The image of God has long served as one of the fundamental truths of a Christian view of the human person. Made in the image, humans are somehow like God, distinct from other creatures, and endowed with dignity. Despite significant disagreement about the nature of the image, most theologians agree that it’s central to being human.
But what if it’s broken?
According to most theologians, the image has been damaged or marred by the Fall such that it needs to be restored by the Spirit as we are brought into union with the one True Image, Jesus (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4). If that’s the case, it would seem that we can divide homo sapiens into at least two groups: those who are currently having the image restored in them and those who aren’t. We may even be able to make more fine-grained distinctions if the image is the kind of thing that can be restored in degrees. In that case, we might be able to place all homo sapiens on a spectrum that ranges from perfection (Jesus) to complete lack (maybe dead people).
If so, here’s the kind of thinking that raises the problem:
- The image is fundamental to being human.
- Not all homo sapiens possess/express the image to the same degree.
- Some homo sapiens are more fully human than others.
As John Kilner points out in his new book Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015), that third conclusion has led to tragic ways of thinking about humanity with devastating consequences. According to him, people have used this kind of framework to argue for at least three ways in which some homo sapiens are superior to others, a conclusion that has allowed them to view the rest as “lesser” humans (or even non-human) that need to be “guided” (i.e. controlled) or even exterminated.
1. Mentally Superior Humans
Thus, for example, Kilner argues that the long-standing tendency to define the image in terms of our capacity of rationality has significant consequences for those who are mentally disabled. Although we might continue to affirm that they have the image in at least some sense (i.e. they still have the capacity for rationality even if its actual expression has been marred or limited in some way), nonetheless, he contends that the actual results of such an approach has been “a degrading of people with disabilities—a denial of their dignity” (19). Consequently, “it was not surprising that when disabled people gathered at a symposium in Sheffield, England to compare their experiences, they repeatedly reported not being viewed or treated as ‘made in God’s image’ the way that other people are” (19).
Only those with properly functioning mental capacities are fully human in the truest sense. Although he doesn’t address it in the book, this approach has also been used with overtones of cultural superiority (our fourth point). “Properly functioning” has typically been defined according to a certain set of expectations for what good thinking looks like. Consequently, this often gets unpacked as meaning that a properly rational person is one who thinks like I expect a properly rational person to think. Since those from other cultures rarely do so, I begin to suspect that they are not properly functioning (at least not in the fullest sense), and thus somehow less that fully human.
2. Racially Superior Humans
The broken-image framework has also been used extensively to argue for certain forms of racial superiority. Most famously, Hitler argued in Mein Kampf that only certain people were “images of the Lord,” the rest were “‘deformities’ of that image to be ‘cleansed’ from society” (20).
But Kilner points out that similar arguments were used to justify the abuse of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. In both cases, the image was typically defined as a trait or set of traits that was more fully exemplified by whites than by those of other races. This demonstrated the inherent superiority of the white race and the consequent inferiority of all other races. While this did not always lead to the “cleansing” rhetoric of Nazi ideology, it did support the widespread manipulation and oppression of non-white races. Those who were less than fully human clearly needed the guiding hand of those who were more perfectly human.
3. Economically Superior Humans
According to Kilner, John Locke’s economic model for understanding the image also led to this kind of superior/inferior framework. Locke defined “‘What it is to be human—and therefore God-like’ in terms of ‘the busy improvement of wealth producing capacity'” (22). Thus, the more productive members of society are more fully like God, where “productive” is defined, of course, according to the standards of that particular society. And Kilner argues that such thinking contributed to economic colonialism. If my society is more productive than yours, it necessarily reflects are a fuller form of humanity. Thus, it is in your best interests for me to help your society become more economically productive by extending the reach of my economic activity into your world. (The fact that I make lots of money out of the deal at the same time is, of course, besides the point.)
Responding to the Darkness
In many ways, Dignity and Destiny can be viewed as one extended argument against the darkness that results from this way of understanding the image. According to Kilner, any view of the imago Dei that suggests it is something inherent to the human person that can be broken or marred by the Fall necessarily results in making distinctions between those who are more or less human. Consequently, he argues that we need to drop the conclusion that the image has been broken or marred by the Fall. Instead, he argues throughout that the image is a permanent feature of humanity. (I’ll say more in a later post about what exactly he thinks the image is.)
But what about the New Testament? Doesn’t it teach that the image has been marred by the Fall? According to Kilner, no. He points out that none of the New Testament references specifically states that the image itself is being renewed or transformed. Instead, it is always the human person who is being restored; the image is the standard or goal according to which this transformation takes place. In other words, Kilner argues that although humans have been marred by the Fall, the image itself remains.
Thus, despite the Fall, all humans remain images of God irrespective of their particular capacities, attributes, or functions. Consequently, all humans have equal dignity and deserve equal respect. I have to admit that I’m not entirely convinced Kilner is correct to draw such strong connections between viewing the image as impacted by the Fall and these devastating consequences. Just because certain ideas have had such consequences historically does not mean that they must do so. Indeed, it seems that quite a few theologians throughout history have managed to affirm that the image is marred by the Fall without drawing the same conclusions about the inferiority/superiority of certain forms of humanity. Nonetheless, the fact that this framework has led to such conclusions with startling frequency should press us to consider whether this historically dangerous road is really worth walking.