This communal God is an other-centered community—they each pour themselves out into each other even as they are filled by each other. They are a community of mutual surrender, empowerment, and sacrifice. This is what theologians mean when they talk about perichoresis.

We all want to be comfortable and in control, yet the Trinity encourages us to get comfortable being uncomfortable. As Christ followers, we should be known as a people who are comfortable with difference and who love those who are different from us. And most of us are on board with the idea, but not so much the practice.

As a white male, it is easy for me not to see the patriarchy and privilege that I benefit from. It’s more comfortable to blame it on people more privileged than me. I can only blame myself, or the world at large, but today I would like to partially blame St. Augustine. He taught a lot of good things on the Trinity, but he also laid a problematic groundwork upon which Western society is built.

Divine Self-Centeredness?

In De Trinitate, Augustine employed psychological (or self-conscious) analogies to explain the Trinity. These analogies viewed the triune God not so much as three persons in one being—the understanding of the Eastern Church—but more as one person with three aspects of being or consciousness. Our individual experience of being, knowing, and willing or our experience of ourselves as subject, object, and the love between them were, for Augustine, vestiges of the Trinity and natural evidence that the human soul was made in God’s image.

Thinking of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as aspects of a single divine subjectivity has dominated the West ever since—the Father as eternal subject, the Son as the eternal object, and the Spirit as their predicate or bond of love between them. Augustine despised subordinationism and his analogies are rooted in his desire to focus on the unity of God. It was not his intention to undermine the three with his focus on the one, but Western society has run with his analogies—and in doing so, has had trouble seeing that while God is one, God is a community of inter-subjective persons.

What Augustine began, others would promote and perfect over the centuries.

Descartes’ famous statement—I think therefore I am—would not have been possible without Augustine. In fact, this is true of nearly all of modern philosophy and psychology in the West. In this tradition, individual subjectivity has been held up as the closest thing to God. From this, we’ve inherited our culture of individualism with all of its benefits and drawbacks.

The problem is that individual subjectivity is always my subjectivity—it cannot be yours, because I do not share your subjectivity. I cannot have your experience.

The love of God, however, shows us how we can have a communal experience, but it requires losing our lives in order to find it. That’s very uncomfortable for us humans.

The Church’s Social Problem

Our faith is in a communal God, but it has not always informed our practice. Descartes is not famous for saying we think therefore we are. Just me, myself and I. In this self-centered world in which we mirror a perceived self-centered God, people do what’s best for them, and so strive for what they want. My perspective matters most. My interests should be represented by my vote and my government.

In America, we can all feel good about this individual ethos, but it inevitably aids the powerful, comforts the comfortable, and afflicts the afflicted. The persons and group with the most power always wins over the disadvantaged. Hierarchies are promoted and maintained. Empathy for others is secondary, unless of course savvy marketers make loving others all about how it makes me feel. In America, we can all feel good about this individual ethos, but it inevitably aids the powerful, comforts the comfortable, and afflicts the afflicted. The persons and group with the most power always wins over the disadvantaged. Click To Tweet

The Church has been largely ineffective in countering this anti-Christ narrative. We play into it with our unbalanced view of the Trinity. We conveniently forget that the Trinity is a picture of a God who is wholly other-centered and where each divine person is equal.

When we see image-bearing as a solo sport, it may help us to see God in ourselves, but we become less likely to see God in others, other communities, and in the relationships between diverse people. We forget about the relational love between persons that is God, and that makes us who we are.

Practically, the result has been the justifying of human hierarchies not characterized by agape love and the perpetuation of our overly individualistic and self-absorbed culture in our churches. And with self-absorption goes our love for the other, and with that our witness as Jesus followers, and with that our mission.

The Church of the West has gained the world—only to forfeit its soul.

Relationships are Literally Everything

But if the Trinity is a community of sacrificial love and mutual empowerment, then ideally the human community should be as well.

I am not trying to take anything away from individual expression, but diversity is only real and only good when it is a group of unique people, or unique groups of people, who are different, yet also in loving relationship together. Difference without relationship robs us of unity. Relationship without difference robs us of diversity. In neither case do we have community.

Like God, our personhood exists in and through relationships, not outside of them. What we think of as our individuality is actually the culmination of our interpersonal relationships and the relationships of others. Our subjectivity is the product of our social relationships. Beyond that we are literally made from each other through sexual relationships. When we take a larger view of time, we are many individuals, yet biologically we are all one (human) being.

Of course we don’t usually feel so connected to others. When we pursue connection, we can feel trapped in our own minds and bodies. I feel very much like an individual, isolated from really knowing others.

Yet this is not the image of God in us but the result of the fall. Sin has broken our communities and marred our communal image.

Loving relationship that Christ demonstrated is what restores it. We share responsibility for each other that individualism blinds us to. Agape love demands so much. True image bearing requires sacrifice.

True Community Implies Difference and Unity

While you are a uniquely bear God’s image, you do not do so alone. This thinking leads you away from God. Godly relationship expresses the paradox of unity in community that we see in the Trinity.

And it is not just your community that reflects God. Other communities do as well.

Together, we can bear God’s image even better. We must teach a better vision of God as community in our churches. We must preach a vision of who we are together as God’s image. We must look at those who are the most different from us and ask two questions:

  1. How do they uniquely bear the image of God?
  2. How can we bear the image of God together?

And when the answers inevitably fail to come easily, we must live in relationship with the other as if our very life in God depended on it anyway.

And with love of the other comes our witness as disciples of Jesus, and with that we live into our mission as Christ’s Church.

For further reading:
St. Augustine — De Trinitate
John D. Zizioulas — Being as Communion
Martin Buber — I and Thou
Kevin Giles —The Trinity and Subordinationism
Stan J. Grenz — Rediscovering the Triune God