For the majority of my theologically trained life, my ideas of what it meant to bear the image of God were quite conventional—easy inheritances from systematic theologies or books. We can love because God is love. We have the capability to reason; God is the one in whom no irrationality is found. Our personhood originates in God’s being a person. We exercise will; God is volitional. We’re creative; our God is the Prime Creator. We are creatures of language; God is Logos, the God who speaks.
Our most foundational doctrines are often the ones we build most shabbily on. But the basics were there. That we are made in the image of God is the doctrinal tenet by which Christians understand what it means to be human. Marshaling the claim from Genesis 1:27 that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them,” supported by the weight of the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 11:7, Eph. 4:24, James 3:9), Christ followers maintain that every person bears the imago Dei.
Then I met my son Augustus, who was born with Down syndrome. Gus overturned the assumptions of my theology.
Looking at versus Looking Along
Until then, to my mind, intelligence, rationality, and language were measured against a standard of competency. Those most capable of demonstrating these characteristics best bore the image of God.
But Gus, with his protruding tongue, floppy frame, and inarticulate attempts to speak, posed new questions. What about those who would never reason or speak at an exemplary level? How do people with Down syndrome—how would my boy—carry the imago Dei? Looking at the image of God solely through the steely eyes of doctrine had left me with a sort of astigmatism. Life had now offered me the corrective of experience.
In his essay “Meditation in a Tool Shed,” C. S. Lewis draws a profound lesson from a plain event that will help me find the right language to explain my new perspective. Lewis noticed, when standing in a dark shed, a beam of light shining in through the door. Initially, he looked at the beam. It shone in stark contrast against the dark. Then he moved so that the beam shone directly in his eyes. By looking along the beam, he saw the green world just outside and the very origin of the beam, the sun. “Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences,” Lewis notes.
This ordinary experience gets Lewis thinking about the ways in which we try to understand a matter. He points out that an enlightened culture will assume that the way to understand something is to look at it. We’ll theorize. We’ll analyze. We’ll objectify. If we want to understand love, we don’t go to lovers, but to the psychologists for whom love is the topic of a peer-reviewed paper. If we want to understand religion, we ignore the experience of the religious person for an anthropologist’s opinion.
Yet, while the knowledge we gather from looking at a thing is valuable, it isn’t the kind of knowing truest to our experiences. Without experience of something, our understanding of it is incomplete. We best understand love when we are in it. We know religious experiences because we have them. This experiential knowledge is akin to looking along, not merely at, the beam.
Now what I saw by looking along my experience with Gus was something I never just saw by looking at him. Looking at him, that is to say, analyzing him, I could easily slip into surveying measurable markers of the imago Dei. His delayed cognitive development and his lagging expressive understanding disturbed my provincial appraisal of what the divine image should look like. But in looking along the beam of my experience with Gus, I saw more. I saw innocence.
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Source: Christianity Today