Thursday, October 27, 2016

God's Image and Likeness

As most if not all of us know, it's written in the Book of Genesis that God made us in his image and likeness.  Somewhat strangely, God's portrayed there as speaking to himself prior to our creation.  "Let us make man [or mankind, or human beings, depending on the translation] in our image, in our likeness" God muses, or suggests to himself.

It happens that there were (and are) others besides the Hebrews and their successors in interest in Genesis who believe that we're the image and likeness of God or the gods, or at least believed that God or the gods resemble us to a startling degree.  The ancient Greek and Roman pagans, for example.

Certain of the ancients portrayed their gods as being hybrids, odd mixtures of humans and animals.  The ancient Egyptians did this, of course.  Certain cultures conceived of them as being particular animals.

It's interesting to speculate on the reasons for our tendency to worship divinities so like ourselves (at least, I find it interesting); our tendency, in other words, to worship ourselves.  The observation that this is what we do is so commonplace that it's thought perfectly natural or to be expected.  So we say things like "if horses had a god, it would be a horse."  Very well, then.  In that case, why do we so think and expect?

The simple fact is that physically, we're not particularly godlike.  If physical attractiveness or ability are worthy of worship or are considered to be aspects of divinity, a human god would seem unworthy.  There are animals far more graceful, more beautiful than we are as a rule.  There are animals faster, stronger than we are; animals that fly though we cannot; animals that are physically superior to us in many ways.  Why would anyone think that God or the gods would look like us, appear to be like us or resemble us, i.e. that we're the image or likeness of a deity?

The belief that humans are the image of God would appear to require a level of self-regard which is baseless almost to the point of lunacy.  Nonetheless, that has been and may even remain the belief of many.  Perhaps the apparent silliness of such a conceit led the religious to maintain that God or the gods were, in effect, super-humans, that is to say exceedingly beautiful, powerful and knowledgeable humans who are also better than normal humans in that they're not mortal.

That may have been the case with, e.g., the ancient Greek and Romans, but wouldn't seem to include the ancient Hebrews, who weren't inclined to picture God as having the physical form of a human being, portraying God variously as a burning bush or column of fire, etc.  But the God of the ancient Hebrews had various human characteristics nonetheless, if not physical attributes.  He was a jealous God, and could be an angry and vengeful one as well.  These characteristics are not those one would expect an almighty being to have, but are uniquely those of humans among the creatures of God, as far as we know.  The ancient Greek and Romans similarly portrayed their gods as having these human emotional characteristics and others, such as lust. 

So it appears that at least in recorded history, there's been a tendency to anthropomorphize the divine in one way or another.  Perhaps this came about due to the fact that animals came to be domesticated and we came to employ technology to alter our environment and so came in our opinion to dominate and tame the world.  Genesis of course indicates this was God's intent, to give us authority over the world and its other, lesser, creatures.  Not knowing much of anything else about the world, we may have come to believe that we were the supreme beings of creation, and thought that the Lord of creation would necessarily be like us, only grander.  Such a view would also be consistent with what came to be the hierarchical nature of our societies; as we typically had kings or oligarchs, so would the world in general.

Even so, it's difficult not to think the supreme being would be limited by being or appearing to be human in any significant manner.  This seems clear enough now, given our knowledge of the vastness of the universe and the resulting knowledge that we humans and our planet are almost unimaginably insignificant in comparison.  The creator or intelligence inherent in the universe probably would not be something which looks like us or is like us.  Perhaps our gods were in the past not considered to be supreme in the sense which is common at this time.  They had limited authority and power, peculiar to believers and their place in the world (universe) rather than authority over the entire universe.

We know that pagan philosophers in the West came to think the Olympian gods were not in fact real, but were meant to be representatives of the deity or aspects of the divine portrayed in a way comprehensible to the common people.  The "god of the philosophers" wasn't peculiarly human or like a human.  The philosophers were largely Deists or pantheists, like the Stoics.

The notion of God as perfect, all-good, omnipotent, omniscient is so unlike any notion we can reasonably have of ourselves that it's plainly unreasonable to think that we're created in God's image and likeness.  As that notion was entertained by pagan philosophers and as early Christians were eager to accommodate Christianity to philosophy, the Christian doctrine that God became man generated problems it took centuries to resolve.  Whether they were actually resolved is questionable.  The claim that Jesus was at one and the same time fully human and fully divine is unsatisfactory, but it was necessary for the heresies which maintained that he was not fully divine while human to be quashed, and quashed they were, though in a most mysterious way.

It seems unsurprising that particularly in ancient times, we worshipped gods which were strangely similar to ourselves.  But it also seems clear that an almighty God of the universe wouldn't be like us, wouldn't be especially or exclusively concerned with us and our affairs and how we act, or what we eat, or who we have sex with, or whether we keep holy the Sabbath day.  Christopher Hitchens claimed that religion is a relic of the selfish childhood of our species.  I don't think that's the case as I don't think a belief in the "god of the philosophers" for example can be considered childish, but religions which make the claim humans are significantly like God and our affairs God's special concerns may be.


  1. It's pretty well accepted that the early Bible stories were written in a time of polytheism. "We" is used in the opening verses. It's not until well into the book of Isaiah that monotheism fully develops.

  2. I speculated that "we" was used as the royal "we" is, God being entitled to use it at least as much as any king or queen. I understand God is given two different names in Genesis, but didn't think that the ancient Hebrews thought of God as plural when Genesis was written.