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God Squad: What is 'God's image'?

Do people of the Jewish faith believe humans are created in God's image? Christian literature tells me the "image" of God is both a burning bush and a voice. Does this agree with your knowledge, or do you have no image or an entirely different image of God?

-- L., Ocala, Fla., via email

The Western religious belief that we are made in the image of God is both inspiring and confusing. On the most general level, it inspires us to respect every human life with a reverence and commitment we normally reserve for God. It means that people are not means to an end but an end in themselves, just like God. It means that life is holy and absolutely protected from abuse, oppression and murder. It means that our dignity and rights come from God and not from the state.

Are we made in the form of God? That can't be true, since God is invisible. Jews and Muslims are not allowed to even try to depict this invisible God, and because of the belief in imitateo dei (being made in the image of God) there was also a prohibition in Jewish art of depicting the likeness of human beings. Muslims have a similar prohibition about depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

As to your precise question, Jews and Christians do indeed have the same belief in imitateo dei. However, Christians have a more complicated time in sorting out what being made in the image of God means, and it has nothing to do with a burning bush.

Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was God, but Jesus also appeared as a man. This could lead to the theological confusion that people are made in the form of God, which is not the actual belief of Judaism or Christianity. Jesus was not like any other person, and so the question still remains, "What does it mean for all other human beings to be made in the image of God?" I once wrote a children's book called "Does God Have a Big Toe?" to try to answer this and other questions for children, but I'm not sure I hit the mark. Basically, I explain to kids that we have a piece of God inside each of us called our soul.

Our soul is real but invisible, just like God. Our soul tells us to do the right thing and that telling is one way God speaks to each of us. God also speaks to us through the Bible, through nature and science, and through reason.

The fundamental distinction we must always attend to is this: We are not made in the shape of God. We are made in the image of God. God is good, so we should be good to reflect the image of God back into the world. God is just, so we should be just. God is loving, etc. When we die, our God piece -- our soul -- goes back to God.

After death, I believe that one of two things happens to our souls. We could be spiritually recycled by having our soul implanted into the body of a newborn child so it can live a new life and hopefully do better this time around; or perhaps we just get one life and after death spend a blissful eternity with God. When I ask kids which they think is more likely, it splits evenly between reincarnation and heavenly foreverness.

My two favorite stories about being made in the image of God are both rabbinical legends. In one, a rabbi being followed on the street by his students stops and points across the street to a poor man and asks them, "Who is that across the street?" They look and say, "It is no one, rabbi; it is just Moshele the water drawer going to fetch water." The rabbi sternly rebukes them and says, "You cannot be my students until you look at every person and say, 'That is the image of God walking across the street.' " My other favorite is the rabbinical legend in which the angels conspire against God's intention to make Adam and Eve in God's image, by giving them souls. They are jealous that ordinary men and women should inherit such a precious spiritual treasure.

The angels plot to hide from Adam and Eve the knowledge that they are created in God's image.

One angel proposes to hide the godliness of people in the highest mountains, another suggests concealing it beneath the deepest seas. But the shrewdest angels counseled, "Men will search for godliness in the remotest places. Hide it within them. It is the last place they will search for the miracle of godliness."

May we see God in every person.


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