Imago Dei

The previous entry noted that Western Christian theologians conclude that the image and likeness of God refers ultimately to immortality, the only factor that the resurrection of Christ assures for humanity. While the image of God in humans may seem to refer to virtue and morality, theologians from Augustine to Aquinas cling to definitions, logic, and the overarching divine economy as a system not permitting them to make far-reaching conclusions.

But why cannot the divine image “trickle down” a moral image in humans? Instead, humans must be assigned morality through commandments, systems of punishment for sin, for, indeed, they cannot share foreknowledge, the power of creation, or other characteristics of God. The Jewish scriptural writers never assumed that this image and likeness, derived from Genesis, is more than consciousness and will, and never assumed immortality. The ecclesiastical Christian writers, however, go so far as to embrace the primacy of immortality because the economy of salvation passes through the passion and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity, himself divine enough to merit what no human being could.

Thus the historical Jesus of morality and virtue is necessarily displaced by the needs of Western theology, for the teachings of Jesus are not sufficient to guarantee an other-worldly preoccupation that would transcend the Jewish social and spiritual communitarianism of its culture. Christianity could not become a world or universal culture with a mere moral code or set of rituals. The ecclesiastical apologists must necessarily construct a divine counterpart of empire. Ancient history showed that every empire from Babylon to Rome inevitably divinized its project in order to sustain itself. No less did the Christianized empire after Constantine.

A favorite crystallization of these two competing visions of Christianity (and, therefore, of the image of God) is presented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterful novel The Brothers Karamazov. Here are presented two world views in Ivan, the atheist intellectual, and in Zosima, the simple and affective monk.

Ivan presents the idea of the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, satisfied with a recent auto de fe, where heretics have been burned at the stake under his supervision. The inquisitor happens to walk past a church where a stranger to the city has gathered a crowd witnessing a miracle, the revival of a dead girl returned to her joyful parents, to the awe of bystanders. But the inquisitor is furious and has the stranger arrested and thrown into a dungeon, where he is visited that night by the inquisitor. The old man rails against the stranger, who remains silent the whole time. The old man suspects who the stranger is, wants to know why he has returned to challenge the church. For 1500 years, he avers, the church has been working to subordinate the people’s will to obedience, to dogma, to rules and restrictions and an economy of other-worldliness, fed by teachings and punishments. Clearly the inquisitor has no faith or beliefs — he only relishes the power that the ecclesiastical authorities have crafted these many years. And now he is furious that the true nature of Jesus’ teachings may get about, as what he will have to label heresy, through the mouth of the returned one himself. He vows to burn the stranger at the stake tomorrow morning.

In contrast, the monk Zosima, presented by Karamazov brother Aloysa, adheres completely to the love that is the core of Jesus’ teaching and through which all belief or ideas are engendered and held (rather than the other way around). To Zosima, prayer restores simplicity and identifies with God, the image of which is greatly mollified from the Yahweh of the Old Testament but also from the Yahweh of the New Testament taught in the West. Prayer is in the orthodox formula of seeking mercy for all, empathy for all, identification with all. This identification engenders love for all. As the character relates to his fellow-monks:

Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. …

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially men’s sin, asking oneself: “Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?” Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the world. A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. Keep company with yourself and look to yourself every day and hour, every minute, that your image ever be gracious. …

My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious tha you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.

Zosima continues, but one can perceive here the direction of the higher religion, of the historical Jesus, reminiscent of Eastern thought, and referring to the mystical theology of both the earlier orthodox fathers and of Westerners like Meister Eckhart. For the mass of humanity not inclined to mysticism, Zosima has nevertheless outlined the correct religion: the religion of love, mutual empathy, and the development of a new culture based on the primacy of this teaching. All this is quite the opposite of the Inquisitor’s religion and view of culture. A successful pursuit of the image of God must surely reside in the intimations of Zosima.