Friday, June 5, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 8: The Image of God

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


The Image of God
This would probably qualify as "pseudo-science", but it's kinda neat.
There have been many interpretations of the phrase in Genesis 1:26: "Let us make humankind in our image."  To understand this phrase, the first thing we ought to do is consider how it would have sounded in the ancient context.

In the ancient world, rulers and kings would quite often construct statues of themselves - images of the king - that they would leave in the areas that were far from the king's own home. This was a subtle way of reinforcing their own authority - sort of reminding their citizens that they are keeping an eye on this area (even if it it through messengers).  It was also a way to make sure that if the king ever visited, he would be recognized.

Additionally, it was quite common for rulers to claim to bear the image of their god.  For example, in Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered to be the sole person to bear the image of their god - and was considered to be an incarnation of the sun god Ra.  Thus, every citizen was inherently inferior to Pharaoh.

So in light of this, it seems that the Hebrew concept of the image of God - where all of mankind is made in God's image - is politically subversive.  

Quoting from the Dueteronomy Rabbah (4:4), Rodger Kamenetz writes in "The Jew in the Lotus":
There is a beautiful Hasidic teaching, that before every human being comes a retinue of angels, announcing, “Make way for an image of the Holy One, Blessed be He.” How rarely do we listen for those angels when we encounter another human being. How rarely do we see in another human being’s eyes an image of everything we hold most dear.
This saying parallels the way Jesus asks us to find the image of God in the humble when he tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  This reminds me of the scene in "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" where Luke Skywalker meets Yoda for the first time.  When they meet, Luke merely believes that he has met a strange and eccentric (possibly crazy) little creature.  He never even stops to think that this short, shriveled, odd little thing could be a great Jedi Master.  In the same way, we miss the image of God when we only expect to find it in those who are beautiful by human standards - the Bible asks us to see the image of God in every man and woman and child, especially within the humble, the overlooked, the marginalized.

Note also that the language of
Genesis 1:26 hints at a mystical view when God says "let us make man in our image" - how can God be one (as the famous opening words of the shema state in Deut. 6:4), but pluralistic?  Biology itself teases at the answer - each cell in our bodies is designated a different task, and we have different types of cells, and yet each cell contains a set of chromosomes that is identical to the set possessed by every other cell in the body.  Paul teases at such a mystical view when he refers to us as the body of Christ (see I Cor. 12:27, Rom. 12:5).  

Jews refer to Deut. 6:4 - "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!" - as the Shema (the first word is shema), and it is a central prayer in their practice.  But one very interesting fact about this prayer is missed by English speakers - the original Hebrew uses both the names "Adonai" (translated "Lord", above) and "Elohim" (translated "God", above).  Elohim is, technically, plural - and thus a literal translation might read "the Lord our gods, the Lord is One."  It is also interesting to note here that the word "Elohim" is rendered "sons of the Most High" in Psalm 82:6:
I said, "You are gods,
And all of you are sons of the Most High."
Rabbi Cooper renders an interesting translation of the Shema in "God Is a Verb":
Shema Yisrael, Adonoy Elohaynu, Adonoy Ehad (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One) . The way I explain the meaning of this prayer is as follows: Listen closely (Shema), that part within each of us that yearns to go directly to God (Israel-Yashar El), the transcendent, unknowable source of sources (Adonoy) and the God that we are able to relate to in Its immanence in everything we experience around us (Elohaynu), both the transcendent (Adonoy) and the immanent, are actually, paradoxically, one and the same (Ehad).
I've seen a number of modern Jewish mystics use a powerful metaphor to help understand how every human being bears the image of God.  They use the analogy of a hologram to express this.  When a piece of film containing a normal photograph is cut in half, you will have two halves of an image.  But when a piece of film that a holograph was recorded on is cut in half, you have the same image on both halves - just slightly out of focus (see Holography vs. Photography).  One way Kabbalists have put this is that we are the "thousand mirrors of God."

The analogy can be extended further when we consider Jesus' saying in Mt. 18:20: "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."  If each person is like a part of the holographic film separated from the rest, then all of God is contained in each person just like the entire image of the hologram is contained within each part of the film - though the image will be out of focus.  But by drawing together in the Unity of Love, we bring the image back into focus.

In conjunction with this concept, it is interesting to consider the mystical version of the "Golden Rule" that is found in the Gospel of Thomas:
Love your friends like your own soul, protect them like the pupil of your eye.
This version connects love with sight - implying that without such love, we cannot see clearly.  There is a connection here to Matthew 6:22-23 - in his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay’s translation renders this: 
The light of the body is the eye. So then, if your eye is generous, the whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is grudging, your whole body will be in the dark. If, then, the light which is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
The word that is often translated in this verse as "sound" ("if your eye is sound") - haplous - can also mean "generous", and since the opposite word used here - poneros - is quite often used in the Bible to speak of being grudging, Barclay argues that this verse is telling us that the key to seeing clearly is generosity.

An interesting parallel can be found in an old Hasidic tale, where a Rabbi asks his students how to determine the hour of dawn - the hour when night ends and day begins.  Various answers are offered, and finally the Rabbi declares that the way to determine this is "when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night and darkness is still with us."

We are to even see the image of God in our enemies - note that this is not a concept introduced for the first time by Jesus when he commanded enemy love (Mt. 5:43-48).  It is interesting to note here that when Jacob (then Israel - literally "wrestles with God") goes to reconcile with his brother Esau, Gen. 33:3 says that he prostrated himself 7 times.  The word used here is "shachah", which is used not just to speak of an act of prostration before a monarch, but before God as well.  And after their reconciliation, Israel says to Esau in verse 10: "truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God."  Could this be hinting to the greater truth of finding the image of God in our enemy?  

Some will say "what about sin" - the Augustinian view that has (unfortunately) become popular in the West teaches that when man sinned, man lost the original state he was in.  Augustine's view led to Calvinism's teaching on Total Depravity, where we are identified by our sin.  But the Jewish view of sin and the Image of God is a bit more similar to the Orthodox view.  A popular analogy compares human beings to an oil lamp, and the Image of God is like a spark from the flame of God that lights the lamp inside.  Sin, in this image, is like the dust that collects on the glass of the lamp - it does not remove the flame, does not corrupt it, but merely dims the light that comes from this flame.  The dust can be cleaned, and the light will shine clearly once again.  

A similar analogy was used by Fr. Joseph Gleason on his blog, where he writes:
It is as if we had a magnificent portrait of the King, caked over with cobwebs and mud and dust. The filth itself may be worthless and offensive, but the portrait remains extremely valuable. Intentional destruction of this portrait would offend the King Himself.  So we must not destroy the painting . . . we must clean it off and restore it.

This is how God views every human being. Each one was created in His Image, and therefore each human is of infinite value.  A man does not become worthless, regardless of his guilt.  A woman does not become worthless, no matter what she has done.
The concept of being "made in the image of God" takes on new meaning through Evolution - as Julian Huxley said: 
We are nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.
This is similar to the way the Kabbalists will speak of the Universe as God unfolding Him-Her-It-Self.

This is why God gives Moses the vague reply to a request for a name (Ex. 3:14): "I am"  - this implies pure consciousness.  "I am" does not quite capture the mystery of the original language - though some translations say "I will be what I will be".   The original language implies all tenses - "is", "was", and "will be" - thus, God is "is-ness", or the essense of Being itself.

In "The Gift of the Jews", Thomas Cahill writes:

YHWH is an archaic form of the verb to be; and when all the commentaries are taken into account, there remain but three outstanding possibilities of interpretation, none of them mutually exclusive. First, I am who am: this is the interpretation of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which because of its age and its links to the ancients bears great authority. It was this translation that Thomas Aquinas used in the thirteenth century to build his theology of God as the only being whose essence is Existence, all other beings being contingent on God, who is Being (or Is-ness) itself. A more precise translation of this idea could be: “I am he who causes (things) to be” - that is, “I am the Creator.” Second, I am who I am - in other words, “None of your business” or “You cannot control me by invoking my name (and therefore my essence) as if I were one of your household gods.” Third, I will be-there with you: this is Fox’s translation, following Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in his creation, his being-there with us.
In the view of God as "Is-ness", God is in the process of manifesting within the world, and much is still concealed from us.  Our task is not to do anything that will magically change us, but rather to reveal the image of God which was already within - though not fully manifest, just as a piece of a hologram contains the entire image, though out of focus.  By expanding our consciousness through connecting with the rest of Creation which also contains pieces of the hologram, we can reveal the image of God more fully.  This is why St. Gregory of Nyssa writes in "On the Creation of Man":
It is not in a part of [human] nature that the image is found, but nature in its totality is the image of God. 
Indeed, Gregory states in this work that:
It is the whole of nature, extending from the beginning to the end, that constitutes the one image of God. 
Gregory's reasoning is stated elsewhere regarding the statement that man was made "in the image of God":
[T]his is the same as to say that He made human nature participant in all good; for if the Deity is the fullness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good.
The idea of nature as image of God is corroborated in mystical Judaism, as we've seen already.  One of the early Kabbalists, Moses Cordovero, writes in "Shi'ur Qomah":
The essence of divinity is found in every single thing - nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent.
In another of his writings - Elimah Rabbati - he writes:
Before anything emanated, there was only Ein Sof.  Ein Sof was all that existed. Similarly after it brought into being all that exists, there is nothing but it. You cannot find anything that exists apart from it . . . God is everything that exists, though everything that exists is not God. It is present in everything, and everything comes into being from it. Nothing is devoid of its divinity.  Everything is within it; it is within everything and outside of everything. There is nothing but it.
So you might be thinking, at this point, something along the lines of: "well, all this sounds wonderful, but it's a bit out there.  And I don't see how any of this can be practically merged with our current understanding of science."

I'd like to attempt to address this by introducing just how weird science has gotten.  It seems that the popular understanding is stuck in an outdated form of scientific thinking that might be termed "Newtonian Physics" - after Isaac Newton.  Please understand here that I'm not knocking on Newton: he was a brilliant man.  It's just that the way of thinking - the paradigm - that he was under is outdated.  We have new information now that challenges the Newtonian paradigm.  I will delve into this a bit in the next post.

Next Chapter: Let There Be Light

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