10 November 2008

Imago Dei, Imago Dust

Jenny Howard

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen.1:27

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen.2:7

Genesis wastes no time: right there in the first chapter, it tells us what it means to be human. We are the very image of the Holy One, the Creator’s ultimate creation. Surprisingly, though, in the very next chapter Genesis apparently tells us just the opposite: we are dirt. Which is it?

“In the beginning” and “Adam and Eve” are both part of the popular imagination, but it’s when one first gets serious and starts actually reading the Bible for oneself that one finds that these are not the same story, but two different stories of Creation. This experience can lead to an ever-hardening attitude of willful ignorance (“It’s a mystery, it’s not for me to think about it”), or it can be the beginning of a long journey away from a literal understanding of the Bible.

We can thank 19th-century German theologians for rigorously examining, then proclaiming, what many had suspected for a long time: there are two stories because there are two authors. We don’t know their names, so they’re usually called just J and P.

P’s view of human nature soars to the heavens: we are holy, almost divine, the image of God; the Creator’s final and highest accomplishment; so filled with goodness that God entrusts to us the caretaking responsibility of everything that God has just created. In contrast, J has a very earthy view of human nature: we’re made of dust; we eat things that aren’t good for us; we are so evil that we blame our wives for our own misbehavior, and even kill our brothers when we feel unloved.

Whether we believe that being human means being high and holy, or that being human means being low and dirty, we have a Bible story to support our conviction. We can argue endlessly over which is the “true” or “correct” understanding of human nature. And many of us do, because many of us hold to one belief or the other when it comes to essential human nature.

But it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, a choice, an “either-or”. Perhaps the final editors of Genesis intentionally included both stories, believing that sometimes one is true, and sometimes the other. In this view, to be human is to see our nature as dual, a blend, a “both-and”. Sometimes we’re the image of God; sometimes we’re just dust that has learned to breathe. Part of each of us is good; part of each of us is evil. While this approach allows us to account for both Biblical stories, it is ultimately unsatisfying as an answer to, “What does it mean to be human?” because it is not an answer; it is two separate answers, connected by a decision not to choose either.

I would propose taking yet another step beyond “both-and”: our nature lies in the tension between “image of God” and “image of dust”. Both Creation stories – both images – are necessary to understanding our essential nature. But, instead of elements of a mixture, the two stand as separate, independent poles, and we exist in the space between them. A physical analogy: if the two are weights, we exist in the balance between them. A balance is not either weight, nor is it both one weight and the other. And it is certainly not neither weight. The balance’s existence derives from the weights, yet it is not itself composed of the weights.

In other words, we need both Creation stories to understand what it means to be human, because we need the space between them. We were made, and we live, in the dynamic equilibrium that exists between sacred and profane, good and evil, God and dust.


Anonymous said...

Actually, it's not by Anonymous; it's by Jenny Howard. :-)
Jenny Howard

Presbyterian Welcome said...

so sorry Jenny!