What does it mean to be human?
Posted by Dr. Larry Taylor
What sets us apart from lichen, aspen groves, dolphins, and chimpanzees? In the past, we have tended to define humanness with attributes such as speech, the ability for altruistic action, or empathy. We said that humans are the only creatures who can reason, who can observe themselves. One by one, what we thought were distinctions disappear. Trees communicate with one another. Chimpanzees display unselfish behaviors. Many of us are convinced that our pets love us. How do we know other species can’t observe and reason?
And yet, it also seems self-evident that humans are different. Humans discover the quantum universe and build computers and robots, send telescopes into space, and work for justice. We are also responsible for massive environmental destruction, create weapons that threaten to exterminate the planet, and are capable of cruelty unmatched in the animal kingdom. Is our uniqueness to be found simply in the size of our brains? Are we headed for planet of the apes?
The biblical response is that we humans are created in God’ image. The imago Dei. But, what does that mean? It’s not that we physically resemble God, for God is Spirit. It’s not that we can reason like God, for God’s ways are high above ours.
Genesis is a temple story. In the ancient Neareast, virtually every society had a creation story. Those stories all had things in common. In them, the gods created humans to be their slaves. If humans are good slaves, the gods protect them – they are victorious in war; their crops flourish. If they are unfaithful slaves, the gods punish them with plagues, disaster, and defeat.
The job of the human slaves is to build houses for the gods, feed the gods, and in deference tell the gods how wonderful they are. So, humans build temples – vacation homes for the gods. They build ziggurats, staircases so the gods can come down into their temples. In each temple, the human slaves place an image of the god. At the temple’s dedication, the high priest of that particular god breathes into the statue and everyone now believes that the spirit of the god is in it. From then on, the human slaves dutifully offer animal and vegetable sacrifices to feed the gods, and they worship in rituals to keep the gods happy so the harvest will be a good one and enemies will be defeated.
Genesis uses that common story and turns it on its head. In Genesis, there is only one God. His name is YHWH. God created God’s own temple. It’s not a building made by human hands. The entire cosmos is God’s temple. Then, God placed his own image in his temple – humans, male and female. Unlike the pagan temples made of stone, God’s temple is living – oceans teeming with marine life, mountains draped in snow, forests filled with creatures, stars living and dying, exploding and scattering the building blocks of life as we know it. The humans God created are not slaves; they are God’s beloved children. Their task is to care for the living temple, to take care of nature.
We humans are special objects of God’s love. We are God’s beloved children. God loves all of nature. God loves Perrigin falcons and opossums, cutworms and puppies. But humans are special objects of divine love, created with the capacity to love and be loved, charged with the care of all the rest of the planet, given the awesome responsibility of stewardship. Those who pollute, kill, coerce, and hate are not reflecting the imago Dei. Those who wash feet are.
About Dr. Larry TaylorRadical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter
Posted on January 18, 2023, in Bible Teaching, creation, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, social justice, Spiritual Direction, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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