Human Nature: Part 1
Q. What are we by nature?
A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
To say that we are made in the “image of God” – or imago dei (Latin) – is more than just a figure of speech. It is the Christian faith’s central and defining statement about what we are by nature – an exact metaphor that points us the right way when we ask the big questions: What does it mean to be human?, Who am I? Why am I here? What are my purpose and my duties in life?
To answer these questions well requires a deep study of all the sources of knowledge at our disposal — the Holy Bible (or scripture), the vision and teachings of Christians before us (or tradition), natural science, anthropology, psychology, the social sciences, and finally our own power to reason prayerfully, imaginatively and with feeling (or reason).
The Catechism presents us with a very rich picture of what it means to have a share in God’s image. On the one hand, the imago dei is a gift which belongs to every human person. As we mature in the image of God, we are given countless opportunities to enrich and make it more fully our own, more fully an expression of our choices, our loves and our creativity.
On the other hand, the imago dei belongs corporately to the entire human race. We share in it individually because we are each members of a universal family. This means that being made in God’s image should not be thought of as an exclusively private matter, as though the imago dei were something enclosed within each person in isolation from others. The imago dei is, ultimately, something possessed in relation to others. The great mystery of the imago dei is that it is not a static entity which can be fully described or defined. It is rather a potential for free relation and creativity which changes and grows as we do or which contracts and hardens if we repress its potential or act against its integrity.
To be created is to be part of a larger pattern, to be in relation. Animals belong to social groups, and they depend upon their habitats for food and shelter. Plants thrive only in a climate where they are able to find nourishment. Even inanimate things rely upon other beings for their nature and their existence: stars are born out of vast seas of plasma and remain connected through high energy events; planets revolve when brought into the gravitational sphere of a star.
As created beings, we too are woven into a tapestry of shared dependencies. We do not create ourselves but are born from others like ourselves. And we must depend upon the resources of the earth for our food, since we cannot create it for ourselves out of thin air.
All of this is true of the “image of God” as well. The fact that each of us is human depends upon our sharing a nature — a way of existing — which makes it possible for us to believe, live, and speak a language in common with others. Through the life we share in common with others — in cultures, communities, families, and friendships — we discover who we are and acquire the knowledge and skills we need to enrich ourselves and build up our families and communities through language, reasoning, craft, and skills for service.
The image of God is a gift which God makes to each of us individually. Yet, the image of God is given to us only through our relation to other persons who give us life, help us to live and teach us how to recognize God’s image in ourselves. And it is through the reality of the image of God within us that we are able to share our minds, our hearts and our gifts with others.
Being made in the image of God is not so much any special part of ourselves — our bodies, minds or spirits — as it is a capacity to enter into different kinds of personal relationships: a loving relationship with God, a godly relationship with others, and a creative relationship with the world.
Although it might sound counter-intuitive, embracing our role as those made in the image of God is the key to authentic humility. We are, in the first place, an image, a part of creation – not an extension of God’s own being. On the other hand, we also cannot be satisfied with a reductive vision of the human vocation, for it is truly God in whose image we have been fashioned.
In order to fulfill our vocation as beings made in the divine image, we must always be willing to explore and ask questions. In fact, the freedom to ask, to inquire and explore lies at the heart of what is required to study the Christian Faith as outlined in the Catechism. We are genuinely free to study, question and learn — especially about our Faith — until eventually we have reached the limits of our ability to understand. As we learn more about who God is, we will also learn more about who we are and who we might become as persons made in God’s image. When we commit ourselves to learn more about God in this way, we exercise our spiritual nature and strengthen the integrity of God’s image within ourselves.