Sunday, January 25, 2015

Imago Dei (1/25/15)

Imago Dei
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

January 25, 2015

Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

It was with great sadness that we said farewell to Marcus Borg this week.  He died Wednesday at the age of 72.  Marcus Borg had become the leading figure in progressive Christianity.   His book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time in the words of one friend of mine was a “game changer.”   He helped thousands of people discover a Christian faith that satisfied mind and heart.  

He was of course, an Oregonian, having taught at Oregon State.   I learned that he had visited Southminster.   His memorial service will be March 22nd at two p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland.

He creatively reinterpreted traditional Christian language for a modern age.   He helped us see with new eyes, to discover again as if for the first time, Jesus, the Bible, and God.  I used his 2003 book, The Heart of Christianity in several study groups and have given it away and purchased it several times to show seekers what Christianity can look like beyond the traditional formulations.     

His last book, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most is a summary of his own journey.  I was fortunate to be able to talk with him about it a few months ago on my radio show.  He was a gracious person, always the compassionate and patient teacher.   

Just by looking at the chapter titles you can get an idea of what he contributed:
Faith Is a Journey…
Salvation is More About this Life than an Afterlife
The Bible Can Be True Without Being Literally True
The Bible Is Political
God Is Passionate About Justice and the Poor
To Love God is To Love Like God

As a sign of his influence when he was first with the Jesus Seminar and writing his first books on the historical Jesus he was considered radical and heretical.  By the time of his death he had become mainstream and perhaps even conservative within progressive circles.   He hadn’t changed.  That simply shows that he was on the right track.   Mainline Christianity was catching up with him.  

One of his passions was the revitalization of mainline churches.    He thought the key to this was by having solid adult education programs.   Learning how to read the Bible critically, that is historically and metaphorically, learning about Jesus, both the man and the myth, and reflecting on theological symbols such as “god” and what it means to be a human being were of critical importance to the vitality and survival of the church.  Mainline churches were the logical place for this learning to happen.    Mainline churches have historically been centers for learning. 

As Marcus Borg pointed out in our interview, evangelicalism has become the voice of Christianity over the past half century.   Mainline churches have been overwhelmed by the success of evangelicalism have not been assertive about what we have to offer to the conversation.   We have a great deal to offer.  The subtitle of Marcus's book is How I Learned What Matters Most.    To be a place in which a conversation about what matters most happens is a great gift to the larger community.  

What matters most about ecology, about social justice, about war and peace, about economics, about personal well-being, about interpersonal relations, about cosmology, evolution, psychology.  What matters most about being alive!    Why not be the place where we ask the most important questions?   

That is what Marcus Borg thought the mainline church could be.   That was his passion, not so much the university but the church.    That is why his writing was clear and accessible to lay people and why he spent so much time visiting churches and speaking with small market radio talk show hosts. 

I think his overarching question wasn’t about Jesus, the Bible, or God, but the human being.  What does it mean to be a human being?  Who are we and how do we live?    There is no simple answer to that.   It is a question we keep before us as we face life’s mysteries and contingencies, joys and sorrows.   Who am I?  What matters most? 

We don’t ask those questions in isolation or from ivory towers but in a community of fellow travelers.  We are all in this together.  We learn from each other, encourage each other, question, challenge, engage in spats and forgive each other because there really is no step by step manual about how to live life.  

Thirty years ago, when Beverly and I came home from the Boise, Idaho hospital with our new baby, Katy, there was no manual.   There was not even an on-line help center where I could go to troubleshoot problems.   The second baby, Zach, had no manual either.   In both cases, the hospital said, “Here is your new baby.  Good luck!”

We learn by living.  But we aren’t alone.   While there may not be answers as to how to live the perfect life, there are lives.  We look to one another.   We also look to the saints as our tradition calls them, to our ancestors who also had to bring home babies without manuals.   They also tried to work out what mattered most. 

Some of this ancestral wisdom made it into books we call scripture.  One of the metaphors for the human being that has endured was created around 500 BCE.    The ancient Hebrews were living in exile in Babylon, having been violently removed from their home.    They observed the religion of the Babylonians.   They learned their myths.   

During this time of domination and humiliation when they had to struggle with who they were, a burst of creativity moved them to rewrite their own mythology.   In the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish, creation is a violent act.  Marduk slays Tiamat and from her carcass creates heaven and earth.   Her blood is used to create the gods.  Later in the story the gods have a lot of work to do, so human beings are created to be their slaves.    This creation myth would be acted out at festivals to reinforce the order of things.  The people are slaves to the gods and in real life to the king who represents the god. 

The Hebrews learned this story.  But they also knew an earlier story.  They knew the story of freedom from slavery.  They knew an early version of the Exodus story and they knew of the Deuteronomic commandment to keep Sabbath holy.    This Sabbath was for everyone even the work animals.    

They reworked the Babylonian creation myth and told a seven day creation story that was not violent.   Human beings in this account were created not to be slaves of the gods but were created in the image of god.    One sign of this image was that as God rested on the seventh day, so would all creation.   

Even exiled in a foreign land you can remember who you are and keep your dignity and know what matters most by keeping Shabbat or Sabbath.   In so doing you know that you are not fundamentally a slave, but you are imago dei, the image of God.   You are not a slave to royalty, you are royalty yourself.    

The first chapter of Genesis is probably the most influential piece of literature in Western culture.  Its cosmology has been replaced by modern cosmology and evolutionary theory, but it still has some mileage left in it for speaking about the dignity of the human.    

As opposed to being a slave to the gods, a cog in a machine, a consumer, an addict, cannon fodder, a number, worthless, or whatever other indignity can be heaped upon us from the outside or by ourselves, instead we say with our ancestors who survived great indignities and held their heads up, we are imago dei, the image of God. 

This metaphor has had some unfortunate consequences.  It has been used toward selfish ends.   Dominating the rest of creation for our own desires and justifying it because human beings are the image of god as opposed to the rest of creation has put us on an unsustainable course of action.    Image of God has too often meant: "We get to be boss."

When I started at my first congregation, my children were 7 and 5. When they realized that I was the minister of the church, they thought this was cool.   The five year old said, “This means we get to be boss of the other kids!”    I had to inform him of the sad news, “No it does not mean that.”

The image of God has too often been interpreted that human beings are boss—that we are more important than birds or bonobos and that our so-called needs, our habitats are more important than theirs.    We are slowly, hopefully not too late, recognizing that we are all in this together.   We are related literally, by our genes, to the birds and bees and bonobos and what happens to them happens to all.  

That is an important discussion.  What is the imago dei?   What about that metaphor for the human?  What does that metaphor do in regards to discussion about ecology, equality, or human self-worth?  Those metaphors are out there doing work, shaping our rhetoric.  We need discussion about them to evaluate them critically. 

The late Gordon Kaufman, who taught at Harvard for many years proposed that the symbol God in our time is undergoing a shift.   Rather than think of God as creator,  he proposed that God is creativity.   He wrote a book called In the Beginning, Creativity.    Not an agent or intelligence or force, but the word we use for that which comes into being.    Creativity is also seen in evolution itself and in yet another way, it is seen in human culture.   

Imago Dei is human creativity reflecting the creativity of our 13.8 billion year-old universe.   God is not a being to believe in or not believe in, God is the creativity in which we live.    But here is the key.  Here is the take home:  

To say it theologically means that there is a moral imperative.  

Nuclear weapons are a product of human creativity as well.   Creativity can heal or destroy.  Human beings can creatively come up with many ways to kill each other and the planet.    We can come up with many ways to heal as well. 

Creativity as Imago Dei means that our creativity has an ethical and moral imperative.     In the poetic refrain of the first chapter of Genesis, we hear “God saw that it was good.”  That goodness is the goal of our creativity in God’s image.   That goodness: compassion, gratitude, justice, beauty, harmony directs or creativity, shapes it, gives it courage.
I want to go back to Marcus Borg again.   What I most admire about him is that he never gave up on the Christian tradition as being outdated or outmoded.  He found there through hard work and creativity, wisdom that can speak to us and can shape our lives for the good.   

Borg often talked about the character of God.    For him God as revealed in the tradition was about justice and compassion.  God was also a symbol for mystery, for that which we cannot know but yet can trust.  

Since this season is about the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I want to close with the final two paragraphs of his last book, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most.  He speaks to this act of imagination and creativity:

For Christians in particular, the imagination is the home of our images of God, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and more.  Together, these images combine to create a vision of God’s character and dream.  They matter greatly, for they shape what we think the Christian life is about.

What’s it all about?  What’s the Christian life all about?  It’s about loving God and loving what God loves.  It’s about becoming passionate about God and participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world, here and now.  And the future, including what is beyond our lives?  We leave that up to God.


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