[This essay appeared in somewhat different form in Fellowship Papers 1989, the occasional journal of the Catholic Fellowship of the Episcopal Church.]
“Some persons view what is happening as a breakdown in fundamental relations between the sexes. Others view what is happening as a breakthrough to a nonsexist understanding of human beings who are all made in God’s image.” Rachel Wahlberg, Jesus and the Freed Woman (NY/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978), p.2.
The greatest difficulty in the debate on sexuality is the lack of a rigorous, systematic theology. I will not attempt to develop such a theology here, but offer a possible starting point, in response to one particular flaw in current thought on the subject.
That flaw is apparent in the way in which some have been interpreting a biblical text: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27) The interpretation, developed by different authors, can be expressed simply as this: that the image of God is only perfectly reflected in the union of male and female. As one bishop (Bennett Sims) once put it, “. . . the divine image in humanity is incomplete without both man and woman.”
At first glance this seems rather harmless and orthodox. Similar views have been expressed in Jewish and Christian circles in the past. “Said R. Eleazar: A man without a wife is not a complete man, as it is written: “Male and female created he them...” (Yebamot 61f) Karl Barth, adopts the notion that the divine image is only fully present in the relationship of man and woman, which he calls, “the true humanum and therefore the true creaturely image of God.” (Church Dogmatics, III/2, p. 587f.)
In Barth’s case and others, such notions stem from an effort to provide the traditional sexual ethic with a theological underpinning. This working backwards from an evolved cultural moralism to a divine mandate simply will not work. A moral theology of sexuality must respect the theology of the divine and human nature—not the other way around. Such efforts go back to Augustine of Hippo, who wrote,
...the woman, together with her own husband, is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image, but when she is referred to separately in her quality as a helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not the image of God, but, as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one. (De Trinitate 7.7, 10)
Not only is this view illogical, but it rests upon incorrect reading of Genesis. Moreover, many ideas developed from this starting point are questionable, if not positively harmful. I will try to describe the implications and offer a response.
Looking to the text
The text is frequently misquoted as, “God created man in his image, male and female.” This reading forcibly applies the modifier, “male and female,” to the image of God. It implies an androgynous God, a God both male and female, rather than the God who is beyond and above categories, and Christ “the image of the invisible God,” in whom “there is neither male nor female.” (Colossians 1.15; Galatians 3.28)
A key to understanding the concept of being made “in his image” comes later in Genesis (in a passage that is omitted from the Eucharistic and Daily Office lectionary, and so has probably never been read by most Episcopalians):
When God created man, he made them [singular in Heb.] in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them [both plural] Man [Heb. Adam] when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth... and he had other sons and daughters. (Genesis 5.1-4)
Adam is used here both as the name for humanity, and the personal name; it is important to note that the creating and naming apply to the whole species. Now as to Adam’s own fatherhood and image, he had fathered Cain and Abel, both male, and had other sons later, yet only Seth is described as being “in his likeness, after his image.” Seth’s sex therefore cannot be the key to his likeness (since he shared it with others before him), but some other quality (which is not explained). Perhaps the phrase means nothing more than “after his own heart”; that human beings are particularly dear to God, as Seth was dear to Adam. In any case, Scripture makes it clear that while all of God’s children, both male and female, are in God’s image and likeness, in Adam’s case only Seth among his children bore that quality—and it wasn’t because of his sex.
After all, just as Adam had sons before Seth came along, so too God created creatures with sexuality before creating human beings. (Genesis 1.22) If God had intended sexuality—maleness and femaleness (what some people call “gender” but which is better called simply “sex”)—to be especially expressive of the nature of God— it would have been better to save it for humanity.
For if sexuality were somehow chiefly or especially expressive of the divine image then we would be forced to adopt the notion that all of the animals and many of the vegetables are also created in the divine image. There may be some comfort in this for those who see God as a great Life Force rather than as the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen—including the “life force.” But sex isn’t what makes us uniquely God’s children. For what we share with the image of God is something which we believe to be unique to us as human beings—something shared by all of us yet complete in each of us. What is it? The Catechism says it best—and I would refer everyone to it before they make any more comments about our relation to the divine image—“What does it mean to be created in the image of God? 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.” Free will and love, not sex, is our share in God’s image.
All and each
Likeness to God is not simply something shared by all of humanity, but is a quality resident in each individual human. Jesus echoes this when he warns, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40) Every person is in the image of God, and we either honor or reject that image in our day-to-day behavior in relation to individual human beings. The plain meaning of our text is this: God created humanity “in his image”; God created both male and female, men and women. Each person is made in the image of God, and shares in a likeness to God that has nothing to do with the individual’s sex. The image is complete in each: it is, if you will, holographic. It is like the presence of Christ in the eucharist, in which the bread, though divided, remains — in each fragment — the whole Body of Christ. Each individual partakes of that Body in the same way that each individual shares in the divine image: wholly.
Generalizing the divine image and dispersing it to collective humanity opens a door for acts of oppression against individuals. Those who say they love God but hate those who bear God’s image are liars. (1 John 4.20) Equally, those who say they love “humanity” while hating individuals have fallen into a theology of the “mass man”—and the idea that God’s image is somehow best expressed by a married couple partakes of this error. It is easy to practice benevolence to groups and societies; it is often difficult to deal with individuals with tolerance and love.
Perhaps the gravest error arising from this identification of sex, or the union of the sexes, with the divine image is the way in which it effectively denies the Incarnation as defined by the Council of Chalcedon (BCP pg. 864). I’m sure Karl Barth would have been appalled to have this pointed out to him. Jesus Christ, in his divine nature, is the image of God. His human nature, which he shares with us completely and perfectly, derives entirely from Mary his mother. If Christ’s humanity is perfect and complete, he encompasses all that is human. He was a man, yet he partakes of human “substance”—that which he shares with all humanity—from Mary, a woman. His sex cannot be an essential or substantial part of his—or our—human nature, but is an instance of the “scandal of particularity” or what the philosophers would call “accident” as opposed to “substance.”
As Irenaeus said in his great work Against Heresies
If [Jesus] did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, he neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if he was not made what we were, he did no great thing in what he suffered and endured... The Apostle Paul, moreover, declares plainly, “God sent his Son, made of a woman.” [Gal 4.4]... Superfluous too in that case is his descent into Mary, for why did he come down into her if he were to take nothing out of her?” (III.22.1f)
An Episcopal priest once told me Jesus couldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t married; so, therefore, he must have been married, secretly. One shudders to think what the Council of Chalcedon would have done with that one.
Jesus, a man, in his human nature is of one substance with Mary, a woman, and with every man, woman and child—with all of humanity. Any theology of the imago dei which neglects Jesus Christ as its perfect exposition will be fatally flawed.
Relations and symbols
What does the Scripture tell us about the relations between male and female, on the symbolic level? Paul develops an analogy in Ephesians 5.21-33 between the relationship of Christ with the church and a man with his wife. The unity in love and obedience which exists in the “one flesh” of a man and woman reflects the mysterious relationship of love and obedience between Christ and his body, the church. There is no suggestion that “male and female” (or man and wife) have anything to do with God’s divine nature, or our human nature. Paul is building upon what for him was a natural hierarchy of love and obedience which could lead to a transcendent unity: a man loves his wife because through the sexual act they “become one flesh”; and no one hates his own flesh. Note that in conclusion Paul refers the whole concept to a higher plane, and even implies that sexuality exists merely to provide such a symbol! “I am saying that it [i.e., the “one flesh” of Genesis 2.24] refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
To conclude, human nature transcends individual sexuality, which is a part of the physical creation we share with animals and plants, and was created as a means to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1.28). Sex is an attribute of the individual person, not of human nature. Every person is either male or female; humanity as a whole is neither.
The divine nature is beyond sexuality; God is neither male nor female. And we too, when we become children of the resurrection, will be even as Christ is, in the place where there is no more “male and female,” no more “marrying or giving in marriage” because we will no longer need the sexuality that was created for “mutual joy..., help and comfort..., and... procreation.” (BCP pg. 423) “Those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more.” (Luke 20.35-36) As Aquinas said, “Types and shadows have their ending... “ When Love comes, and when we are in that Love, we will no longer need sexuality. Because “when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13.10)
Lest anyone accuse me of dualism, or being anti-body, let me set the point straight right now. Dualism certainly exists in the church: the love-hate relationship theologians have with sexuality and generation (“the realization of the divine image” versus “the root of strife, partaking of the nature of sin”) is an outgrowth of the two creation accounts in Genesis. In the first (1.28) sexuality is part of the blessed order; in the second (3.16-4.1) it becomes tainted with pain and mortality. I do not go along with either of these extreme positions. You want dualism? You want a linkage of sex and original sin? You go to Augustine of Hippo! See, for example, Civ. Dei, XIV.15-26. The unfortunate split between will and emotion, and the linking of sexuality and original sin are both results of the Pelagian-Augustinian debates. Once Augustine decided that sexual reproduction was the means by which original sin was transmitted, it became all too easy to lay the blame for the sin upon the means by which it passed from generation to generation. Augustine goes so far as to say that it is the erect male member which transmits original sin (Sermon 151). For Augustine, sexual activity is still tainted even in a faithful marriage, even when procreation is expressly intended. Besides that, he finds the whole thing extremely distasteful. “I know of nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and the joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.” (On the Nature of Good 18)
I feel sorry for Augustine, in a way. He was largely a victim of a neoplatonic view of the world, unable to accept the dynamic tension of life between what St Francis de Sales called the Will of God (what God wills in the depth of God’s being) and the Good Will of God Done (the day to day realities, including the pains and failures necessitated by free will, ultimately redeemed by God). Augustine, poor man, couldn’t help confusing the imperfect with the bad.
God didn’t say creation was perfect. God did not create a perfect world, but a perfecting world. God did not create perfect beings, but created beings that were capable of becoming perfect because they were made in God’s image—having the power to choose. It was in right choosing that the road to perfection lay. Had humanity chosen obedience, they would have achieved perfection. Through the Fall they lost that ability until the time when God too became human. With this redemptive act, human beings once again become capable of reaching perfection in Christ and through Christ. All creation is awaiting the perfection of humanity, for when human beings take up the task for which they were created, the world can then be perfected. (Romans 8.19-23.) The significance of the Incarnation and At-one-ment affirm that the “happy fault” of Adam was not an incidental episode of salvation (or creation) history. Only through “one man’s obedience” could perfection be realized, a perfection realized “once and for all.”
No, God didn’t say creation was perfect; God said it was good, except for one thing: loneliness. (Genesis 2.18)
I think sex and sexuality are great. They are good, a part of God’s creation. But like a lot of other good things they are imperfect, earthly, and transient. That the risen body will be unlike the “body of death” is a promise of hope. Many things that we think are great now, many “creature comforts,” many things valued in the church, like prophecy and knowledge, will pass away. Love will remain.
Tobias Haller BSG