When you look at your face in the mirror, is what you see the stamp of God’s own image — not His face, because He doesn’t have a face or a body or any physical aspect, but His spiritual image? Or is your face the mere product of an unguided evolutionary process, a configuration of physiognomic features reflecting God’s intentions partially at best, maybe not at all? Let’s consider the question in light of the interpretative tradition that has been contemplating the Hebrew Bible for three thousand years.
This is one of those points where believers in theistic evolution like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, and Simon Conway Morris ask religious believers to pare back key theological beliefs to suit Darwinian doctrine. As I’ve tried to tell you before, the evolution debate should be of urgent interest to the faith community. Even the most religion-friendly Darwinists leave us with a faith severely foreshortened, compared to what most of us think we have learned from the Bible and other religious texts. This is not about science alone. It’s about what a particular interpretation of scientific data seeks to tell us about ourselves as spiritual beings.
You know the key verses from Genesis (1:26-27, emphasis added):
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
On his BioLogos website, genome scientist Dr. Collins cites Cambridge University’s Simon Conway Morris on “convergence.” That’s the idea, very far from being universally accepted by Darwinian biologists, that even unguided evolution would eventually “converge” on a creature somewhat like us. Without God’s involvement as life’s designer, we could expect (emphasis added):
many of the traits that are particularly relevant for human-like beings. These examples include basic senses like balance, hearing and vision, as well as highly advanced features like the human brain….Characteristics such as a large brain capable of consciousness, language and complex thought would inevitably have to emerge from the evolutionary process….
The exact anatomical features of this ultimate sentient being might not be precisely specified by the evolutionary process, however. This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God.
What Dr. Collins means is, say goodbye to the idea that your face and body plan necessarily represent God spiritually in any meaningful way. Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, has been blunter about this. He asks what you’d get if, in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous thought experiment, the videotape of life’s history were re-run from the beginning with, as in the first go around, no purposeful design (emphasis added):
[E]ventually I think you would also get a large, intelligent, reflective, self-aware organism with a highly developed nervous system. Now it might be a big-brained dinosaur, or it might be a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities….[M]y point is that I think eventually under the conditions that we have in this universe you would get an intelligent, self-aware and reflective organism, which is to say you’d get something like us. It might not come out of the primates, it might come from somewhere else.
The brainiest of mollusks are squid, octopus and cuttlefish. So if you’re willing to believe the face or body of one of those (see above) can reflects God’s image as well as ours, then you will be comfortable with theistic evolution.
But in that case, you’d better also be comfortable with abandoning the clear meaning of the verses from Genesis. The relevant Hebrew words, tzelem (image) and demut (likeness), mean respectively “appearance” and “similarity in form or deed.” These are the definitions given by the classical Spanish medieval commentator Nachmanides, based on an analysis of how the words are used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Our being created in God’s image, he writes, is meant to “stress the remarkable phenomenon that distinguished [man] from [all] the rest of the creations.” This includes “[man’s] facial expression, [which is an expression of] wisdom and knowledge and perfection of deed.” This is God’s image sealed in our own faces.
The Zohar (1:191a), relating the most mystical interpretation of the Torah, says this:
[W]hen the blessed Holy One created the world, He fashioned every single creature of the world in its own fitting image, and afterward He created the human being in a supernal image [i.e., God’s image corresponding to the divine emanations, or sefirot, depicted in a configuration of ten reflecting the shape of a man], granting him dominion over them all through this image. For as long as a human exists in the world, all those creatures of the world raise their heads and gaze upon the supernal image of the human being; then they all fear and tremble before him, as is said: “Fear and dread of you shall be upon every living thing of the earth” [Genesis 9:2].
Don’t worry if you do not understand exactly what that means. The key point to take away is that even animals somehow perceive the Godly image in man. They would not perceive it an octopus, however intelligent.
Nor is this some kind of exclusively mystical insight. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Darwin’s contemporary, emphasizes the same point in his own classic Torah commentary, and he disclaimed any kabbalistic influence. Instead, he emphasized the practical worldview emanating from the text — conveyed, most characteristically, by an exquisitely careful examination of the Hebrew language in which the Biblical tradition is transmitted.
His approach to Torah was scientific, in the sense that he lets the words, the data, say what they do rather than fitting them to an a priori idea. Based on an etymological analysis, he too concludes (on Genesis 1:26) that “image” (tzelem) “only means the outer covering, the bodily form.” So: “The bodily form of man proclaims him as the representative of God, as the divine on earth,…such as complies with, is adequate to, a being having the calling of being ‘godlike.'” Clearly, not just any bodily form would serve the purpose.
Finally, you can’t get any more basic, fundamental understanding of what the Torah means than from the supreme classical commentator, Rashi. He cites a parable from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b) in explanation of a verse in Deuteronomy (21:23). If a man is convicted of a capital crime and then executed and hung, care must be taken that his body not be displayed overnight: “for a hanging person is an insult to God.”
It is a degradation of the King, for man is made in the likeness of His image, and Israel are His sons. This can be compared to two twin brothers who resembled each other. One became a king, while one became ensnared in banditry, and was hung. Whoever would see him [hanging] would say, “The King is hanging!” Any instance of k’lalah (insult) in Scripture means treating lightly and in a demeaning fashion.
God is demeaned by the person in His image being hung overnight. There are other ways to understand this remarkable parable, but the obvious one, given what we’ve said so far, is that seeing a degraded human body also degrades God, since “man is made in the likeness of His image.”
If you were Francis Collins you might ask what all this matters. Are we insisting on a literal reading of Scripture? Is this all about the dreaded phantom menace of literalist creationism?
Maimonides (who incidentally takes a different, more intellectualizing view on the meaning of tzelem) writes in the Guide of the Perplexed (2:25) that where no larger philosophical or moral issue is at stake, and where science goes against the literal meaning, figurative interpretations of the Scriptural text can be an option. But where such an interpretation would throw an authentic religious worldview into chaos, and where in any event the scientific evidence doesn’t compel it, then certainly we should resist abandoning the plain meaning.
Hirsch, as always, clarifies the relevant worldview implications. It matters urgently that we not entirely spiritualize the meaning of our being imprinted with God’s image. That way lies moral catastrophe, with our bodily acts being relegated in importance to a mere afterthought.
As Hirsch writes, the verses in Genesis teach (emphasis added)
the godlike dignity of the human body. Indeed the whole Torah rests primarily on making the body holy. The entire morality of human beings rests on the fact that the human body, with all its urges, forces and organs, was formed commensurately with the godly calling of man, and is to be kept holy and dedicated exclusively to that godly calling. Nothing digs the grave of the moral calling of man more effectively than the erroneous conception which cleaves asunder the nature of man. Only recognizing godlike dignity in the spirit, it directs the spirt to elevate itself to the heights, and in mind and thought to soar upwards to a higher sphere, but leaves the body to unbridled license, animal-like, nay lower than animal.
When you hear someone say that our spirit may come from God, but our bodies reflect his will in only the vaguest possible way, that is, in other words, a prescription for moral disaster. Animalism, I mean, of the kind we see around us today.
Do you really still think that ideas don’t have consequences? With theistic evolution, naive to its core, hopelessly determined to surrender to the Darwinian spirit of our age whenever the opportunity arises, this is what we’re up against.