Monday, August 29, 2005

The Image of God

A lot of bloggers have been commenting on the "human exhibit" at the London Zoo (nice posts here and here; here's a bizarre blog of one of the exhibits (hat-tip to the Corner). Christian bloggers have naturally pointed out the deliberate attempt to downplay the unique role of humanity in creation. . Lest anyone think these bloggers are expressing some parochial Christian idea, it is worth citing here Wang Daiyu, the Chinese Muslim who set out to express Islamic Sufi ideas in Chinese language -- which meant, given its influence on the language, in Confucian garb. Here he describes the role of man:

You should know that heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things -- the sun, the moon, and the stars -- were at root all set up to plant this one grain of true grace [zhen ci "true/real grant/favor/gift". This Wang Daiyu uses to translate Arabic iman "faith" since faith is God's gift to man]. Whoever does not have this true grace is as a mirror without light. If a mirror does not have light, how can it be a mirror? If heaven and earth did not have man, they would be a mirror-stand without a mirror. If a mirror stand does not have a mirror, what good is it?

This is enough to see that the creation of heaven, earth, and the ten thousand things is all for the sake of man.

The creation of men and spirits [ie. jinn, elves] is at root for the sake of receiving this ultimate treasure of true grace. If people clearly understood the honor and nobility of their own body and so surely obtain the ultimate treasure of the body [i.e. the resurrection], then they would know that this body reaches everywhere in heaven and earth. It subtly unites the definite [you] and the indefinite [wu], and nothing whatsoever is lacking from it. But unfortunately, people in the world abandon and throw aside the ultimate treasure of their own body without knowing how to be at ease within it (p. 67, with some alterations in terminology).

That to which man alone bears witness, in contrast to all other beings [i.e. to unique and transcendant reality of the Creator], is intimately connected to him because he is the fruit of the ten thousand things, the highest and the noblest, and he transcends the ten thousand condition. This [relationship with the Creator] is like the relationship between a beautiful woman and a mirror (p. 86).

Here we find a more subjective Neo-Confucian statement of the same theme:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which fills the universe I regard as amy body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature . . . The prophet [sheng, which can also be translated as "lawgiver"] identifies his character with that of Heaven and Earth, and the wise man is the most outstanding man (p. 76).

One whose physical nature is excellent will be perfectly intelligent, the impure dregs in him will be completely transformed, and he can form one body with Heaven and Earth (p. 58)

Like the Muslim author, the Confucian writers see Man as summing up the cosmos. Where they fall short, Wang Daiyu points out, is in confusing this reality of the one Man, the Chief Servant, the prophet/lawgiver, with the ultimate one, the Real Lord or Unique One, that is, God.

The uniqueness of humanity then lies in our ability to "witness" that is to be conscious of God's creative act and the expression of the revelation of His nature in creation. Multiplicity is made to reveal the unity behind it, and the purpose of humanity as the conscious microcosm, the summing up of Heaven and Earth, is to know and reflect this letter that is the world revealing the glories of God. To this idea, the Christian first adds, that since the fall of Adam we have been incapable of doing so, losing even the idea of God and being perfectly capable of living without God. As the Augsburg Confession states:

Since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence.

Philip Melanchthon explained this further in the Apology:

And Scripture testifies to this, when it says, Gen. 1, 27, that man was fashioned in the image and likeness of God. What else is this than that there were embodied in man such wisdom and righteousness as apprehended God, and in which God was reflected, i.e., to man there were given the gifts of the knowledge of God, the fear of God, confidence in God, and the like? (full text of this article here.)

Knowing God, and seeing Him in all creation, is the purpose of humanity. The ultimate prophet (zhi sheng) is the man Christ Jesus, who as Man received grace and glory to fulfill the destiny of our human nature.

This discussion highlights in what the image of God consists. To Melanchthon and the Lutheran confessions, the image of God consists first of all in the ability to know God. This knowledge is naturally absent in all people, yet it is the meaning of our lives. Hence for the Lutheran, the image of God has been lost in the fall. We were made in the image of God, but are born now in the image of fallen Adam, one capable of living all one's life with no knowledge of our Creator whatsoever. By contrast, in the Reformed and Catholic understandings of the fall, the image of God is more often seen as being our reason, our ability to think abstractly and exercise moral reasoning toward our fellow creatures. For then, then, the image of God in man is thus damaged but not destroyed, for such things are clearly inherent in human nature. The study of animals, however, is I think putting a great challenge to such a view of "reason" and regard for other creatures' feelings as a human monopoly. The higher mammals, especially the exemplary elephants and gorillas, seem to have these abilities in rudimentary form (orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos may have these abilities, but overall seem to have a revolting character). Yet since they are not in the image of God, such qualities, admirable as they are, are not His image.

The image of God is the ability to witness God in creation, not the ability to handle ourselves within creation. And without the deliverance of prophecy, that is revelation from God, whether it be the original sorrowful tale of his creation and fall told by Adam, the first prophet, to his children, or all the later prophets, in Israel and among the nations, we can have no way of knowing what it is we were created for. This is the common burden of all prophecy, against which the zoo-keepers in London have set their face.

Man that is in honor and understandeth not is like the beasts that perish.