An ongoing forum for friends and partners to share how they see this ancient theological doctrine playing out in their own work of enlisting faith to mend and restore the “imago dei” where it is threatened and vulnerable in our world
All too often religion has been force used to divide, exclude, rank order, and to build walls where our world could really use some good bridges. For very valid and good reaons, many find their inspiration for working for a more just, humane world outside of a religious creed or context. For those who remain in a faith tradition and are engaged in any way in the work of global development, how can we mine these traditions for that which is unitive and liberating for humankind – all of us – and inspires us to get out of our comfortable religious silos and roll up our sleeves to work with others to tackle shared problems which undermine our collective wellbeing as human beings?
To kick off this series, we have invited two theologians, Dr.’s Richards Middleton and Elizabeth Gerhardt to expound on their understanding of this ancient tenent of the “imago dei” and what implications it has in our world today.
– Dr. Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College, and Author of The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1
– Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, Professor of Theology and Social Ethics, Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan College, and Author of The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls.
These two words appear in the first chapter of the Bible, pregnant with meaning, and arguably are two of the most important words in the entire Bible. The notion of human beings made in the “image of God” (Hebrew: צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, translit. tzelem Elohim; Latin: Imago Dei) is a foundational but untapped tenet in all Abrahamic faith traditions.
The “imago Dei” first appears in the opening chapter of Genesis in a beautiful poetic account of how the world came into being with an original goodness and wholeness. “And God said ‘Let us create humankind in our image after our likeness…’” (Genesis 1:26).
Strikingly, this stamp of God is portrayed as a relational plurality – an “us” that is reflected in a “they”: “So God created humans in their own image, in the image of God God created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
While most identified with Jewish spirituality, there is evidence that the “imago dei” language also appeared in ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern cultures where kings and rulers were cast as images of particular deities to vest their authority with a Godlike sanction and power.
The Hebrew root of the Latin imago (צלם tselem) is derived from the words “to carve” or “to cut out,” and suggests a mysterious “shadow” or “phantom,” a facsimilie or representation of the original. Interestingly, throughout the Bible the word tselem is often translated as “idol” and ties us back to the ancient world where idols pervaded culture and religion. Given that the ancient Hebrews so strongly condemned idolatry (“Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above…” Deuteronomy 5:8) it is fascinating that the word tselem appears in the creation account in Genesis with a positive connotation describing human beings in the image and likeness of “Elohim” (God).
Given all of the evils we human beings have inflicted on one another and on our world, this indeed is a daring assertion!
This meta-theme of human beings as sons and daughters who possess a shared dignity, creative capacity and authority (“dominion”) and a sacred quality which resembles our Creator extends throughout the scriptures, Old Testament to New. All of the Abrahamic faith traditions draw from this basic theological premise, and it has a timeless and universal quality that extends beyond the walls of faith.
Sadly though, all of these faith traditions have lost touch with this foundational tenet and time and again throughout history have succumbed to cultural and ideological influences which have in various ways cast humankind as a “Great Chain of Being” with only those at the top seen to be possessing a Godlikeness to rule over others. So many groups – enslaved peoples, ethnic and racial minorities, and women – have been deemed at one point or another by our religious traditions to be morally, intellectually, and spiritually inferior and thus less reflecting of the image of God and meant for subjugtation and submission not the shared dominion we all were created for as image-bearers of God.
The oppressive realities of our world today demonstrate vividly that we have yet to fully claim and live into the spiritual, ethical, relational, and humanitarian implications of what it means to be created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God.
To assert our common God-likeness is indeed a daring and mysterious endeavor which theologians, philosophers, and ethicists have written tomes on and debated for millennia. It’s ancient meaning is hard for us to fully grasp today but in a world where religion has all too often been used to sanction unjust hierachies, ethnic warfare and genocide, and injustices of all stripes, it is our hope that we can reclaim it’s meaning to more fully enlist faith in the work of justice, equality, and shared human rights for all. The imago Dei is a spiritual jewel within the treasury of faith, an untapped gift to humankind, which reminds us that in our truest expression we are all linked as human beings, not rank ordered.
We chose the name “Imago Dei Fund” to inspire us and remind us of this shared dignity and cre-ative capacity we all possess as human beings which makes us more alike than we are not alike and gives us common cause to work across dividing lines on shared problems which plague our planet and create needless alienation and suffering in our world.
We are privileged to support and partner with a network of inspired change-agents working across faith and secular lines to alievate suffering, restore human dignity and human agency where it has been compromised, and to transform the deep roots which create so much injustice and spiritual and material poverty. We would love to hear from you about how you see the “imago dei” as a motivation and current in the work that you do.
What does it mean – in your work and in your everyday life – to be created in the “imago Dei”? What practical implications does this foundational truth have in the 21st century for the work of global development and the continuing advancement of human rights for all?
We intend for such key questions to be at the forefront of this blog which we hope to serve as an ongoing forum for our friends and partners in the field of global development and philanthropy to chime in and lend their thoughts and insights about how faith can be more effectively enlisted a partner in the work of human rights and global development.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you seek to make a submission to this forum. We are looking for contributors who can speak thoughtfully and personally in way that extends beyond their particular area of work and bridges the theological and the practical nexus of these three spheres:
3.) global development
The United Nations also provided its own definition of global development as “development that promotes prosperity and economic opportunity, greater social well-being, and protection of the environment.”
So many are working across faith and secular lines in this collective work of promoting shared human prosperiety, wellbeing, dignity, and care of creation. We hope this series inspires you to keep doing what you are doing and lean in with more heart and soul to create the better, more just world we all seek.
Thank you in advance to Dr.’s Middleton and Gerhardt for sharing your theological expertise with us to unlock the ancient, timeless meaning of the imago Dei for us!