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The Image of God and Spirituality

davinci_figure_300In God’s image

In the first articles of this series, we observed that the image of God means that we are created to be God’s representatives, regents, and stewards on earth; that this position is the foundation for human dignity and rights; that it applies equally to men and women; and that it is expressed most directly in the family, as the fundamental unit in society and therefore the place where our dominion over creation is first exercised.

The tools God has given humanity to carry out this work of stewardship—creativity, reason, the ability to make choices, the will, emotions, morality—all of these share one important characteristic: they are all expressions of the non-physical side of human nature – that is, the fact that in addition to having physical bodies, we are spiritual beings as well.[1]

Challenges to spirituality

Contemporary culture poses several challenges to the Biblical idea of spirituality. First, one common worldview, known as materialism or naturalism, says that the physical world of matter and energy is all that exists, and thus that people have no non-physical side. This view is most common within the scientific community, particularly among those who believe that the natural sciences provide the only reliable approach to knowledge about any and everything, an idea known as scientism.

To believe this, however, runs counter to our own experience of life. First, it argues that our consciousness is nothing more than a result of chemistry in our brains; free will is an illusion, since everything we do is the result of physics and chemistry; love, hate, self-consciousness, our awareness of ourselves, all are just chemical reactions. Good and evil and right and wrong do not exist since they are neither matter nor energy; you cannot even call them cultural preferences since a preference is neither matter nor energy either.

In fact, even the thoughts you are having right now as you read this aren’t thoughts in the way you think they are—they’re just neurons firing as a result of electrical impulses from your optic nerves. And if you want to argue with these conclusions, you can no more help yourself from doing that or from holding your views than the moon can stop orbiting the earth. You are nothing more than a kind of robot carrying out the necessary and inevitable results of physics, chemistry, and biology.

While some people argue this, it is extremely doubtful that they really believe it deep down. And it is certain that they do not and cannot live as if it were true.

A second problem revolves around the word “spiritual” itself. People frequently describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” or talk about someone being “very spiritual.” The problem is, if you ask what they mean by the word, “spiritual,” they typically cannot define it. It seems to mean something like an interest in metaphysical issues, or a sense of connection to some kind of non-physical “higher being” or “beings.”

Even though a “spiritual” person’s spiritual practices (i.e. exercises done to get in touch with the higher beings or to attain metaphysical experiences or knowledge) may be done as part of a group, spirituality is rarely seen in corporate terms—it tends to be highly individual, which is in part what separates it in people’s minds from religion. This emphasis on intuition and experience makes it very close to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which believed that salvation is attained through acquiring secret knowledge (or discovering it within you).

While this idea of spirituality has some positive elements, particularly its recognition of the existence of the non-physical dimensions of reality, it rarely reflects the Biblical concept of what it means that human beings are spiritual creatures. It often leans toward a form of dualism, another element of ancient Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the spiritual world was far superior to the physical world, so much so that the physical is irrelevant at best or completely evil at worst. This idea shows up in Christian Science, many Eastern religions, and New Age systems, and ironically in some of the more extreme forms of Christian fundamentalism.

Yet Scripture tells us that God pronounced the physical world that He created very good—including our bodies. In fact, our bodies are essential for us to carry out our mandate to be God’s stewards over the physical world: we have to be in it to take care of it. How, then, can the body be evil?

Even humanity’s fall into sin doesn’t change the essential goodness of the body, especially since sin comes from our inner, non-physical being, not our bodies (Mark 7:14-23).[2] We will return to the effects of Fall in a later article.

An integrated whole

Instead of dividing body and spirit, the Bible teaches that the human being is an integrated whole, simultaneously physical and spiritual, with both created good. This unity is reflected in the word for “spirit” in both Hebrew (ruah) and Greek (pneuma), which refers not just to spirit, but to breath. While it is possible to take this too far, the connection of spirit and breath points to the fact that it is the union of spirit and body that gives us life (e.g. Gen. 2:7).

To put it differently, we cannot separate our understanding of what it means for us to be spiritual creatures from our bodies. Neither the materialist who ignores the reality of the spirit, nor the Gnostic who rejects the significance of the body, are correct. The spirit and the body are united in us, and must be understood together.

Of course, even animals have “the breath of life” (Gen. 7:21-22). The human spirit goes well beyond simply giving us biological life. As medieval theologians and Renaissance thinkers pointed out, humanity is unique as a microcosm of the creation: we are both physical and spiritual creatures; we are both sensual and rational; we participate in both time and eternity. What creature is thus in a better position to act as God’s regent (or, in ancient near eastern terms, His image) on earth?

Biblical spirituality

So what is the Biblical concept of spirituality? Jesus tells us that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (Jn. 4:24 ESV) Our ability to worship God, to connect with Him, even to have a personal relationship with Him, hinges on the fact that we have within us a spirit that is in some measure a reflection, an image, of God’s Spirit. Without the ability of our spirit to connect with God as spirit, worship cannot happen.

This is the nature of true spirituality: worshipping God who is Spirit. Even this, however, cannot be separated from our bodies. Rom. 12:1 tells us that true worship occurs as we present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. The Greek word translated as “body” is soma, which points to the person as an integrated whole – bodies, minds, emotions and will. This echoes Jesus’ restatement of the shema, the foundation of Judaism, which tells us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—the whole being (Mark 12:29).[3]

All we think, say, and do is thus to be done for the love of God, as part of presenting our whole selves as living sacrifices to Him, which is true worship and true spirituality. This is another way of expressing our calling as God’s stewards on earth: all that we do here, we are to do in His name, for His sake, to express our love for Him and to glorify Him.

 

For more insight to this topic, get the book, True Spirituality, by Francis Schaeffer, from our online store. Or read the article, “Spirituality, Religion and Christian Faith,” by S. M. Hutchens.



[1] Scripture divides humans up in a variety of ways: body, soul and spirit; body and soul; heart, soul, mind and strength; etc. For our purposes here, we are not looking at a precise distinction between the different aspects of human nature, but simply using “spirit” to describe all of humanity’s non-physical traits.

[2] Paul’s use of the term “flesh” as the opposite of “spirit” (e.g. Rom. 8:5) does not refer to the physical body. In context, it refers to an attitude of rebellion against the Holy Spirit’s leading of our lives in obedience to God.

[3] One implication of this is that taking proper care of our bodies is an aspect of true spirituality. While we do not worship the body, we must take care of it and develop it just as we do our minds and our “spiritual life” as part of our stewardship of ourselves before God.

 

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