Notes on human uniqueness and the Imago Dei

In light of this post, here are some thoughts on what it might mean to affirm human uniqueness and to say that we’re created in the image of God:

The Bible doesn’t give us much to go in when it says that human beings are created in God’s image:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:26, NRSV)

Later theology has tried to fill in the gaps by attributing a unique characteristic to humanity that mirrors God in some way, usually rationality or free will.

This has also frequently been taken to imply that human beings are superior to all other life on earth and hence entitled to exploit the rest of creation for their own purposes. (A not entirely implausible reading of the passage above.)

But biological science has made it more and more difficult to exclude animals from the possession of at least some degree of rationality and other candidates for human uniqueness, calling it into question. It’s also become questionable whether there is an immaterial soul “infused” at some point in the evolutionary process that can account for human uniqueness. Development with continuity seems to be nature’s rule.

Consequently, more recent theologians have been re-thinking what it means to say that humans are created in the divine image.

For example, Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman write:

the only significant theological difference between humans and animals lies in God’s giving humans a unique purpose. Herein lies what it means for God to create humans in God’s image. A part of this unique purpose is God’s charge to humans to tell animals who they are, and humans continue to do this by the very way they relate to other animals.

Others have made similar suggestions, saying that humans are created in God’s image in that they reflect the lordship of God to the rest of creation. This is the true meaning of “dominion”: we are God’s vice-regent’s on earth.

This notion of lordship or dominion, however, must be transformed according to the pattern of lordship displayed by Christ, who Christians believe reveals the true nature of God.

Accordingly, Andrew Linzey calls human beings the “servant” species:

The uniqueness of humanity consists in its ability to become the servant species. To exercise its full humanity as co-participants and co-workers with God in the redemption of the world. (Animal Theology, p. 57)

Just as God in Christ enters into the suffering of the world to redeem it, human beings are called to become priests, offering themselves in costly service to creation.

Human dominion over creation is a de facto reality whether or not we can identify some uniquely human characteristic, such as rationality, that isn’t shared to some degree with non-human animals. We have it in our power to drastically alter the climate, to cause the extinction of millions of species, and to make the earth uninhabitable for life as we know it. (This is where Christians would depart from some “deep ecologists” who view human beings as simply one species among many.)

Lordship as servanthood, however, would involve human beings living generously toward each other and the rest of creation. And it would mirror the lordship of the Good Shepherd who gave himself for others.

4 thoughts on “Notes on human uniqueness and the Imago Dei

  1. Pingback: Six not so uniquely human traits « About Animals

  2. Josh

    Ever notice how Hauerwas is actually readable only when he is co-writing something?

    Seriously though, this post represents an excellent way to lookk at what human “dominion” of creation can mean. Very well put. Just as bishops, for instance, are called to be the “servants of the servants of God” we humans are, in our dominion, called to be the servant species. That’s a sermon right there, my friend.

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