As rain clouds gathered over southern Verona, Morris McCain hurried to finish painting his billboard. He brushed white paint over the image of Jesus being comforted by an angel.
“When God created Adam and Eve they were perfect,” said McCain, touching up the picture he created in 1997. Jesus’ face emerged, sad and weeping, underneath the stokes of McCain’s brush. The artist wiped his hands on his jeans, then thought for a moment.
“Nothing is more complicated than the body,” McCain said. “Humans are the ultimate work of art.”
The Bible says that after making the earth and all the animals God made human beings in God’s own image and likeness. The male and female humans were given dominion “over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock , over all the earth.” Man and woman became the pinnacle of creation.
Christian theology has invested a great deal in this deceptively simple passage at the beginning of scripture, yet people of faith are continually trying to figure out what it means.
Reason and dominion
Most people read Gen. 1: 26-27 in a figurative sense. “I think it’s pretty explicit that it isn’t referring to a physical image,” said Marc Perler, a lay leader at Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo.
Perler and other temple members recently celebrated Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, thus their religious calendar and the cycle of readings from their sacred text, the Torah, started over. The Torah consists of the same five books that make up the beginning of the Christian Bible so for Perler the story of Yahweh creating humans has lately been front and center.
“I think it means humans were given moral freedom and free will,” he said. “They are capable of acting in accordance with reason.”
The Rev. Jeffrey Daniel , pastor of White Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Tupelo, concurred.
“Man doesn’t act on instinct, like an animal,” he said. In recounting that God made humans last, Daniel believes, the Bible is saying they were endowed with something godlike.
The Rev. Bryan Collier called that godlike something a “divine spark.” Collier, pastor of The Orchard, a United Methodist congregation in Tupelo, said most of God’s creation simply pointed “at” creation. On the other hand, it was evident that there was something “of” the creator in humanity, and that likeness carried extra responsibility.
“We have high-functioning minds, and the ability to feel sympathy for and therefore care for the rest of creation,” said Daniel. “Human beings reflect God’s power and glory.”
Many theologians have described the Trinity as a community. God, the father, begets a son, Jesus. The relationship between the two, the bond of love, is the Holy Spirit.
This Trinitarian formula is the template for creation. Animals and plants could not converse with God and offered no possibility for relationship. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, became God’s dialogue partners, beings capable of hearing and responding to God’s voice.
“The creator, in one of the very first revelations of himself, declares himself to be ‘us’ and ‘our,’ not ‘my’ and ‘mine,’ said Collier.
Perler, quoting Jewish philosopher Maimonides, said that by creating humans Yahweh elevated his creation to the point where it was capable of knowing and loving him.
The late German theologian Karl Rahner described God as overabundant love that cannot contain itself. That love spills over and in so doing creates that which is other than itself. God then draws that creation back to Godself in a redeeming embrace.
“We – humans – existed as ideas in the mind of God,” said the Rev. Patricia McAlister, pastor of New Birth Ministries International in Tupelo.
Daniel of White Hill described human beings as the symbol of God’s desire to create and embrace, and Jesus, he said, is the perfection of that symbol.
“As fully human and fully divine he is the perfect image of what God’s love for creation looks like,” said Daniel.
The failure of some to recognize that others are created in the image and likeness of God has led to countless atrocities throughout history, including genocide and racism.
The Nazis, many of whom embraced a distorted, heretical brand of Christianity, disseminated propaganda in an attempt to show that Jews were sub-human, even going so far as to develop a pseudo-science to support their lies.
During slavery many whites saw blacks as less than human, a form of chattel to be bought, sold and brutalized.
Those who live on the margins of society still grapple with what it means to be created in God’s image and likeness.
“Even as a child I knew I was different, and I used to pray that God would change me, fix me, because I was so afraid that I’d never be able to go to heaven,” said Sherry Webb, a mother, a practicing Christian and a homosexual.
When her attraction to the same sex didn’t go away, she figured she just wasn’t praying hard enough.
Despite the fact that Christians were often unkind to her, Webb never gave up on her faith and today she’s a member of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo. Her struggles have helped her gain a deeper understanding of God’s creation.
“In the Methodist Church we believe that we’re always moving toward perfection,” said Webb. “I’ve struggled with this my entire life, and now I know this is the way God made me. We were created with the heart of Christ, to worship and serve God.”
Sister Kate Regan, pastoral coordinator at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Ripley, feels that social trends in America today are demonstrating the holy diversity of God’s creation.
“It would be so boring if we all looked alike, wouldn’t it?” she asked.
Regan said that when people give themselves over to selfishness and bigotry it distorts the image of God in which they were created.
“Compassion, justice, mercy, sensitivity, these are characteristics we share with God,” she said. Bearing the image of the creator, for her, means putting a face on those virtues.
“We must be witnesses for God among each other,” said Regan. “People won’t know what God is like if they don’t see it in us.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal