What I find interesting about the question of what it means to be made in God’s image is that it means answering the question of what God itself is. In other words, if we are to explore our own image with the assumption that it is a reflection of God’s own image, then we must have some idea of what God’s image is to begin with. Personally, I find this an incredibly daunting task. I’ve thought literally for months about this question in preparation for writing this piece and I don’t think I’m any closer to an answer. Do I start with listing what God is and translate that to human nature? Or do I start with what I know of human nature and use it to theorize about God? As someone who has a rather non-traditional and as yet hazy idea of Her, either method seems difficult.
Another question we’re given to answer is what, in creation, leads me to believe it was created? Most people will easily say, “the complexity of nature”. They will say, like Augustine that, “…the very order, changes, and movements in the universe, the very beauty of form in all that is visible, proclaim, however silently, both that the world was created and also that its Creator could be none other than God whose greatness and beauty are both ineffable and invisible.” But that doesn’t move me. It seems quite reasonable to me that complexity does not necessarily require a creator but can easily be put into motion by happenstance. After all, we’re only convinced that our existence is miraculous and must be the result of a divine being because we are still in the infancy of scientific knowledge about our origins. It is hard for some people to realize that we could quite easily be existing simply because of the confluence of certain scientific processes and that, if those processes were in any way slightly altered, there might be another type of being similarly convinced of the miracle of its existence.
But, most importantly and further complicating matters is the fact that I am a woman. Much of what has been written about human nature, human origins, and human purpose has been from an androcentric view. In much early patristic writing, we learn that man is accountable to God and woman accountable to man, through whom God is made known. Women, therefore, do not have direct access to knowledge of God or creation but must receive that knowledge from the individual interpretations of men. And because of the second story of creation in Genesis in which woman is made specifically for man to use and rule over, much of the early writing about the purpose of women is overshadowed by the supposed sin of Eve. One might argue that Christian women have never had any real chance to independently explore their origins and purpose outside of patriarchal interpretation. What does it mean for a woman to be reflective of God’s image, especially when feminine imagery for the divine is so lacking? How does a woman even begin to relate to a God that is presumed male and who sanctions her subjugation as punishment for an age-old sin?
So, as you can see, I’m still struggling to answer these basic ontological questions. As I mentioned before, I’m not any closer to a definitive answer so perhaps it is better if I were to simply talk more about my interpretations of what I’ve read on the subject thus far and trust that eventually there may come a time in which the haze might lift just a little bit. Or, maybe not. Either way, the attempt is well worth it.
Patriarchy as Ordained By God
Women’s conception of themselves and their place in the world is conditioned, and has been for millennia by the acceptance of patriarchy as ordained by God as punishment for Eve’s sin. This says a lot about what the Church has historically believed about women’s nature, namely that they are impassioned, irrational, and require the headship of a slightly less guilty type of human being who has direct access to interpretation of the divine. The idea is that because Eve was tempted into sin by Satan, she has less mental fortitude, is naturally licentious (the serpent is not an accidental symbol), and requires more guidance in the will of God. Though this idea seems quaint to us now, we see it quite clearly at work in our world today. Women are still seen as irrational and superficial and we cannot trust them to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. The Roman Catholic Church in particular ensures that women have a responsible male priest, one with no direct experience of women’s lives, to interpret God’s will for them.
So, is this what we are to expect? Is this the end word on the nature of women and their ability or lack thereof to reflect the divine? Are we to suppose that patriarchy is God’s will? And if so, is God male? For how can a God that desires patriarchy be female? How can a God that desires patriarchy have no gender at all? The idea that patriarchy is God’s will must necessarily mean that God, is male because why would the creator of all humankind be of the inferior class and still sanction its subjugation? So, scriptural theories of creation bring us right back around to the same question – if God is male, how can women reflect his image?
Revelation and Experience
But there is another kind of knowing, aside from exegesis or reading the Church Fathers. This kind of knowing is called revelation. It is not the dramatic revelation of angels descending to transmit esoteric knowledge but rather the revelation of women’s experiences to themselves and others and it requires a great deal of patience and listening. This sort of revelation has been happening throughout history within women’s communities such as the flowering of mystical women in the early middle ages, and it continues today when women speak out about the realities of their lives, about what it really means to be a woman. These women have sought to reclaim their identity as image-bearers by using feminine imagery to describe God and by claiming prophetic obedience to the call of God in ministry and the priesthood. Women are experimenting with new ways of leadership that call hierarchy into question. Women are, in short, hearing the voice of their God without the need for a male intercessor. Their own lives, intuitions, revelations, and experiences are enough. This is extremely dangerous territory. Where patriarchal religion codified experience and revelation, decided which books of scripture “counted”, feminist theologians and even lay women with no academic training are presuming to upend years of sexist tradition using nothing as their guiding light but the conviction that the divine does not want to oppress them. These women, guided only by revelation in their own lives, are listening for the voice of God on their own.
I am still cloudy on the topic of creation and human nature simply because traditional stories and theories of creation have never spoken to me. They’ve spoken to my husband, my brothers, my male friends, but never to me. Even as a pregnant woman and then a new mother, a moment of actual creation, there was nothing feminine to relate to except a sexless virgin who was herself not conceived sexually and whose greatest moment was simply assent. It is as though I am Aristotle’s accidental human. Indeed, the early Church Fathers were very fond of Aristotle and Greek philosophy, so it is no accident that they saw no need to speak directly to someone he described as “…as it were, a deformed male”. And yet, something in me knows that there was more to what I was experiencing in motherhood. Something primal, spiritual, and bound up inextricably with my earthly body. But when I went looking for texts, scripture, or any other primitive explanations of my thoughts and feelings, I found that, more than any other time in my life, my spiritual tradition had failed me. There was almost nothing out there that could speak to what I was feeling, could guide me through what, in ancient times, was thought the primary duty and purpose of my life. I have been angry and disappointed ever since. And yet, I can’t deny that there isn’t just a little frisson of joy knowing that perhaps I can begin to contribute, in my small way, to the now growing body of literature helping women to find their place as image-bearers of She Who Is.
Aristoteles, and Arthur Leslie Peck. Generation of animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963.
Augustine of Hippo. “The City of God (Book XI).” CHURCH FATHERS: City of God, Book XI (St. Augustine). 2009. Accessed February 09, 2017. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm.