3.3.6 ‘In the image of God’: (b) humans as ‘persons in relation’

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Unit 3 Contents

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With a mysterious divine plural, Gen. 1.26 says, “Let us make humankind in our image…”.  The next verse says, “So God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them” (emphasis added).

We shall see in the next reading that the Compendium emphasizes what these verses begin to suggest – that to be in the image of God is something to do with being in relationship.  On the basis of the Genesis text, the first thing to be said is that it is together as male and female, as an elementary human community, that humans are made in the image of God – not, therefore, as lone individuals.

But more can be said than this, especially if we think of what Gen. 1 says in the context of a bigger picture.  Unit 2 introduced the concept of ‘the common good’ (2.2.7).  You will remember that I explained this by referring to examples of particular goods which are irreducibly common, like parties and team games and musical performances.  These can only exist for anyone as people together act to generate them.  They are qualitatively different from products that can be ‘consumed’ by separate individuals.

Christianity has a very distinctive understanding of God in God’s very being.  It says that God is an ‘irreducibly common good’.  God is, indeed, the most perfect such good there can be.  God is one and also three, Trinity.  God is ‘triune’.  The one God is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – but the distinctiveness of each is given wholly in the way each is in relationship with the other two.  This is why the three are perfectly one.  They are like three different persons in an eternal dance that is choreographed with unimaginable perfection, so that always the three form an inseparable, flawless unity.

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Reflection

Have you ever studied before what it means that God is Trinity?

Christian theologians use the word perichoresis to portray the way the Father, Son and Spirit is each distinct only in relationship with the other persons, and so is eternally in union with them.

That is a Greek word (pronounced ‘perry-kho-reesis’) and ‘choresis’ is one of the roots of the English word ‘choreography’.

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God is three persons who are one being.  Therefore Christianity interprets the word ‘person’ as entailing that the proper and good way of living for those who are also persons – their being as God made them to be, their fulfilment – is found in right relations with other persons.

In light of exegesis of Genesis 1, on one hand, and the astonishing vision of God as three persons in perfect unity of being, on the other, Christianity says that to be created ‘in the image of God’ is to be made as persons.  That is, humans are made for personal relationship: in the elementary community of male and female, in the larger community which their children and children’s children form, and also in all other good forms of human relationship among neighbours, and supremely with God.  Christian teaching speaks of salvation as perfected communion with the triune God.

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Reflection

In speaking about God as three persons and what this means for human persons, this screen is attempting to explain something that is difficult to understand, and also to express!  But it is also extremely important.

Once one grasps the central point here, and as one goes on reflecting on what it means, it leads to a vision of all existence that is powerful and inspiring.

Maybe you’ve always understood, even if unconsciously, the way in which human relationship is intrinsic to human fulfilment.  But maybe not, especially if modernity’s individualistic, consumerist ways of thinking have formed your mindset.  Whether consciously or not, those who do have an individualistic mindset see all their relationships as, in the end, only instrumental – useful for what they as individuals can get out of them – but not as an inherent part of what it means to live well.

In contrast, Christianity says that human wellbeing, as God intends it, is first and foremost about living in good relationships, with God and neighbour.  We find fulfilment only in these relationships. They are valuable in themselves, not merely useful.

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We should be clear about what is not being said here.  There is no claim that there is a close analogy between the ‘male and female’ of Gen. 1.26-28 and God as Trinity.  There cannot be such an analogy for two obvious reasons: God is not ‘male and female’, and God is not a communion of two persons.  In these respects there is dissimilarity between God the Trinity and the micro-community of male and female given in creation.

Rather, the point is a larger one, and thinking in terms of the concept of ‘irreducibly common goods’ can help to bring it out.  The one God is eternally three persons whose distinctness is given only in the perfect relationship of triune communion.  Likewise, human persons are created as men and women, and can be fully human only in right relationship with other persons, and specifically in the context of the community of male and female that grows to encompass their children and children’s children.  In other words, humans are made for human society – for an irreducibly common good that comes to exist as the elementary human community of male and female lives out its command to multiply and exercise dominion.  But God as three-in-one does not give a template that can structure specific human relationships.

In brief, as those created in the image of God the Trinity, we are persons.  We are fully human in a common good, in communion with other persons, human and divine, not by each living a life separately from others.1

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End of 3.3.6

Go to 3.3.7 ‘In the image of God’: summary

 

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  1. On the topic of this screen, see ITC, Communion and Stewardship (referenced at 3.3.5 n. 1), chapter 2, ‘In the Image of God: Persons in Communion’. 

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