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Uniquely Unique | Image of God

Part Six in the Uniquely Unique mini-series. We take stock of one more distinguishing feature of humans—the image of God.

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Part Six in the Uniquely Unique mini-series. We take stock of one more distinguishing feature of humans—the image of God.

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A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.

As the series comes to a close, Jim and Colin take stock of one more distinguishing feature of humans—the image of God. While the previous episodes in the series question if humans are uniquely unique from other species from the ground up, this episode changes perspectives to approach an answer from the Heavens down. As usual, they bring in a range of experts from a variety of fields to weigh in on what it means to be made in the image of God. They come to some significant conclusions, including a warning against idolizing human rationality, but also point out where this quest may continue. 

In this new Language of God mini series—Uniquely Unique—Jim is joined by our producer Colin for a deep dive into these questions and more. The quest? To try to come to a better understanding of what it means to be human, to bear the image of God. Along the way, you’ll hear from a variety of experts from a wide range of disciplines, drawing on biology, history, anthropology, philosophy, theology and more to try to make sense of our human identity.


Transcript

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

Hoogerwerf: 

I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. Here we are, coming to the end of our quest. 

Stump: 

Doesn’t necessarily feel like we’ve slayed the dragon or found the treasure. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, the goal when we set out was to answer the question ‘what does it mean to be human.’ I think we knew that we weren’t going to find some simple textbook answer to that question. And so far, that has been the case. But at the end of the last episode we came to a point that I think has been hovering over us this whole time.  

Various Voices: 

The image of God, the image of God, the image of God, bearing God’s image. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Here’s Steve Bouma-Prediger.

Bouma-Prediger: 

Of only humans is it said, they are made imago dei, in the image of God. For all the other ways in which we are similar to other creatures, we’re all Earth creatures in one sense or another, the Adam from the Adamah, earth creature from the earth, nevertheless, of humans, it is said, and only humans, are made in God’s image.

Stump: 

Right. The image of God seems like it has the possibility of being a pretty straightforward answer to our question, what does it mean to be human? It means we are creatures made in the image of God. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But what does that mean? 

Stump: 

Yeah, good question. We weren’t going to get out of this that easily. There have been a lot of different answers given by different people over a long period of time. No matter which of these we like, it’s going to demand that we really look at this from our “heavens-down” perspective.

Hoogerwerf: 

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve explored from the ground up pretty extensively, looking at our body plans, our neurology and even how we’re similar or different from computers. I think this ground-up kind of thinking is how we’ve often been taught to go about answering questions like this. And it’s an approach that’s hammered in during training in the sciences. We have come to a heavens-down approach a few times, especially in the last couple episodes when we started to think more about the role of a human as opposed to just what we’re made of. So I think we’re really due to spend some time looking from the heavens down. 

Stump: 

David Lahti has been with us through a lot of these episodes and he’s the one that first brought us that ground-up/heavens-down language. Here he is again:

Lahti: 

The top down way, or the sort of the metaphysical or theological way of thinking about it is, do we have a role, or a purpose or a feature of us, that makes us completely different from any other organism, without even getting into the biology very much. And so that’s where we’re talking again, about the image of God from a Christian perspective. That it’s not necessary, really, for us to get into the weeds of the biological distinctiveness. We already have a reason sort of almost a priori to, based on revelation, but also based on our own experiences of ourselves. I mean, every culture, even before biblical revelation, has perceived humans as being special in some categorical way, in a sort of a top down way as the only species that say, can ask questions about existence. My favorite is that we are the idealizing species. We are the species that not only sees things as they are but sees things as how they should be. And that’s a sort of a top down thing. It has a huge theological significance and philosophical significance to me, that sort of thing. Even if we looked rather like other species from a bottom up perspective.

Hoogerwerf: 

So we are image bearers. And whether or not that can be determined from the biology alone, there is the theological idea that only humans are made in the image of God. But I still have a lot of questions. If we’re made in the image of God, what does God look like? How much of God’s image do we each have? And who all is included in that? We already know human isn’t a very definitive term. Were Neanderthals made in the image of God? Could chimps one day obtain the image of God? For that matter, what about cucumbers?

Stump: 

Take a breath. The questions can pile up pretty quickly. And part of the problem is that there just isn’t a lot from the biblical text to go on. 

Torrance: 

If we are being honest, it’s incredibly difficult to know what it means to be created in the image of God. Okay, so it is by no means obvious from reading scripture, there are only a handful of references that we find to the image of God in Scripture. Which is why I think we have found there to be so many views over the course of the history of Christianity.

Stump: 

This is Andrew Torrance. He’s a theologian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. We heard from him briefly in our introductory episode. We’ll spend a bit more time with him in this episode.

Hoogerwerf: 

While we don’t hear about the image of God very often in the Bible we do hear it quite early. The first reference comes in Genesis 1, verses 26-27.

Stump: 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Hoogerwerf: 

This verse is well known and has probably contributed greatly to how Christians view the place of humans in the world. But what does it really mean? I think too many people have used this verse to claim that we have these god-like rights and privileges, that we were made to be gods ourselves, in some sense.

Stump: 

Just two chapters later, though, we get a different view of things. Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden or they would die. The serpent says, you won’t die, you’ll become like God. And then they do eat, and God comes in and pronounces some curses and God says, “See, the man has become like one of us.”

Hoogerwerf: 

That sounds like it’s not such a good thing for us to be like God. 

Stump: 

Right, like that was never the plan, that we had tried to become something more than we were supposed to be.

Hoogerwerf: 

So we have two instances where it seems like we gain some sort of special status. One where we are given the image of God—that seems to be a good thing, another where we become like God through our own actions and that causes the fall. There’s obviously something different about these.

Stump: 

Yes, so being made in the image of God can’t mean the same thing as being like God.

Hoogerwerf: 

I think we’re going to need some more help here. 

Torrance: 

So I think it is almost certainly the case that we have over emphasized our ability to know what it means to be created in the image of God from simply reflecting on the idea of the imago dei alone based on the early chapters of Genesis.

Hoogerwerf:  

OK, let’s try the New Testament. The image of God is brought up again in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, but this time referring to Christ. 

Stump: 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

Torrance: 

So what we find in Colossians, is that Paul presents us with a view of all things, of all creation, that has been created in, through, and for Jesus Christ.

Stump: 

But nowhere do we get a really full description of what exactly we might understand the image of god to be. 

Torrance: 

So one of the really difficult questions that arises when we’re thinking about what it means to be created in the image of God is, how can a finite and physical human creature be the image of a transcendent and invisible God, someone who, who no one has ever seen?

Hoogerwerf: 

That does seem to be a problem. The term “image” seems to convey something visual, so it’s pretty natural for us to look at ourselves and each other and take away that the image of God is some physical characteristic. And we go backward from that when we try to imagine what God must look like. 

Stump: 

And the storybook Bible illustrators must have been especially guilty of doing this when they drew up God as a large bearded humanoid hanging out in the clouds. But of course when we think about it for a minute, we don’t think that God created us to look like little mini-gods. And we don’t think that when we first sinned and became like God in some sense, that we somehow looked more the way God looked. So we have to start going beyond our physical characteristics to our capacities and abilities, and looking at some of the things we humans can do that nothing else can: reason, language, emotion, morality. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But as we’ve seen in our previous episodes, these things are not quite as uniquely human as they were once thought to be.   

Stump: 

And perhaps even more concerning is that these become the characteristics of proper humans, of true humans. And then what about the individuals who may not have that characteristic to the same extent? Are they not image bearers? Are they not human?

Torrance: 

And I think very often when we try to work out what it means to be human, by observing sort of unique characteristics and what it means to be human, and then sort of defining them universally, we can end up excluding certain peoples from being human, or making some people much more human than others. And I just think that’s a very dangerous game to play.

Stump: 

The caution here might be something like rationality, which has often been taken to be the defining characteristic of humans. 

Bouma-Prediger: 

Typically, rationality in the western philosophical tradition has been that item that has distinguished us. That’s what it means to be made in God’s image.

Stump: 

But it turns out that rationality comes in different forms, and it’s pretty easy to take my kind of rationality, my culture’s understanding of rationality, and say that is the best or truest form of humanity.

Hoogerwerf: 

History can give us an interesting view of this. We’re certainly not the first to be asking these questions and many of the early church theologians were thinking about this as well. 

Kantzer Komline: 

I think for a lot of folks, the starting point for thinking about the image of God was thinking that it has something to do with our rationality. 

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Han-Luen Kantzer Komline, a church historian and theologian at Western Theological Seminary.

Kantzer Komline: 

And this is a view that’s come on tough times today. But for many early Christian thinkers, this was at the heart of what makes human beings special, and as vis a vis other animals. And also, what makes them in the image of God is this ability to reason, to think rationally, the fact that they have a mind or a rational soul, as well as a body. 

Stump: 

This same point would apply to identifying any other characteristic with the image of God or what it truly means to be human: language, emotion, morality. It will be helpful here to consider some of the history of theology about this. The conversation didn’t start with us, or even with modern science. And even though our context has changed considerably, there is wisdom and insight in the tradition worth paying attention to as we ask what it means to be image bearers.

Kantzer Komline: 

They’re never really asking the question in an abstract kind of way, unmoored to specific concerns. They’re always asking it in a very relational way. And more specifically, they’re asking, what does it mean to be human in relationship to God? And this is linked to their more biblical approach so much as in the Psalms, we get the question, “What are humans that you would pay attention to them and be mindful of them?” The early Christians are asking that question. What are human beings that God would pay attention to them, that God would be mindful of them? And so their reflections on that question are really diverse, but they have the starting point, mooring anthropological questions in relationship to God, and also thinking about them in a biblically patterned kind of way.

Stump: 

One of the early Christian thinkers that Han-Luen brought up was Nemesius of Emesa from around the fourth century. 

Kantzer Komline: 

Someone like Nemesius is actually a really fascinating case study for us, because I think he defies a lot of our, maybe our expectations about what these early Christian theologians are like.

Hoogerwerf: 

Nemesius is interesting in part because, even without the scientific knowledge we have now gained about the intellectual capabilities of many other animals, Nemesius still saw the continuity of humans with the rest of creation. 

Kantzer Komline: 

But then when it comes to human uniqueness, some things he points out are like the human sense of humor, human ability to engage in the sciences, the immortality of the human body. So that’s, of course, a very theistic sort of perspective. But then he also has this fascinating idea that human, what one of the things that makes human beings unique is that they repent, and that they receive the mercy of God, which I think is just, it’s fascinating that human beings are like the repenting animal. So I think that things like that, you know, can still stand the test of time. I mean, if we make human uniqueness—if we make it something about our relationship to God, and how God has chosen us, not so much about any specific ability that human beings have, or a characteristic that they have, but more about God, God choosing us to be the objects of God’s mercy, then wow, that that sort of continues to have abiding significance, as long as the central message of Scripture does.

Stump: 

That’s really similar to what Andrew Torrance said, combining some insights from this relational view with what is sometimes called the functional view.

Torrance: 

What I do think, is that human beings have a unique ability to reflect God into the world. Human beings have a unique role to play in God’s mission to the world, as a unique, but highly diverse community of persons. And when they participate in God’s mission, they serve as witnesses to God. And by serving as witnesses to God, they reflect God into the world. Now, this position is sometimes associated with the so-called functional account of the image of God, according to which human beings have been created to play a particular function, to have a particular function, which reflects God’s purposes. For example, having dominion over creation, or being creatures that share God’s love to the world. Now, my own view, would be much closer to what is sometimes called the relational account of the imago dei, of the image of God. So in my view, I would want to say that what is really central to thinking about how human beings are created in the image of God is that when we participate in a relationship with God, we are able to be used by God to reflect God into the world. So human beings image God by sharing in a relationship with God. By so doing, we reflect God, in the presence of God, by participating in a loving fellowship with God, in which we reflect God as lights to the world, as God’s representatives in creation.

Stump: 

As God’s image bearers, we are the creatures that reflect God to the rest of creation, and reflect creation’s praises back to God.

Hoogerwerf: 

And we’re the only ones that could have done this?

Stump: 

Yeah, good question. It seems to me like there are some of our capacities that are necessary for us to fulfill this role properly, but that’s different than saying those capacities like rationality, or language, or free will are what it means to be the image of God.

Hoogerwerf: 

Here’s Jeff Schloss, who’s been with us several times throughout the series. 

Schloss: 

We have a unique charge, we have a unique role, we have a unique responsibility as image bearers. You know, it’s interesting that some Christians in the light of emerging scientific views, since Darwin, have emphasized that, our unique role, to the exclusion of unique capacities. And  I think, theologically, if we do have a unique role that discharging that role faithfully might entail capacities that other organisms don’t have. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So he’s saying that it might be important that we have something like rationality in order to fulfill our role, but that we can’t reduce it just to that capability?

Stump: 

Right, that means in logical terminology that these capacities might be necessary conditions for us to bear God’s image, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So I notice that we keep saying “we” and “us” when we’re talking about the image of God and I think that’s somewhat revealing as we try to understand the image of God, that maybe I, Colin, am not the image of God, unless I am a part of a community of humans. 

Stump: 

I think it’s definitely the case that we modern western people have a much more individualistic understanding than the culture of the ancient Near East. And I think it’s at least defensible to say that God chose humans as a group, as a species, to be the divine image bearers on Earth.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, that’s really interesting. And that seems to address the problem of specific individuals who sometimes get left out because their capacities differ from the ones taken to be normal by the ones making the rules.

Stump: 

Right, they are still part of the image of God, because they are part of the human species. And there may even be an argument that we as a species do not live up to what we are called without the contributions of all the members of our species.

Hoogerwerf: 

So that seems to be a little bit in tension with the idea that some have taken from the science of evolution.

Torrance: 

So one of the things that some people do, when they think about the story of evolution is that they see it as a story in which we are always kind of progressing as creatures to become a stronger and more powerful creature that has to play a much more successful utilitarian role in the world, that can live longer, breed more, you know, have the kinds of qualities that I think the world sort of wants to elevate, as really exemplifying what we think is most valuable about what it means to be human.  

Stump: 

Remember back to the episode on culture, Helen de Cruz alluded to the more recent archeological research that shows it was our capacity for cooperation, for empathy, and even altruism, that contributed most significantly to our evolutionary success, rather than the survival of the fittest being understood as the strongest, most ruthless, and even the most selfish. 

De Cruz: 

You can’t understand how we get to all sorts of complex things, like human societies for one, but not just human societies, without invoking cooperation as a basic principle.

Stump: 

This has become a really interesting area of research about our history.

Hoogerwerf: 

So eliminating the weak would not necessarily be a successful evolutionary strategy, and neither would it allow us to fulfill our role as God’s image bearers.

Stump: 

Hmm… As predicted by David Lahti, it looks like the earth-up and heavens-down approaches are meeting in the middle.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new questions but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god?” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Part Two

Hoogerwerf: 

So to recap, we as a species were assigned this role, to reflect God to the world, and probably in a more communal sense than as individuals. So that’s the answer to our question?

Stump: 

Well, of course we’re not going to get everyone in the history of Christian thinking to agree with that.

Kantzer Komline: 

Some early Christian theologians were concerned that if we start to refer to ourselves directly as in the image of God, we start to impinge on Christ’s uniqueness. Because in the New Testament, we read that Christ is the image of the invisible God. And so some of these early Christian theologians, like Hilary, for example, were worried that if we then say, well, we are the image of God, then this is going to play into the hands of Arians, people who thought that Christ was the firstborn of all creation, a special creature, but still a creature.

Stump:  

Not quite God.

Kantzer Komline 

Right, not 100% fully God. Right. And so, some early Christian theologians preferred to talk about human beings as according to the image, or in the image of the image, to sort of strip, to create a layer of distinction there, where human beings reflect the image of Christ who then reflects the image of God. And then Augustine is someone who sort of addresses this problem in his own thinking, and he says, no, we can say we’re in the image of God. We just have to understand that Christ is—has a different—there’s a different quality to the way in which he’s the image of God.

Stump: 

Yeah, so there’s always going to be a tension between saying that Jesus was the perfect example of a human being, and that he was also something else. So with Augustine we can affirm that, yes, we humans are the image of God, but Jesus, he was and is the best example of what it means to bear God’s image to creation.

Hoogerwerf: 

This still brings us to a point which I think is obvious, but also sometimes passed over which is that Jesus was a human! So he’s relevant and important for us in thinking about the role of humans.

Stump: 

The theologians would agree! 

Torrance: 

If we truly want to know what it means to reflect God into this world, we need to look to Jesus Christ, who is first and foremost, the image of the invisible God.

Hoogerwerf: 

I think this is a really important idea. As Christians we believe that God sent Christ here to us as a human. Maybe it is the case that God could have sent Christ here as a cucumber, but that didn’t happen. So Christ, God on earth, experienced this place in human flesh. That means that everything we learned about biology and culture and technology (at least the technology of ancient Israel) and even our tendency to do harm to our neighbors and the creation, all that applied to Jesus too. 

Stump: 

Right. His body was filled with just as many bacterial cells as ours. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And having human ancestors, his body was shaped by an evolutionary process the same as all of us. He entered into the human experience fully. 

Stump: 

Yes, no argument there. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So why does Andrew go on to say:

Torrance: 

The reason that I think the theologians are uniquely equipped to answer the question of what it means to be human, is because science doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus Christ.

Hoogerwerf: 

If Jesus was a first century Jew in Palestine, science must be able to tell us a little bit about him. Doesn’t it tell us about how Jesus digested his food and how about how his senses worked? But that’s not what he means here right? 

Stump: 

Right, Andrew wouldn’t disagree that the biology and even the culture of Jesus is open to scientific exploration. But that’s just one aspect of Jesus, just one of his “natures” as the theologians say. Jesus was not only fully human according to the creeds, he was also fully God. And even if the biology of Jesus is available to probe with scientific methods, that’s not where we find anything about the image of God that might be a clue to our human uniqueness.

Instead, I think Andrew’s point is about the limitations of science when we get to the theological calling of Christ, what he came to do, and what should be the model for us. I think this is best summed up when Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke chapter 4.

Hoogerwerf:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Stump: 

After reading this passage, he rolled up the scroll and said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, this is what Jesus came to do. And then he commissioned us, his church, to do those things, right here right now.

Torrance: 

So when we pray for God’s kingdom to come on Earth, as it is in heaven, we pray that we can come to participate with the fullness of what it means to be human, in the here and now. Now, I think, unfortunately, many people still think about heaven as a kind of escape from this world, you know, a place in which we can be delivered from the pain and suffering of this world, and have our every desire fulfilled. I think this speaks to a deeply confused eschatology. I think when we truly come to understand what the heavenly life is all about, we can rejoice in the fact we participate in this life today, again, in the here and now, by following Jesus Christ and becoming all that God creates us to be. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, but what does that actually mean for us today, in our here and now? How do we apply the words from Isaiah? Releasing captives? Does that mean opening up all our jails tomorrow, no questions asked? Is that what we’re supposed to do to fulfill our calling as image bearers? Jesus was a first-century Jew and lived in a specific culture, and these examples probably meant something different for people then who were following Christ, who were attempting to live up to their calling as God’s image on earth.

Stump: 

Yeah, that’s pretty tricky. In a sense, it’s the same problem we have with interpreting and applying Scripture in other areas. What we’re given is a culturally embedded document, and we believe there are universally applicable truths coming out of that. But figuring out that application precisely for our situation today is always going to take some discernment and collective wisdom.

Hoogerwerf: 

And even if we do the careful work of discernment and scriptural interpretation, according to Andrew we’re not out of the woods yet. 

Torrance: 

So one of the other difficulties, I think emerge when we’re thinking about what it means to be created in the image of God, is that there are ways in which scripture actually can be seen to caution us against trying to work out what it means to be created in the image of God. Now, what we find in Scripture is that it warns us against making images of God. And there’s an enormous risk that we’re going to slip into doing this, to be making images of God, when we try to construct speculatively, an account of what it means to be created in the image of God. So for example, suppose that we were to suppose that human rationality is viewed as a feature of being created in the image of God. This can encourage people to then divinize or idolize human rationality.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, so this feels like a warning directly to what we are doing in this series for the past 5 weeks. One of the 10 commandments is to not make images of God…I’ve always thought about this as sculptures. We’re not supposed to make physical images of God. But in a way, what we’re doing here in trying to work out these answers is making an image of God. 

Stump: 

Yes, this is another of the tricky application issues. Maybe we should understand this as not creating too definitive and narrow of an understanding of what the image of God means, thinking that we can say once and for all: here’s what the image of God in humans means. That could become idolatrous.

Hoogerwerf: 

In the previous episode we heard about some of the ways it can go wrong. And Steve Bouma-prediger really pushed back on trying to have some definitive answer to what it means to be human, even while agreeing on some kind of uniqueness.  

Bouma-Prediger: 

So that’s where I’m nervous, about, you know, the position I just acknowledged I agreed to, a kind of qualitative difference based upon the summation of individual distinctive features. I’m nervous about that, because that’s often been used to legitimate that sort of exploitation of the earth.

Hoogerwerf: 

When we land on some definitive answer it almost always leads to destruction…and not only of the earth but also other humans. 

Stump: 

Hmm… So do we need to go back and undo everything we’ve done here?

Hoogerwerf: 

There’s at least a caution as we wind this down, that in a sense gets us off the hook from concluding anything too specific, from thinking that we’ve definitively answered the question once and for all.

Stump: 

Did we really think we were going to do that anyway?

Hoogerwerf: 

That was the quest. But the professionals weren’t too optimistic about that from the beginning.

Kantzer Komline: 

I’m not sure I’m incredibly optimistic about efforts to define the human being, or even to define something like the image of God in an essentialist, or functional kind of way. I think that’s really hard to do. And I think, for Christians, scripture, sort of, not that we are confined to say, to only repeat what’s already said in Scripture, I think that we can take scripture and build on it and use all the wealth of knowledge available from the sciences. But I do think the most important questions are about what does it mean to be human in relationship to God? So how are we supposed to live here? And how do we make progress? I do think that these are the most important questions for our daily lives that can impact what we’re gonna do, day to day, hour to hour even.

Stump: 

Also in that vein, Saint Augustine is pretty well known for claiming Si comprehendis, non est Deus: “if you understand it, it’s not God.” Perhaps this applies at least in part to understanding the image of God as well. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But we can’t just end by saying we’re no better off than when we started. Most good quests do end up with some sort of treasure and it doesn’t seem like we have found that. Which I guess in this metaphor would be a simple answer to the question, ‘what does it mean to be human.’ 

Stump: 

Yeah, But the treasure isn’t always what they thought it was going to be. The hero’s journey rarely ends that simply. Lots of people like to quote the lines from TS Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Hoogerwerf: 

So after all this journeying we’ve done, are we seeing the answers in a new light? 

Stump: 

Well, are you prepared to say that humans are uniquely unique?

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, I think I am willing to say that we are uniquely unique. But I still have some fears about that, fears about where that can lead, fears about whether we can handle the responsibility of that. I think that what I’ve learned is the reason behind asking the question might be more important than the answers I come to. When we first asked this question what does it mean to be human, there was another question lurking behind it which was what does it mean to be a good human. And so as I continue to explore this question from both the earth up and heavens down I think I need to remind myself to do it with humility, realizing I might learn new things about other creatures that could upend a lot of what I knew and no matter what answers I find, our human uniqueness should lead to greater responsibility.  I like what Steve said about this. 

Bouma-Prediger: 

God made us to be a certain kind of creature, in order to enable us to be image bearers of God, which I take to be based on our reading of Genesis one and two key feature that is, have a particular kind of relationship with God that the marmot in the mountain the meadow don’t have, and we’re given certain, made in a certain way, given certain gifts, that enable us to be good caretakers of creation, to image God in that way, by caring for that which God has made. So yeah, if that’s what you mean by uniqueness, then I’m okay with that. But only if that, again, doesn’t, what, extricate us from our creatureliness, from the fact that we are also in addition to being made in God’s image, we are Adam from the Adamah.

Stump: 

And Han-Luen has a theological response to that as well, channeling Saint Augustine:

Kantzer Komline: 

So of course, God loves the entire created order. But human beings are specially chosen and elected. And that’s how I would, I guess, approach the issue of human uniqueness as well. Is that it’s less about sort of the inherent qualifications of the human being, but just that God has, out of God’s great mercy, chosen to love human beings. And then we can think about this uniqueness as in the service of the rest of the created order too, just like, Israel is chosen to be a light to the nations. So we’re chosen, we human beings are chosen, and singled out, to be stewards of the created order and to care for it. To serve it, we could even say.

Hoogerwerf: 

You started this series pretty convinced in our unique uniqueness. How have you returned to this after all the exploring we’ve done? 

Stump: 

I’d say I remain committed, through the eyes of faith, to human beings having this special role within God’s creation. So that hasn’t changed. But I think I’ve come to appreciate more how we have been prepared for that role in the biological sense, by seeing our continuity with the rest of the created order, the hints and precursors of our unique abilities in other species. And for me, seeing us embedded within the rest of creation doesn’t take away from the uniqueness of our calling. I think it’s even legitimate to look at the natural history of our species and see something more than a random progression of forms, something that it’s pointing toward.

Hoogerwerf: 

That sounds like what Alister McGrath said when we asked him about the image of God.

McGrath: 

It’s very clear that the book of Genesis describes us as bearing God’s image. But it’s far from clear what it means by that. And I think that theologians have spent a lot of time trying to unpack what this might mean. But I think one of the things that means for me, is that in effect, there’s some kind of homing instinct within us, telling us where we’ve come from perhaps telling us where we’re going. But above all, telling us that this world is not necessarily all that there is.
If you like, there’s an intimation and instinct that there is more to life than what we see around us. And that in order to achieve human destiny, we need to have a bigger horizon than science itself is able to provide. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So we asked the question, not necessarily definitively settling it, but it has pointed to something more.

Stump: 

I’m Ok with that. And it’s still a good question.

Hoogerwerf: 

So then, we’ve arrived, finally, at the place where we started. 

Various Voices: 

What does it mean to be human?

Credits:

Hoogerwerf:

A huge thanks to all our guests for this series who took the time to talk to us and think about these big questions. You can find more about all them at our website biologos.org. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. We’d love it if you would share this podcast with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. 


Featured guests

kantzer komline

Han-Luen Kantzer Komline

Han-luen Kantzer Komline is the Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Western Theological Seminary. Her research focuses on early Christian theology, especially the thought of Augustine. Her first book is Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account. Dr. Kantzer Komline serves on the steering committee of the Development of Early Christian Theology section of the Society for Biblical Literature, on the board of the Foundation for Theological Education in Southeast Asia, and as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America.

Andrew Torrance

Andrew Torrance is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St. Andrews and co-founder of the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology. He has published numerous essays on the relationship of theology to the sciences and, among his four books, he is co-editor (with Thomas McCall) of Knowing Creation: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science and Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science.  He is currently a member of an interdisciplinary team of scholars, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, for which he is writing a book on Accountability to God. Together with Eric Priest and Judith Wolfe, he also runs the prestigious James Gregory Lectures on Science, Religion, and Human Flourishing.
Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steven Bouma-Prediger

Steven Bouma-Prediger (PhD, University of Chicago) is Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He also oversees the Environmental Studies minor and chairs the Campus Sustainability Advisory Committee. In addition, Bouma-Prediger is adjunct professor of theology and ethics at Western Theological Seminary. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including For the Beauty of the Earth, is a former board member of the Au Sable Institute, and regularly writes and speaks on environmental issues.
David Lahti

David Lahti

David C. Lahti is an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens College, City University of New York, where he runs a Behavior & Evolution laboratory focusing mainly on learned behavior in birds and humans. Prof. Lahti received a BS in biology and history from Gordon College. He received a PhD in moral philosophy and the philosophy of biology at the Whitefield Institute, Oxford, for a study of the contributions science can and cannot make to an understanding of the foundations of morality. He then received a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan for a study of rapid evolution in an introduced bird. He has been a Darwin Fellow at the University of Massachusetts and a Kirschstein NRSA Research Fellow with the National Institutes of Health, where he studied the development and evolution of bird song. His current research projects include rapid trait evolution following species introduction, cultural evolution in humans and animals, and the evolution of our capacity for morality and religion
Alister McGrath Headshot

Alister McGrath

Alister E. McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. In addition to his work at Oxford, McGrath is Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and serves as associate priest in a group of Church of England village parishes in the Cotswolds. His personal website can be accessed here.
helen de cruz

Helen De Cruz

Helen De Cruz holds the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University. Her has a PhD in philosophy from University of Groningen and a PhD in archeology and art studies from the Free University Brussels. Her work is concerned with the question why and how humans form beliefs in domains that are quite remote from everyday life, such as in mathematics, theology and science. She is also a player of the Renaissance lute.


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