Images of Scriptural Reasoning

Willie Young 
King’s College, Pennsylvania

This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning opens a conversation among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the meanings of being in the image of God. Yet, where being in God?s image might be thought only to signify the spiritual or rational life of humanity, these essays suggest that the image of God bears within it profound significance for how we conceive of relationality. Beginning from the work of Steve Kepnes, Kurt Richardson, and Muhammad Umar, these authors and their respondents draw out a range of ways that the image of God opens onto questions regarding the relations and practices that constitute our lives. In the light of Genesis 1:26-27 (NRSV), the different issues raised in these essays and responses can be loosely and unsystematically brought together, suggesting that the diversity of responses, styles, and topics may speak to the polymorphous nature of humanity, and the possibilities that divine creativity engenders.

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”

The creation of humanity begins differently than that of other creatures, with God’s saying “Let us,” a plural, middle-voiced activity, as God permits in commanding. That which is created, “humankind,” is created in an image, according to one likeness. Here, we have an apparent plurality (“our”) within the creator, and oneness in the creation. The image of God, then, is humanity’s being-in-relation to God, a “triadic” relation as Kepnes says, as such relation becomes inseparable from intrahuman relations in the ensuing verses. Likewise, in reflecting on the Gospel of John, Richardson?s paper sets forth a Trinitarian version of divine creativity, in which the relations between God and logos generate the human image, whose plurality unfolds from its shaping in light of the uniqueness of Christ. In Umar’s essay, divine unity is maintained throughout; however, creativity nonetheless exhibits the plenitude of God, as God’s attributes extend throughout the diversity of creation, while humanity unites all of the attributes that other creatures reflect deficiently.

In creation, divinity is mediately present to humanity. Kepnes offers several possible readings: the “image” suggests a divine instrument, while the “Let us” may signify a solicitation on God’s part of human cooperation in creation itself. On both counts, Kepnes’ reflections on how the Torah helps humanity to counter the evil principle may perhaps be read as carrying out such creation. For Richardson, Christology provides a focus for understanding creation, as humanity is created anew in and through Christ. Initially, one might not expect such mediation within Islam; however, as Umar states, in that the Qur’an is the “full expression” of God’s word, which is ever only partially embodied by any person at any time, it is through the Qur’an that God?s image is created in humanity. Thus, in surprising ways, an element of mediation emerges from each tradition’s account of creation. Such mediation, it seems, also lends definition to human nature, as shaped by Torah, Christ as logos, or Qur’an.

Still, there is also the question of what it means to be in the “likeness” of God, as Kepnes writes, how can one be in the image of a God who transcends representation? The question of how the image of God must be an “open-ended image,” in Kepnes’ words, also leads into issues of iconoclasm in Christianity, in terms of which sorts of representation are appropriate to God. Umar’s essay captures the dialectical approaches of tanzih and tasbih, negation and participation, through which humanity and creation as a whole are seen as sharing in God’s attributes while also falling short of any comprehensive depiction.

In exploring these issues, one of the central questions of the essays emerges: given that human activity can often take a unitary, finite form that closes off plurality – in action, thought, or representation – how can we responsibly imitate, conceive, and depict the infinite God? As Chad Pecknold describes it, without recognizing the “third thing” that remains mysterious, the truth about God may be hidden from us. Gen. 1:26 suggests that in our created being, there is a tendency toward uniformity, or what Dan Hardy terms “normativity,” which may not grasp the fullness of the creator who has engendered it. As created, this tendency can be good; its importance is perhaps partly captured in Mark Ryan’s discussion of formation. Still, in these verses, questions remain as to how it is so.

“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.”

This segment of Gen. 1:26 has not received as intense scrutiny in these works of scriptural reasoning as the preceding and following verses. However, Umar’s discussion of humanity as the vicegerent of God clearly parallels the idea of dominion. It suggests, then, that being in God?s image requires recognizing the signs of God in creation. Such dominion, then, is both submission and participation, a form of responsibility and guardianship that may not easily fit established political categories or environmental ethics.

The issue of dominion also arises in several responses. First, Hardy asks if the sociopolitical implications of these texts, and of the pressure toward “atemporal” normativity therein, receive adequate consideration. How we conceive dominion, vicegerency, the reading of scriptural and worldly signs, and the reading of one another’s scriptural signs, are all interrelated and complex questions. Such complexity may trouble our reading, if it is not hidden by a too-hasty move to definition.

Rachel Muers also raises a question that could be paraphrased as follows: to have dominion over “every creeping thing” – what does this imply not only for our relation to the world, and to one another, now, but also in relation to both history and future generations? How should we read narratives in ways that recognize the profundity found therein by authors and subsequent readers, without reducing the text to a unitary meaning? Moreover, how do we read texts in ways that will be the genesis of future readers, helping to shape them in the image of God, rather than in the static image of ourselves?

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

If Gen.1:26 moves from divine plenitude to human unity, here we have the reverse: human plurality (“them”) emerges in the act of creation, differentiation as the initial blessing conveyed to humanity (textually, is it also, here, that God becomes one so that we might become many?). Both Kepnes and Pecknold read the differentiation of male and female as generative of multiple human differences, symbolizing inner and outer life, theory and practice, and others. The question thus emerges: how can we adequately conceive, and live, this diversity, establishing relations across difference? In Kepnes? words, how do we keep the divisions from turning into dichotomies?

Here, the tendency toward normativity or definition becomes most precarious. This is, as several authors note, a problem internal to scriptural reasoning itself. For, as Kepnes notes, the privilege of contemplation can lead away from practical engagement, much as Adam is absent during Eve’s discussion with the serpent. Similarly, a focus on abstraction may keep us from recognizing the embodiment and historicity central to our humanity (as Ryan’s response suggests). Likewise, a focus on indicative, assertoric patterns of reasoning may eclipse the range of possibilities found in other modes of discourse?as, for instance, David Ford suggests may be found in subjunctive speech, which retains a greater openness to possibility. Ford?s concern converges with the concern of Muers mentioned above, as an indicative reading of scripture may miss the text?s midrashic character, effacing traditional practices of reading and the possibility of generating new readings both today and in the future. How we can bring together different modes of reading and reasoning, and create a sociality in which they flourish, may figure the broader social and political challenges which the image of God?s diversity poses.

The preceding is only a brief glimpse at the broad range of profound questions raised by the essays and responses here, hardly touching their subtlety and scholarship. Still, perhaps a way into them is illuminated by Kris Lindbeck’s contribution, which brings a poetic discourse into the conversation itself. This poetry clearly creates a space for multiplicity and diversity, but in a way that includes the indicative along with the subjunctive and midrashic; for, one can poetically read the closing as Adam and Eve “making way” for the image of God who is the second Adam (as Kurt Richardson indicatively proposes), or the Torah or the Qur’an. Her poetry also highlights the ineradicable demand of labor, of practice, no longer contemplating or arguing without a care in the world. And, it is a poetry that voices the groaning of creation at human sin, reading and hearing the signs in the world around us, so that we weep for others, and not ourselves. Perhaps it is in such creative reading and thinking that we can begin the reparative tasks before us, and imagine scriptural reasoning in its deepest and fullest sense.

Editors? Note : Particularly in light of the preceding comments, this issue is ?open-ended.? We encourage further responses to the essays here, either as addenda to the issue to be added at a later date, or as stand-alone essays for inclusion in a future issue.

We would like to thank Mark Ryan for his willingness to guest edit the issue when the need arose on short notice. His work was invaluable to its production, and we are deeply grateful for his commitment. We also would like to welcome Patrick Lyons, a student at King?s College, who is providing valuable editorial assistance. Many thanks for their aid in this issue, and on issues to come.