God, having made the earth and all of the things in it, withdrew into himself, and he asked himself a curious question: Ought he to create a being in his own likeness?
He proposed the idea to himself — “Let us make man in our own image” — and he decided that it would be a good idea.
No, not good — very good.
St. Thomas Aquinas described this being, the imago dei, as a “little world,” a microcosm.
Blessed John Paul II expanded on the theme in his theology of the body, but pointed out that it is not man, singular, who constitutes the image and likeness of God, for God is not singular: God is triune. And so, man, in being like God, is constituted not as a series of insular individuals, but as a communio personarum (communion of persons).
Personality, therefore, emerges from, and is dependent upon, relationships between people. The individual is not absolutely free in the way proposed by many Enlightenment thinkers: He is not an autonomous rational agent, and he is not solely and uniquely responsible for his own life, liberty and happiness. His very individuality, his subjectivity and his identity are gifts given to him by other people. Adam, as John Paul II points out, does not truly know himself until he beholds Eve: “Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” He does not merely receive her in the moment when their eyes first meet; he also receives himself.
This original reciprocity was founded on a relationship of mutual trust and authenticity, expressed by the nakedness of our first parents. There was no duplicity, deception or insecurity between them. They did not feel the need to hide their feelings out of politeness or to put a good face on things, to flatter or pander or cower behind interior walls. They were honest with one another, and, in their honesty, they were united.
Of course, the Fall disrupted all of that. The immediate consequence of original sin was that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked, and they became ashamed before one another and before God. When God asked why they had eaten the fruit, they accused one another, and ever since then, the gaze that people turn often upon their fellows has not been one of rejoicing at the image of God in man, but one of suspicion, criticism, anxiety, domination and disordered desire.
Under the weight of such a gaze, honesty and truthfulness become dangerous.
The genuine personality that God vouchsafes to the individual is no longer assured a welcome within the hearts of others. Christ still “plays in 10,000 places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his,” but man can no longer be certain that the image of Christ within his soul will be recognized by others — and even if it is recognized, he cannot be certain that they will not demand its crucifixion.
Naturally, in such an environment, the soul falls into a state of anxiety. It becomes afraid of being accused and rejected, and so it attempts to fashion a personality that will be acceptable to the world. Instead of seeking to manifest the spark of divine glory that God bestowed on the heart at the moment of conception, the person seeks after vainglory: the acclaim of the world that passes away. Excessively prideful aspirations distort the image of God in the soul because they seek to imprint a different image in its place.
The world is always presenting people with a series of possible personalities that it values, not because of their beauty, but because of their utility. In the postmodern world, these personalities are promulgated through the mass media, which attempts to curb and streamline human diversity into a series of market niches. The radically unique imago dei cannot be relied upon to buy the right kind of soda or cellphone, so it must be replaced with one of the half-dozen personality types that can. The pressure to conform is not, however, limited to the evil byways of the secular world.
Christian culture, especially in its commercially viable forms, also presents the individual with a fairly narrow range of instantly recognizable types. Most of us, at various times throughout our lives, will fall into the habit of trying to imitate these simulacra of sanctity in order to placate our vanity or ease anxieties about our worthiness before God. Such superficial piety is contrary to teachings of the Gospel. “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Spiritual pride is so ubiquitous, so insidious and so hard to recognize in ourselves that both Christ and St. Paul felt compelled to correct it repeatedly, often in very harsh terms.
The purpose of the Law, whether the Law of the Old Testament, the teachings of the Vatican or the strictures of canon law, is to call men and women to be set apart, to become holy and sanctified. Yet when we try to do so, we too often find that our motives are all wrong: that we are not so much trying to transmit the beauty and grace which God has bestowed on us as we are trying to convince ourselves and the world that we are the worthy, the beautiful and the good.
When faith becomes vainglorious, men inevitably fall to making up traditions, to setting boundaries on human behavior, to insisting on their own preferences and habits as though they were holy writ. Anything that does not conform to a familiar standard, whether because it is new or because it is foreign or because it is simply different, is viewed with profound suspicion.
This is why Christ cautions against the “precepts of men” (Mark 7:7). God is infinitely more vast, his image infinitely broader, than any human tradition could possibly hope to encompass. Only when all of the billions of human beings who are alive, all who have ever lived, from every culture and every era of history, people with every kind of talent, every kind of perspective and every kind of cross are brought together and reconciled in Christ, will the humanum be sufficiently broad and diverse to bear the imprint of its Maker.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.