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What does it mean to say that we are each made in the image and likeness of God?
The answer to this question is of massive importance to us. We don’t have any hope of understanding who we are, what our place in creation is, or how we relate to God if we don’t get this one right.
One way to get it wrong is to think that being made in the image and likeness of God has some physical dimension to it. In other words, that we must look something like God. We don’t. We couldn’t possibly, because God is pure spirit.
Nothing else in all of material creation has been made in God’s image. We are alone in this respect. That gives us our first clue as to what it means to bear the divine image, the first of eight different but related points that we’ll now consider:
• To be made in the image and likeness of God means that out of all creation, it is only you and I who are able to represent God on the earth.
• It means that we need to know who God is in order to live as we have been created to live. Knowledge of the One in whose image we are made is the only true road to knowledge of ourselves. But how do we acquire the knowledge of God that we need so desperately? Through Jesus, who is simultaneously God and perfect man.
• It means that we are commissioned by God to exercise dominion over the earth. Notice the word that I’ve used here. Dominion is not the same as domination. We are supposed to care for creation, not simply use it for our own purposes. That’s why ecology is such an important concern of the Church.
• It means that we have an intellect and the capacity for reason; we can understand the order of things. We want to know the world around us, to comprehend it as deeply as possible.
• It means that we have been created with free will. We are not dominated by instinct, not simply swept along by events. But be careful. In a culture like ours, which has lost its way and certainly its understanding of God, we can confuse freedom with the ability to do whatever we want. That’s lawlessness, not freedom. The Catechism tells us, “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes” (1733). It also tells us that human freedom “attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (1731). So our human freedom is not the unrestricted power to act on whim. It must be oriented toward the God who made us free—the God who is goodness itself, reality itself. The ultimate purpose of our freedom is to love—to reflect God’s love for us back to him. Only a being who is truly free can truly love. And God has made us for love because he’s made us for happiness. Our freedom comes with responsibility. It gives meaning to our acts and decisions.
• It means that by use of our God-given reason, we can recognize God’s voice urging us to do good and to avoid evil. The usual term for this is conscience.
• It means that you and I are ordered to God. St. Augustine put this very clearly and very beautifully when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our culture strenuously rejects the fact that the human person is essentially religious. But faith is not an add-on or an option. You and I were literally made for a relationship with God, and we cannot be happy until we are in such a relationship.
• It means that we are created in a very specific way. Let’s take a quick look at Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse has tremendous significance. It means (among many other things) that the full reflection of the divine image isn’t found in any one of us, that only man and woman together can fully reflect God’s image. Man cannot exhaust what it means to be in the image of God, nor can woman. Sexual differentiation is essential to us, and it is a good thing. In fact, it’s not just good; it’s very good.
So there they are: eight elements that, taken together, should give us a good idea of what it truly means to be created in the image and likeness of God. As we think about them, they should make us aware of the awesome love with which our Father made us, the care he poured into his human creation. We should become more conscious of how special we really are in God’s eyes and how unique is our role in his plan of creation. We should be not just grateful but humble, because we are all painfully aware that we are the creatures who fail God—who reject him—time and time again.
Excerpted from Rerouting . . . Finding Our Way Back to God and His Church by Fr. John Riccardo (The Word Among Us Press, 2018). Available at wau.org/books