Jerusalem and Athens Forum: last updated 08/06/2009

The Imago Dei: Reflections of an Older Brother

by Joshua Hasler '09

I'll venture to say it's rare for college students to find infants when they return from their first year away from home. (Sorry to get anecdotal at the outset—but be comforted that my personal narrative will influence my sweeping clams about the nature of the Image of God.) With a very young sister around, reading children's stories has been a rewarding part of my visits home, and it probably comes as no surprise that reading about children tends to be more affecting for me since my sister was born.

It occurs to me that I write for many parents, grandparents, most of whom probably have had children for some time. But as a young and as-yet childless buck from undergrad, the experience of watching a young child grow and develop language from visit to visit is a strange and bizarre experience.

I begin this way for two reasons. First, that people like kids and my argument will only need those sympathies from here on out. And second, the relation between the image of a child and the image of God is, I think, inextricable.

It's probably true that, as another sister pointed out since my leaving for school, I've also become boring. Fair enough. But her observation illustrates the oft-bemoaned corollary of becoming: limit. To be anything is also to not be something else—to remove one infinity of possibility while adding another (although maybe less exciting). The point is an ancient one so I won't dwell on it. Hopefully a tenuous thesis emerges: kids are interesting because they're not yet much of anything.

The other half of my thesis is that children, by reason of their becoming, represent the substance of hope and good imagination in the human world. The clay, just animated by the breath of God, immediately begins growing, developing, making possibility. They begin to imagine, create and innovate. That imagination, the very substance of possibility, also contains the much needed prophetic voice in the disciplines of bioethics and ethics as a whole.

I use the term prophetic voice (now probably quite overused) metaphorically. That is, the use of certain abilities with which humanity is gifted for the outpouring of what we believe to be God's voice in absentia. That is, we do our best when God is not revealing. We also join a long tradition of imaginative exploration through stories and myths of warnings, exhortations and possibilities. It is this latter concept I think we are most apt to explore in the search for Imago Dei because it begins with something like birth and circles to something resembling a child.

P. D. James' Children of Men, in my philistine opinion, is one of the best books (and now movies) released in recent years. Its story deals primarily with the implosion of world order after several years of complete human infertility. It is not very surprising, then, how quickly the world descends into despair. Economies collapse; nuclear war and terrorism have devastated most of the world. James' United Kingdom has evolved into a totalitarian police state, bent on controlling the immigrant population seeking to enter the last bastion of civilization on the planet—only vaguely science fiction.

Our narratives of natality, childbirth and hope are closely linked in the framework of our own creativity whether it is artistic or scientific: They're both possibilities produced by imagination. Thus children both symbolize possibility and produce it. I think that's why James is able to write so effectively about the loss of childbirth. With her story she rearranges reality to include the possibility of their absence, and her result is poignant and horrifying.

One sees as many stories that put even more narrative weight on the shoulders of children. One thinks of Dickens or Lewis, in whose tales the youngest are often the few characters with clear faith or moral vision. In Samuel a child bears the name of symbolic grief for Israel's despair and anguish over the loss of the ark:

"And she named the child Ichabod, saying, 'The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…'" (1 Samuel 4:21)

Even for Christ the coming Kingdom of God belongs to "such as these."

True this line of thought is hardly groundbreaking. We've been told these things before by more insightful people than a Gordon senior. However, I think the conversation needs to break into the scientific discussion if we're going to make moral progress with this idea of human dignity or Imago Dei.

The possibility correlative to childbirth and natality goes beyond the scientific or the historical, both of which have yet to account for the universal transcendent dignity of the human person. Those things run deeper than physical facts or, as philosophers are sometimes apt to say, "states of affairs that obtain." Possibility is the space for both the epic and the mundane: the story. Miracles are as much a power of possibility as that act of doing dishes (in some apartments the two can be coterminous). For Tolkien the storyteller shares in the creative, image-making powers of God—Imago Dei— imagination that begs for ethical restraint can only restrain itself. That is, if we're to check it and keep it at the same time.

My intellectual separation from the hard sciences precludes my addressing the specifics of technological ethics. But rapidity of technological advances and the growing concern over our ability to judge between necessary imagination and dangerous innovation is open to view. Just watch the news.

Scientific possibility tends to outgrow law and ethics by years, but what about literature or art? This year the iRobot Corporation, a military contracted robotics company, released that it was having setbacks in programming appropriate ethical restraints in its products (Daily Telegraph, UK 16 February 2009). I have no idea if the ironic and not so subtle allusion to Asamov's stories was intended in the company's christening, but it remains a blaring example of a failure of "prophetic" warning to stick. Regardless if the novel itself is scientifically plausible, the very narrative possibility of the novel is used as a marketing tool rather than a warning. Asimov's voice of warning quickly turned ironic, but what can be done when stories grow impotent?

A good number of popular children's stories these days give priority to special children with special abilities. It's understandable, then, how the social imaginary emphasizes the enhanced, the outstanding and the best as desirable. Athletic, intelligent DNA is a precious commodity. Surprised?

It's a sobering fact that stories can be reevaluated, twisted, rejected or destroyed. They depend as much on interpretation as the scientist's data set. Their possibility gives weight to the real, but they may warn though they don't forestall. Certain stories may even reinforce a certain limitation on our imaginative possibilities that make us depend on certain external adjustments of science or fate to determine the worth of a human being or a child.

Let me be clear on this point. I do not think the Imago Dei is some innate ability of the human person to transcend the shackles of circumstance or the chains of upbringing for the sake of some imagined self-actualization. On the contrary, most of us are just folks. We're born muggles and quite happily so. We live our lives at home without visits to Narnia or Oz. Our factual circumstances are fairly limited. Hallelujah.

I believe we find Imago Dei in the possibility and presence of the other. I join Irish philosopher Richard Kearney in emphasizing that our encounter with the Kingdom of God will be in the everyday encounter with the last and the least—in the face of a child.

What of stories then? Of course we continue to tell them. New, better stories along with eager ears for old ones. The prophetic and creative voice grows hoarse, but its work is never complete. In my mind the need is for a reevaluation of what stories we will tell and how.

Is there room or reason for large stories that overlook the humble and mundane? The prevalence of the narrative of universal ideologies is responsible for the confusion about who counts as a valuable character and why. Until we can frame the question there will be few sustainable answers. This is no capitulation to the powers that be but rather a request for enrichment of efforts already set in motion by the passionate men and women involved in bioethical issues, politically, scientifically and socially, all working to ensure that children embody possibility rather than fall victim to the immediately prevailing mindset.

I realize this all gets very heady very fast. Which is why, personally, I frequently return to memories of my sister—back to the concrete person with a real, expressive face. It's her small hands—the ones that hold my bony, dry, clumsy hands through the parking lots and crowded room, hands that will one day write, draw, express, create, will likely care for their own children one day, when I am as old as many of you are now. I think that's fascinating. But those imaginary things are . . . well, imaginary. They are fictions she produces simply by being and playing and becoming. Similar potentialities may prove true one day and that's the very basis of hope—yet we are not able to reduce children or grown human beings even to the sum of their infinite potentials. Kids are not imaginative tropes any more than stories are always political or prophetic.

None of this is very politically expedient, I know, but since when are many of our deep convictions grounded solely in abstract principles? Nor is it very scientific. Indeed, from my perch in the humanities it is easy to look out over the new Science Center and wonder what my relation to it is. From my view the politician may deal in prescription, scientist in fact and the philosopher in truth, but we all find our common ends within the world of possibility, governed by true stories just as it is guided by fictions.

If we're to make any progress toward a bioethical standard on our invention and innovation, this is where we should begin. The argument is circular but not vicious. Kids are written before our eyes both creative and created. According to P. D. James, they're also the form and content of hope—the active image of God.


joshua Hasler