Academic journal article Theological Studies

Evolution, Altruism, and the Image of God

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Evolution, Altruism, and the Image of God

Article excerpt

POPE JOHN PAUL II ONCE DIRECTED a series of challenging theological questions to evolution: "Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology--and even upon the development of doctrine itself?" (1) This article aims to answer one of these questions, namely, whether an evolutionary perspective can throw any new light on the meaning of the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, or of the human person as created in the image of God. A major puzzle for many sociobiologists in understanding the process of natural selection among humans is how to find an evolutionary place and role for altruism, or for generous other-centeredness, as distinct from self- or group-interest. This article proposes that from an evolutionary perspective the idea of altruism tan provide a fruitful fresh approach to the doctrine of imago Dei by exploring the idea of humanity's being created in the image of God's own altruism and by suggesting that this also throws light correspondingly on the nature of human altruism.

UNDERSTANDING THE IMAGE OF GOD

The verses of Genesis (1:26-27) that describe God's creating humankind in the divine image and likeness are among the most quoted and reflected upon passages of the Bible, and over the centuries they have been understood and explained in a variety of ways. (2) As we seek first to understand the verses in their original context, it is clear that this passage forms the climax of the creation narrative that began with the creation of light and culminated in the creation of the human race. After creating the physical universe and the plant and animal kingdoms, "God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.' So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (3)

The clear role of man and woman here, as Gerhard von Rad expresses it, is to be "God's representative" in the world, maintaining and enforcing God's dominion over the earth and animals. (4) Such a role for men and women implies a unique relationship and partnership between humans and God as they fulfill their God-given purpose in creation. (5) As the Hebrew Bible became adopted by the Christian community as part of the revealed Word of God, however, the Genesis verses referring to humans being created in the image and likeness of God were seized upon by early theologians who had been influenced by Greek philosophy and metaphysics, and the passage was given a special anthropological interpretation based on what was considered uniquely characteristic of humanity above all other creatures: its possession of the power of reasoning. Thus, in his commentary on Genesis Augustine pointed out the significance of humanity's being made in God's image in order to have dominion over the fish and birds "and other animals lacking reason": it was so that we should understand that humans were made in God's image in possessing something that made them superior to irrational animals, namely, "reason, or mind, or understanding, or any more suitable term" (see Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:10). (6)

The Bible had revealed, however, that God decided to create humankind in his image and also in his likeness, and some theologians followed Irenaeus in seeing a distinction rather than an accumulation in these two terms. In this way they applied on the one hand the divine "image" to humanity's natural endowment of reason which was retained even after original sin and the Fall. On the other hand, they applied the divine "likeness" to a further divine girl of the Spirit in creation that humanity lost as a consequence of the Fall but subsequently regained in Christ. …

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