Chapter 6: Human Persons as Images of the Divine: A Reconsideration, by Ellen M. Ross

The Pleasures of Her Text
by Alice Bach

Chapter 6: Human Persons as Images of the Divine: A Reconsideration, by Ellen M. Ross

Ellen M. Ross is assistant professor of the History of Christian Life and Thought at Boston College. Ross has recently published articles in Downside Review and Listening. Her major research interests are in the fields of medieval mysticism and contemporary feminist theology.


Then God said, "Let us make the human person [adam] in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26).


What use have feminist theologians for a concept that characterizes human persons as imitators of a God who is often portrayed as a male deity?2 What use have we for a description of the human person which has been at times applied in a primary way to males and only derivatively or secondarily to females?3 Some may say that we would do well to abandon the scriptural theme of "human persons’ creation in God’s image" because the history of its use has been resistant to the affirmation of women’s full humanity. I want to suggest something quite different here. By engaging in dialogue with the writings of two medieval theologians of the Augustinian tradition, Richard of St. Victor (12th cent.) and Walter Hilton (14th cent.), and the contemporary theologies of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Dorothee Soelle, I will argue for the wisdom of reconsidering this central concept of the Christian tradition, suggesting that the heritage of what this symbol has meant to Christian believers may yet proffer theological guidance to communities of renewal and hope in the late twentieth-century.

Both Richard of St. Victor, a theologian and mystic at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, and Walter Hilton, an English spiritual guide, were members of the Augustinians, a religious order of the high Human Middle Ages that sought a middle way between the monastic life of cloistered nuns and monks, and the individualistic parish life of priests. For these two spiritual theologians, representative of one major type of medieval formulation of the imago Dei concept, the implications of the image theme are largely practical, operational, and moral: our identification as image-bearers applies not only to a past, creative association with God, nor only forward to a future, eschatological situation, but provides orienting and directive guidance in our day-to-day living with other bearers of the divine image.4

In conversation with Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, I will argue for the centrality of the image of God theme in a contemporary feminist theology, suggesting that it is precisely the practical or moral implications of image-bearing that can be most helpful to theology today. In this vein I will consider the work of Rosemary Radford Ruether and of Dorothee Soelle who, for differing but complementary reasons, provide excellent resources for articulating a systematic and inclusive understanding of our identities as image-bearers. Ruether, who gives explicit attention to the imago Dei theme, is a feminist theologian committed to retrieving the scriptural message and affirming its transmission in the Christian tradition. Although critical of the Christian tradition’s distortions of the message, Ruether is unwilling to dismiss Christianity’s theological heritage completely, but prefers to draw selectively and constructively from it and from other disciplines and thought traditions in order to enrich contemporary theological reflection. The German theologian Dorothee Soelle, who speaks eloquently to the need for development of the interior life as the only possible cure to the social ills afflicting the contemporary world, makes little direct use of the image of God theme. But her lengthy discussions of the motifs related to it, and in particular, her analysis of the "sins" or "vices" of our time, makes her a valuable resource. Soelle provides a contemporary analysis of what Hilton would call "the image of sin," our dissimilarity to God, and a vision of solidarity, an affirmation of the unalterable connection between love of God and love of neighbor.

In considering Ruether and Soelle as representatives of prevalent tendencies within feminist theology, I will indicate how the image of God theme as described by the two medieval Augustinian canons might complement and enrich feminist theologians’ affirmations of our full humanity and call for a holistic, developmental way of being which invites the use of all our human faculties in a socially responsible context. The image of God theme as set forth by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton provides a rich symbol of the "thinking-relational"5 self both Ruether and Soelle help us to recover. In particular, I will suggest that the contribution of medieval reflection on the image to contemporary theology arises from (1) its depiction of the human person as constituted in a fundamental way by its relationship to the Divine; (2) its analysis of the importance of personal and social transformation in our lives; and (3) its offering of language and imagery to express our intimacy with God and the world.

In the dialectic between medieval and contemporary feminist theology, feminist thought, for its part, introduces themes that highlight dimensions of the image concept which were unexplored during the Middle Ages; specifically, I will point to feminist theology’s major role in recognizing the implications of the image of God theme for shaping our political experience. Despite significant differences in style and method — Ruether more concerned with reclaiming the systematic structure of the Christian tradition, and Soelle with rejuvenating the spiritual life of her audiences — Ruether and Soelle are united in their concern to celebrate the dignity of the human person in relationship to God and the world and to celebrate the possibilities of the Christian tradition. And like much of contemporary theology which focuses on the political ramifications of theological expression,6 the theologies of both Soelle and Ruether are explicitly political and economic insofar as theological claims have praxis implications that call for concrete responses. While precedents for these concerns are not readily apparent in the political claims of medieval thinkers like Richard and Hilton, we can find a compatible sensibility in the significant social dimensions of theology evident, for example, in Richard and Hilton’s identification of love with mutual interaction of love of God and neighbor, and not exclusively — with either love of self or love of God. As Richard puts it, for us to attain love in its highest degree, charity or love must be directed toward another person.7 Hilton describes this phenomenon even more exactly in saying that we do not actually "leave" God in loving our sisters and brothers: ". . . if you are wise you won’t leave God but will find God and possess God and see God in your fellow-Christians as you do in prayer, but you will have God in another way."8 For Hilton the greatness of the human person is measured by the degree to which one loves God and other human persons.9 In conjunction with this model, contemporary feminist theology pushes us beyond the medieval context to recognize the implications of traditional conceptions of love of God and neighbor for our own time.

The Issue of Gender Language

Before embarking on a project which entails application of medieval themes to contemporary thought one of the first questions we must ask is how the image of God theme can be retrieved when it has been associated at times with the claim that man is truly and essentially the image of God, while woman is the image of God only derivatively and not even fully. Although we can find such explanations beginning even with scriptural passages,10 such claims do not accurately represent the thought of the figures considered here. Because of space constraints I can do little more than mention this important topic, and state my own attempt to deal with it. I maintain that the inferiority of women is not built into the medieval theological system as a primary structural support, but rather appears as a form of gender symbolization carried over from the patriarchal society in which the authors lived.

Kari Borresen introduces two rubrics that are especially helpful for assessing medieval reflections on women: subordination and equivalence.11 She isolates two dominant and conflicting attitudes in Augustine’s and Aquinas’ reflections on the nature and role of women. One she calls subordination, the view that woman is subordinate to man in the order of creation, or in the day-to-day existence of this world.12 She calls the second dominant attitude equivalence, a term used to indicate the "identical value of man and woman as human persons."13 The imago Dei theme arises here: . . . equivalence according to the spirit of the Gospel belongs to the order of salvation, as the realization of the quality of divine image borne equally by man and woman."14 Although the order of creation is androcentric, the order of salvation is theocentric, and thus, in the order of salvation, the woman "bound to her individual end, [finds] the complete fulfillment of herself as the image of God."15

The equivalence/subordination conflict is certainly present in the medieval authors we consider here. On the one hand they assert that all people are created in God’s image; but, on the other, they at times distinguish between men and women on a secondary and nonessential level. Augustine, Richard and Walter’s major source here, divides reason into superior and inferior reason: males symbolize superior reason and females inferior reason, just as the male/female relationship symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church. Significantly, however, he adds that

. . .although the physical and external differences of man and woman symbolize the double role that the mind is known to have in one man, nevertheless a woman, for all her physical qualities as a woman, is actually renewed in the spirit of her mind in the knowledge of God according to the image of her Creator, and therein there is no male or female [my emphasis].16

Despite the symbolic female/male differences wherein woman represents the physical and man the spiritual, for the most part the medieval tradition affirmed that women and men are equally images of God. As this example indicates, we must read these medieval writers with a constant eye to patriarchal distortions, and to inconsistencies in their claims about the human person. Although we should be always alert to the possibilities for systematic distortion, we need not summarily dismiss everything that has been said or written about male and female in these texts, particularly because they often include contradictory claims, that is, statements which disparage women because they are reflective of a patriarchal social context, and others which could be the basis for affirming the dignity and equality of all human beings, females and males.

Authors like Borresen, Eleanor McLaughlin,17 and Caroline Walker Bynum18 who perceive the conflict in medieval texts between equivalence and subordination, or between theocentric theory and androcentric bias, have recognized that the medieval use of the imago Dei pushes writers at least in theory beyond what much medieval thought and practice taught concerning the subordinate status of women. The tensions and even contradictions in medieval comments about women suggest that the medieval world did not live out the full implications of the image theme. The equivalence signaled by the image of God tradition could have had significant implications not only in the order of salvation but also in the order of creation had its proponents admitted that affirmation of one’s status as an image of God has significant implications for women and men in their relations to one another and standing before God. The female and male equivalence signaled in the imago Dei theme refers to a practical, every-day perspective out of which we act in relation to God, self, and the world. In this way, we may be encouraged to reconsider this theme by Bynum’s observation that "[I]f the images . . . have not in the societies that produced them brought about the equality of the sexes, it is not, so to speak, the fault of the image."19 Symbols do not simply reflect dominant hierarchical societal values because they also carry with them the potential for radical social change and renewal.20 Even when unrecognized by those using them, symbols, and specifically the image of God theme, "can invent as well as reinforce social values."21

In the context of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton’s thought I will ask here what the image of God concept meant, what potential it did express, and what emancipatory prospects it might offer for us today. In what follows I will attempt to draw together three central ideas associated with the imago Dei in medieval theology: the fundamental orientation of the human person to God, the dynamics of transformation in human existence, and the discourse of intimacy that defines the God/human nexus. I will offer three thesis statements about the image that reflect traditional and contemporary uses of the image theme.

1. Our Existence as Images of God Expresses Both a Capacity and a Present State. As We Develop as Images of God We Come to Express Our Full Humanity in a Unity of the "Thinking-Relational" Self, and We Learn to Respect the Image Character of Other Human Persons.

In the work of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton the image of God in us describes both a state of being and a capacity. First, the image of God theme refers to a present, already-existing state of being in which we are defined in an originary way by our relationship to the Divine of whom we are reflections by nature. Presupposing the revelatory function of Scripture, the medieval tradition interprets Gen 1:26 to mean that human persons from their creation are constituted in an inalienable way as images of God. The narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve and the concomitant damaging of the image reflects the tradition’s perception that the image is somehow blurred and not fully actualized in our experience, although the human person remains in a fundamental way, by virtue of its nature, an image of God.

Thus a second aspect of the image emerges: the image describes a capacity, namely that about us which makes it possible for us to grow in relationship with the Divine as the breach symbolized by the fall is healed. Although we may not yet fulfill our capacities, we are images of God already simply by virtue of the fact that we have the ability to know and to love, and to the extent that we actively love and know God we are developing as images and fulfilling our capacities in actuality. In referring to both an actuality and a potentiality the image alerts us to our nature and to our destiny. This is the logic of medieval anthropology: by virtue of our being images of God we are offered an intimate relationship to God, but it is only insofar as we are images of God that we are capable of receiving this heritage.

In the medieval tradition represented here the image concept guides and directs all aspects of the human person’s relationship to the Divine. Growth in relationship to God is measured by one’s reformation as an image of God. Writers like Walter Hilton describe the work of God and Christ in our lives as a process of reforming us in Christ’s image. The image of God theme plays an integral role in the divine-human relationship: it is only insofar as we are image-bearers that we can even be rendered capable of the relationship, and our relationship to God is measured by the development of the image within us. Specifically, the image of God in us describes our capacity to become like God by understanding and loving the God who is love.

Rosemary Radford Ruether also employs the notion of capacity and present state in accepting the dichotomy of classical theology between a good creation represented by Christ and a fallen humanity which we primarily encounter now.22 The imago Dei, "remanifest in history as Christ," represents authentic human nature, what we can be potentially — in other words, it represents a present human capacity.23 For Ruether and for the image tradition explored here, though, there is no absolute dichotomy between imago Dei and fallen humanity (as there is, e.g., in Karl Barth). Our existence as images of God is more than simply a capacity since at times we experience the full or partial fulfillment of that capacity in our present state. As Ruether writes, "the fullness of redeemed humanity, as image of God, is something only partially disclosed under the conditions of history. We seek it as a future self and world, still not fully achieved, still not fully revealed. But we also discover it as our true self and world, the foundation of and ground of our being."24 The image in us points to our nature and to our destiny.

Dorothee Soelle affirms some similar aspects of the imago Dei theme, although the concept plays no explicitly central role in her theological formulations. She associates the image theme with "the Jewish affirmation of our being created as images of God, empowered to grow into love and to become love ourselves."25 "The directive is clear . . . We are beckoned to approximate God . . . Created in the image of God, we therefore are able to imitate God."26 And what does the capacity refer to? In what does the imitation consist? For Soelle, representative of the political turn in contemporary theology, the fact that we are God’s image-bearers means that our destiny is to realize God’s justice in the world. Soelle draws here on Carter Heyward’s understanding of God as power-in-relation which refers not to dominating power-over, but rather to the Divine’s capacity to empower others to love,27 and "to become love ourselves."28 Insofar as we can become or are bearers of that love we are images of God in that we potentially are or actually become co-creators with the Divine. The challenge for feminist theology is to articulate recommendations for the implementation of justice in specific instances, but the Christian image of God tradition reminds us of our nature as having the capacity to fulfill God’s way of being in the world and as actualizing our nature in doing so.

In calling for an end to the compartmentalizing of roles in our lives as one significant condition for attaining a justice which respects the full humanity of all persons, male and female, Ruether raises one of the issues the image of God theme can most productively address. She writes, "[W]omen want to integrate the public and the private, the political and the domestic spheres in a new relationship that allows the thinking-relational self to operate throughout human life as one integrated self, rather than fragmenting the psyche across a series of different social roles."29 The image of God theme as described by Richard and Walter provides a theological concept which symbolizes exactly the holistic integration of the thinking-relational self Ruether advocates. The fact that we are image-bearers tells us that we are thinking-relational beings.

Both medieval thinkers identify a dual focus of the image, an identification with human understanding, often when they speak of knowledge of God, and with the human will, often when speaking of love of God. This dual focus is clarified in medieval attention to the constant interaction of knowledge and love, one encouraging the other. Knowledge of God for its own sake unrelated to love of God is useless, Hilton says;30 or as Richard expresses it, love and knowledge work with one another and mutually encourage one another: "the richness of divine knowledge increases in vain, unless it increases the flame of divine love in us.31 This is a theological reminder that our discussions of God are best rooted in a knowledge related to love; but, further, it is also a starting point for describing our relationship not only to God, but also to the world. Our two medieval theologians maintain that our relationship to God forms a model for our relationship to others and to the world around us. Love of neighbor, as described by the two Augustinian canons, is integrally related to love of God, and is so basic that we are by nature in-relation to God and in-relation to others at the same time. A knowledge in continual interplay with love, such as that described by Hilton and Richard, guides our development of rationality. Thus a theological anthropology dependent upon the medieval tradition would call for a constant interaction of knowledge and love in our relationship to other persons and to the world: we can see immediately the kind of implications this dialectic would have for a theological anthropology in exploring, for example, our relationship to our natural environment. Our medieval theologians’ vigilant reiteration of the constant interaction between knowledge and love cautions us to exercise care in using language like "thinking-relational" self, for such language used unreflectively can perpetuate the myth that there is a "thinking" self which can be clearly distinguished from the "relational" self. In actuality the two are not divisible in the manner such language would suggest.32 All of our thinking is in some sense relational, and to the extent that it is not relational or is actively destructive of relationships it does not express full humanity. The separation of the two terms "thinking" and "relational" may have some limited use in making a distinction, such as Parker Palmer does, between a kind of knowledge which originates in curiosity or from control, and a knowledge arising from love or compassion.33 Of course, even the first type of knowledge is relational — though the relational implications are negative in that they promote neither compassion nor respect for the dignity of all human persons. (Knowledge-based research for the Strategic Defense Initiative, for example, is not simply "pure knowledge." Potentially, it has tremendous relational consequences because it may, for example, actively contradict a 1971 Salt I agreement prohibiting development of Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense, thus undermining the emerging relationship described in the Salt I agreement.)

Traditionally many theologians have emphasized one or the other side of the love-knowledge dichotomy; indeed, theology in the second half of the twentieth-century can be characterized by its emphasis on love.34 Perhaps, though, we need to reconsider for a moment the importance and possibilities for the theme of knowledge in the process of recognizing the full humanity of all human persons. We are taught to "love our neighbors," but this has little meaning; often, we cannot even determine who our neighbors are. The notion of "knowledge" could be helpful here. We would see things in a new way and in a way closer to the medieval insight if we were to imagine "knowing" our neighbors as images of God. Frequently we "know" people as "the sister or brother of so-and-so," "the husband or wife of so-and-so," "the author of a particular book," "the advocate of a particular cause." "Knowing someone as generally results in our having particular preconceived attitudes towards the person before ever meeting her or him. If we know someone as "an advocate of peace concerns," for example, we might expect (rightly or wrongly) the person to have particular interests or particular attitudes. How would we think differently if we were to "know" people as "images of God"?

Richard of St. Victor points us in this direction in making the insightful point that in spiritual matters we must love first by deliberation, and only later will we love by affection.35 A first step of deliberation is a knowledge which we eventually come to understand more deeply and more experientially. We begin by emphasizing that we must first "know" ourselves and all other people as images of God, and after acting out of that knowledge, contemplating it, and striving to live from that perspective more faithfully, we then become able to love and understand more fully the meaning of our and all humanity’s existence as images of God.

Contemporary theologians’ attention to the political ramifications of our action in the world reiterates the medieval recognition of the emptiness that results from bifurcating love and knowledge. It is that very practice of dividing our lives into a series of separate and limited territories, separating the religious from the political, or the economic from the social, or the feminist from the theological, that makes it possible for us to talk about "love of neighbor" without making a commitment to economic sanctions, for example, which might free our neighbor from political, economic, or social oppression. In a variety of ways theologians like Ruether and Soelle affirm the interconnectedness of our lives and focus especially on the too-often-neglected political nature of theology. In their explicit attention to political matters their starting point and central concerns differ from those of Richard of St. Victor or Walter Hilton and their emphases shed new light on the implications of the image of God theme; however, the basis for using the image tradition to speak of each and every person’s originary constitution and dignity as a reflection of the Divine and use of the image concept to highlight the interrelationship between love and knowledge can be traced back to the medieval insights examined here.

II. The Way to Image Restoration Is By Way of Spiritual Transformation, Including the Cultivation of Self-Knowledge, the Active Metamorphosis of Vices into Virtues, and the Pursuit of Love and Knowledge of God.

As we have seen in the cases of Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, in medieval thought the image theme often appears in the context of holistic descriptions of a Christian life of seeking to imitate God by "becom[ing] love and not just receiv[ing] it."36 The image of God theme and its medieval articulation highlights the transformative nature of human persons. Practical and moral analyses of the image consistently chart the dynamics of this transformative process through which persons seek to actualize their potential as bearers of the Divine image. While the specific stages of transformation are articulated in different ways, the development is frequently depicted as a journey, variously described as a process of faith seeking understanding, or as a process of the transformation of the image of sin within us into an image of Jesus.

While I am not advocating a wholesale return to medieval categories of transformation, I do want to point to the critical role accorded transformation in medieval understandings of the human person, and most visibly in medieval discussions of the image of God theme. Although as theologians we sustain ourselves by hope for transformation in the world around us we too often focus on the way things should be, or on the way things are, with little regard for cultivating the process of effecting change. Guided by medieval descriptions of the transformative process we might renew our vigor in attending to the place of change in human existence.

Almost without exception medieval portrayals of development as images of God begin with the pursuit of self-knowledge, a lengthy process attainable only with the help of grace. Self-knowledge leads people to recognize two things (1) that we are image-bearers, and therein lies our dignity (and the source for unwavering self-love); and (2) that we frequently neglect our responsibilities and capacities as image-bearers. In spite of the medieval spiritual theology’s undeserved reputation for focusing on sin in believers’ live’s, the fundamental affirmation underlying the texts considered here is that humanity is good and directed toward growth and transformation. Self-knowledge, cultivated with attention to the disparity between what we are (blurred images) and what we can be (clear images), leads both to a restoration of a good will and to a knowledge gained through experience of what we may know already by faiths or by the teaching of Christian communities. Self-knowledge seeks k:nowledge and love of God; it "assum[es] . . . another relationship to reality, one of wholeness."37

Most of us at times experience disjunction or disunity, (a sense of alienation from the world around us and from God. We could argue as Hilton does that our enslavement to vices such as apathy, gluttony, pride, and lechery, accounts for our disjunction with the world.38 And we could argue that progress in the transformation of vices into virtues signals progress in growth as images of God so that the virtues he prescribes as correctives to vice are useful to characterize the situation in which we would be at one with the world. There are, however, some other contemporary ways to convey the sense of what Hilton suggested with his contrast between vices, or sin, and virtues.

Like many contemporary theologians, Ruether understands sin in part as a distortion of our relationships to others and to the world around us; in particular, it is a "distortion of the self-other relationship into the good-evil, superior-inferior dualism."39 Sexism is a primary example of sin since sexism presumes and perpetuates distorted, bifurcated relationality.40 Sin refers not only to our active participation in relationships dominated by pride, but also to "the passivity of men and women who acquiesce to the group ego."41 The process of developing self-knowledge can help counter situations of distorted relationality by encouraging us to recognize our own capacities to oppress others, to promote a sexist status quo, and to close our eyes to injustice.42

Dorothee Soelle is even more sensitive to the significance of spiritual development and more vocal about the political and social demands of Christianity than Ruether. She deepens the understanding of our distorted relationality to the world by naming its five characteristics: (1) isolation, (2) reduction to the individual, (3) muteness and speechlessness, (4) fatalism and apathy, and (5) immanence.43 What is the antidote to this situation? The tradition has answered "Virtue," and writers such as Richard of St. Victor have called love the chief of all virtues. But how do we understand "virtues" and "love" today? Soelle names an antidote to each of the vices named above and the common denominator of all the "virtues" is solidarity, the cultivation of full humanity, an active recognition of the uniqueness, value, and interconnectedness of each human being and of all human beings. Her catalogue of contemporary "virtues" vis-a-vis the "vices" of modernity are the following: (1) connectedness, (2) collective experience, (3) symbolic and linguistic expression, (4) readiness for political action, and (5) transcendence.

Connectedness is the opposite of isolation because in affirming our connectedness we affirm our solidarity, our interdependence. Rather than celebrating the individuality of our experience we appreciate its collective nature. Affirming our own and others’ experiences, and struggling to find a voice to express them, we deny fatalism and we emerge from the pit of apathy. As we demand our right to speak and the rights of others to speak we enter into the political arena to assure voices for collective human experience. Listening to others and speaking to others calls for transcendence, an ability to look beyond our immediate surroundings to a future, to the practical consequences of what we do and say.

Although Soelle does not pose the question in quite this way, it is important to ask how we move from the situation of seclusion to the situation of solidarity. More implicit than explicit, but present in Soelle’s work seems to be the claim that the inward journey, the spiritual path, provides the means for moving from seclusion to solidarity. The "way of inwardness" has love (here understood as solidarity) as its goal and involves a process of development, which can be understood in terms of a movement from the negative side to the positive side of the polarities she describes.

The most important virtue of this kind of relation is not obedience but solidarity, for solidarity asks that we change the image of God from that of a power-dispensing father to one of a liberating and unifying force, that we cease to be objects and become subjects involved in this process of change, that we learn cooperation rather than wait for things to come to us from on high.44

Soelle advocates the inward journey as the way to learn to experience a new and deeper unifying love, or solidarity. As with Richard and Walter we begin with the affirmation that "God is Love" which for Soelle we recognize in particular historical experiences of liberation. The tendency of God’s love, which becomes present to us in the experience of solidarity,45 is to increase, to grow, "to bind and join together in even larger entities."46 The image of God is reformed in us to the extent that we are capable of participating in God’s active and ever-widening love. But it is not an easy process because we are accustomed to avoiding pain; we are used to narrowing our vision to protect our own private stability and comfort.47 Soelle, and the tradition represented by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton, challenges us to trade security and control for a life which includes publicly "seeking God." Richard says we love first by deliberation in spiritual things as the soul turns inward and pursues self-knowledge through cultivation of virtues and intentions. At some stage of the process, after the initial steps of reordering one’s priorities and seeking to act out of love and understanding in the world, many medieval spiritual theologians describe an aspect of transformative experience which focuses almost exclusively on the Divine, culminating in a union with God, interpreted by Richard of St. Victor and Walter Hilton as a union of wills. Significantly, though, in the moral and practical image tradition represented here, the process of image reformation does not end until finally, we "go forth because of our neighbor."48 Soelle writes, "[the goal . . . is to reach this farthest point, to experience the deepest self-conformation, and yet to return and to communicate the experience that we are a part of the whole."49

III. The Goal of Image Restoration Is the Conformity of Our Wills to God’s Will So That One Perceives Oneself Not as a Servant of the Divine, But Rather as a Friend of God.

Christ plays a central role in medieval depictions of persons response to God’s offer of love in that, as Hilton explains, we begin the transformation process by contemplating Christ’s humanity, by cultivating our resemblance to Jesus. Richard echoes this when he says that " . . . one who does not follow the footsteps of Christ perfectly does not enter the way of truth rightly."50 He describes the highest earthly stage of love of God in terms of conformity of our wills to the image of Christ: "In this state the image of the will of Christ is set before the soul so that these words come to her: ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus."’51 Dorothee Soelle uses the same passage from Phil 2:5 "to have this mind . . . which you have in Christ Jesus." She explicates it in a similar way to Richard: "Living as Christ lived means the inward journey to . . .surrendering of the ego and the return journey to the midst of the world."52 Richard makes the point that in this fourth degree we are torn between being "dissolved and being with Christ" and remaining in the flesh which the "charity of Christ compels."53 His contrast captures the experience of the person who, having tasted the love of God, on the one hand, longs to be taken up completely into that love to dwell entirely within it, but who, on the other hand, cognizant of humanity’s existence as an embodied reality, recognizes the significance of loving others in concrete experience as an expression of our love of God. Charity compels us to go out into the world with compassion.

This discussion of conformity of wills to Christ raises the problematic issue of contemporary appropriations, and in particular, feminist appropriations of Christ. Although I have no satisfactory Christological formulation to offer, I think it is important to acknowledge that we can no longer simply issue a call to imitate Christ without considering the implications of Christ’s existence as a male human person.54 At this point, I, like Ruether in Sexism and God-talk, focus on Christ’s work as a renewer of the Word of God who "does not validate the existing social and religious hierarchy but speaks on behalf of the marginalized and despised groups of society,"55 and I affirm, as have many influenced by issues of sexism and patriarchy, that "[theologically speaking . . . the maleness of Christ has no ultimate significance."56 I am well aware, though, that in Christian ecclesiastical traditions the maleness of Christ has at times been regarded as having importance, and even ultimate significance for some theologies of ministry. The consequences of this way of thinking are clear in the Roman Catholic use of Christ’s "maleness" to claim that only men have the capacity to be priests. Image of Christ language is drawn into the discussion and is used here to subordinate women: "the priest, who alone has the power to perform it [celebration of the Eucharist], then acts not only through the effective power conferred on him by Christ, but in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration."57 The implication is that Christ’s maleness has a certain ultimate significance: "The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying an alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation. . .58

The role of the maleness of Christ quickly becomes an issue in a retrieval of the imago Dei, since Christ was regarded as the Image of God and insofar as we learn to love and understand Christ as human and divine we learn to love and understand God. In speaking of Christ as both human and divine the western Christian tradition sought to indicate at the very least that Christ presented God to the world in a particularly vivid way. And perhaps this is the very least Christians can say now, namely that Christ’s life and way of being in the world leads us to understand and to love God. For the time being we can affirm what Ruether and Soelle do as very similar to the insights of Walter Hilton: we can say that imitation of Christ leads to a moral shift which will in time change our way of being in the world. This moral shift will disallow the patriarchal focus on the maleness of Jesus and promote instead the full humanity and gender-inclusive message and mission of the saving Christ. It will in no way deny the particularities of Jesus’ ethnic and sexual identity, but it will not use these particularities to undermine the complete participation of all people — male and female — in the religious, social, and political dimensions of human existence.

The discourse of intimacy used to describe the relationship between image-bearers and the Divine vividly conveys the nature of the practical and operational shift that results from allying oneself with Christ’s way of being in the world. Far from construing the lot of image-bearers as being one of mere obedience to a dictatorial exemplar whom we mechanically imitate from a great distance,59 the dominant imagery expressing our relationship to God as images is language of friendship and even marriage.

Citing Scripture to characterize the intimacy between God and persons who have pursued actualization of their capacities as image-bearers, Richard writes: "Do you wish to know that the loftiness of divine showings may be an open disclosure of divine love? ‘Now I do not call you servants but friends,’ [Christ] says. . ."60 This relationship to the Divine suggests a model for our relationships to others, and provides opposition to "Christian" relationships of domination and oppression. Indeed, servant-language is to be fully replaced by friendship discourse and language of dialogue in which persons take God’s way of being as their own in carrying on their work in the world. Hilton evokes spousal or lover imagery in describing Scripture as love letters to the human person: "You may be very sure that all such grace-giving knowledge, in Holy Scriptures or within any other writing that is made through grace, is nothing else but love letters and messages exchanged between a loving soul and Jesus the Beloved."61

In considering the image of God tradition feminist thought can acknowledge and retrieve traditional alternatives to relating to God as the "Almighty Father."62 The Christian image tradition, starting with the affirmation that we are images of God, signals our closeness to God through speaking of the union of wills with the Divine and by invoking language of intimacy. The focus in traditional interpretations of the imago Dei theme is on our nearness to God and on the possibilities for advancing that nearness to the point where we may be considered friends of God.


This discussion set out to illustrate some of the preliminary points of convergence between medieval reflections on the image of God theme and contemporary reflections on the human person, suggesting that feminist theology can reclaim this image of God tradition as a resource which describes a holistic and responsible way of life, and encouraging further consideration of this and other symbols that have potential for affirming the full humanity of all persons, female and male.

The image of God theme is a concept that conveys something of our relationship to God, self, and the world. We move from the datum of revelation that we are created in God’s image to the process of actively realizing our potential as images of God by cultivating the unity of the "thinking-relational self," and by learning to see and actively respond to others as images of God (a response which includes political, economic and social action). We seek to become images of God by becoming images of Christ by way of a conformity of will, that is, by directing ourselves to the community around us in charity and understanding. We look inward, actively cultivate our relationship to God, and, as Richard said, we "go out into the world in compassion"63 to affirm the full humanity of all people as images of God.

Feminist theology, as a significant voice in contemporary theological reflection, can affirm the tradition’s recognition that all people are created in God’s image. It can further draw on the tradition’s insight that while the image points to a present state of all created human persons it points also to a relational capacity of all human persons to actualize their abilities to love and to know the Divine and the world around them. While theologians like Ruether and Soelle recognize the features of distorted and healthy relationality, we might be even more attentive to the tradition’s insight concerning the importance of transformation as a basic experience of the human person in the world. By placing the medieval and contemporary traditions into dialogue with one another, we become reflective about the nature of the transformative process as a way to guide human persons to fulfillment of their capacities to love and to know.

Despite its sometimes checkered history with respect to speaking about the full humanity of women, the vision of the God/human/ world relationship described in the image of God tradition may offer support for feminist theology’s retrieving imagery from the Christian tradition. The image of God tradition does not lead believers to a slavish imitation of a domineering God; rather the God of whom we are images appears as a friend, and even as a spouse, inviting all of us to share in the creative and emancipatory work of love and understanding in the world.



1. I would like to thank Mark Wallace for his helpful comments on this article, Bernard McGinn for reading this at an earlier stage, and my colleagues in Soundings at Boston College for their conversation about this material.

2. The Latin imago Dei makes this clear.

3. E.g., I Cor 11:7.

4. A second tendency, represented by thinkers like Nemesius of Emesa (4th c.) and John the Scot (9th c.), is to focus on the metaphysical dimensions of the image.

5. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 113.

6. "We are living parts of active love" [Dorothee Soelle with Shirley A. Cloyes, To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 43].

7. References are given to The Twelve Patriarchs, (hereafter TP), The Mystical Ark (MA), and Book Three of the Trinity (DT) by book (where applicable), chapter, page reference in Patrologia Latina for TP and MA, and for DT to book, chapter, and page number in Jean Ribaillier’s (R) critical edition of De Trinit ate (Paris: J. Vrin, 1958). This reference is to Grover Zinn, trans., Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark, Book Three of the Trinity (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) DT, 3:2:374; R, 3.2: 136. (Since all Pat rologia Latina references to Richard of St. Victor are from Volume 196, I include here column number only).

8. The Stairway of Perfection will be referred to in the notes as SP; references are to book, chapter, and page reference in the English translation. The reference is to Walter Hilton, The Stairway of Perfection, trans. M. L. Del Mastro (New York: Image Books, 1979) 1.83; 175-176.

9. Hilton says, "As much as you know and love God and your fellow-Christians, so great is your soul" (ibid., SP, 1.89; 182).

10. 1 Corr. 11:7.

11. Kari Borreson, Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981).

12. Ibid. xvii.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid. 335.

16. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982) 3.22.34; 99. It may be helpful to see the original here: cf. De Genesi ad litteram in Augustine, Opera Ornnia, ed. Benedictine Monks of S. Maur (Paris: Gaume Fratres, 1836) vol. 3; 263D, Itaque quamvis hoc in duobus hominibus diversi sexus exterius secundum corpus figuratum sit, quod etiam in una hominis interius mente intelligitur; tamen et femina ma quae est corpore femina, renovatur etiam ipsa in spiritu mentis suae in agnitone Dei secundum imaginem ejus qui creavit, ubi non est masculus et fermina.

17. Eleanor McLaughlin, "Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology," in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) 213-266.

18. Caroline Walker Bynum, "‘And Woman His Humanity’: Female Imagery in the Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages," in Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Hamell, and Paula Richman, eds. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986) 257-288.

19. Caroline Walker Bynum, "Introduction: The Complexity of Symbols," in Gender and Religion 8.

20. Symbols also have power as "inventing, questioning, rejecting and transcending gender as it is constructed in the individual’s psychological development and sociological setting" (ibid.).

21. Ibid., 15.

22. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 38.

23. Ibid. 93.

24. Ibid. 114.

25. Soelle, To Work and to Love 43.

26. Ibid. 42.

27. "When will you discover that all is possible to her who participates in God’s power?" (ibid., 4.6).

28. Ibid., 43.

29. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 113.

30. Hilton, SI’, 2.34;289.

31. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4:10;274, 145C-D.

32. For an excellent analysis of this see Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).

33. Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, nd.) 8.

34. See, e.g., Jurgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton, Dorothee Soelle.

35. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4.11:274; 146A.

36. Dorothee Soelle, Death By Bread Alone: Texts and Reflections on Religious Experience, trans. David L. Scheidt (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 102.

37. Ibid. 79.

38. Hilton, SP, 1.78; 170

39. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 163.

40. Ibid. 174.

41. Ibid. 164.

42. Ibid. 188.

43. Dorothee Soelle, The Strength of the Weak: Towards a Christian Feminist Identity, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984) 11-22.

44. Ibid. 103.

45. Idem, Death By Bread Alone 134.

46. Ibid. 137.

47. Ibid. 9.

48. References to Richard of St. Victor’s De quatuor quadibus violentae caritatis given to page numbers in Claire Kirchberger’s English translation and to Gervais Dumiege’s critical Latin edition. This reference is to Richard of St. Victor Dq, 224; D, 29:157.

49. Soelle, Death By Bread Alone 69.

50. Richard of St. Victor, TP, 79:136; 56C-D.

51. Ibid., Dq, 230; D, 43:171.

52. Soelle, Death By Bread Alone 135.

53. Ibid., Dq, 230; D, 44:173.

54. For discussion of these issues see: Anne Marie Gardiner, ed., Women and Catholic Priesthood: An Expanded Vision (New York: Paulist Press, 1976); Leon Swidler and Arlene Swidler, eds., Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

55. Ruether, Sexism and God-talk 136.

56. Ibid. 137.

57. Swidler, Women Priests 26 (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood," 5.26).

58. Ibid. 5.28.

59. Another productive area of dialogue between medieval and contemporary theology is in the area of imitation. In this regard see Karl Morrison, The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

60. Richard of St. Victor, MA, 4.16:288; 155B.

61. Hilton, SP, 2.43;332. Or, again, "The lover of Jesus is his friend, not because he desires it, but because God, of His merciful goodness makes him His friend by a true agreement. And therefore, He shows His secrets to him, as to a true friend who pleases Him with love (rather than one who serves Him through fear, like a slave)" (ibid. 2.43; 329).

62. A recent excellent example of this which might make even more explicit links to the Christian tradition is Sallie McFague’s Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

63. Richard of St. Victor, Dq, 224; D, 29:157.