For various reasons across the last year or two, I have been involved in some faith-and-science conversations. One topic that has come up often of late centers on the “image of God” in humanity–there are lots of questions (as there have always been) as to just what the divine image is but in more recent times and in conversation with science there have also been questions as to when and how this image appeared in humanity. Is it an emergent property, something that clicks into place when a certain level of brain complexity is present? Is it something that will be detectable in fossils or through a historical reconstruction of the development of the human genome? Is it a pure gift of God that has no necessary connection to our physical being and will never, per se, be discoverable by any branch of science? These are all intriguing and important questions. (Just for the record: I still believe this is sheerly a divine gift and that–as the Reformed Confessions consistently affirm–it is also a gift of enormous importance and is the reason why humanity’s willfully falling into sin is as monstrous an event as theology has traditionally claimed it to be.)
Whatever the image of God is, I do believe it is the one trait we human beings possess that sets us apart from all other creatures of which we know. It may be difficult fully to grasp this divine presence in us but sometimes I think we sense its truth best when we see what human beings simply cannot abide. This may be a somewhat backwards way to argue for God’s presence within us via his image–even in people who have not had that image restored through Christ Jesus, the express Image of God par excellence according to the New Testament–but it often strikes me as counting as a kind of indication of the image nonetheless.
Just this past weekend two articles in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times brought this home to me. One was another fine piece by Nicholas Kristof on human sex traffic here in the United States. Kristof profiles a now 24-year-old woman called “Alissa” and tells of her many years–beginning when she was just 16–of being virtually enslaved as a prostitute. You can read the details for yourself if you wish but the photo of Alissa that accompanies the article is what really told the tale. Although she escaped her former life on the streets and is now a university student, one look into Alissa’s eyes reveals a sadness and a deadness of spirit that no twenty-something should evince.
There’s something in the human spirit that goes beyond high-level brain functions that just knows we were created to be more than sex slaves, that senses in ways very nearly ineffable that we’ve been endowed with a nobility beyond this.
A second article in that same section was about what happens to soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been close to multiple concussive forces from improvised explosive devices. Yes, there are some physical things that can happen when the brain is sloshed around inside the skull through the concussion caused by an explosion. But there is something even more sinister and dire that happens to the very thinking and functioning of those who have seen great violence: they start to lose their ability to connect with the world. Some have failed to recognize spouses or children once they return home from the war. It’s as though the human spirit–above and beyond whatever may be going on physically inside the cranium–just knows we were not meant to keep repeating the sin of Cain over and over by killing our sisters and brothers in the human race. People in such circumstances seem to forget who they are.
Maybe that’s because who they are–who they were created to be by our great Creator God–has been obliterated by a world that forces them to go against all that in the horrors that just are war and violence in this world.
I know, I know: none of this is decisive in proving that we bear the image of a grand Creator. The New Atheists and company could and would find ways to explain all of this from a sheerly physiological viewpoint. That’s fine. I’ve never been interested in proving the faith in any event. But for me as a person of faith, this all speaks volumes as to who we are and who we were meant to be.
In Lent we’re reminded that Jesus entered the heart of violence and death as the only way to restore to us the fullness of the image that had been so bleared, smeared, and sullied by sin. Getting right into the middle of all that evil was God’s way to get us out of all that. In that there is finally hope. And in this violent, tawdry world, it’s a hope whose jagged realism is exactly what we imagebearers need.