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Imago Dei

David Cowles

Oct 12, 2023

“…Knowing I am made in God’s image tells me exactly 'nothing'. Or does it?”

According to Judeo-Christian theology, we are all made in the image and likeness of God. This is usually cited as a way of understanding human nature; but does it help? It works only if ab initio we know all there is to know about God and nothing about ourselves. In that case, knowing that we are Imago Dei would tell us a great deal about ourselves; but that is not reality.

IRL, ‘all we know on earth’ begins…and ends…with self-knowledge. We know ourselves alone. Whatever else we may claim to know is known only through personal experience (sensory, emotional, intuitive), including what we learn, formally and informally, from others. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but it is we who are standing. 

On the other hand, it is safe to say that we know nothing, or next to nothing, about God. We’ve been told, “God is ineffable. God is a mystery. God overflows our powers of comprehension.” Then knowing I am made in God’s image tells me nothing.

Or does it? What if we stand the paradigm on its head? What if we use our ‘image-status’ as a way to acquire knowledge of God? After all, if we are the image of God then we should be able to learn a lot about God simply by paying attention to ourselves. We are God’s reflection and that enables us to reflect on what’s being reflected, i.e., on the nature of God.

This is a gorgeous morning, sunny and warm, and the air is dry and pollution free; I think I’ll pay a visit St. Ives (Cornwall, England). But I have a wee problem. British Rail is now requiring us to declare the total number of living organisms ‘in my party’. 

So before I left for the train station, I took inventory. My body consists of approximately 30 trillion (3*10^13) eucaryotic cells (cells with nuclei), linked together by various inorganic molecules (e.g. water) to form a massive ‘society’, aka ‘my body’.  

Each such cell is an independent organism, a unicellular animal; in turn, each eucaryotic cell is home, on average, to 1,000 mitochondria, prokaryotic cells (cells without nuclei, e.g., bacteria) that have chosen to live and reproduce inside a eukaryotic host. This means that 3*10^16 cells are traveling with me to St. Ives.

In addition my ‘body’ houses about 100 trillion uninvited, but mostly welcome symbionts (bacteria), each of course with its own DNA as well. Fortunately, however, ‘the man’ in the ticket booth tells me that there’s no need to count these ‘fellow travelers’. I am more concerned that the ‘ticket master’ accept my admittedly rough count.  

But today is my lucky day! He waves me through, and I prepare to pay for the 3*10^16 organisms in my party, when he reminds me: “That’s 3*10^16 + 1” (me).

Considering that all of us are societies of cells, and nothing else, it’s a bit surprising that most of us know so little about them. We think of them as though they were fundamental particles, quanta, black boxes or ball bearings; if we’re posh-educated, we might understand cells as sacks of fluid enclosing a DNA filled nucleus protected by inner and outer membranes. 

If that’s your understanding of a cell, your posh parents wasted their money. Cells are independent life forms. They are the direct descendants of ‘animals’ that once lived on their own in the primal ooze. They eat, they breathe, they reproduce, they self-propel, they respond to environmental stimuli, and they communicate with one another. Together they form a social organization, a ‘society’, …aka the United States of You.

Note: There are 3*10^8 people living in the USA today. So my traveling party is 8 orders of magnitude bigger than the entire country. Stunning, don’t you think?

Let’s be clear. You are nothing other than the cells that form your body; but you are not any one of these cells, nor are you a cell yourself, nor are you the sum of the behaviors of these cells. You are something altogether different. You are an ‘emergent ontological phenomenon’ (an ‘EOP’) and, oh by the way, you are also the image and likeness of God.

Again, let’s be clear. You did not create your cells, you did not organize them, you are not responsible for their behavior. They are what they are, and they do what they do, somewhat like your teenaged offspring. But in every sense of the word you ‘transcend’ the society of cells. 

You are neither cells nor a ‘product’ of cells. You are an independent phenomenon, emergent from the network of cells you call your ‘body’. For you, there was never a moment when there was not a ‘you’; you are coterminal with time itself. You and the society of cells that constitute you are complementary. You utterly transcend, yet perfectly template, each another. 

So back to the beginning, if you are an EOP and the image and likeness of God, may we not at least conjecture that God too is an EOP, a transcendent ‘emergent ontological phenomenon’ whose templated substructure is Universe?  

This is not pantheism; it’s not even panentheism. God remains entirely transcendent even as he is entirely immanent – hmm, sounds a bit like Judeo-Christianity, doesn’t it? An idea this radical must be brand new, right? It must be an original contribution of Aletheia Today to theology. 

Or not so much! The idea of God as an EOP templating Universe was first proposed a few years back, c. 1450 CE in fact, by a prominent Christian philosopher and bishop, Nicholas of Cusa. Oh well, next issue!


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