It’s amazing I never noticed before. شبه الله, imago Dei. I’ve been missing the trees for the forest all this time. Imago Dei, as in “we are made in the image of God.” I’ve explored the mystery of the phrase dozens of times, scouting that forest with friends and colleagues, historians, theologians, philosophers, artists, parents, to map what the elemental and ethereal stamp of God on us could be.
Is it our ability to create? Our rational enlightenment, our hunger for companions, our animating energies? Our capacity for empathy, our souls, our consciousness? Something about the pattern in our left thumbprints?
There are so many ways we are clearly unlike God that identifying a single trait—somehow incorruptible and indissoluble—that our wills, evolution, or company can’t destroy feels holy. And like the holy grail.
Walking the misty forest of the phrase, my loyalties unsurprisingly drift toward our ability to create. My experiences of artmaking, and even the rigors of craft, feel so similar to my spiritual journey and spiritual discipline that one feels bound to be an echo of the other.
Though, even now—as my son interrupts to confess eating extra ice cream then begs me to puff up my cheeks so he can smash the air out—parenting seems an equally likely element for God’s presence in its patterns of revelation, faith, slogging, and reward.
Imago Dei must be, at least, an action. Something about what we do—even if that’s something about how we “be”— seems a more toothsome definition of God’s imprint on us. Defining imago Dei as a noun also has dangers I’d rather not see repeated in theological or social form. As soon as we decide a degree of melatonin, an IQ number, or a chromosome quotient evidences God’s signature, we begin doing terribly un-godlike things.
But—as the writer has been slow to notice—the phrase is made up of nouns. Image. God. This forest is made of trees. Trees that have their own substance and could teach even an experienced tramper a thing or two.
In the image of God.
The image of God.
Image of God.
God of image.
God of the image.
God of the image in.
What if the image of God in us is actually that: our ability to image God? What if the imagination is neither artsy, frivolous, entrepreneurial, nor secular? What if the imagination is God’s signature, blessing, conception, offering, identity, and turf? What if the imagination is not only capacity but also arena? Imagination is past, present, and future: it’s where we remember, integrate, and create. It’s where we’re conscious, animated. It’s a place both in and out of time. Imagination is unique in each of us and common to us all.
This minute, close your eyes. Imagine something you yearn for with all your being. Something you crave so deeply and truly not even words can express it. See him walking up the front steps. Hear her humming. Feel the bundle in your arms. Inside the room of that vision, are you alone? Have you ever really been? What if you turn to look at the face of the one beside you?
What if the imagination is God’s living room? What if it’s sanctuary?
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