The Image of God #1: We are defined in relation to reality

In April I delivered a talk on the image of God to the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome. Each week for the next five weeks I’m going to post an extended and expanded version of that talk. In the first part we see that we are defined in relation to reality – a claim that would have been seen as obvious to most generations except, as we shall see, our own.

Many years ago I worked in the second-hand department of a large bookshop in Oxford. Every time my colleagues bought a book they would pencil in the amount they’d paid for it in a code based on the phrase ‘know thyself’. K=1, N=2 and so on. So a book with ‘KN’ pencilled in the back had been bought for £12.

The phrase ‘know thyself’ goes back in the lost past of Western philosophy. It’s been used in different ways over the centuries, but common to them all is the idea of having an objective perspective on yourself. It’s been often used to ridicule the proud whose self-perception has lost touch with reality.

I want to suggest that we live in an age that, in its pride, is losing touch with reality.

What ‘know thyself’ encapsulates is the belief throughout the ages – Christian and non-Christian – that wisdom is to understand yourself in relation to reality outside of yourself. There are many variations on what people think that reality is. But the common assumption is that we live well when we confirm to reality – when our expectations are realistic, when our responses are appropriate, when our desires are evaluated.

In Christian theology this finds expression, for example, in John Calvin’s famous dictum: ‘Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.’[1] In other words, to ‘know thyself’ you need to understand that you’re made in the image of God, defined by the reality of God.

In Genesis 1 God says, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’ How is it then that we are like God? After all, we’re not spirits; we’re not omnipotent. The clue is in the plural pronoun: ‘Let us’. We’re made in the image of the relational, trinitarian God. Our identity is found in relationships:

  • to God (‘God created mankind in his own image’)
  • to other people (‘male and female he created them’)
  • to creation (‘so that they may rule over … all the creatures’)

So Tim Chester is the husband of Helen, the father of Katie and Hannah, a member of Grace Church, Boroughbridge, and a child of God. That matrix of relationships makes me unique. It’s true of nobody else. But it’s an identity that ties me to others. I don’t ‘find’ myself if I leave my wife for a new lover. I lose myself. I become less human.

Our gender is a sign of this. ‘Male and female he created them.’ In other words, each of us is born with sexual organs that show we’re made for self-giving union with another, to be completed by another. It’s encoded in our physical bodies. And this is a sign that we’re made for self-giving union with God. Marriage is a sign of this and contented singleness testifies to the reality beyond the sign. So at stake in the complementarity of the sexes is nothing less than the meaning of life. At stake in right sexual conduct is the revelation of our true goal, union with God. Christopher West says, ‘God gave us sexual desire … as the fuel of a rocket that is meant to launch us into the stars and beyond.’[2]

So I’m defined by realities outside of myself, especially my relationship to God. To be human is to be in the image of God, defined by God.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.2.

[2] Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic Introduction to Pope John Paul II’s Sexual Revolution, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, Rev. Ed., 2009, Kindle Location 1001.

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