What exactly does it mean to be made in the image of God? Word on Fire's Robert Mixa addresses this fascinating question in his review of Kathryn Tanner's new book,
Christ the Key.
Kathryn Tanner is the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Besides this prestige, her theology is worth much attention because of its Christ-centeredness: the Incarnation is the first principle from which everything else is derived. Recently, I have been reading her latest book, Christ the Key, which was originally delivered as the Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. In the preface of the book she states its central theological vision: “God wants to give us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ….[the hypostatic union of Christ (the Incarnation)] is the means by which the good of God’s own life is to be conveyed to us in fulfillment of God’s original intentions for us.” The first section of the book is about the “idea that humans are created in the image of God” and what it means to say that Christ is the key to understanding ourselves. Her main point in this section is to emphasize the “plasiticity” and “open-endedness” of human nature if we are to understand human nature as being imago Dei, the “likeness unto God that can be found in the structure of human experience and consciousness.” Instead of understanding human nature as static and determinate in form, it is more accurately seen as the clay upon which the hands of God continuously act. Central to this understanding is the idea that transformation is good for us. A proper disposition towards God is an openness to the Being that wants to elevate us to the fullness of our being, a pitch of existence at which most of us admit we do not live. Although we want to live more fully, we do not naturally know that the condition for this is in imaging Christ. Christ, the revelation of the Word, informs us of what we were made to become. We cannot mirror him simply by willing it, but we need to be immersed in the environment of His Body, the Church (i.e. the fulfillment of creation). In addition to Kathryn Tanner’s remarks about the malleability of human nature, I want to draw some attention to Charles Taylor’s buffered/porous self distinction as being a helpful guide for understanding humans as mirroring what they worship and seeing Christ as the image we have been made to reflect.
Human nature has a mirroring capacity that reflects significant components of contextual environments, meaning the reality of the self and social reality is derived from imitation. This is the process by which children become embedded in a social community, a violent act can instigate an orgy of violence, styles of dress become trendy, etc. A good example of this is music. Imagine a crowd of people listening to Mozart. The ethos among them is one of Apollonian order and respectability. Now imagine a crowd listening to the Rolling Stones. In contrast to the former, this ethos is driven by a Dionysian impulse. The environments we are in affect us.
The images we reflect must be judged according to the degree to which they approximate the divine image. Now the tragedy of original sin is that we do not actualize our potential to reflect that image. Something is fundamentally wrong with our mirroring capacity and its orientation. We mirror idols - finitudes that do not elevate us to the fullness of life. Hence, we are stuck in that finite matrix.
Presuming that the fullness of life is not realized within the finite world, we can make sense of our need for the Incarnation - the divine life living among us in tangible form - to live fully. Being mirroring creatures, we take on a likeness of the object of our orientation. So, the Incarnation is our means to living the divine life.
I think John 15:11-17 presumes our mirroring capacity when Christ says that he has revealed himself “so that [his] joy (the divine life) might be in [us] and our joy [participating in his divine life] might be complete.” He then tells us that the divine life is love, and the degree to which we imitate his love is the degree we mirror him. We are capable of mirroring Christ because he says that we are his friends. Friends tend to imitate each other, making sense of the claim that friends are similar. Have you ever noticed that married couples tend to look alike after several years of being together whereas prior to their relationship no one noticed a likeness. The second person of the Trinity, the Logos, has taken on a full human nature in order to give humanity a divine likeness. But in order to have a likeness to the other, one has to have an openness and vulnerability to the other, allowing the creation of an intimate space to form between them: friendship. For example, two persons will not fall in love if both are invulnerable to the other. You will never become like God if you never enter into friendship with him. God cannot work with brittle clay.
In his monumental work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor contrasts the modern, bounded self –what he calls the “buffered” self – with the pre-modern “porous” self. The buffered self is capable of “disengaging from everything outside the mind”, assuming that there is a boundary between the outer and inner world. This view of the self does not fit well with the Orthodox belief in theosis. On the other hand, a porous view of the self does. It sees the self as essentially vulnerable to the environment and formed under the influence of external powers. These powers can “alter or shape our spiritual and emotional condition, and not just our physical state (and hence mediately our spiritual or emotional condition), but both together in one act.” They help “constitute us emotionally and spiritually.” In this regard, Christians should embrace the findings of neuroscientists that the self is profoundly constituted by its environment for it helps us understand the Incarnation as the necessary means for molding us into the imago Dei. As embodied beings, we are called to immerse ourselves in the sacramental environment of the Church. It is the environment that molds the plasticity of human nature into divine form. This can be a good way of understanding the wisdom of St. Athanasius of Alexandria: "God became man so that man might become god."
Barron, Robert. Bridging the Great Divide. p. 18.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age, p. 40.
See especially Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Notre Dame: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1999).
 On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B.