One of the existential “chisels” helpful to shape the idea of our being made imago dei is that of disabled persons. If we encounter a man, mopping the hallway of a hospital and ask where the ER is, we expect an answer we can understand. But if he opens his mouth and slurred speech comes out accompanied by a vaguely disconnected look in his eyes, we simply walk away, assuming he lacks the normal intelligence needed to answer our question (but sufficient to mop a hallway.) Whatever else may be true of that encounter and our typically biased response to the man, it doesn’t remove the challenge of asking in what way is THAT man made in the “Image of God”? How does he manifest his being imago dei?
Some can push this question aside easily with an explanation that “Adam” — having been created perfect — also perfectly represented the imago dei. Since the Fall, no person adequately represents the imago dei and so to question what this “image” is and how it’s manifested is absurd.
But at least some people can’t dismiss this concept, this Reality, as easily. To some, when the Scriptures record, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them”, there’s nothing clearly indicating that this imago either became “lost” or even could become “lost”. Indeed, what with the creation of “man” (“male and female made He them”), it follows upon the heels of God having created the world and all the animals in it. “Let the light be…” or “Let the whales be…” precedes God’s suddenly switching tactics and saying, “Let Us make man…”
Why is the person — who is not one of man’s standard models — so valuable? Simple. If the imago dei is considered in light of a man or woman who is brilliant in thought, clever in craft, engineering great wonders in the earth, then human creativity may be considered as part of the imago dei we’ve so-to-speak “inherited” from our Father, God. Or if we look to a philosopher, theologian or even a quantum mathematician or physicist and ask in what way they demonstrate the very image of God, the response is easy: God is Ultimate Wisdom and man (male and female) is designed by God to grapple with and understand the great Mysteries of Time and Space.
But when we consider Billy, mop in hand and vacant look on his face, unable to gather a few words and intelligibly string them together in response to “Where’s the ER?”, when we consider Billy, we cannot assume that he is made in the Image of God because of crafty engineering skills or profound intellectual mastery of the Mysteries. No. As he stands there, alive and breathing, the question remains, “In what way does Billy demonstrate the Being and the Nature of God? How is he God’s very own image?”
In WWII, Hitler determined that no one who appeared to be a failure physically or mentally should survive. In addition to the millions of Jews, the Nazi forces gathered those who were crippled and maimed, both physically and mentally, and packed them off to their concentration camps as well as the Jews. Certainly, neither Hitler nor his leaders would have considered any of those who were condemned to be people showing forth in themselves the imago dei .
Which is why Billy is the best “tool” whereby we can consider in what manner the imago dei consists. If he is the very Image of God, and it’s not in his intellect nor his creativity, what is it? Some people think that the rest of that verse in Genesis gives the answer: that man (male and female made He them) is given “dominion” over all the earth. Maybe that’s how we exist as the imago dei. But then again, does Billy exercise “dominion” over all the earth? Or even over all his hallway? Has mankind ever exercised “dominion” over all the earth, or is that part of what got “lost” upon his/her exit from the Garden?
There is a hint, one might say, of yet another way in which human beings (ALL human beings) can exist in God’s Image. That comes in the very words God uses when He says, “Let US make man in OUR image.”
God refers to Himself in the plural. I’ve heard some say that this is no more than an ancient way of a “god” referring to Himself. Sort of like the Queen of England saying, “We would be pleased…” when she really just means her. But who knows if that’s true or not. But one thing we can say for sure is that the New Testament radically enhances the understanding of God as a Complex Unity. After a few instances of Jesus talking to His Father with the Spirit showing up as a dove, it becomes clear that God talks to Himself. What’s not clear is how. Or how it is that He answers Himself. Or even that He gripes at Himself (“Father, Thy will be done and not Mine…”)
In His very Nature — intrinsic to Who He is — God is a Relationship. From prior even to the creation of the earth, God has existed in a singleness manifested in a plurality of Persons — Persons who are (to be precise) in Love with One Another.
Is it possible that the way in which humans have been made in the Image of God is that in distinction from all other created things, we’ve been made capable of sharing that divine, Love Relationship? Animals as such are wonderful (thank you PITA!), but if there is a spiritual Relationship into which God calls others — animals need not apply.
But then, the door’s wide open to Billy. If someone has an IQ lower than a worm, can he love another? And can he be loved? If someone is a paraplegic, is that person thereby unable to enter into a spiritual Relationship with God, sharing in the Love and Oneness that the Son shares with the Father?
And every Jew or disabled person who died in Nazi concentration camps carried with them this capacity, if not its fulfillment. And here’s a sobering thought: every person who was slaughtered then and every person slaughtered today on the Altar of “I’m Superior to You So Die!” is to some degree a manifestation of the imago dei. It may not be possible to kill God, but it certainly is possible to kill that which He loves — persons. Persons whom He desires to draw into a Complex Unity with He, His Son and His Spirit. There, in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Iran or East L.A., lie the bodies of countless persons, all of whom once shared the very Image of God Himself.