Imago Dei, Imago Dust

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen.1:27

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen.2:7

Genesis wastes no time: right there in the first chapter, it tells us what it means to be human. We are the very image of the Holy One, the Creator’s ultimate creation. Surprisingly, though, in the very next chapter Genesis apparently tells us just the opposite: we are dirt.

Which is it?

“In the beginning” and “Adam and Eve” are both part of the popular imagination, but it’s when you first get serious and start actually reading the Bible for yourself that you find that these are not the same story, but two different stories of Creation.

We can thank 19th-century German theologians for rigorously examining, then proclaiming, what many had suspected for a long time: there are two stories because there are two authors.

One author’s view of human nature soars to the heavens: we are holy, almost divine, the image of God; the Creator’s final and highest accomplishment; so filled with goodness that God entrusts to us the caretaking responsibility of everything that God has just created.

In contrast, the other author has a very earthy view of human nature: we’re made of dust; we eat things that aren’t good for us; we are so evil that we blame our wives for our own misbehavior, and even kill our brothers when we feel unloved.

Whether we believe that being human means being high and holy, or that being human means being low and dirty, we have a Bible story to support our conviction. We can argue endlessly over which is the “true” or “correct” understanding of human nature. And many of us do, because many of us hold to one belief or the other when it comes to essential human nature.

But it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, a choice, an “either-or”. Perhaps the final editors of Genesis intentionally included both stories, believing that sometimes one is true, and sometimes the other. In this view, to be human is to see our nature as dual, a blend, a “both-and”. Sometimes we’re the image of God; sometimes we’re just dust that has learned to breathe. Part of each of us is good; part of each of us is evil.

While this approach allows us to account for both Biblical stories, it is ultimately unsatisfying as an answer to, “What does it mean to be human?” because it is not an answer; it is two separate answers, connected by a decision to choose neither.

I would propose taking yet another step beyond “both-and”: our nature lies in the tension between “image of God” and “image of dust”. Both Creation stories – both images – are necessary to understanding our essential nature. But, instead of elements of a mixture, the two stand as separate, independent poles, and we exist in the space between them. A physical analogy: if the two are weights, we exist in the balance between them. A balance is not either weight, nor is it both one weight and the other. And it is certainly not neither weight. The balance’s existence derives from the weights, yet it is not itself composed of the weights.

In other words, we need both Creation stories to understand what it means to be human, because we need the space between them. We were made, and we live, in the dynamic equilibrium that exists between sacred and profane, good and evil, God and dust.


(Adapted from a paper written for an assignment in my Old Testament course at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, in the fall of 2008.) 

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How would you have me live my life?

I have a question for the authors / scholars / feminist leaders who oppose male-to-female (man-to-woman) transition for people who say they are transgender or transsexual.

How would you have me live my life?

Not what is your theory of gender, not why is transition morally wrong, not what’s wrong with the transgender movement(s), not what are your qualifications, not even what are your feelings about people who say they’re trans.

Just: How would you have me live my life?

I was born with unambigously male anatomy. For as long as I can remember — back to age 4 — I have had a deeply felt sense that I am female on the inside; that my male body notwithstanding, my heart and soul are female; that I was meant to be, or should have been, born a girl — all of these, yet not exactly any of these. I was deeply unhappy, not so much with my circumstances, as with who I was, who I understood myself to be. When I transitioned in 2005-2006, I felt a weight lift from my spirit. I still feel that lightness today. I feel right in a fundamental way.

But how would you have me live my life?

And now that I have transitioned, how should I move through the binary gendered world that is the USA in the early 21st century? Whether we think it should be this way or not, circumstances for women and men are different. There are different restrooms and locker rooms for men and women; there are different clothes; there are different social opportunities; there are different social expectations; there are different job possibilities; there are different safety concerns; there are different options for dating, love, and sex. How should I move through all this, now, 10 years since I changed my name and grew breasts and became known to many people as a woman?

How would you have me live my life?

Not what should I have done; not how should society change; not what should trans people in general do; not what do leading authorities say I should do.

How would you, personally, have me, personally, live my life?