Images of Man – The Species and the Individual
Who are We?
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If one were asked to explain how human beings are different from animals, that person would probably speak of the depth of human feelings or the complexity of human thought. They might venture out in the nebulous realm of spirituality or the even more undefined domain of the imagination. If challenged as to how they know that animals don’t have any of these faculties or some other power that matches whatever powers we have, they may not have a ready answer but will remain confident that their initial assumption is still correct. No matter how much science tells us that we are just glorified apes who are only a finite number of evolutionary steps away from bacteria, we really don’t believe it. DNA may lie at the core of our structure and our abilities, but it sure doesn’t define who we are.
Are these assumptions nothing more than wishful thinking? Are they just fantasies that human beings have been dreaming up for thousands of years that have no basis in reality? This is indeed one of the major questions of our time as we inexorably piece together the fundamental structure of life and the nature of the human mind. Are we really any different at all, or are we just biased in favor of ourselves?
The Bible, of course, has a straightforward answer to this question. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Bible states very clearly that we are not only different but live on an entirely different plane of existence than all other life forms. DNA and evolution may have played no role in Biblical thinking on this matter, but in all likelihood, even if the Bible were written today with our knowledge of science, the Biblical viewpoint would have remained unchanged.
In spite of a sizable chunk of solid evidence that we are just glorified animals, most of us don’t really believe that. Even those who do, likely do so only on an intellectual level. On a gut level they don’t buy it. If it came down to a choice of saving a dog or saving a person, hardly anybody would choose the dog, and those who do would be looked upon as slightly deranged. We believe, we feel, we somehow know, that we are different. Perhaps it is a relic of Biblical or other ancient religious traditions hanging on into the scientific era, or perhaps it is something deeper than that. The fact remains, however, that we believe in the uniqueness of human beings.
What really is that difference? Perhaps the best way of finding out is to go right back to what is probably the most ancient source that still influences our thinking – the Bible. The most obvious spot to look is the section that deals with the creation of human beings, which comes at the end of the six days of creation. This small section is one of the most famous passages of the Bible, gloriously portrayed by Michelangelo on one of central panels of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The creation of man is clearly the crowning moment of the creation narrative of the Bible:
‘And God said: Let us make man in our image as our likeness, and he shall dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and the animals of all the land and the reptiles that crawl upon the land. And God created the man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.’ (Genesis 1:26-27)
The most famous problem with this passage is the phrase, ‘Let us make man’. Who is the ‘us’? In no previous stage of creation was God assisted by some ‘outside’ agency. To compound the problem, the very next verse states: ‘And God created man in His image’. Did God change His divine mind at the last minute and dump the outside help? In addition to these questions we have the subtle discrepancy between the words ‘make’ and ‘create'. Are they the same thing or are they two different processes?
Before even attempting to deal with any of these questions, we have to examine another issue that is so subtle that it rarely gets noticed even by those who are adept at reading the original Hebrew. The issue is the delicate difference in how the word ‘man’ is stated in the two verses. In the first verse the wording is ‘Let us make man’, while the second verse has, ‘And God created the man in His image’. Is there a difference here or is this just nitpicking? It happens that in the next two chapters which describe the primordial phase of man’s existence on earth – the Garden of Eden – the wording is always ‘the man’. It is not until the end of the 4th chapter and the beginning of the 5th chapter that the word for simply ‘man’ is used.
What are we to do with this subtle difference? To ignore it may mean missing out on an important nuance in the text. Perhaps it is worth taking a stab at what this difference may mean. Perhaps the word ‘man’ refers to the species of man – the human race, while ‘the man’ refers to the individuals who make up the species. The difference between these two entities may seem as subtle as the difference between ‘man’ and ‘the man’, but that difference is important. The human race, no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise, is really just another species on the earth. It may be a particularly intelligent species, and one that is capable of great innovation and possesses the ability to change its situation in the world, but at the end of the day it is just another life form.
On the other hand, the individuals who make up that species are anything but mere members of one more species on a smallish planet orbiting a mid-size star in a garden-variety galaxy. Those individuals possess emotions that plumb to the depths of the deepest black hole. They possess creativity that mirrors that of whatever divine force may have created the universe. They possess an imagination that can travel beyond the limits of time and space and into realms that do not exist within the normal confines of reality. The can make choices of good or evil that challenge the will and expectations of the God they worship. Those individuals may be nothing more than DNA expressed in body with eyes, sexual organs, a brain, and smelly feet, but somehow that combination has been fortified with a mind and a conscience that rivals whatever powers the angels may have.
This is that difference – we are a species of animals, but we are also individuals who are not just animals. The species is made of individuals. As a species we frequently tend to descend to the lowest levels of our capabilities. We rarely want to stand out no matter how much our conscience tells us that we really should. But in spite of that reluctance, we all know that inside the private domain of our own thoughts we seethe with indignance when confronted with injustice, and we gush with pride when the moment moves us. We are almost two different beings – one of several billion members of the species, and the one and only ‘I’.
Perhaps the Bible is hinting to this not-so-subtle difference with the different phrases in verses 26 and 27. Verse 26 states: ‘Let us make man’. This process will not be the sole work of God. It is the final step in the six-day long process of creation. God was speaking with all the rest of creation in asking for their help. They would all have a piece of this final product and the result would reflect the images and likenesses of them all, including God. The product – man – would be made, not created from scratch. It would be another species that could dominate all the rest, but was still just another link in the chain.
But verse 27 changes all that. ‘And God created the man in His image’. In the end it was not a species that was created but individuals who were all unique and unprecedented. The species was made from these individuals, but the individuals were creations in and of themselves. In their individuation they reflected something that they couldn’t as a species – the unique image of God, the Creator.
Thus we have a dual legacy. On the one hand we are really just animals – products of nature and subject to its laws and restrictions. On the other hand we are spin-offs of God – possessors of the ability to create that confounds the most ethereal of the angels and leaves the conscienceless laws of nature in the dust. The most extraordinary feature of this legacy is not that we possess one side or the other, as extraordinary as they may be, but that we possess both at the same time.
This combination of godlike potential with a very human and somewhat animalistic normal state of being is our birthright. We possess that combination, we are that combination, as a result of how we were created and how we evolved. As individuals, the very heavens are within our grasp, but as a species we are as tied to the earth as a flock of birds. It is a combination that could not possibly have been predicted by an outsider watching God work His divine way through creation, witnessing one stage after the other. Never in 6 days or 15 billion years could that observer have predicted that some creation would possess both the godly power of creation and be subject to the same natural laws and fate as a rock or an amoeba. This is who we are.
Gazing in the Mirror
When we look at ourselves what do we see? We see a body with eyes, ears, a nose, and all the rest. We sense an emotional side with fears and joys and love and depression. We detect thoughts of great depth and of disturbing triviality. We soar with an imagination that knows no limits but more often than not just spaces out. When we put it all together what image gazes back at us from that all-encompassing mirror? It is the image of a human being in all its complexity and all its simplicity. We are great and we are puny. We possess so much godliness that we hardly belong in the animal kingdom and warrant every bit of our claim that we cannot be considered animals at all. Yet we so often fail to realize our godly potential that our boasting seems like nothing more than the animal equivalent of racism. Is our image one of God or is it an animal.
It is both. That, for better or worse, is the way that we were created. We are creatures of the earth, forever tied to its rules and fate. We are a species like any other, struggling to survive and evolving to find our niche. We may be technological geniuses, but we are also ecological gluttons. We don’t know when to stop consuming or how to control our urge to control. We invent machines to do our work for us and then proceed to become incurably lazy. We invent other machines to do our thinking and lose the ability and desire to think.
But we have a second image that shines through the first and reminds it that our essence is not a glorified animal but a creation of God. This is the individual person, who gets up no matter how many times he or she is knocked down. This is the image of ‘the man’ – the one who was created in the image of God; the one who was placed in the Garden of Eden to protect paradise; the male and the female who were made to understand that it is not good to be alone; the couple who failed their task in the Garden and were driven out but were nevertheless charged with struggling to find a way back. This is also our image. We must pierce through the fog and of that mirror and the blinding gleam of that other image in order to see traces of this image. It is there. That mirror shows us both images. Which do we see when we look?
Why did the Bible include God in the phrase ‘in our image as our likeness’? Shouldn’t God be so far above the creation that the two couldn’t possibly be part of a common image? But if ‘our image’ does include God, how does that portion of godliness come out in ‘man’ the species?
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