Imago Dei

Human beings have the spark of divinity in them and poverty degrades and defaces the image of God in people. That’s why it’s a scandal.
- Peter Heslam

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  • Rudy Carrasco on Capacity and Responsibility

    Every single person on the face of the planet is created in God’s image. Everybody has the same heavenly Father. Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility. I don’t care what dirt hovel you’re living in, in Brazil or Mexico City or Manila. You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that’s waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.

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  • Peter Heslam on Imago Dei

    In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there’s the belief that human beings are made in the image of God, so they have the spark of divinity in them and poverty degrades and defaces the image of God in people. That’s why it’s a scandal.

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  • Damian Von Stauffenberg on the Role and the Limits of Charity

    Charity has its place in emergency situations…. A life that is lived on as a recipient of charity is a miserable life. I think, in our DNA, the way God made us, we are made as co-creators. God wants us to perfect and to really finish His creation. And if you’re simply a recipient of charity, you’re not doing that; you’re not fulfilling your real destiny, which is this creative capacity that God has endowed us with, we’re letting that creative capacity sit idle. I think that’s—at probably at the deepest level that I can reach—what’s so inadequate about the traditional response to poverty.

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  • Michael Miller on Foreign Aid “Getting the Person Wrong”

    While there are some success stories, aid has been largely ineffective. Now why is that? John Paul II said that “The primary fault of socialism was anthropological in nature.” What he meant was, socialism failed because it got the person wrong. Well, I would argue that aid failed because it gets the person wrong.

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  • C. Neal Johnson on Our God-Given Creativity

    God is an incredibly creative individual, and He said that I’m making men and women in my own image. He made us to be creative individuals … He gave a number of things to humanity and to mankind and said, ‘Look, this is who I want you to be. This is who I’ve made you to be. I want you to take dominion. I want you to exercise your creative gifts.’

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  • C. Neal Johnson on Handouts vs. Paychecks

    It’s easier to write a check than it is to give of yourself.… All too often that’s what the people in the pews have done and the churches have told us, that the NGOs have told us – that’s all they need, they want our money ... But when you go to find people in these countries, and they don’t have jobs and you realize what they need is not just a check, but they need a job, they need meaningful work. God made us creative, he made us to work—what they need is the kind of dignity that comes with a paycheck that says, ‘Somebody values my services, somebody values my life, and I have dignity.’

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  • Susan Wise Bauer on How Christian Anthropology Promoted Human Rights

    After Constantine there was at least an acknowledgement that there was a higher authority than the will of the king. Human nature being what it is, many kings and monarchs then claimed that their will was the same as the higher authority, that they were, in fact, the direct representatives of God. This, of course, is a distortion. But, the Christian principle that the highest authority in the universe is the will of God and is not the will of the monarch and, furthermore, that the image of God is in each man and is not just in the monarch would eventually help to fight against tyranny.

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  • Susan Wise Bauer on the Idea that “All Men are Created Equal”

    The idea that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain rights is not at all a new idea. It is, in fact, as the phrasing indicates, it is in the creation story. God put his image in man. It is in the Old Testament accounts of Israel trying to find justice for the poor. It is in the Minor Prophets. It is in the New Testament when Paul says, ‘Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Jesus Christ.’

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  • Robert George on How Relativism Undermines the Case for Human Rights

    If all things are relative in matters of subjective opinion, then the belief in the dignity of the individual, the belief that people ought not to be enslaved, the idea that people should have their freedom respected, the idea that all citizens should participate in government and have a right to—the democratic ideal—all of those would be undermined. There would be no reason for believing those. The contrary opinions of Stalin or Hitler would have just as great a claim to governing, to ruling, as, our own claims for democratic freedom and liberty … If freedom and democracy are in fact defensible, then it’s not because there is no absolute truth. Rather it’s because that is the truth. The truth about man is that man has a special dignity that requires that his fundamental freedoms be respected and that he be entitled to participate as a full citizen in the affairs of the community.

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  • George Weigel on the Source of Freedom

    The question is, where did Europe learn its dignity? Where did European men and women learn that they were people of inalienable or inherent dignity and value, who had a right to be consulted about how they were ruled? Where did Europe learn that the prince is also subject to the law? Where did Europe learn that there was a moral law written on the human heart, moral truths that we can know by reason? Where did Europe learn that persuasion is better than coercion in the doing of the public business? One answer to that is that it learned it only in the Enlightenment, only in the 17th Century and the subsequent history embodied by the French Revolution. I think that’s a desperately foreshortened and truncated answer.

    “European humanity learned its dignity in the school of Christian freedom, in the rich social pluralism of the medieval world, in those biblical stories we see in the glass of Notre Dame, which taught European men and women that they were made in the image and likeness of God, that they were somebody not just some thing.

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  • Michael Novak on a Chinese Study Investigating Why the West Leapt Forward

    We are made in the image of God to be creators, and this imperative, this vocation has made people who descend from Jews and Christians particularly energetic in creating and exploring, and discovering. They had the idea that God created the world, and He created it good. He saw that it was good, and so I think they felt the imperative of “Be not afraid.” We don’t understand what’s going to happen but let’s risk it, and I think there was a bravery inherent in the Jewish and Christian ideas that have led to one discovery after another. I recently read a report of a study done by Chinese scholars trying to say, what is it that made the West jump forward? A thousand years ago, China was ahead of the rest in invention and discovery with gun powder and other things. Why did the West jump further and further ahead? They said, we’ve studied everything, your military power, your engineers, your mathematicians, your— everything. We think the one thing that is distinctive is your religion because this penetrates through the whole population, the people at the very bottom, and it makes other people who live at the very bottom often are the people that lead in the future. They have confidence in themselves. They have a vocation and, and they feel the obligation to lunge forward.

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  • Samuel Gregg on Christianity and a Proper Understanding of People

    The real mystery, the real mystery of economic development, I would argue, is essentially Christianity. Why? Christianity contains a view of human beings as creators. It has a strong sense of the importance of property – not just for economic reasons, but also for the moral reasons that we know private property changes the way people view themselves and other people in their entire lives.

    So, it’s not just a question of resolving little problems that upset us. It’s not just a question of more efficiently arranging things. It’s about living out our vocation as Christians.That’s why we’re concerned about the poor, not because we’re trying to build utopia but because they are our Christ in front of us. We need to see Christ in front of us and in the eyes of the poor, and then look back in through our tradition to understand why we help the poor and the best ways of doing so.

    More from Samuel Gregg
  • Marcos Hilding Ohlsson on Christianity Instills Hope

    When you work in these places, you can see the difference of people who have been transformed by Christ. Actually, as Christianity, it’s not only a spiritual matter, it’s also a social factor of change. You would see, it’s quite encouraging to go on a Sunday evening to church. Church is maybe a small place in a small building, packed, and people probably dressed, and they care about their health and they care about their education, and people begin to read their bibles, and it’s just by reading and thinking and have to take decisions and responsibility for your actions, and that makes them try to prosper.

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Made in the Image of God—Rich and Poor Alike

The idea that all humans are “created equal” would have struck most peoples of the ancient world as ludicrous, since humans are obviously not equal in wealth, rank or natural abilities. Aristotle merely summarized conventional wisdom when he asserted that some are fitted to serve as slaves while others are born with the natural capacity and authority to rule. As sociologist and historian Rodney Stark notes, the institution of slavery was universal for most of human history.

The idea of human equality, however, received a foothold in Western thought from the Hebrew idea that every human is created in the image of God and so possesses inherent dignity and worth. This understanding was reinforced by the specifically Christian doctrine that God entered human history as a man, died for the sins of all humanity, and that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.”

These ideas worked in the face of hatred, greed and hypocrisy to gradually improve the rights of medieval European peasants, and to undergird the abolition movements of England, Europe and the United States. The idea also can have an important role in helping the poor and oppressed of today’s world to achieve liberty and flourish.

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Table of Contents

  • Made in the Image of God—Rich and Poor Alike
  • Stewards in the Image of God
  • Made in the Image of God—Influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence
  • Made in the Image of God—A Lost Foundation
  • Made in the Image of Relativism
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Stewards in the Image of God

The biblical account of humans made in the image of God also undergirds the idea of humans as stewards of the rest of creation. It’s been argued that the West is the first civilization in history to extend the rights of private property to a substantial percentage of its members, in part because of this idea that humans are made in the image of God and given stewardship responsibility by God. This view of the human person suggests that such creatures are meant to have a stewardship responsibility over what has come into their possession by honest means, a responsibility that should be honored and encouraged by the state rather than violated. This view of the human person also emphasizes the creative capacity of humans, since they are understood to be made in the image of the Creator. Materialist anthropologies have tended to lapse into fixed-pie or zero-sum-game thinking when it comes to questions of wealth and poverty, whereas the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as sub-creators has encouraged enterprise and wealth creation for rich and poor alike.

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Made in the Image of God—Influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence

The U.S. Declaration of Independence contains arguably the most famous assertion of human equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s clear from the various provisions of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution that the American Founders were not calling for a society that pursued equality of wealth, rank or ability. Some have argued that the equality the American Founders had in mind is equality in the eyes of the law. However, the American Founders argued from an inherent and self-evident equality to unalienable rights for all people. That they could declare this idea to be self-evident speaks to how deeply the doctrine of the imago dei (made in the image of God) had penetrated their thinking.

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Made in the Image of God—A Lost Foundation

In the modern era, the principle of human equality has been detached from its theological foundation. In this form the institution of private property has been attacked as making people “unequal,” since some have an enormous share of private property while others have little more than the clothes on their back. This fixation on the wealth gap is a confusion made easier by a secular culture that has lost connection with the ultimate source and nature of human equality. Possessions are what one has, not what one is. Moreover, only human beings can own property, a sign of their intrinsic human dignity.

The principle of equality stripped of its theological foundation also has encouraged a view of the family as an oppressive construct of male power. The reality is that where the institution of the family has been dramatically undermined—as in the case of “underclass” cultures marked by high rates of out-of-wedlock birth and absentee fathers—the culture also sees high levels of social pathology, including increased violence against women and girls.

Conversely, the principle that every human is made in the image of God has worked gradually to enhance the rights of women and children in the West, both within and beyond the institution of the family. Although many of these rights were slow in coming to women, the Christianized West was nevertheless the first civilization in history to extend a robust array of human rights to women on a broad scale. Today the doctrine of imago dei is a crucial instrument in the struggle to extend the right to life to unborn babies, and to preserve the right to life for old people who in some states in the U.S. and in some European countries are increasingly under pressure to opt for forms of active euthanasia.

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Made in the Image of Relativism

Although the Judeo-Christian worldview has encouraged the principle of human equality in the West, an understanding of equality divorced from its theological foundations sees Christianity as the enemy of human equality. According to this view, Christianity undermines equality because it is intolerant of other beliefs and practices. On close inspection this attack turns out to be an attack on many religions since it rejects the idea of a transcendent moral order and ends in moral relativism. By removing any firm basis for distinguishing absolute good from evil, the relativist loses the wherewithal to make a moral case for basic human rights.

These various misunderstandings concerning the nature of human equality spring from a failure to recognize that the principle of human equality at the foundation of the freedom project in the West doesn’t insist that humans should be equal in rank or wealth; rather it insists that every human possess an inherent dignity and worth that governments and individuals should respect. The recognition of this distinction, along with an appreciation for the theological basis for the development of human rights in the West, can play a crucial role in further extending human rights to the poor of the developing world.

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