In my quasi-professional life, the life in which I write the sorts of things academic theologians are supposed to write but without any compensation for doing so, I am working on an essay on Catholic moral anthropology. Mostly I stick pretty close to what the official teaching of the Church is–this piece is, after all, for the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.
The official teaching is good, I think, so I feel no need to stray. There is an emphasis on the way in which we human creatures are meant to live, that is, to live up to the image of God in which we have been made. Again, this is good: I do believe that we ought to be the image of God in the world. Elaborating on this, I would say (and will in the piece to be published) that means following Jesus in humility with love. I remember walking along the path by the river one afternoon in the weeks following my mother’s death. Having seen her lifeless body, and yet speaking to her, and knowing I ought to grieve, but couldn’t–well, the experience put me in a pretty strange space, spiritually speaking. So I lamented on that day by the river, ‘if only I could see you, God.’ Silly, I know: no one has ever seen God, etc. What came to me that day, though, was not the appropriate material from John’s gospel but a new attentiveness to what was in front of me. ‘That,’ I heard/realized/saw, ‘is the closest you will ever get.’ That was a person, a stranger, walking towards me on the path. He passed by, not realizing that he had changed something forever in me. People show (or fail to show) God to one another.
Believing that human beings are the image of God in the world has–from the evidence of Scripture and on the strength of that encounter–two very important implications. First, we must be the image of God. Jesus said, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ He himself did only what he saw the Father doing. His work on earth was (not only, but importantly) to make the Father known. So also we, who claim to be his disciples, must never forget this charge: to make the Father known. The weight of that responsibility did not occur to me immediately, but it is obvious. Bearing God’s image is not something we do chiefly for ourselves, but for our neighbor. We show God’s love and forbearance, or fail to show God’s love and forbearance, in every encounter. (I don’t know about you, but by day’s end I cannot count my failures to do this even on all ten fingers.)
Being in God’s image, second, requires us to respect that image in our neighbor. Here the official line is clear: every human being is created in the image of God. This of course has implications for the way we treat people at the ends of life, respecting the beginning and not hastening the end. It also, and crucially, must inform the way we regard every human being at every stage of his or her life. My children are all in the image of God, all equally so. The bouncy and bright four-year-old and the intelligent and high-strung twelve-year-old, the creative and brooding 9-year-old, and the happy and determined 14-year-old. The fact that one of those children has one more chromosome than the others makes no difference to her being in God’s image. It also–and this is in many ways more difficult–means that however well or badly the children are behaving, however they reflect or fail to reflect the love and forbearance of the Father (and they do, more often than we see it, I think), we owe them the same respect. (An aside here, though: respect is not the same as capitulation. I make no claim to be an expert in parenting, but I do not think that letting our children get away with everything is respect. How to treat them with respect when they are behaving abominably? I can only say that the failures I mentioned above mount up very quickly in just that context.) It may well be that my children challenge me most, but I have opportunities every day to be patient or irritated, to be kind or scornful. Just because I am bound to fail doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for patience and kindness always.
Calvin (in the above comic, not the famous theologian of Geneva) both gets the point and misses it entirely. Yes, we ought to recognize God’s image in ourselves and bear it proudly. The image of God is not, however, something we see best reflected in a mirror, but in one another. I know I am in God’s image in part because you show me–by reflecting God’s image to me, and by respecting God’s image in me. So I pray for the grace to fail less, and to be more like Jesus, today and every day.
For that grace, Deo gratias.