Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Another major theological point that derives from Genesis 1, and one which I only addressed in passing in my previous post, is that of the image of God within each of us that makes humanity the pinnacle of creation. But what exactly is the image of God? Theologians have speculated and debated over this for millennia without ever reaching a solid consensus. Various attributes of God have been proposed, but in the end it would seem that it's more important for us to know that we are created in God's image than it is for us to understand what that entails.

Some Christians would insist that gender is an integral component of that image. After all, Genesis 1:27 says "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." The wording of the verse opens the possibility that members of each gender hold a different half of the image of God and that each of us must unite with a member of the opposite sex to fully reflect that image. That is, however, an extrapolation from what the text actually says, and a questionable one at best. In fact, there are four major problems with the assertion that gender is part of the image of God.

First, it makes sexual intercourse a religious activity that draws its participants closer to God. Most of the societies surrounding ancient Israel would have agreed with that assessment; their view of sex as a sacred act is a reason they made it the centerpiece of so many of their temple rituals. But given the almost obsessive amount of attention that the authors of the Old Testament focused on condemning those religions and all of their practices, how likely is it that those same authors would have found common cause with the objects of their ire on such a major theological point?

Second, gender is not a unique trait to humanity; animals possess it as well. Few Christian theologians would argue that the image of God is present in even the most intelligent animals, yet that is precisely what we argue for if we assert that gender is a component of the image of God. And given the reverence that some Pagan religions hold for some (or even all) animals, this would once again muddy the lines that the Old Testament authors were trying to draw.

Third, if male and female must come together to complete the image of God (as they must if gender is integral to that image), then celibacy must necessarily be an inferior state to marriage, if not inherently sinful. Given the high regard that the New Testament authors and the early Church had for the celibate lifestyle, this seems implausible.

Finally, the New Testament authors suggest that gender is primarily a temporal concern. In Matthew 22:30, Jesus says "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven," and in Galatians 3:28 Paul says that in Christ there is "no male and female." Though these statements fall short of suggesting that gender is meaningless, they do imply that it is of limited importance when it comes to spiritual matters.

Some would argue that Paul was merely establishing spiritual equality for men and women without abolishing gender roles, just as Paul made slaves the spiritual equals of their masters without abolishing the institution of slavery, but that's a separate debate. The point to be made here is that if we accept that race ("Jew nor Greek") and social class ("slave nor free") will be irrelevant in the eternal state, the most consistent conclusion we can reach is that the third pairing in that verse ("male and female") is equally temporal.

Given that one would reasonably expect any aspect of the image of God that resides within us to be as eternal as God is, that creates a dilemma. If marital union completes that image in this lifetime, it's not unreasonable to expect that couples would remain married in the next - and that those who remained 'incomplete' in this life would find a partner of the opposite gender waiting for them in heaven.

And once again, there remains the problem created by the existence of intersexed human beings. Do these individuals reflect the image of God more perfectly than the rest of us, or are they spiritually marred in a way that implies that not all people are equal before God? Can a human surgeon correct any such spiritual deficiency by choosing which gender they will outwardly appear to be? Conversely, does the doctor's knife have the power to distort God's image within a person?

There are many other attributes that one can make a better case for as aspects of the image of God within us, including dominion over God's creation, spiritual immortality, the capacity for rational thought, creativity, and the need for community. And again, the fact that we bear the image of God is more important than the details of what constitutes that image.

So why mention gender in the same verse that confirms we are created in the image of God? Taking the worldview of the ancient peoples Genesis was written for into account, one very revolutionary point stands out: both men and women bear the image of God. Given the inferior status women were relegated to in most ancient cultures, the radical significance of this point cannot be overstated. The idea that women are the spiritual equals of men is accepted even by some Christians who still hold a patriarchal view of the world, but it would have been all but unheard of in Old Testament times.

Does this negate the fact that women are different than men in significant ways, or that there is something special and mysterious about gender? Not at all. But it does help us put things back in perspective by dethroning an idol that many Christians today treat with a reverence that only God Himself deserves.

Every one of us reflects the image of God from a slightly different angle. As such each of us is equally important to our efforts to put together a more complete picture of the One who created us, regardless of gender, talents, spiritual gifts, social class, race, sexual orientation or any other consideration.

How people so vastly different from us could be of equal value to God may be a mystery to some, but perhaps that's for the best; whenever we get ahold of what we think is a moral absolute, we immediately wield it like a club to beat down those who don't conform to our visions of perfection. And that's more disrespectful of the image of God that lies within them than anything they could do to themselves.


Patrick said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

David said...

This is one of the best analyses of Genesis 1 and derivative theology I've read in a long time. I really have nothing to add but congratulations.

However, I would prompt you to address the notion of the Fall. Many Christians (at least here in Southern America) will argue that the Fall radically altered everything - including human and animal biology. So arguments concerning intersexed individuals fall on deaf ears since, in their view, intersexed individuals did not appear before Genesis 3 and so are necessarily a consequence of the Fall. This notion of a physical - and not just spiritual - fall from grace, coupled with the belief that Christ is pulling Christians "back to the Garden" in a state like that described in Genesis 1 and 2, is what supports a lot of these theologies, and I'd be interested to see you address that.

Steve Schalchlin said...

Just found your blog. Added you to my blogroll and then saw, with delight, that you've already linked to mine. Thank you and I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

Lynn David writes:

One viewpoint on the of many Native Americans was that their was a duality represented by the the two genders which would represent the image of their god or great spirit. For them it was less both the physical nature of the gender and the spiritual nature/mind of the person which was representative.

Thus their homosexual members (mostly the men, though occasionally the women) were considered to be of 'two-spirits' and thus a closer approxiamation of their great spirit than any single man or woman. Thus these men often became defacto shamans, the religious leaders of their tribes. And same-gender marriage occurred for these men and women.

I cannot help but wonder if a similar theological situation occurred among early man of the Middle East. And if that shamanistic role morphed into the role of the qadesh in Canaanite temples.

At any rate, I think that as man became more culturally complex, the homosexual man has become more and more of a theological problem. Canaanite theology perhaps subverted (perverted?) homosexuality, taking it out of the realm of a real family setting (represented by same-gender marriages of Native Americans) and creating temple prostitution.

It was then a rather simple theological development to completely reject homosexuality by the Hebrews. Each of my conjecturaal steps separated religious thought from human nature. It as perhaps an easy thing to do. Today, existing Native American Tribes, who have been evangelized by Christians, have easily accepted the non-naturalistic viewpoint towards homosexuality.

Would Christians who see that the spirits/minds of men and women, not their bodily gender, are each aspects of their god, then look upon homosexuals with a new eye?

Yeah... I doubt it also.