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What Catholics Believe - Chapter Six

Made in the Image of God

Sr. Francine, my sixth grade teacher many years ago, was a woman of conviction who could drive a point home like a nail gun. When she was face to face with a "villain," a student, usually a boy, who could not behave she launched one of her favorite verbal javelins with booming intensity:

"Thomas! You were made in the image and likeness of God!"

She pronounced the divine name, "GAWD," which seemed to add to the impact. We were certainly not theologians, nor were we sufficiently proficient in catechetics to know precisely what the phrase "image and likeness of God" meant, but we knew this much, we had a certain lofty potential and our present actions were falling far short of the mark.

Even a youngster recognized that this simple phrase was more than empty rhetoric. Remembering that one is made in the divine image has the power to make one stop and think, even change his ways. It makes a difference similar to the way it makes a difference when somebody hears and believes that she has a great gift, he has a real talent, or a great future if she applies herself.

Everyone has the potential to make something extraordinary out of his or her life. You or I may look upon another individual and shake our heads in bewilderment over how their saga is going to end, but we also know in our heart of hearts that the divine spark has started a blaze under less favorable circumstances. A friend approaches you with a far out proposal, and you cannot envision any way in which the desired goal will be achieved, but you remember the mustard seed, shrug your shoulders and say, "Who knows?"

Some thinkers suggest that the value of certain beliefs should be measured by the practical difference those beliefs make. In my experience, the belief that I am made in the image and likeness of God, the God of whom Jesus Christ is the incarnate image, whose words and deeds mold and shape my understanding of Him, makes a very serious, practical difference in my life.

Many individuals, even ones who deny having a particular religious attitude, seem to hold the conviction that they were made in the image of some divine being, alien race of supermen, or outstanding genetic source. They fancy themselves to be privileged. They have an extraordinary future ahead. However, in too many instances, they are unwilling to confer the same dignity, recognize the same potential in others. Often they are comfortable in denying the privileged status to entire ethnic groups, genders or races.

Obviously, a great deal rides upon the image of God one has to begin with. If, for example, God is pictured as a tyrant who is arbitrary in distributing justice, indifferent to individual rights, lacking in compassion, etc., we would be embracing a picture very different from the one reflected in the Gospels.

There are so many ways that we can miss the point. Therefore, we need to meditate seriously and deeply on what the image of God is, if we are to know what it means for us to carry that image within us. It behooves us to trace the unfolding of the God image as it comes into sharper focus in the words of Scripture, and reaches perfect clarity in the "Image of the Invisible God," Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord.

As we grow in our understanding of that image we begin understand the direction in which our own incomparable destiny, with all its unfathomable richness and improbable possibilities, lay.

In Jesus, we see a God who is servant of all, who extends mercy and forgiveness, even to sinners, and who offers His life for the sake of all, even those who condemn Him. We see the arms of a God outstretched to all. We witness an incarnate God entering into conversation with the wise and simple, even with cynical naysayers.

If Jesus is the image of God, made audible in His words of divine wisdom and visible in His acts of perfect love, then we have something worth emulating in our own words and actions, an image worth growing into. However, it is more than a private gift for a single individual, gender, or race. It is both a human quality and a project common to all, namely, becoming a people who realize the image of the invisible God in its midst. Making that image visible to the world is the "mission" of the Church.

Maybe, we see something like a consensus emerging from various histories of human existence. It may be a collective intuition that there are goals worth working towards: respect for all people, small and great, rich and poor, a compassionate desire to serve the suffering, and the promotion of joint efforts to preserve and share the earth’s resources. If that intuition is growing, however slowly, in spite of the confusion born of diverse languages and cultures, one might sense that the people of the world, even without being able to name it as such, are starting to recognize that all of us were made in the image of God?

Rev. Richard McLaughlin
Vicar for Priests

What Catholics Believe - Chapter Six - (part 2)

Did I mention Original Sin?

Mention Original Sin to a group of Catholics today and many of them will have no idea what you are talking about; others will include it among the faithful departed notions from an earlier, pre-Vatican II era. Imagine -- an inherited tendency towards sin, something passed on, even reinforced over time. Is that not too much for our very modern brains to grasp? Think again!

Many people reject the notion of Original Sin for “fairness” reasons. Why should an innocent child be considered guilty for what he or she did not actually do, convicted for crimes committed by a previous generation? It is not like that. Original Sin is not a sin one has committed, rather it is a tendency one inherited along with their human nature.

We already know that a great deal gets passed on over generations. No previous age in human history has been more aware of the complex inheritance locked in the human genetic code, then transmitted with variations over time, parents to offspring. More than one writer has used the image that a 2 million year old person resides in each one of us.

DNA is not the only way things get handed along. Anthropologists and social scientists have an overwhelming record of how something similar to the genetic code is written into the evolution of human cultures. It is passed along, among other ways, in the language, art, music, rituals, habits and behaviors of human societies. This rich and complex heritage is transmitted from one generation to the next.

Human beings, all living organisms, are rabid collectors and transmitters of all sorts of content -- good, bad and in between. Why is it so hard to imagine that the tendency to sin, the urge to act contrary to what one knows is right and good, is part of the human legacy?

In some respects, a contrary and rebellious spirit is a useful, even necessary aspect of how we humans function. Imagine if you had to follow the same habitual behavior over and over, without variation whenever a certain situation arose. Occasionally, our very lives depend upon our capacity to act in opposition to our habitual way of acting. There are benefits to occasionally moving outside the box.

Creativity makes new things possible, and it can assure our survival, or it can be a destructive force which threatens our own well-being and that of others. A beautiful gift used in the wrong way becomes a curse. That is what happens when the human desire to exercise power and control mixes with a lethal dose of stubborn resistance to following the right path.

The many sagas of human history are replete with examples of cold calculated evil. It is all too easy to dismiss them as abnormal behavior, but if we look into our own hearts, and honestly examine our desires and urges, we catch a glimpse of the effects of an inherited fascination with evil:

• In the earliest development of language skills we learn, often unconsciously, to manipulate words and phrases so deftly, to communicate, but also to deceive, to cover over or embellish, to inflict pain and coerce. We do not outgrow these traits but often hone them over a lifetime.

• Young children are tempted to inflict pain upon each other as if to study the reactions produced in an injured sibling or playmate. Adults become more adroit, even diabolical in these capacities.

• The tendency to divide people into classes or groups: friend and foe, privileged and lowly, us and them, is found very early in all human societies. The seeds of race and ethnic violence are right inside us all.

There is an ongoing debate among scientists as to whether “nature” or “nurture” plays the bigger part in making us into the person we end up being. Both are important. I only know that when we greet a newborn child, “Welcome to the world, baby!” we are not announcing the arrival of an empty container waiting to be filled. The 2 million year old being is in there. In a sense, the history of humanity is there, in shorthand, perhaps, but there nonetheless. Furthermore, that child is not born into thin air, but welcomed by a community of awesome complexity, and a world filled with both high promise and a record of devastating failures.

I like to think that reflection on Original Sin, the very real human tendency to do evil, is a necessary correlative to meditation on the notion that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Both truths tell us about the human potential to be little more than the angels, or little less than the beasts. Both deserve our attention. When we devote our prayerful attention to the profound mysteries that are always at play within us, we may make choices consistent with those of Jesus Christ in whose image we have been reborn through baptism.

Rev. Richard McLaughlin
Vicar for Priests

What Catholics Believe is an ongoing Harvest series on the United States Catholic Catechism of Adults.