By definition, atheism is the denial of God, a belief in the inexistence of God or the inability to believe in God. There are private atheists and militant atheists. (Personally, I have the same lack of patience for militant atheism as I do for militant fideism.) Yet, atheism doesn’t seem to be an option or a desire for most of the world’s population. Having traveled and lived in places where there is no hope except in a primordial cry for help – even in the face of that cry not being answered. This cry is an act of faith, of hope and of belief. So, while I do sympathize with protest atheism that protests the existence of God in an evil world and especially evil that is done in the name of God, I view atheism as a luxury made possible by individualistic cultures that see faith as a choice among other options and that desacralize and disenchant the world.
But it is relatively easy for people of faith to bash atheists, when we should recognize our own wrongheaded atheism. Let’s look at this oxymoron: believer’s atheism. The creation narrative found at the beginning of the Jewish Scriptures tells us that human beings are created in the image of God. Human beings – all of them – bear God’s image and likeness. The implication is that when we do not acknowledge the image of God in others, then we are practicing a different kind of atheism. Paradoxically, some atheists confer dignity to others – even to their enemies, while many so-called believers refuse. The believers’ atheism is most visible in their isolation from the poor, in their rejection of the stranger and immigrant, and in their inability to create space to relate to their enemies.
Being created in the image of God signifies a solidarity with all humanity. Through this basic dignity and vocation, God has offered us space to relate to one another – especially when we have fundamental disagreements with one another and are tempted to reject, hate and abuse.
So, we are called to a new kind of faith. We are called to denounce atheism that doesn’t believe in God’s image. And we are invited to believe in and to honor God by helping the poor, receiving the stranger and loving our enemy.
In part 1 of the post “Vulnerability, Children and the Image of God,” I outlined humanity’s imaging God through vulnerability and difference rather than through power. I follow Jensen’s book Graced Vulnerability. What I am attracted to in Jensen’s depiction of vulnerability as expression of image of God is that it speaks of a status rather than of an activity like rationality, dominion, etc. But this line of thought may be accused of begging the question unless we describe how humanity, as imago Dei, is distinguished from the rest of creation which also is marked by vulnerability and difference.
I don’t have a fully-worked-out answer to this. At the moment, this is where I am at: When thinking of human beings in the image of God, we usually have an individualistic framework. We can justify our individualism with Genesis 1 – God created humankind in God’s own image – and then finding in Genesis 2 a solitary man. But individualistic readings are subverted by the same text: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). The image of God is a collective identity, not individualistic. If image of God is a collective, speaking of humanity rather than a solitary human being, then humanity’s representation of God is not the life of solitary individuals. This provides space for the exercise of rationale, stewarding, and multiplication without denying the image of God in those without abilities to rationalize, steward or multiply. What is more, is that understanding imago Dei as vulnerability means that rationale, stewardship and multiplication are directed towards and used on behalf of those that are most vulnerable.
So, along those lines, I’m thinking about image of God as an ontological designation. God designs/designates humanity as God’s image. It is who humanity is, not what humanity does. This would be compatible with some Orthodox theology that states that humanity participates in the material (animal) world and in the spiritual (angelic) world. That seems to me to be an ontology that is all-inclusive, especially of those so vulnerable that they do not have capacities to perceive or act on their own behalf. Yet, while the participation of humankind in the material and spiritual spheres differentiates humanity from the rest of creation, we are still placing too much weight on humanity’s distinction from the rest of creation. Rather, humanity as image of God must be based on correspondence to God. The correspondence is rooted in God’s designation of humanity as God’s image. The designation of humanity at Creation then leads us to Incarnation. God as human being affirms the divine correspondence with humanity (without dissolving divinity into humanity). And the glimpses of the revelation of God in the womb and of God on the cross affirm the ideas of image of God as vulnerability and difference. In Jesus we have the invitation to be fully human, imaging God through vulnerability, which is received more than achieved, as described in Philippians 2:5-11 – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” – without succumbing to the serpent’s and Babel’s grandiose temptations of power “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).
This is an attractive notion of image of God in which humanity affirms and accepts this correspondence to God as a grace, designation and invitation. It also removes any ideas being gods in the world – ideas that have deluded the powerful throughout history and delude us today – and actually dehumanize and mar the image of God. Against the power-brokers: we image God by simply being, and we let God be God.
For the past 17 years, we have been building relationships with children living on the streets, children abandoned with HIV, children with disabilities, and children at risk of being trafficked. Our hope and prayer is that these vulnerable children will have a better future. But often, it is the children that inspire our hope and teach us to pray – and that by simply being vulnerable children.
When we speak about vulnerability, we think of the word’s Latin roots: the ability to be wounded. For children, vulnerability is the combination of present dangers and difficulties that they must face and cope with. Most often, we understand vulnerability as a challenge to be overcome or solved. While it is true that we need to protect children and reduce the threat of exploitation, we also need to understand vulnerability as a gift.
In actuality, this gift is one endowed by God to every child at creation. We are familiar with the text from Genesis:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
Although the concept of “image of God” is debated, there is general consensus around the idea that humanity in the image of God translates to humanity as God’s representative on earth. (That is why we are forbidden to make graven images because the image is already created and set in creation by God.) The question is: how does humanity represent God?
Usually, humanity’s likeness to God is understood as having rationality, the power to exert dominion, ethics, the capacity to love or – through Platonic influence – the having of an eternal soul. While all of these ideas may distinguish humanity from the rest of creation, they revolve around the abilities of human beings and, therefore, the most common understanding is power. Those that hold this opinion connect power with humanity’s ability to exert dominion over God’s creation. However, humanity’s representation of God through power has its problems. For example, from the creation narratives on through Genesis and the First Testament, we almost always find humanity’s power in negative terms. There is the fall and exile from Eden because they wanted to be like God; there is the construction of the temple-tower in Babel because they wanted to reach heaven; and there is the exploitation of other humans Egypt and later by the Israeli kings and temple. We also have before our eyes the real effects of human power today in the oppression of the power and ecological destruction through our consumer economies.
Rather than understanding humanity’s likeness to God through power or what humans can do, we are better to view likeness through vulnerability. God reveals God’s-self as vulnerable. God loves, which entails the risk of misunderstanding and rejection. The God of the cosmos enters into covenant with human beings, saying, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Lev 26:12). God acts on behalf of the vulnerable by rescuing the Israelite slaves from Egypt. God takes the place of a slave by carrying the shade (in the form of a cloud) and the torch (a pillar of fire). The culmination of God’s Self-revelation is the incarnation, when the Son is conceived in a mother’s womb, is born in a stable, lives on the margins, and critiques power. The Son touches the excluded like children, diseased and sinners. The Son goes the way of a cross and is seen as the most vulnerable: a little lamb that appears slain. All of this doesn’t just tell us what God does. With God, there is no difference between acting and being. In fact, we begin to understand God’s being through God’s action. So, the vulnerability that we see through God’s actions open us up who God is.
If God reveals God’s-self through vulnerability and if we represent God through our vulnerability, rather than through our power, we can then affirm the image of God in children. Interpretations based on power and ability usually do not consider children, and if they do, they view children as lives anticipating adulthood – as if only adults can image God. In this way, children are either seen as less than human or almost human and only in a process of becoming. Viewing children as images of God affirms their vulnerability and also empowers them to be who they are as children. Moreover, by affirming children as the image of God, we also critique adults who, sometimes unwittingly, try to make children after their own images.
Children as image of God is developed further by Jesus who makes the intrinsic link between children and God’s kingdom. We learn from Jesus’ interaction with children:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs (Mark 10:13-14).
In our proclamation the kingdom of God, we are invited to see children as participants – not because they prayed a certain prayer, but simply because they are children.
In our community we have had many babies born in the last year or two. In their infancy, and precisely in their vulnerability, they image God. One of the children, Abel, has been my icon at our Sunday worship services – a window through which I see God. When Abel was still in the womb, the doctors identified a developmental problem and recommended that the mother have an abortion. After much prayer and many conflicts with the doctors, the parents gave birth to Abel. The first weeks were touch in go with head swelling and many seizures, but Abel survived. Although he has low-level brain activity and still has seizures, Abel continues to live and to receive love and to give love. He is dependent at every moment on others for his survival. Abel represents God’s image. Abel belongs to God’s kingdom.
Abel and other children are vulnerable in their dependence on others and in their openness to others. We can affirm their vulnerability by caring for them (especially in a world that rejects them).
Jesus gives us a mandate to protect children: ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Matt. 18:6).
Along with protecting children, we can affirm their vulnerability by receiving them (by accepting their uniqueness). Through our hospitality towards vulnerable children, we also receive God. ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’ (Matt 18:5).
By recognizing the vulnerability of children, maybe we will more readily affirm our own vulnerability. And the gift of vulnerability that we see in children can become the gift of vulnerability that we are and that we offer by more faithfully imaging God in the world.
Again, the invitation of Jesus: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18:3-4).