Image of God, VI: Touched by the Breath of Eternity

HomeImage of God, VI: Touched by the Breath of Eternity
May 27, 2018

Image of God, VI: Touched by the Breath of Eternity

Passage: Genesis 1:26–31

Click here to listen to this sermon.

So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God God created them;
male and female God created them. —Genesis 1:27


The first thing the Bible wants to say about humanity is that we are created in the image of God.

But what exactly does it mean to be created in the image of God? What’s divine about the human creature? How am I more like God than Dudley the golden retriever? Theologians have been trying to figure this out for centuries.

Some say that the human mind is that aspect of our being which most makes us like God. So it’s in DaVinci and Einstein and Hawking that we can see divinity most clearly.

Others have said that it is not the mind but the soul, our capacity for interiority and introspection and self-understanding. So it’s in Jesus of Nazareth or Francis of Assisi that we see divinity most transparently.

Others have said it’s our moral sensibilities that constitute the image of God in us. Only human beings know the difference between right and wrong, and so it’s in Moses the Law-Giver or Immanuel Kant that we see most clearly the image of God.

Some have suggested that our artistic creativity is the image of God—our ability to create beautiful works of art, in imitation of the God who throws luminescence into the eye of a cat, and rainbows above the rain, and more on the domes of deep-sea shells. So van Gogh’s Starry Night and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto are evidence of the image of God.

Some have noted that only human beings laugh, so that evidence of our divinity comes from Stephen Colbert or Robin Williams. Intellect, soul, morality, creativity, laughter.  Maybe the image of God is all those things.

And one more too. Do you know what one thing Genesis mentions when it talks about humanity being created in the image of God? Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created humankind in God’s image. In the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.”

The one thing Genesis points out when it speaks of humankind as created in the image of God is the fact that as a species we are divided into two parts—male and female. More than intellect, more than rationality, more than soul, more than morality, more than creativity, it’s the relationality of humankind that constitutes the image of God.

The human race is a duality, and this duality is a constant reminder that by ourselves and on our own we are a half-finished story or an incomplete picture. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth spent a hundred pages in the Church Dogmatics explaining this. We are not a singularity but a duality.

This is a good thing to remember on Trinity Sunday, that God as God is in Godself is not a singularity but a multiplicity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Listen to what Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos says about this passage. He says:

The image of God is given, not to the man alone or to the woman alone, but to the two of them together….It comes to its fulfillment only in the ‘between’ that unites them to each other. Personhood is a mutual gift; there is no true human unless there are at least two humans in communion with each other. To say, ‘I am made in God’s image’ is to affirm: ‘I need you in order to be myself.’[1]

In other words, the image of God—the stamp, the mark, the imprint of God—is not so much upon us or within us as between us.  It’s only together that we are the image of God.

You know what’s interesting about this creation story in Genesis 1? Scholars are virtually certain that it was written by a Hebrew slave from the time of Babylonian captivity.

So that description of humanity: “So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.” That was written by a Hebrew slave taking a break from washing dishes and mopping floors for his Babylonian masters. Those masters kept telling them they were nothing but miserable slaves, but when they told their own story, it was the image of God they talked about.

It was a precious wisdom then and it’s precious wisdom now, because even now the world keeps trying to stratify human beings into inferior and superior classes.

Did you see the obituary in The Times on Monday for Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Dovey was born in 1914; she was 104 when she died. Her achievements were towering.

She was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather was a preacher. When her grandmother was a teenager, she’d tried to run away from a white man who tried to force himself upon her, and when he caught her, he stomped on her feet and shattered them so that she would never run again.

In 1942 that woman’s granddaughter Dovey Johnson was in the inaugural cohort of the Women’s Army Corps. She was one of the first women to earn the rank of Captain in the U. S. armed forces.

After the war Dovey matriculated at Howard University Law School on the GI Bill. She became one of the first black female members of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

She was also one of the first women ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was a giant in the military, in the law, and in the ministry.

In 1943, she was on a trip to recruit other women for the Women’s Army Corps. On a bus in Miami, in her Army uniform, the bus driver asked her to give her seat to a white Marine; when she refused, they threw her off the bus.[2] She was a Captain in the United States Army, but that was the identity the Jim Crow world wanted her to own: Less. Inferior. Undeserving.

I know another black woman from Georgia who is about my age, which means that she came of age during the last days of Martin Luther King, Jr. This woman is the blackest of eight children in her family, black as pitch, a disadvantage in Georgia in 1965.

Her father was a Baptist preacher. He always called her “my little black goddess.” That’s the only thing he ever called her: “Where’s my little black goddess?” “Good morning, my little black goddess.” “I want you to meet Luann, my little black goddess.”

That’s the self-understanding he wanted her to grow up with in a brutal world which was always telling she was inferior, and so now, when she looks in the mirror, all she sees is the beauty of the pitch-black night.[3] All she sees is the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, Katie talked about Martin Buber, the Viennese Jewish philosopher who in 1923 wrote a seminal book called I and Thou. That’s almost a hundred years ago and I don’t think it’s ever been out of print. You don’t even really need to read the book to get Dr. Buber’s point. You just have to pay attention to the title.

In I and Thou, Dr. Buber says that there is a ‘Thou’ World and an ‘It’ world. In the ‘Thou’ world, or the ‘You’ world, human beings stand face to face and look each other in the eye as equals. There is utter parity. There are no castes, no levels of worth or dignity, no inferior/superior; people treat each other as an image of God.

They remember that if your neighbor is an image of God, God has put something of God-Self into her, and therefore every human being is sacred space.

In the ‘It’ world, on the other hand, this personhood is lacking. One partner in the relationship treats the other not as a person but as an object. In the ‘It’ world, our neighbor becomes somebody or something we use to attain our goals and wishes.

One day when my son was in middle school I was driving him and a friend somewhere or other—probably basketball practice—and they’re sitting in the back seat of the car talking about a third classmate of theirs, and Michael’s friend says, “Dave is such a tool.” Do kids still use that insult? He’s such a tool.

When I asked them what it meant that Dave was a tool, they really couldn’t tell me. It was self-evident, they said. Must be not very bright, not very confident, not very ambitious, easily used by others.

That’s what others are for those who live in the ‘It’ world: other people are tools for the accomplishment of purposes.

Are we living in a ‘You’ world or an ‘It’ world? Eighty-five women have accused Harvey Weinstein of treating them as objects; 100 prominent men have been accused of similar crudeness; 332 women have accused Larry Nasser of using them for sexual gratification. At USC, 300 people have complained about a doctor at the university clinic; this has been going on for 20 years. Something’s wrong.

Harvey Weinstein and Salma Hayak got into an artistic dispute over her movie Frida. At one point he got so mad he said, “I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.” She was just a tool to him. She says “In his eyes, I was not an artist. I was not even a person. I was a thing, not even a nobody, just a body.”[4]

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Martin Buber. He says in sick ages, the ‘It’ world is like a swamp; it’s fetid and dank and stagnant, and the Swamp Thing comes out of the darkness to overcome us.[5] Martin Buber knows about sick ages. He was teaching at the University of Frankfurt am Main in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor. He quit and fled to Jerusalem. That was a sick age.

But in the world of ‘I-Thou’: Dr. Buber says that “as soon as we are touched by a ‘You’, we are touched by the breath of eternity.”[6]

Kathy and I had the most wonderful Easter this year. My daughter and her significant other came all the way from Washington to celebrate the holiday with us. They arrived Thursday morning—Maundy Thursday.

So Thursday afternoon I’m working away in my third-floor study at home on my Maundy Thursday meditation, and Christian comes walking up the stairs and says, “Is this a good time to talk?” To myself I said, “Not really.” But to him, I said, “Sure.” I thought he might want some spiritual or professional advice or something, but he proceeds to ask for my daughter’s hand in marriage.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Taylor has never once mentioned the idea of a lifelong commitment. But we love this kid. I was delighted, but also a little worried. If I had to do this over again, I would ask this question in a different way, but too late now. I said, “We would be delighted, Christian, but are you confident of a positive response?” Poor kid. I’m not proud of that question, but they took me by surprise; no one had ever once mentioned this possibility before.

But in fact he was confident that she would say yes, and on Saturday, the day before Easter, she did.

We’re delighted with her choice of a lifetime partner and we’re delighted by her choice of venue; she’ll be wedded to the love of her life in this beautiful sacred space in June of next year. I don’t know the exact date, but someone will tell me and I’ll be there.

So last week over in Windsor, we had the most wonderful tutorial in how to throw a wedding ceremony. My wife got up at 4:00 in the morning and sat down with a pen and a fat notebook.

Myself, I wasn’t so sure. I’ve always been a little indifferent to the British Monarchy. When you have Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, what does the queen do?

So Kathy recorded it for me and I got up at a reasonable hour and watched the wedding and fast-forwarded over the slow parts. And I have to say, the whole thing reeled me back in regarding the British Royals.

First of all, the ceremony was a masterpiece of liturgical craft. That beautiful melding of Anglican and African-American traditions; it felt like the merger of two splendid empires on either side of the Atlantic.

And these real-deal lovers bidding troth to each other. Harry—Shakespeare’s Prince Hal come to vivid life—and Meghan Markle—intelligent, charming, articulate, Northwestern University Class of 2003. “Ms. Markle, it’s not appropriate to hug the security detail in the palace.”  “I’m American. I hug. Fire me.”

But I bring it up because of the look on their faces when they first glimpsed each other across the expanse of that long nave. Just pure joy, unvarnished astonishment at the sight of each other, at the idea of each other.

It was an I-Thou moment. I thought of Martin Buber: “When we are touched by a You, we are touched by the breath of Eternity.”

It’s easy to think that about your beloved on your wedding day, but what about the rest of life?
S. Lewis says, “There are no ordinary people….Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[7] Now that’s something to remember.

[1] Kallistos Ware, “The Sacrament of Love: The Orthodox Understanding of Marriage and Its Breakdown,” quoted by Richard R. Gaillardetz, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (New York: Crossroad, 2002), p. 44.
[2] Margalit Fox, “Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Barrier-Breaking Lawyer, Dies at 104,” The New York Times, May 21, 2018.
[3] Civil rights activist John Perkins shared this story at a conference.
[4] Salma Hayek, “Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too,” The New York Times, December 13, 2017.
[5] Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1970, originally published 1923), p. 102.
[6] Ibid., p. 113.
[7] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses (New York: MacMillan, 1949), 17–19.