What does it mean to be made in the image of God? This topic has a long and varied history of discussion, spanning at least the four thousand-or-so-year history of Judeo-Christian religion. For Christians, our reflections on this topic must begin with the words of Genesis:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
There are several different ways in which this passage has been interpreted over the years. One of the most common interpretations has centered on the ability of human beings to reason. In some meaningful sense, our ability to think—to rationalize, explain ourselves, and form sense with our words—makes us like the Divine. Another perspective on what it means to be made in the image of God involves our ability to speak. The writer of Genesis describes God’s act of creation as one of the speaking the world into existence. In this view, our ability to speak sets us apart from the animals and other forms of creation, making us like the Creator who speaks. A third interpretation of what it means to be created imago Dei involves human dominion over the earth. In a manner akin to God’s rule over the entire cosmos, humanity has regency over the earth, to control, care for, and bring it to fruition.
These three interpretations about what it means to be created in the image of God are, I think, entirely appropriate ways to think about the meaning (and implications) of imago Dei. They rightly affirm the dignity, worth, and sacredness of all God’s creation while affirming the special chosen-ness of human beings. They call humans to recognize the God-likeness in each person, reminding us of the need to love and honor our fellow human beings in a rightly ordered way. Finally, each affirms the special place and role of human beings within the totality of creation.
However, there is another aspect of what it means to be created in the image of God which I would like to reflect on here, namely, the creative ability of human beings. I take my lead here from such thinkers as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In this line of thought, an integral part of what means to be human is our ability to create. That is, to be made in the image of God is to be able to perceive that which is not immediately before us and then—in some meaningful and creative way, through some act of mind or body—to be able to bring into existence something which previously only existed in our own minds. In a manner similar to the way in which God spoke the world into existence—creatio ex nihilo—the special make-up of human beings is their ability to “create” through mind and body.
This involves imaginative, musical, literary, and physical creation; our ability to craft intellectual meaning, to create and tell stories, to make meaning of mundane and ordinary human events. Obviously some people are better at certain kinds of creation than others. Tolkien, for example, was a master of a literary world; Bach was lord of the organ. Though few are as talented as these exemplars, we all create in our own ways and in our own contexts.
We are also creative when we live out the most important aspect of God’s act of creation, the creation of the universe by his Word. God created humans for relationship through his own Triune love, and we too are called to manifest our participation in the image of God through creative love. For God so loved the world that in love he made to the world, and—the world having fallen into decay–he saved the world through the love of his Son. So also we are called to live as images of God today by loving others.