Perceiving the Image of God
I have never quite believed Christians who declare that they’ve never thought of God as male but only as spirit. I suspect that this non-personal designation leaves a void that is too easily filled by Western art, biblical pronouns, and prayers to God as Father and Lord. The patriarchy must be lurking somewhere in their theology! Without serious intervention, the word “God” implies “male” in this context. For the traditions that proclaim that humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), this suggests that ruling males resemble God more than the rest of us.
My initial interest in Hindu traditions, and in comparative theology, was sparked by the profusion of female deities in the Hindu imagination—beautiful and terrible, all-pervasive and powerful. Human God/dess-talk encapsulates what societies value most. Perhaps these divine women represented alternative images that could uproot, replace, or at least stand alongside the masculine divine.
This romantic attraction was quickly tempered by the scholarly literature of the 1990s and early 2000s, which debated the role of the Goddess in empowering women, with particular emphasis on the patriarchal mechanisms that circumvent Her liberative potential. This critique coincided with the realization in Christian feminist theology that, despite Christian efforts to empower women in religious and social settings by retrieving the feminine divine, traces of a patriarchal mindset persist—even within the psyches of women who find this work most compelling (Knight 2011).
I recently took up Neela Bhattacharya Saxena’s Absent Mother God of the West. A worshipper of the black female deity Kali since childhood, Saxena denies ever having internalized the anti-body and anti-woman dualism that pervades so many cultures. She writes,
I was puzzled by the fact that neither white supremacy nor male posturing of superiority phased my internal environment in any significant way. Somehow I had escaped the internalized racist and sexist oppression, and … I found myself both consciously and unconsciously resisting the ideology of a reductive modernity. (Saxena 2016: 7)
“Could this be true?” I wondered. “Is a world really possible in which the tentacles of patriarchy, racism, cisgender privilege, and homophobia cease to grasp our imaginations—or in which they never take hold at all?”
Despite my skepticism, I’ve concluded after some reflection that Saxena’s bemusement with the spiritual struggles of Western feminists is actually quite refreshing. Isn’t this just the kind of world I am trying to create through my own constructive theological scholarship—one in which God-talk empowers and affirms all people?
My new book, Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology (released by Fortress Press this month), works on this problem from a different angle, starting not with the divine attributes but with those who bear the divine image. The driving question of Body Parts is not only how one can recognize the divine image in oneself, but also how humans might reflexively perceive it in others.
In considering the claim that human beings are created in the image of God, I want to go beyond the idea that the image is “spirit.” Dialogue with Hindu traditions—specifically, the Trika Saivism of Kashmir— has encouraged me consider a broader set of features of human existence as God’s image. How might the elements, the organs of sense and action, features of subjectivity, limitations, and a range of states of consciousness reflect the divine? What openings in the Christian tradition lend assistance to this thought experiment?
The earlier feminist debates asked whether changing our ideas about God and humanity really changes how we treat one another. In order for expansions in God-talk to change our relations on the ground, we need more than helpful ideas. We need practices that enable these ideas to migrate from our heads to the rest of our fully embodied selves. This is why each chapter of Body Parts concludes with practices to heighten awareness of the image of God in a different dimension of being human. I’ve also created a companion resource on my website, “Practicing the Image of God,” which can be used independently for this purpose.
In this #metoo moment, I envision another world, and I do see it breaking in. My daughter is learning to pray at a church that teaches her that God is not a boy’s name. Even more importantly, she is learning practices that encourage her to encounter the divine in silence, in her imagination, in nature, and in the body. With practices like these, perhaps she and her friends will grow up acknowledging the divine image in others quite naturally. Many of us, however, still have some uprooting to do.
Berila Beth., Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy. London: Routledge, 2016.
Knight, Jennie S. Feminist Mysticism and Images of God. St. Louis: Chalice, 2011.
Saxena, Neela Bhattacharya. Absent Mother God of the West: A Kali Lover’s Journey into Christianity and Judaism. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016.
Voss Roberts, Michelle. Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017