by Bill Faull
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2007

Then God said 'Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our own likeness'. 'So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, and God blessed them' [1] - the so-called 'Imago Dei'.

That is such a familiar quote from Genesis that it's now all but taken as read. It turns up all over the place including the eucharistic liturgy, so much so that its extraordinary theological insight risks getting lost, hence my raising it as an issue for discussion today.

But when I do stop to think about it, such as now, my response is 'Really?' and 'Wow!' Do I really accept that everyone, everyone is essentially good because we were born like that, that being of God; that everyone, everyone has that divine spark, a sacred blessed core - call it what you will?

Evidently those unknown writers of that first creation story are not alone in thinking like that. In my ignorance and to my surprise I find others have said much the same thing. Tariq Ramadan, who spoke at the recent Founders Day meeting here, writes 'that according to the Muslim tradition, God in his oneness put into the heart of each human being an original breath, a natural longing, for the Transcendant, for Him.' [2]

Matthew Fox, the contemporary American theologian, has coined a similar phrase - original blessing - and 1ikened it to original goodness or origina1 grace, and associates it with the Holy Spirit [3].

The twelfth-century nun Hildergarde employs the phrase original wisdom and says that we're all born with that [4], and a contemporary Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes 'This is our birthright - the wisdom with which we are born' [5].

So we are not alone in thinking that we are born with some gift from God, and the question I pose today is - do we believe that, and so what anyway? Is this an hypothesis that stands up and means something; does it fit our experiences or is an a1ternative hypothesis more realistic and spelt out in the second creation story that, on the contrary, everyone is fallen, we are all miserable sinners, even 'original sinners'. Originally and subsequently we are flawed and rotten to the core, having eaten life's apple.

I get hints, perhaps more than hints, that the church or at least some parts of it still take that line. I'm sure I heard the Bishop of Liverpool refer to Original sin when reflecting on the recent murder of Rhys Jones, and I fear I heard the Archbishop of York also explaining events in those terms. Even Keith Ward in his recent book Christianity writes - in his brief section on the Fall - 'In today's world we inherit a nature with the same ambiguity as our earliest ancestors. We are born in sin, in that our society lacks clear knowledge of God' and that leads him to conclude that 'the human world has become a world of sin and death.' [6]

I could leave it there and open up now for discussion, but I'd like to finish on a more positive note. For myself, I Find Professor Ward's analysis depressingly bleak, even unfaithful - unfaithful to the 'Imago Dei'. Sadly when I suggest otherwise to my neighbours, I'm greeted with - 'Get real, Bill. That's how people are out there' and I'm referred to the latest armed robbery in Ellesmere Port and stories from Toxteth and Mosside and Burma - etc. etc. and in a way, that's fair, for, for I've not been mugged, abused or personally involved in such awful events, so far anyway, and I can't pretend to know Toxteth, Mosside and so on, so for me the Imago Dei is principally a matter of hope and faith, and a useful starting point when relating to people and in discussions like today's.

For what it's worth, I still find people, including incidentally myself, to be essentially good. Despite the often many layers of masking ugliness, that's what I find, that's what we're like. We want to be good, make things better and make better things, and given unconditional regard, respect, 1ove, our true 'original' selves are revealed. And what's more, that's infectious, it rubs off onto the giver and the receiver and we are blessed.

But it's not easy to see that in all people, is it? One needs lot of help to keep practising it. Sometimes I get that help from the church, which should surely have some custody of the 'lmago Dei' but sadly I often don't - but that's another story so over to you.


    1. Genesis NRSV 1989 Chapter 1 vv26a, 27-28a [back]
    2. Tariq Tamadan Western Muslims and the Future of Islam OUP 2005 p. 119 [back]
    3. Matthew Fox Original Blessing Bear & Co. 1983 p 3ff [back]
    4. Hildergarde of Bingen ibid p.6 [back]
    5. Pema Chodron ibid p.6 [back]
    6. Keith Ward Christianity SPCK 2007 p.7 [back]