What do you think is the biggest question facing our culture? Is it to do with Brexit, and questions of national identity? Is it about social media, and questions of truth? Is it to do with sex and gender identity? Or are you facing personal questions and challenges that dwarf these? My conviction is that, underlying all these questions is one, much bigger one: What does it mean to be human? All the questions we currently face can be trace to this, larger, underlying question.
And this question, in turn, as two parts to it: who counts as human? What really sets us apart and makes us distinctive? Within the different narratives in our culture, there are numerous challenges which threaten to undermine any confident answer to these questions. In the realm of science and materialism, we are challenged from two directions. On the one hand, we are constantly being told that we are not very different from other members of the animal world. We share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and we have discovered that they can communicate in a kind of language, have social rituals like us, and even go through mourning rituals when one of them dies. (Elephants do this too, but that doesn’t feel like such a challenge to our human identity.) On the other hand, more and more of our life is being taken over by computers, if not robots. Last month, a computer was judged to have won a debate with a panel of experts, and we are told that robots might one day soon care for the elderly. In the film I, Robot, Will Smith interrogates the robot Sonny and challenges him with the reality that robots are not human.
Will Smith: Human beings have dreams; even dogs have dreams. Not you. You are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny: Can you?
But questions about what it means to be human are also challenged by racist and sexist narratives, in which only those of the right ethnic group or sex are deemed to be granted all the dignities of being fully human.
And alongside the question of ‘What counts as human?’ we have to ask: what counts for us as humans? That is, not just who is included as fully human, but what is it about being human that really matters? Some would say ‘freedom’—to exercise free choice is the highest goal of human existence. Others would say ‘sex’; a prominent campaigner for change in the Church’s teaching on marriage claims that a life without sexual intimacy is certain to be one of pain and loneliness. Others would say ‘wealth’; the residents of Grenfell Tower have a strong sense that, living in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, their lives were not deemed worth spending money protecting.
In the first chapter of Genesis, in a remarkably few verses, we learn something that begins to offer an answer to all these questions—and to which Christians have turned again and again over the centuries.
God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1.26–28)
In these few words, there are some remarkable claims being made about what it means to be human.
First, we need to notice where these verses come in the creation account. This beautiful poetic description is carefully structured, with each day of creation have a rhythm and shape: ‘And God said…and it was…and there was evening, and there was morning, the (nth) day’. The passage does not hold back on painting, with a broad brush, the wonder of the world, with the moon and stars, the mountains and seas, and (my favourite phrase from the AV) all the creatures that creep across the face of the earth. Thanks to David Attenborough and the advances in camera technology, we are confronted more than ever before with the extraordinary nature of the world around us—we live in a world of wonder and mystery, and the more we discover, the more there seems to be to find out.
And yet, claims Genesis, it is humanity that is the pinnacle of the creation. The whole story builds to a thundering climax, and the climactic ending comes in these verses: ‘So God created human beings in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ When you wake in the morning and look in the mirror, you need to say to yourself: ‘You are the pinnacle of creation’. The next person you meet today, you need to greet in this way: ‘You are the pinnacle of creation.’ In fact, you need to say it to everyone that you meet!
This was as shocking and challenge when Genesis was first written as it is today. In other creations stories in the ancient world, it was kings and rulers who were thought to be the ones made in the image of God—they were the pinnacle of creation. Or perhaps it was men. Or perhaps the able-bodied. Or the powerful. Or the free. But Genesis says that all humanity is made in the image of God—including those with Down’s syndrome (though if you live in Iceland, you will not meet many of them, since they are mostly aborted in utero). Genesis says that the ‘world’s ugliest woman’ is the pinnacle of creation—challenging our culture’s values of beauty and self-esteem (and she is a Christian so she knows it).
The phrase found here, ‘image and likeness’, is found in only one other place in the Bible, in Gen 5.3:
This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created human beings, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “human beings.” When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (Gen 5.1–3)
In other words, the analogy is that we are in the image and likeness of God in the way that a child is in the image and likeness of his or her parents. In that sense, we are children of the one who is king over the world. We are part of a royal family.
But there is a further significance to the description of the creation of humanity. To anyone reading this in the ancient world, they would have seen the careful contraction, the forming of the world in the first three days, and its careful ornamentation, its filling in the second set of three days, as pointing to one thing: the world as a cosmic temple for the divinity. This is confirmed by the climax of the whole story: that God rests on the seventh day. In the ancient near east, temples were understood to be the place where the god rested. And when you have built a temple, what is the final thing that you add to it? The image of the deity. And this temple world has an image of the invisible God, in you and me. That is one part of the reason for the second commandment: ‘You shall make no graven images’ since we already have the ‘image and likeness’ of God to hand. And in his prayer of commissioning of the first temple, Solomon is clear that God does not really need a temple, since the universe is the temple he already has:
But will God really dwell on earth with human beings? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (2 Chron 6.18)
C S Lewis comments with customary insight on the significance of this, putting these words into the mouth of Aslan in Prince Caspian:
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
The main difference between the biblical account of creation and the scientific account is not really about timescales—six days versus billions of year—but of the status of the created world and humanity within it. It is not a difference of chronology but of theology—or, more precisely, of anthropology.
The last thing that these verses claim about what is means to be human is that we are called to be co-workers with God in exercising his delegated sovereignty. The kingship and rule of God is the implicit theme running throughout this chapter—and when we reach this climactic sixth day, we find humanity is to ‘rule’—and this is emphasised as an ‘inclusio’, as a bracket around the declaration of creation. God’s vocation for humanity, for each one of us, is to be a coworker with him, in whatever occupation we find ourselves in, in bringing order and fruitfulness to the world in which he has placed us. Here we begin to touch on very large themes indeed—but as a start there are several things we need to note.
First, it is only God who rests from work; we can only work from rest. Although the creation of humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creative activity, the climax of the whole narrative is only reached when God rests on the seventh day. When humanity is created, the first thing humanity does is rest with God. Everything else follows from this.
Second, a central part of humanity’s vocation is to exercise rule through parenting: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’. In saying this, I am conscious of walking in to a pastoral minefield—but we need to note that these verses are addressing humanity corporately. We now live in a culture, in the West, where we have largely lost the sense of the vocation to parenting, so much so that most Western countries are not having enough children to sustain their population. By and large, having children is seen as an inconvenience, something that inhibits our pursuit of leisure and a comfortable life, and causes an unpleasant ‘gender pay gap’ (since it is usually mothers who take time out for childcare). And yet the main factor affecting children’s attainment in education is the lack of parental involvement and interest. As many have highlighted, all our debates about sexuality arise from the detaching of sex from parenting. Genesis challenges us to recover a sense of the vocation of parenting.
Third, Genesis pictures God as a worker, and therefore all occupations (paid and unpaid) as a sharing in the work of God. If you are a builder, or a roadsweepers, or an accountant, or an artist, or a homemaker, or a secretary or administrator—ones who bring order out of chaos!—then you are sharing in the creative rule of God, bringing order and fruitfulness in his world.
Finally, we need to connect the kingly rule of God and our sharing in it with the ministry of Jesus. The first thing that Jesus preached was that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand!’ (Mark 1.15). In Jesus, not only is the covenant with God’s people Israel renewed, the creation itself is restored. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus was single! He was ‘fruitful and multiplied’ not through parenting, but through preaching. As he called the disciples to himself, and called people to new birth, he was exercising the rule of God, bringing order and fruitfulness—and we can do the same. Paul, also single, had spiritual sons and daughters.
The vicar was passing the house of Mr Smith, and he noticed what a beautiful garden he had.
‘Mr Smith, I see what a good job you and God are doing in your garden’.
‘Thank you very much vicar—but you should have seen the mess it was when God was left to himself!’
How are you going to being order and fruitfulness—as the pinnacle of creation, as the image of God, and as his coworker—in the world this week? This year? With this life God has given you?
(This is the outline of a sermon preached at St Nic’s, Nottingham on Sunday 29th Rule 2018. You can listen to the sermon online.)
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