Friday, June 04, 2010

Octopuses, Humans, and the Imago Dei

Last month I delayed writing about Octopuses to write about the oil spill. Who knew then that the oil spill would still be news a month later? (But finally a bit of good news ). For those who want to talk more about the oil spill, come over to Conversation in Faith . But here, this month it's octopus time!

Octopuses are simply fascinating creatures. At the National Geographic site you can read short pieces about the Giant Pacific Octopus (average size 16 feet!) and the Common Octopus . You can read about Octopus intelligence, here, here, here, and here.

Interesting creatures, I think. But there is something more to think about besides the “gee whiz” factor.

Many of us have a memory from biology class of a “Tree of Life” or to use an older term, the “great chain of being”. This memory shapes our perception of the world. We think of animals as more or less advanced, more or less complex and as more or less intelligent. Unthinkingly many of us place value on animals based on their location in the “Tree of Life” The higher in the tree you are the better. Mammals become more valuable than reptiles. Vertebrates more valuable than invertebrates.

That's why I'm telling you about the Octopus. If we think hierarchically about the animal world, the octopus is fairly low on the ladder. Not a mammal. Not even a vertebrate. They are in the same phylum as snails and clams.

And yet, in a simple way, they use tools, they solve problems, they might even play. While we are not the same, humans and octopuses, we are not a different as we once thought.

So here is the theological question, What is it that makes us human? Traditionally Christianity has defined our humanness by declaring we are not animals. Or at least animals of a decidedly different sort. But the more we learn about animals the more blurred that distinction becomes.

When the Bible tells us we have been created in the image of God, historically and even today some Christians believe that means we are distinctly and particularly unlike other animals. And then science becomes a problem when it ascribes traits to animals that we have reserved for humans. The things that made us different and special, things such as language, culture, empathy, the ability to mourn and the ability to be self aware. This is disturbing for many people. It causes them think they have to choose between science and Scripture.

The answer to this problem is found in understanding how images functioned in the ancient world. Images didn't depict the god, they depicted certain attributes of the god. Kings were believed to bear the image of a god and thus the representative of a god and therefore ruled on the god's behalf.

To be created in God's image doesn't mean we are physically distinct from creation ( remember, in Genesis 2 we are made out of mud). It does mean that all of us function as earthly kings. There is no hierarchy here, all humanity shares in the privilege and responsibility of rule. And we are to rule as God rules. For Christians we find our best understanding of the rule of God by following Jesus.

The fact that science blurs the distinctions between humans and the rest of the animal world, needn't be distressing. Our status in the eyes of God really hasn't been changed. As those who bear the image of God we are elected, not for privilege, but service.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I think this is enough to get the conversation started. I'd like to know, what do you think?


Sarahlynn said...


Doug Hagler said...

I think we always use the knowledge we have to construct metaphors and meaning. In the ancient world, there were some philosophies that talked about humans as essentially uppity animals, but it was hard to prove that things like ethics, mourning, memory, language and music were not unique to humans. As our understanding of the natural world gets better and more complete, this view will of course have to change. We can't possibly go back to how people viewed the world in ancient times, even if we imagine we can. It's simply impossible.

For most of modern history, we have viewed the natural world mechanistically, and have mostly been interested in it insofar as finding ways to exploit it as a thing, or a resource, or a repository there solely for our use. I would love to see a move toward valuing the natural world for it's own sake on a larger scale.

For example: God acts toward us lovingly, justly and self-sacrificially, and in all things preserves our freedom, even to respond to this love with hatred. In essence, God allows us to be wild.

I would like to see more wild spaces allowed to flourish in the world. This will take more love, justice and self-sacrifice (since we'll have to restrain our desire to exploit wild places) on our part, and would be in line with being the image of God.

That is, what if the image of God is a calling, rather than a default?

Nancy Janisch said...

Doug, I think you are exactly correct, bearing the image of God is a calling. To be Presbyterian about it, we are elected for this particular service. Imagine how differently we would treat the world if we believed we were called to care for it rather than entitled to use it.