Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly common to think of the ‘image of God’ in man as referring nothing more than immaterial properties like consciousness, free will and rationality. An unfortunate side effect of this emphasis on the immaterial aspects of the image of God in man has been that other, more physical and tangible aspects of what it means to be human have been dismissed as meaningless, ‘fallen’ properties of sinful humanity. Tragically, gender and sexuality are sometimes dismissed as just that: fallen, sinful aspects of a broken world, that will disappear the moment we are freed from our fleshy prisons and released into an entirely ‘spiritual’ heaven. Well, it shouldn’t be so. And since today is Valentine’s day, I thought it would be as good a time as any to share some thoughts on why I (and many others) think our being male and female, and even our sexuality itself, are beautiful, powerful expressions of the very divine image.
One aspect of the image of God that people rarely connect with being human is God’s nature as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When thinking of the Trinity, we should avoid simplistic images of three men sitting in some heavenly throne room together – the three divine Persons are far more than mere co-existent rulers. The Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father – they do not simply ‘co-exist’. In fact, God’s being a Trinity reveals the deepest truth of reality, the very fabric of all existence, is love. Why? C.S. Lewis puts it rather well:
“In Christianity, God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” (Mere Christianity, pg. 148, my emphasis)
There’s a very concrete sense in which, when we say ‘God is love’, we really mean it. God doesn’t just practice love, or communicate it or appreciate it; He IS love. At the core of His being, He is a beautiful, eternal, timeless ‘dance’ of mutual, three-way giving. All three live in eternal, loving communion. And from that communion, all existence comes.
So what does this mean for human beings made in God’s image? Well, Met. Kallistos Ware says in ‘The Orthodox Way’:
“Since the image of God is a Trinitarian image, it follows that man, like God, realises his true nature through mutual life. The image signifies his relationship not only with God, but with other men. Just as the three divine persons live in and for each other, so man – being made in the Trinitarian image – becomes a real person by seeing the world through others’ eyes, by making others’ joys and sorrows his own.” (pg. 53, my emphasis)
A human who lives entirely for himself is not entirely human. If we are to become real persons, glowing with the glory and love of God Himself, we must learn that real power, real authority and real divinity lie not in manipulation and domineering, but in co-operation and the outpouring of the self. Just as the three Persons of the Trinity pour themselves out in love, synergy and giving, we must do amongst one another. Now, it must be admitted that this business of submitting, co-operating and self-giving which Christians claim will turn us into radiant, God-like beings, appears decidedly weak. In general, people who submit and sacrifice their own interests tend to be beaten and bullied by the strong and self-willed. They rarely attain any of the sort of success that people in this world usually admire. But that is only because this world is fallen. Submission and self-sacrifice are in fact among the most powerful acts it is possible for us to perform.
A useful illustration might be Christ’s own self-outpouring on the Cross. He certainly didn’t appear particularly strong, hanging limp and bleeding from a tree on Golgotha, having submitted every fibre of His Being to suffering and death. But it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out (although not in Mere Christianity) that Christ’s self-outpouring on the Cross (and on our altars every Sunday for that matter) was/is in fact, no different to the self-outpouring He had always been performing for His Father since before time began. If we could see what Christ’s submission looked like when practiced in the deepest, inner reaches of the Trinity itself, we would realise that submission is not weakness at all. The pulsating, glowing, undulating submission that the Son eternally shows the Father is the very force that caused our entire, vast universe to explode into being 13.7 billion years ago, with an explosion brighter than a million suns. Submission is ultimate, true, life-giving power.
But this power of submission and co-operation that exists between persons is not raw, formless energy. It is a very specific kind of power: creative power. The co-operation of the Son and the Holy Spirit (the ‘Words’ and ‘Spirit’ of the Lord in Genesis 1) in mutual submission to the Father, brought our universe into being. And (here’s the part about Valentine’s Day …), the co-operation of man and woman in the act of physical intimacy, brings new human life into being. St. John Chrysostom noted long ago that the Trinity’s co-operative/creative power is reflected in the physical union of man and wife:
“As if you should take the purest part of gold, and mingle it with the other gold; so in truth here also the women as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and throughout contributing her own share, restores it back to the man. And the child is a sort of bridge so that the three become one flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to each.” (St. John Chrysostom)
(Of course that’s not to say that within a marriage, sex must only be practiced for procreation. The act is beautiful in and of itself.) And although it reaches one of it’s most powerful expressions during physical union, the creative, co-operative, mutually submissive relationship of a man and a woman in a pure marriage is something which is expressed in everything that they do. Like the Persons of the Trinity, the husband and wife give their entire selves to each other (of course, this is only truly possible if they have first given their entire selves to Christ). And as a result, they have infinitely more to give to the world.
So this Valentine’s day, let’s all remember that we were brought into being out of God’s love, so that we could be loved by Him and love Him back, and so that we could love one another. One of the most beautiful and intimate expressions of that love exists between faithful, married lovers, but there’s no reason that a similar (but qualitatively different) love and self-sharing shouldn’t exist between all members of the Church.
Let me close with a quote by a psychologist that sums up rather well the idea that our Trinitarian image requires us to connect with others, be they spouses, friends or God Himself:
“As we become more intimate, the other speaks into us things about ourselves that we could not possibly know from the inside. We allow the one we are intimate with to discover us in ways we could not do on our own, and we do so with them. … We know ourselves more fully because we are known more fully.” (William J. Struthers)