So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
-- Genesis 1:27***
This Bible verse has always had a great deal of resonance for me. You may find that surprising if you are a regular reader of this blog, because I am a Unitarian-Universalist notably lacking in any theistic bent.
But to me, this Bible verse is just a more powerful way of stating one of the key principles of Unitarian-Universalism - that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Somehow the metaphor of all human beings containing and reflecting the qualities of a personal creator-God makes this idea seem less abstract and more compelling to me. That particular wording of being created "in his image" has been something of a mantra for me in dealing with some very difficult personal issues. To me this notion of the inherent worth of all human beings is crucial in terms both of ethics and of inner peace with oneself; and it is made less abstract and more seemingly real by the creation imagery. I am not alone in this; this idea of seeing God in other human beings is found in Judaism, Christianity, and other religions.
In much of the navel-gazing on this blog, I have referred to my very unhappy home life when I was growing up. One of the things that affected me deeply was my father's habit of expressing total contempt for individuals we knew who had failed or were flawed in one way or another. People who maybe weren't very bright, people who spoke English inarticulately, people who were tacky, people who were unpunctual, people with poor etiquette, people who were lazy, people who failed to live up to some responsibility or another, people who weren't good at giving directions, people who had problems. The failings of all these people in our lives were dissected in detail and, as people, they were found to be utterly lacking in worth. The message I took away was that a person is inherently undeserving unless she meets an impossibly high standard of intelligence, well-spokenness, taste and refinement, punctuality and manners, hard work and reliability, and lack of any serious personal problems like divorce, addiction, or psychological problems.
Of course, the person this message ultimately harmed was me. There was always this intense anxiety of falling into that category of the unelect, the screw-ups deserving of the direst scorn. To be less than perfect was to be utterly lacking in worth. And I also missed out when I was young on appreciating and learning from all the strengths and positive qualities of the badly-dressed man down the street, that messed up family whose children all had psychiatric problems, and all those people whose sequential reasoning maybe isn't the best but who have other kinds of intelligence.
One result was that when I was quite young -- in late childhood and early adolescence -- I was painfully shy. The shyness was born of a deep fear of being burden to whomever I encountered in a social situation. The thinking was: "Here I am taking up all this time from a person would probably rather be speaking with someone smarter, more interesting, wittier, or better looking." Many things helped me get over my shyness, to the point that I am probably less shy than most people I meet these days. But a key realization was that I have just as much of a right as the next person to have a good time at a social event. If I am not the most exciting companion in the world, who cares? I have a right to exist just as much as the person I am so afraid of burdening with my presence. Why? Because I have inherent worth. That worth does not need to be justified or earned. I have worth just because I exist and because I am human. Because I am made in God's image.
And of course it is impossible to grant oneself that degree of grace without granting it to others. Otherwise you have cognitive dissonance. I have inherent worth, but that guy wearing too many gold chains doesn't? That doesn't make sense. So I concentrated very hard during my teen years and early twenties in lessening my instinct towards contempt (learned at home from the cradle) and seeing the worth of even the most unprepossessing people around me. The nerdy girl or boy in class is made in God's image. The moronic official or bureaucrat on the other end of the phone is made in God's image. The person who failed to get his assignment to me on time may deserve my anger but he is also made in God's image. I can't claim that I remember or apply this principle perfectly on all occasions, but my efforts have enhanced my relationships with others, my moral life, and my personal sense of well-being.
Many people have used the notion of being created "in God's image" in the realm of social justice, to bring home the principle that even the poorest and weakest and arguably most flawed around us have basic rights -- from the impoverished and unemployed to those with mental and physical disabilities to the murderer in prison. But also that principle should be applied in daily life to the people one encounters who seem stupid or ignorant or unattractive or irresponsible.
Of course, I don't intend to imply that people should be absolved of moral responsibility. It is not inconsistent with what I have said to get mad when other people let us down, or to point out stupidity or lack of ethics with extreme bluntness. But I believe that it's still important for our own sake to keep sight of the fact that even our worst opponents have the right to basic dignity. I don't believe in the creation literally at all, but I am in love with the notion that we are meant to be like God, each of us, to have the opportunity to enjoy and revel in life and the glories of the world, that God created the world for us, and that each and everyone of us is like God in our right to enjoyment of the world.
***NOTE ON GENDERED LANGUAGE/IMAGERY: Obviously my metaphorical conception of God is gender-neutral because, well, because I am a feminist. I use the "in his image" in this post only because it is the traditional language and because I hope that people understand that the use of the male pronoun is not to be taken literally, especially since I am talking about myself, a woman, being made in God's image. In fact, one reason I like Genesis 1:27 in particular is the equality recognized in the line "male and female he created them." I have used the forumulation "in her image" in my mind more often than not, and I find it gives the ideas discussed above even more ooomph and emotional resonance.