THE IMAGE OF GOD

 

One beautiful spring morning in 1963 I was called from class to the dean’s office—to receive a long distance phone call, they said. It sounded ominous, and was. The father of my dear friend, who happened also to be my brother-in-law, was calling to tell me Young Leonard took his own life last night. It was an exceedingly heavy blow.

 

In the funeral home three days later, aimless wanderings happened to carry me through a wide doorway above which my attention fixed on a large arched sign bearing the beautifully scripted words “Thy Will Be Done.” Unaware that my body had halted I stared, the words’ import flooding my consciousness. In that instant an emotional nuclear bomb went off in my mind, and I will never forget the consuming outrage of the very idea in context of that setting. “God Damn Thy Will!,” I silently raged—oblivious to the irony—and thence proceeded through some years believing myself a staunch atheist.

 

It didn’t last. I presently admitted to myself that I had graduated from atheism to agnosticism, and there I resided most comfortably for several decades. I learned the feeling of utmost respect for those who hold the agnostic frame of mind. Built on the old Greek words a (without) and gnostic (knowing), the a-gnostic truthfully admits that s/he does not know—and declines to pretend to know that which s/he does not. To this day I respond favorably to peoples’ admission that “I don’t know.” It tells me they’re honest.

 

Looking back on my intellectual transitions between the ages of three and forty-three, I sometimes marveled at my own personal journey from innocent child evidently visited by spirits to teenager trying to believe to unattached Christian generalist to angry atheist to committed agnostic—until sometime around seven decades I graduated one more time.

 

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Among the Anishinaubae peoples, which include the Algonquin, Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Mississauga and Ojibwa (a.k.a. Chippewa), it is held that among the many manitous only Kitchi-Manitou could have the all-knowingness necessary to create the universe and then leave it to the universe itself to create all the changing processes, objects, beings and cycles that would evolve within it through the ages down to this moment.

 

The name of this One Great Creator Manitou combines kitchi, meaning immense, preeminent, with manitou, a complex multi-nuanced word signifying spirit, supernatural, mystical, mysterious, great, and godlike essence. Refining this, Anishinaubae author Basil Johnston (The Manitous, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001) further describes the name as meaning “The Great Mystery of the supernatural order, one beyond human grasp, beyond words, neither male nor female, not of the flesh”—a being of the supernatural, transcendental order who cannot be known or described in corporeal terms.

 

What little is known of Kitchi-Manitou (God; Whomever) is what we mortals can know by observing nature, the cosmos, the world about us—including ourselves who are constituted of the very earth which bore us, sustains us, shall in due course reclaim every last atom that was our bodies. Such observation is usually called “science,” and for purposes of spiritual inquiry, it is invaluable to the curious mind.

 

In all these godly attributes—inexpressible in mere human words futilely striving to describe the living infinite, the Unknowable Ultimate—Kitchi-Manitou sounds very much like the Abrahamic God popularly introduced but never very well described in all the dozens of versions of the Judeo-Christian-Catholic-Protestant Bibles and their hundreds of antecedent error-laden mistranslations of meaning through various unrelated root languages over the past 3,000 years or thereabouts.

 

Bypassing for the moment the many god-descriptive dictums that seem intrinsically unreasonable and un-godlike, such as Exodus 20:5 (“I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation”), the question naturally arises:  How can we know, or even think sensibly about, the attributes of a being, real or imagined, whose intelligence can make a universe happen, when the differential between that almighty being and our humble selves seems far, far greater than that between a flea and a whale?

 

It’s hard to be scientific here. Contrast, for example, the credibly science-based big bang story as laid out above to that of Genesis, or Old Turtle. Compare all of these to the Anishinaubae version which posits that Kichi-Manitou had a vision in which S/He saw, heard, touched, tasted, smelled, sensed, knew, planned and designed the universe and all the processes by which it would bring stars, worlds, plants, animals and human animals into existence. Then, having conceived, designed and launched this grand godly algorithm (via a big bang, sort of), Kitchi-Manitou had done everything that needed to be done, The Work was complete. In Anishinaubae legend, “from that moment on, the onus was on men and women and their cotenants on the Earth—the animals, birds, insects, fish and plants—to continue the work put into motion by the creator. Kitchi-Manitou had furnished them with all they required to fulfill their visions and purposes.”

 

Now this all sounds fairly sensible to me—certainly as reasonable, and substantially more informative, than offhandedly maintaining that a big bang “just happened—the universe just is”—and then declining to consider further the surpassing matter of Why? I am a great proponent of science and the scientific way of thinking, but on the few, great ultimate questions such as how and why the universe got started, and everything in it evolving as it has, I think Kitchi-Manitou has it all over science, more’s the pity.

 

Why is there something rather than nothing? is perhaps the most meaningful question in the human repertoire. How can any sentient mortal not be curious enough to spend serious time trying to reason it through—to ponder a possible cause for the oh-so obvious effect of the existence of the universe and ourselves in it?—to wonder:  What is Manitou, or God, or Allah, or YHWH, or, whatever the man-assigned name, really like?

 

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It has been said, or claimed, or alleged, that human beings are “in the image of God.” If there is a creator-entity of some kind behind this whole business of existence, we cannot know what that entity is like—can we? What can “the image of God” mean?

 

On the sixth day, according to Genesis 1:26-27, God said:  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

 

Western civilization has long placed significance on these words. The “image/likeness” idea is repeated four times in quick succession, in slightly variant words, so it must be important. Telling us that “male and female he created them” is presented last, as if two genders were a minor afterthought. The major emphasis here is clearly on God’s image.

 

Consider that. A literalist interpretation must assume that, because humans have faces, “after our likeness” means that God too has a face, complete with eyes, nose, mouth, chin; probably long hair and a beard. Most likely a body, all pretty much the same, perhaps with minor modifications for human genders since God – He – is unquestionably male. Some ancient mythical God-creators were undeniably female, but these will be ignored as they were decidedly not in the Judeo-Christian tradition emphasized here.

 

But it doesn’t actually say that “in his own image” means the way God looks. It could just as well mean the way God “is”—and nobody could prove that’s not what it really means. A very slight conceptual re-interpretation could take “image of God” to mean “personality attributes which God possesses,” rather than the way God “looks.”

 

Thus, since humans display emotional attributes—joy, love, remorse, anger and so on—we can reason that God probably has these emotional attributes too. In fact the Bible speaks often of God’s anger as well as His love—not to mention his (allegedly) own self description “I am a jealous God”—so this may reasonably be regarded as a way in which God made humans “in his own image” of himself, i.e., to feel and display emotions. This brushes the matter with whole new meanings and possibilities.

 

“God’s image” based on attributes can also include “intellect,” i.e., the ability to think with reason and logic – in other words, to use the God-given power of one’s mind (which is only potential power if one does not use it well). Humans do indeed use reason and logic—sometimes; occasionally—so that too must be in God’s image. I rather like this one. “The image of God” is like God’s thinking, how He is thought to use His very thinking in such creative ways, how we too could creatively use our gift of this inborn God-like image—the ability to think—if we but would. But our schools do not teach How to Think as a subject, and so qualitative thinking techniques are learned accidentally if they are learned at all. Proclamation that no child will be left behind notwithstanding, they (and we) are all quite behind their limitless potential as children of God.

 

Reasoning forward from intellect, yet another image of God might refer to God’s essence, which undeniably is “spiritual”—meaning God is unquestionably non-material, or perhaps supra-material. This concept—which is perfectly as good as the other concepts—can mean that humanity, by being “in the image of God,” is of the same spiritual nature as is God himself.  In this sense, “spiritual” must mean that humans consist of a God-like spiritual essence or aspect—shall we call it “soul?,” or perhaps “spirit?”—which is more immaterial than the material bodies we live in, and is more than the material ways in which we experience reality and interact with the apparently material world. I like this one too, and will address it more fully later.

 

How many are the valid meanings of “the image of God?” Jordan Wessling and Joshua Rasmussen, writing in the scholarly journal Theology and Science, reason similarly that “…it may very well be that the Supreme Being experiences a range of attitudes through a creation endowed with random processes. Perhaps God could be said to experience curiosity, anticipation, surprise and appreciation over a creation in which random processes are present.”

 

And why not? If we accept the notion that “in the image of God” must mean that we humans are in one or more ways “like” God, then we have already accepted the obverse:  that God is in one or more ways “like us.” Thus we have only to examine our own attributes to discover some of God’s attributes—not all, certainly, but undeniably “some.” The Bible’s source words are very clear on this point.

 

We all know how it feels to experience curiosity, anticipation, surprise, appreciation. Assuming God too feels these attributes, we might reasonably surmise that curiosity and anticipation motivated God to invent the big bang, and that God’s observations of the way things have unfolded since the bang enable God to feel surprise and appreciation.

 

How very human-like. It might even be true. After all, preachers in their pulpits proclaim all the time how certainly they “know” what God is like and what God wants of you, you sinner, very much the same way so many scientists in their learned writings proclaim how certainly they “know” that God is a myth. In fact, neither of them “knows” anything at all about the almighty concept we call God. When it comes to thinking about what may be meant by “the image of God,” our speculations are just as good as their speculations from science and the pulpit. Maybe better, if our mindsets are more open than theirs.

 

Bodily appearance. Emotions. Intellect. Immaterial spiritual essence. Attitudes. Feelings. Obviously there’s a lot of potential packed in that brief little verse about “God’s image and likeness.” How much like God, do you think, are we purported children of God, really? My guess is that, at least, God has loftier thoughts and is much better behaved.

 

Let me bring all this down to practical terms. By the image-of-God reasoning presented here, you are well within your human rights, not to mention common sense, if you should decide to eschew all denominational church-generated doctrines and dogmas in favor of thinking the matter through so completely that you end up creating your own personal religion. You wouldn’t be the first. You’d just be one among the many who followed this very challenging path, including a famous man from Galilee, a desert tribesman born in Mecca, and an over-devout Hindu whose named was eventually changed to The Buddha.

 

– William D. Coffey

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