Whenever we engage culture, we interact with systems and artifacts which are inherently human. The trappings of culture are human constructs, and they reflect the humanity of their creators. We often think of this as true especially in regards to art. “Art imitates life,” we say, and it’s largely true. Music, visual art in all media, literature, and dance all serve as external projections of our internalized human-ness. We wouldn’t write horror stories or watch people of dubious intelligence make really questionable decisions in horror films (does anyone really make sound choices when being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac?) if some part of our human nature didn’t possess a penchant for the macabre — and violence, blood, gore, and the rest of it. The inverse is also true: the good guys (almost) always win in all of our stories because we value goodness, courage, and self-sacrifice. Artists create surreal images and breathtakingly graceful sculptures because of the human desires for both the grotesque and the beautiful. Culture is both the result of human nature and a lens through which we view it.
Scripture has much to say about humanity, about who we really are. (We’ll tackle art in later posts.) Beginning in Genesis 1, we find we are beings created in the image of God (the imago Dei). This is restated in Genesis 2, most poignantly in vv. 7ff. To be human, then, is to bear the imago Dei. In some fashion, we all share in the divine. To be fair, the exact nature of the imago Dei we bear can depend on how one views the creation narratives. Proponents of evolution (theistic or otherwise) may see things differently than a kind of creationist, young earth or otherwise. Regardless, theologians can readily point to several key aspects.
The first is a relational nature. Genesis 2, in explaining the creation of Eve and purpose of marriage, simply says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a). Humans are relational, gregarious creatures. We weren’t designed to spend our lives in isolation, never loving or caring for anyone else. Humans were created to get outside of themselves, to seek community and live lives connected one to another. In this way, we mirror the nature of God. As Christians, we believe God exists as a Trinity: three distinct Persons, coequal in power and majesty, forming one God. The word theologians use for the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead is perichoresis. If you look closely, you’ll notice the same root we use for “choreography.” The Trinity dances with Itself, eternally existing as a relationship. And because God is a relationship seeking a relationship, we are made to exist in relationships. The first relationship is that between mortal and deity, but it extends to the connections between mortal and mortal as well. Part of the image of God is relationship.
A second aspect is that of authority. After creating humans, God gives what is called the Creation Mandate or Dominion Mandate: the newly-formed humans are to exercise authority over the rest of creation, caring for it and tending to its needs as benevolent rulers. Genesis 2 expands on this after detailing the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15). Among other implications (the significance and holiness of work, the need to care for the environment, etc.), we see Adam (later joined by Eve) as being a caretaker. Humans weren’t tasked with being tyrannical despots bent on consuming everything for their own gain; we were created as gardeners, not soldiers. We exert authority in the context of relationship as stewards. And so we have the second part of the imago Dei: just as God rules us with grace, we take care of the earth in love.
Other aspects of the image of God appear as well. Rational thought and free will are perhaps the most noteworthy, and I think they stand on their own without additional explanation. All of these (and perhaps others) combine to reveal to us a species which is a partaker in the divine. We were good and holy, having no barriers between us and God.
Then someone let a snake into Paradise.
Theologians have battled for centuries (if not longer) over the exact consequences of the Fall. When our first parents sinned, they destroyed the perfect peace which had existed between a sinless God and His sinless children. But what does that look like? Most Christians agree on the doctrine of Total Depravity: we have been horrifically marred by sin in such a way we can’t know God without His direct intervention. We have no way to pull ourselves up out of sin without help. The image of God granted to us is distorted — but it can be fixed. Calvinists call it common grace, and Wesleyans dub it prevenient grace; call it what you will, it is the universal grace given to all humanity which repairs us enough to be able to know God. Some of our damage is patched up, and we can respond to God’s offers of salvation. We may still be in the gutter, but (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), we can turn over on our backs and look at the stars. The “grace that goes before” repairs the imago Dei so that the effects of original sin are mitigated to an inherent predisposition to sin and an inability to save ourselves; it doesn’t remain a total brokenness.
Knowing who we are, how should a Christian think about being human? Do we embrace a fully humanist stance which is focused on the dominance of the self to the exclusion of some less-than-desirable realities, or do we realize the value of humanity even as we acknowledge our fatal flaws? I believe Scripture points us to the latter. We can’t pretend everything we do is good and right simply because we thought of it. We remain fallen creatures who create fallen cultures (and no, not even “church culture” is perfect in any sense of the word). We can’t be afraid to label evil as evil, nor can we sit on the sidelines with an “anything goes” attitude. To do so is to gravely misunderstand the true nature of humanity and human freedom.
We must constantly evaluate who we are and what we do, letting our identity rest in Christ and not some external relationship. We are beautiful creatures who bear the image of God Almighty. Because of this, all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. No one is worth more than anyone else, and God doesn’t love anyone more than anyone else — and (let’s be clear), He hates no one at all. Christianity calls us to value the worth of our brothers and sisters, recognizing they will never be perfect — and neither will we.
Imperfections and flaws are fundamentally different from diversity, and, as Christians, we are to value, not merely tolerate, the grand diversity of the people around us. Rather than seek to eliminate cultural differences, why can’t they be celebrated as simply alternate solutions? We must prize what makes us British, American, Rwandan, Argentinian, and Korean. At no point are we called to dismiss others as irrelevant or inferior; at all points are we called to display unconditional love and tolerance. This is the sort of love which recognizes no boundaries: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all nations are comprised of people of inherent worth in the eyes of God, and each individual still bears His image.
Do we lovingly critique cultures and individuals running counter to God? Yes; true love offers corrections and seeks the eternal good of all people. But never do we make someone feel less than a beloved child of God simply for being different. We’re just as broken as they are. Respect, love, and tolerance. Respect people for who they are; love people where they are; and tolerate them for the beautiful diversity they bring to the common table of humanity.