In our striving, in and through our various faith systems, to create a pervasive, active sense of radical welcome that moves us to a just, compassionate, egalitarian world, a central theme in our framework is this thing we call the imago dei: the image of God.
In Hebrew, the originating concept of the image of God is phrased as tselem Elohim: צֶ֫לֶם אֱלֹהִים. Elohim is the term used to refer to God. The word, tselem, like all Hebrew words, carries layers of meaning. From a root signifying, to shade, the word is meaningfully understood as a shadow, resemblance, representative image, a phantom, image, or implication of something; in this case, of God. There is much here to look into more deeply, if we dare to do so.
What we can read here—and, indeed, many have read—is that our likeness to God is like that of a shadow to the light which forms it. In other words, at a certain angle, from a certain perspective, we are creatures who are a shadowy resemblance of God, something that suggests—perhaps, hints at—the essence of God: this, in the same way a shadow points to the light which casts it. The shadow is not the light. More, the shadow cannot exist without the light. We could also say, more pointedly, that the light needs the shadow in order to be seen—to be distinguished and discerned. If all is light, we see only light. And, we go blind.
Explicit in all of this is a central revelation: this image of God is not a physical thing. Moreover, the phrasing “tselem Elohim” throughout the verses referring to humans, does not contain indicators of the definite article, “the.” Therefore, the text does not say, “The image of God” at all. Rather, the verbiage is “An image of God”—perhaps, an image God had in mind, a representative image God possessed; an envisioned thing; one of many. We earth-beings are individual creations God imagined, envisioned, and made, much like an artist images, then creates, a drawing or painting. It is the artist’s image, but is decidedly not the artist. Nonetheless, it carries, always, something of the artist in it. More, the image, itself, is always and ever, IN the artist. Thus, we can say we are in God, and God is in us.
At a deeper level, we can surmise that there is no definite article, “the,” for God or for the image because there is not, and cannot be, a single image for God. God cannot be reduced to a single image, concept, or manifestation. By extension, then, the same is true for any image God has of us. We are images of God’s imagining, intended to bear some resemblance of God in the world—some essence that, itself, points back to our Creator. So, we ask ourselves: what is the essence of this image of God we were created to bear forth in the world?
If we are shadowy resemblances of God, if we are the shade God casts on the world, then what is our purpose? I think we can glean that our purpose is that of the shadow: to point to, or direct attention to, the light that is our source. More, we are, perhaps, to make brighter the core of light within us. We are images that make clear there is a light that causes us to be, that makes us visible and distinguishes us, one from another. Thus, the essence of God that we point to—that we carry forth into the world—is spiritual in nature, intangible, and most assuredly, relational. It is our interaction with one another, our relationality, that makes our essence, our resemblance to the essence of God, accessible and tangible in the world we inhabit.
I am enticed to wonder: what if we were able to really embrace this concept? How might we greet and interact with one another if we took to heart that we are God’s envisioned images, creations ever pointing back to the Light that formed us? Not just some of us, but all of us? Each of us AN image of God.
How might we be transformed if we were to accept that even a shadow bears a point of light within it—that, at its center, even a shadow bears the light that birthed it? How might we treat ourselves and each other if we realize we, too, are resemblances bearing something of the Light of our Creator? It is, to me, a rather terrifying truth to consider…perhaps, this is what it means to stand before God, trembling in awe, as there is profound responsibility within such a realization; but, it is also equally exhilarating and inviting, potentially calling to our deepest longings.
Would we embrace, in the passing of the peace, the person who seems to be talking to their-self and appears a bit disheveled by our standards? How might we respond to the bearded person who enters our doors wearing a stunning dress and combat boots…or the apparently pregnant person, equally bearded, wearing a suit and tie? Could we recognize, in the homeless person we pass by, the grumpy person in line at the grocery store, the person who stole our wallet, the shadowy resemblance of the Holy Light that cast them? Could we recognize, in our own perfectly imperfect selves, the sacred Light that makes us, too, visible? Would we be able to see an image pointing us to the awe-inspiring Source, and lifting our heads seeking, stare full-faced into the Light? Would we allow ourselves, even for a moment, to gaze into the glaring brightness of that Light, squinting in joyous desire to see even more deeply?
Or, forgetting we are already in the light and the light is in us, would we turn away, fearing we’ll go blind?