Twenty six verses into the first book of Genesis, the author posits one of the most radical ideas in all of human history.
“And he said, Let us make man to our image and likeness.”
Such is how humanity is introduced in the account of the creation of the world, in Genesis 1:26. It was not enough to say that mankind would have dominion over all the creatures of the land, sea, and air—and presumably possess the higher powers of intellect and will that would enable such dominion. It was not enough to say that we would come to have dominion over the entire earth as we became fruitful and multiplied. No—the author starts off with this bomb of a statement.
If it doesn’t sound that radical perhaps a contrast with pagan religious thought and philosophy helps. In his treatise On the Soul, Aristotle had written that the soul “is in a way all existing things.” In other words, we might say that the soul is a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Aristotle thought of the soul in this way because of our ability to know and sense things around us. Our ability to sense the objects around us implies some unity between our minds and those objects. We sense or know, for example, of the existence of a stone, Aristotle says. But the soul is not the stone itself. Instead, the form of the stone is in the soul. And so it is with other things we see and know, extending even to the very stars and galaxies.
Aristotle’s notion of the soul as a macrocosm, admittedly, has a certain beauty to it. But even this seemingly noble notion pales in comparison to what Genesis 1:26 is saying. The universe is indeed vast and beautiful. But we are made in the image of the One who is infinite Beauty itself. We are, furthermore, an icon of the infinitely Good One who has the power and wisdom to make an entire world out of nothing. One could go on listing the attributes of God. Just those two alone are mind-rattling.
Ultimately, Aristotle’s conception of the soul fails to recognize the dignity of humanity, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Church Father:
How mean and how unworthy of the majesty of man are the fancies of some heathen writers, who magnify humanity, as they supposed, by their comparison of it to this world! For they say that man is a little world, composed of the same elements with the universe. Those who bestow on human nature such praise as this by a high-sounding name, forget that they are dignifying man with the attributes of the gnat and the mouse: for they too are composed of these four elements—because assuredly about the animated nature of every existing thing we behold a part, greater or less, of those elements without which it is not natural that any sensitive being should exist. What great thing is there, then, in man’s being accounted a representation and likeness of the world—of the heaven that passes away, of the earth that changes, of all things that they contain, which pass away with the departure of that which compasses them round? (On the Making of Man)
Against Aristotle and other ancients, Gregory sets the biblical doctrine that man is made in the image of God. It’s truly an awe-inspiring doctrine of man. As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions:
And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves (Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 8).
But this is no reason for us to be proud. As important as it is to appreciate what Genesis is saying we must also take care to note what it does not say. We are made in the image (and likeness) of God. We are not little gods ourselves, Greek-style heroes with extraordinary abilities, or demi-gods. Our greatness, such as it is, lies in the extent to which we reflect the greatness and goodness of God. It is not the picture that should be admired, but the One pictured.
The fact that we are created as an image means that our whole existence is to be understood in relation to Another. It follows that in order to understand ourselves we must enter into some kind of a relationship with this Other. Only in knowing this Other can we truly know ourselves. Our existence as an image both implies this and points the way forward: as an image of God the Creator, we know that we cannot find Him within creation. We must look elsewhere, beyond the stars and the farthest galaxies. As Augustine puts it in On the Trinity:
Wherefore they who seek God through those Powers which rule over the world, or parts of the world, are removed and cast away far from Him; not by intervals of space, but by difference of affections: for they endeavor to find a path outwardly, and forsake their own inward things, within which is God. … Behold, God is Love: why do we go forth and run to the heights of the heavens and the lowest parts of the earth, seeking Him who is within us, if we wish to be with Him? (On the Trinity, Book 8, Chapter 7)
Although it may not involve travel through time and space to the ends of the universe, our search for God is nonetheless a cosmic quest of its own—one that, to paraphrase Augustine, takes us to heights of virtue and joy as well as through depths of sin, despair, and temptation.