The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously distinguished two fundamental types of relationship in human experience, which he entitled “I – Thou” and “I – It”. In the former a person encountered another person and saluted him/her as the “other” , as a being transcending one’s own being. In the latter, the human person recognised some-thing which could be admired or studied or bought or sold, that is, as a being outside oneself but subject to one’s understanding or will.
Obviously human beings could deal with their fellow human being as both Thou and It, although Buber insisted that all profound relationships involved saying ‘Thou’ to the other, whether human, animal, vegetable, mineral or divine. Authentic religion in his view should never treat God as an “it” to be manipulated for one’s benefit, but always as the THOU encountered in and through every “I – Thou” relationship. Blaise Pascal in the account of his conversion exclaims, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not that of the philosophers and scholars!”
The Theology of Karl Barth is founded on a distinction between the transcendent, personal God revealed in Christ, and the human, all too human constructs of natural theology and philosophy.
All the above have led me throughout my life to imagine a personal God (“God may not be a person, but he/she is personal.”), and to consider impersonal images of God as inferior and wrong. More lately I’ve begun to reconsider this using the first chapter of the book of Genesis as a sounding board.
Human beings are there said to have been created in the image and likeness of God, which is of course a justification for thinking of God as personal. But, as advocates for animal rights have asked, “Is there anything in animals which corresponds to the creator? Or anything in God which corresponds to say, the tiger?” To answer that question affirmitively is to depart not only from Genesis but also from the classical interpretation of the Bible as a whole.
Certainly to go further by asking if there is anything in the physical universe which corresponds to the creator, anything in God which corresponds to a black hole, is to open oneself to the charge of being zany.
Yet what about this?
Tyger, tyger brning bright / in the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye/ dare frame thy fearful symmetry? ( Blake)
my will and my desire were turned by love
the love that moves the sun and the other stars (Dante)
For Blake the tiger is made in the divine image and likeness; for Dante the physical universe can co- respond to the love of God.
Surely these poetic examples remind us of occasions when we have seen the image of God in an animal, or understood that the heavens are telling tue glory of God. This last phrase from Psalm 19 reminds us that the Bible also says that animals and the physical universe speak of God. Well, yes, of course orthodox scholars will reply but they only do so as creatures or created things, not as bearers of God’s image. I invite the reader to enjoy reading chapters 39 and 40 of the book of Job, and to deny that its author has learned something about God from the goat, the ostrich and the hippopotamus, and that he is consciously questioning the notion that only human beings carry God’s image and can therefore understand his purposes. Perhaps many will accept animals as honorary humans, for after all we often do relate to them as Thou and not it.
So then we are left with the question, “Is the universe, its processes and history stamped with the creator’s image or not?” To answer this question I want to return to orthodoxy which insists that any discussion of the image of God must start with Jesus Christ, in whom it is perfectly seen. Barth would say the discussion stops there as well: nothing can be added to Christ, but orthodoxy would say that in the light of Christ, the universe becomes intelligible.
The story of the virgin birth of Jesus is a way of saying that he is at once the child of God and the product of the universe.
He is the child of God through the love and faith of his family and people in which he is nourished, and through his own faith in which he offers himself to God. Another way of saying that is to define the actor in all these events as the Holy Spirit, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
He is a product of the universe in respect of his mind and body, which are wholly human. He does not have a son of God implant. His body is a product of the basic processes of the universe such as gravity. It obeys the physical laws of energy and the chemical laws of atomic and molecular interaction. It has developed from the first forms of life on earth, especially the developments of the eukaryotic cell, of multicellular animals, animals with backbones, life on land, the death of dinosaurs and the success of mammals, the emergence of apes and the naked ape called homo sapiens, all these provide the human dna of Jesus which is determined by the mating of Mary and Joseph…..
! But you said it was a virgin birth…??
The virgin birth is a truth of faith and not a bioogical fact. The ancients seem not have known about the ovum, so imagined the female tending the seed of the male. In the case of Jesus this doctrine says that Jesus’ identity as child of God is more important than his human seed: The Holy Spirit takes the place of the male. It’s a clumsy way of explaining the uniqueness of Jesus as a child of God. John’s Gospel rejects it and substitutes the phrase, “The logos became flesh and dwelt among us”, which is simpler but just as mysterious.
Nothing in the story of Jesus denies that he is a product of what we would call evolution, as well as of God’s spirit. St. Paul calls him the second Adam. That’s a momentous fact because it gives biblical writers permission to imagine Jesus as the purpose of creation, and ultimately as a participant with His Father in creation, like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs chapter 8. “All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.” This links together the material process of the universe and the divine process of overcoming human evil and perfecting creation.
Jesus God’s child is also the natural process the Bible calls flesh which is shared with all living things. This dimension of Jesus is not a person to whom we can say, Thou, but the set of natural functions we know as human body-and-mind, an IT in Buber’s terms, which is nevertheless God. In this crucial instance, that of the Son of God, the express image of God’s being, a process of evolution becomes an image of God. Something impersonal composed of the same energy, matter and processes as the remotest galaxies, has become an image of God.
Is there a theological case for claiming the whole cosmic evolution as a divine image?
More in next blog