A Brief Discourse on Imago Dei: What Makes Us Our Self?

by John Ellis

(This article was originally intended to be a short Facebook post, but it got away from me.)

I’m rereading Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and am struck again by the simple profundity of this statement: “We are selves only in that certain issues matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.” (34)

Taylor is speaking about the absurdity of attempting to describe humans – individuals, the self – with value free language. Digging a little deeper, he is interrogating the modernist attempts to isolate the Freudian Ego (or self) from our humanity – what makes us human. I would say, what makes us bearers of God’s Image – Imago Dei. Back to Taylor, though, his words are, his accusation is, “It is seen as a fact about human beings that they care that their image matches up to certain standards, generally socially induced. But this is not seen as something essential to personhood [emphasis added].” (33) Taylor, of course, believes that a modernist reduction of personhood to an object, as we generally think of objects, is a mistake. “To ask what a person is, in abstraction from his or her self-interpretations, is to ask a fundamentally misguided question, one to which there couldn’t in principle be an answer.” (34) The phenomenological and existential self is essential to personhood. What makes us human is outside the scope of the empirical objectivity of the scientific revolution.

I agree with Taylor that “What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me.” And that self – our self – is indivisible from what it means to be made in the Image of God. Unfortunately, the question of what it means to be made in the Image of God is often reduced to the empirically objective. It’s removed from the existential and is systematized into box-checking categories. In short, definitions of our self – what makes humans distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom – are stripped of relational wealth and replaced with the cheapest of ontologies we can grasp. We appropriate being from the Being.[1]

For me, what I see in Taylor, and what I’ve long seen in the Bible, is that our self is defined primarily[2] via our relationship to God. The things that have significance for us, to use Taylor’s sociological category, reveal, at least to our self if we’re willing to be honest, what type of relationship that is. Do our desires and loves submit to God, or do they reveal that we believe that we can be like God? There is no value free language here. Our identity is primarily mediated (see footnote 2) via our response to God.

God made us to be His sons and daughters; His vice-regents displaying who He is through our ethics. Being made in the Image of God is relational that has vocationality. The issues that matter for us, what we are as a self, reveal what we believe our vocation is. How we define our self vocationally reveals our relationship with God. And our relationship with God is ultimately what makes us our self.

We all care what our image, our self, communicates to others. Per Charles Taylor and contra modernism, this is an essential aspect of being human. The question is – the eschatologically vital question – through our self are we submitting to God or are we rebelling against Him? Our self is either one of (moving further into) God’s blessings or God’s wrath.  

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] This is going to have to remain an unargued proposition for the time being. I’ve mentioned this in previous articles, but for a couple of years now I’ve been working on an article that argues this point. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever finish it.

[2] If not solely defined/mediated. As of yet, I’m unsure on this point. One of the major things that gives me pause here is that some of my friends whose intellect I have the utmost respect for would disagree, some quite adamantly, if I claimed the qualifier “solely”.

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