Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Human uniqueness and the 'image of God' in relation to biological similarity and differences with other creatures

It is undeniable that human beings share significant biological similarity with other non-human creatures on earth. Besides the intricate physical system that keep us alive, humans participate in a range of activities such as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, and reproducing like other creatures.

These observations present a reason for us to constantly revisit the idea of 'image of God', the imago Dei, through the scriptures and how the Church has been negotiating for a better understanding of this concept throughout the ages.

Given that humans have both remarkable similarities and stark differences with other creatures, it is too superficial to apply the category of 'animal' to describe non-humans to the exclusion of humans from this category on one hand, and too presumptuous to simply categorize humans as mere 'animal' as if we are essentially identical with non-human creatures on another hand.

Without adopting the problematic human-animal distinction, a possibly better way to inquire into this would be to ask what is the uniqueness of human beings in relation to other creatures?

Here is a suggestion given by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen on how we can go about it:

Personhood, when reconceived in terms of embodied imagination, symbolic propensities, and cognitive fluidity, may enable theology to revision its notion of the imago Dei as an idea that does not imply superiority or a greater value than animals or earlier hominids, but might express a specific task and purpose to set forth the presence of God in this world. I would therefore call for a revisioning of the notion of the imago Dei in ways that would not be overly abstract and exotically baroque, that instead acknowledges our embodied existence, our close ties to the animal world and its uniqueness, and to those hominid ancestors who came before us, while at the same time focusing on what our symbolic and cognitively fluid minds might tell us about the emergence of an embodied human uniqueness, consciousness, and personhood, and the propensity for religious awareness and experience.
(J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, 'What Makes Us Human? The Interdisciplinary Challenge to Theological Anthropology and Christology,' in Toronto Journal of Theology 26/2, 2010, p. 149-150. Emphasis added.)

On a specific trait that marks human different from other creatures, van Huyssteen cautiously and modestly points out that:

Our very human capacity for self-definition can most probably be seen as one of the crowning achievements of our species. As we all know today, however, no one trait or accomplishment should ever be taken as the single defining characteristic of what it means to be human.
(J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, 'What Makes Us Human? The Interdisciplinary Challenge to Theological Anthropology and Christology,' Toronto Journal of Theology 26/2, 2010, p. 145-146. Emphasis added.)

These excerpts are taken from a paper van Huysteen prepared for workshops held at the University of Toronto in February 2010, co-sponsored by Emmanuel College and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

Van Huyssteen first shared these notions when he delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in 2004 at the University of Edinburgh. The lectures have since been published as 'Alone In The World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology'.

To van Huyssteen, the uniqueness of human being lies in the given mission to present the nearness and realness of God through the person's life in the world.

I think this suggestion equates the image of God merely on function. Does that mean those who are incapable, due either to natural or accidental disability, to "set forth the presence of God" do not have the imago Dei?

Does this also mean that those who rebelliously choose not to "set forth the presence of God" not created in the image of God?

Would this then mean that one's status as bearer of the imago Dei is momentary and not ontological, as in a person is only in God's image when he/she performs the God-given task?

If this is so, how then should we make sense of the idea that human beings are created in the image of God since the word 'created' does sound as if humans are ontologically bearer of imago Dei regardless whether they are performing any task?

Though harboring these questions to van Huyssteen's project, his approach still seems to me a possible first step to revisit the appropriation of imago Dei, especially in his highlight of humans' capacity of self-defining.


Steven Sim said...

Victor Frankl proposed that human beings can have value in the attitudinal sense - what is our attitude towards a situation in life. E.g., a terminal patient choosing to spend the last moments of his life courageously. Of course, in some sense, I still suspect this is merely an extension of his "creative value" of the meaning of life, i.e. what can we bring to life (a computer scientist designing a software). And it is of course implying that the subject must be active at least mentally. BUt that should give a sense on say, those who are unable to be mobile in the regular sense of the word to "perform tasks" we take for granted.

Steven Sim

Alex Tang said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Since I have not read van Huyssteen's book or his lectures (do you have a digital file of his lectures?) I can only comment on what you have posted. I agree with you that to attribute the imago Dei to the missio Dei is to misunderstand the imago Dei. The ontological object should never be mistaken as the subject or a function of.

Even personhood itself is a problematic definition. Theologically human beings have a sin-distorted imago Dei if your are Reformed or absent imago Dei if you are Lutheran. Any personhood is then based on a flawed image and cannot be used as a definition.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven,

That's interesting. I see similarity between Frankl and van Huyssteen, that both are founded on the individual's response or initiation.

To Frankl, it's the secularized notion of responsive attitude to life situation regardless religious or not, while for van Huyssteen, it is the sacred performance to reflect the presence of God.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Alex,

I don't have the e-copy of the article. I read it at library.

You made a good point that our discussion of "personhood" and imago Dei have to take into account the reality of the Fall. If we insist too much that human beings are bearer of imago Dei, we are paralyzed for not being to deal with the propensity for and the perpetuation of evil by human.