From Image to Likeness: An Essay in Analogical Anthropology

1. Homo Analogia: Between Promise and Fulfillment

The guiding question of theological anthropology is poignantly stated and succinctly answered in the well-known verses from Psalm 8, which strikingly reappear in a Christological context in Hebrews 2: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet” (Ps 8:4–6). One could even say that these mysterious verses mark the center of Scripture, inasmuch as they point back to the theanthropological [sic] promise of Genesis 1:26 and forward to the theanthropological fulfillment of Revelation 1:12–18, leaving us to ponder the silent analogy between the one and the other, between the protological verse 4 and the eschatological verses 5–6. In order more precisely to pose the question of theological anthropology, however, let us first observe that verse 4 presents the question of theological anthropology as an implicitly metaphysical question about the particular being that the human being is. So to reiterate the psalmist’s question, which from an existential perspective is the question of questions, who are we whom we call without further ado human beings?

Needless to say, any answer to this question cannot be anything more than an essay, which is to say, an “attempt,” and a fortiori if the human being, as the psalmist says, is an abyss (Ps 42:6) and, as such, an image of the infinite God. How, indeed, can one essay a definition of the human being if the human being by definition cannot be defined? Nor is this our only difficulty. Further complicating our inquiry into the essence of the human being is the fact that “what we are,” according to Scripture, “is not yet revealed” (1 John 3:2). In other words, the very “what”—the quiddity—to be investigated is (in some sense) not even given to be investigated. All of which would seem to rule out the possibility of any metaphysical investigation of the human being from the start. It would be like trying to know what an acorn is having never seen an oak or, for that matter, any tree. Are we not, therefore, consigned to reticence with regard to any anthropology, even a theological anthropology, and to silent expectation of the apocalypse when the truth of our humanity—of what we really are—will be revealed?

The answer to this question is surely yes and no. On the one hand, every anthropology, theological or otherwise, will be provisional until the Son of man is revealed in the glory of his full body; for only then will we really know what it means to be human, when God’s divine intention for humanity is fulfilled. On the other hand, a theological anthropology is not impossible in the interim if Christ, the Logos, who is the archetype and end of our humanity, “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 1:8), has been revealed—and if those who have seen Christ (even in faith) have in some sense already seen the end of the world and the essence of our humanity, as Paul did when he encountered the resurrected Christ. A provisional anthropology is therefore justified. But let us approach the subject, not as is commonly done without regard to metaphysical questions (cowed into false humility by Kant’s strictures on theoretical metaphysics) but precisely in light of them and in light, specifically, of the analogical metaphysics we have already proposed, confident that this is the implicit metaphysics of the Christian faith and, as such, the metaphysics most adequate to the question of who we are as human beings.

To this end, let us again take Erich Przywara as a guide—not simply because of his leading role in Christian metaphysics in the twentieth century, and not simply because he drew upon and attempted to synthesize the diverse insights of the Christian metaphysical tradition (from Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas, Scotus, and Suárez, all the way up to the transcendental Thomism of Joseph Maréchal), and not simply because he did so in conscious reflection upon the philosophical tradition from Plato and Aristotle all the way up to Husserl and Heidegger, making his metaphysics among the most current in the history of Catholic metaphysics, but also, and most importantly, because his analogical metaphysics is keyed from the start to questions of anthropology. Indeed, Przywara’s analogical metaphysics and analogical anthropology are so intimately related that the former is arguably the propaedeutic of the latter and the latter the final expression of the former. All of which makes Przywara Heidegger’s most important “other.” Taking Przywara, then, as our guide, let us first see what an analogical metaphysics might mean for anthropology. Then we will return to Scripture to see whether and to what extent it confirms our findings.

Of course, we could equally proceed in the opposite direction, that is, from Scripture to metaphysics. Indeed, if Scripture is foundational to any theological anthropology, one could argue that this is the more logical and theologically sounder way of pursuing the question—lest, as Barth feared, we put the cart before the horse and subject revelation to our own metaphysical categories. Such concerns are legitimate; for if anything is to be revised it is metaphysics in light of revelation, not revelation in light of metaphysics. Equally, let us acknowledge the kinds of concerns that Jean-Luc Marion and many others following Heidegger have expressed about metaphysics, viewing it as a kind of thinking about being that short-circuits not only the question of being but seeks to capture God, too, in rational categories. These, too, are legitimate concerns. And yet, they have no bearing whatsoever on the kind of analogical metaphysics that Przywara proposed—once one recognizes that the mystery of being’s sheer gratuity, beyond every essential determination, is proper to any thoughtful consideration of the real distinction and that, for Przywara, God cannot be captured in concepts. On the contrary, if God could be captured in a concept, it would not be God but a conceptual idol. As he repeatedly says, citing Augustine: si comprehendis, non est Deus. For such reasons alone, Przywara’s analogical metaphysics meets Marion’s requirements for a phenomenology of revelation. Indeed, it is in some ways its metaphysical correlate, given Marion’s own endorsement of the Fourth Lateran Council’s teaching on the maior dissimilitudo within every similitudo, which is the dogmatic basis of what Przywara means by the analogia entis.

Finally let us note, now with Barth’s methodological concerns in mind, that it is disingenuous to say that one can begin with Scripture pure and simple and then introduce philosophy on an ad hoc basis to solve a set of problems peculiar to revelation since Scripture not only poses but presupposes metaphysical questions: from the question of being to the question of the beginning and end of things to the affirmation of a Logos, which was common to the Stoics and the Platonists, to the affirmation of Christ, the incarnate Logos, as the beginning and end of things, to the question of the meaning of the human being as made in the image of the Logos, and so on and so on. In other words, as Matthew Levering has shown, Scripture presupposes metaphysical questions, which makes the question of where one begins, whether with Scripture or metaphysics, somewhat arbitrary. What finally matters therefore is not where one starts in the order of knowledge or investigation, but whether the metaphysics proposed accords with what revelation shows. So, bearing this in mind, let us try to explain the importance of analogical metaphysics to anthropology. In other words, if being is analogical, what does this mean for being human?

2. Homo Analogia: Between Heaven and Earth

The most obvious answer to this question is that if all created being is analogical then the human being must also be an analogy, according to the venerable scholastic principle omne agens agit sibi simile, and in this sense one may already speak of the human being as homo analogia. But of course there is more to being than being caused and a fortiori more to being human than being an effect of a cause for reasons we have just seen. So we cannot say that the human being is an analogy of being simply by virtue of being caused or created. Were this so, then all creatures would equally be analogies of God—equally “images” of God. But what then is it that makes the human being in some more special sense an analogy of being, so much so as to be the analogy of being within an analogical universe?

To answer this question let us first recall what we proposed at the outset: that what is meant by the imago Dei is more concretely an analogical “unity-in-difference” and, indeed, in keeping with the sense of analogy as meson, a unifying “middle” between extremes. Seen thus, what distinguishes the human being as the imago Dei is not just that the human being is differentiated as male and female (like other animals) for the sake of the union of man and woman but also that the human being is situated at the boundary or, in the idiom of Maximus the Confessor and others, is the boundary (μεθόριος) between the sensible and intelligible worlds. To say that the human being is the imago Dei, in the more specific sense of an analogia, is thus to say that the human being is a microcosm called to mediate between the material and spiritual aspects of creation. As Thunberg puts it:

Man is, first of all, presented here [in ambiguum 41] as being in all respects in the middle between the extremes of creation. He was brought into being as an all-containing workshop, binding all together in himself. As such he has also been given the power of unification, thanks to his proper relationship to his own different parts. Man was further brought into being as the last of God’s creatures, because he was to be a natural link (σύνδεσμος) between all creation, mediating (μεσιτεύων) between the extremes through the elements of his own nature. Man was thus called to bring into one unity in relation to God as Cause that which was naturally distinguished, starting with his own division, summarized in the distinction between man and woman. . . . And from there he is in the position to go on and unite the world in itself and bring it into an harmonious relationship with God.

Centuries later, Pico Della Mirandola says much the same thing in his famous oration (which was never delivered), to wit, that man is “set midway between the timeless unchanging and the flux of time; the living union (as the Persians say), the very marriage hymn of the world, and by David’s testimony but a little lower than the angels.” To speak of the human being as homo analogia, then, is to say that the human being is by nature a “middle” with a vocation to unite creation’s inherent oppositions—from the differences between man and woman, body and soul, nature and will, to the political, cosmological, and metaphysical differences between the community and the individual, order and freedom, universal and particular, essence and existence, eternity and time, God and creation—and so become not only the unifying head of the material creation but the actual center of the whole of creation. Such, for Pico, is the extraordinary dignity of the human being, than which none greater can be imagined.

But if this is “what” human beings essentially are, for Pico it is even more remarkable that, of all God’s creations, human beings possess the freedom to be (or not to be) what they are. Indeed, he considers this to be the emblem par excellence of human dignity: not only that the human being is a kind of microcosm, comprising both the material and the spiritual aspects of creation, but that the human being can decide, as it were, what it would rather be:

At last, the Supreme Maker decreed that this creature . . . should have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature. Taking man, therefore, this creature of indeterminate image, He set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: We have given you, Oh Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own. . . . I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

Needless to say, such freedom is also why human beings, unlike any other creatures in the material cosmos, are susceptible of “missing” what it was that they were created to be (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι), which is the essence of sin (ἁμαρτία). It is of great and obvious importance, therefore, when speaking of the human being as the imago Dei or homo analogia, to distinguish between what human beings essentially are and what is existentially the case. For although we are essentially mediators (Gen 2), Scripture is equally clear that we are fallen (Gen 3), which is to say, existentially alienated from our essence, which is to say, from God’s intention for us in the Logos. Indeed, in the words of Gillian Rose, the human being is now a “broken middle” who has trouble uniting even the most basic oppositions between body and soul, man and woman, nature and will, which are constantly being split apart (this, of course, being the essence of the diabolical: the splitting apart of what belongs together), not to mention oppositions between the universal and the particular, order and freedom, the ideal and the real, and so forth. Simply put, we are “out of joint” both with God and ourselves (for to be alienated from God is eo ipso to be alienated from oneself as an image of God) and therefore stand in need of a way forward (or back?) to that unity of essence and existence for which we were created in Christ, in order to be analogies of the One in whom essence and existence are eternally one.

Thus, however ineradicable the essence of the human being may be according to God’s immutable intention, we cannot say that the human being is an analogy of being without further ado, as though this were something that could be taken for granted or as if the human being were automatically “like God” simply on account of its being. On the contrary, it is here that we must appreciate the full force and particula veri of Barth’s (in other respects questionable) critique of the analogia entis, to wit: that the analogia entis can give one a perilous sense of security that one is never far from God, and perhaps in some sense enduringly like God, even if one flouts the commandments—if after all, according to Catholic doctrine, all being comes from God and eo ipso participates in God. And true enough, according to Augustine’s Neoplatonic doctrine of the privatio boni, which stands in the background of any Catholic conception of the analogia entis, there is no point at which anything that exists insofar as it exists could be totally alienated from God inasmuch as God is Being, and all being, however corrupted, is a gift that flows from above. The danger is therefore real; acutely stated, it is that a metaphysics could cause one to slight the incalculably great difference between participation in being and participation in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).

Unfortunately, however, from an ecumenical standpoint, Barth failed to make a necessary distinction here between essence and existence upon which the analogia entis turns (which shows the danger in both simplistic Catholic presentations and simplistic Protestant interpretations of it). But he nevertheless has a very important prophetic point. For even if one’s being is from God, existentially, owing to sin, one may very well be living in a hell-bound state of enmity with God, as James says (Jas 4:4–5). With Augustine, one might even recognize that God is Being and that one’s own being is from God and yet find oneself, as he did, far from God in a shadowy “region of dissimilarity” (regio dissimilitudinis). Granted, as both faith and reason tell us, there is one Father of all (Eph 4:6; Metaphysics 1076a), and for this reason the principle of the analogia entis stands—lest one embrace Manichaeism, deny the doctrine of the imago Dei, and think that being could have a source in something other than God. But the analogia entis can nevertheless be attenuated to the point of a hellish contradiction, as happens when rational spirits, by turning away from God, turn away from Being and so become ever more shadowy images thereof, ghastly contradictions, beings without substance or reality—beings, as it were, without being—as C.S. Lewis brilliantly describes the “ghosts” in The Great Divorce.

If, then, we are to speak truly of the human being as an analogia and not invite needless ecumenical confusion, let us be clear about the chasmic difference between being merely from God (which would include even the most ghostly of fallen spirits) and being genuinely, robustly like God (as are the holy angels and saints). From a certain standpoint, they have nothing to do with one another, as little as night and day or even, as the case may be, good and evil. Nor must we confuse being part of this corruptible world with the condition of being redeemed from it, or the condition of being born of the flesh, which is destined to die, and being born again of the Spirit, which is as different as being born from “below” (from the dust of the ground) and being born “from above” (as gods from God). So, by all means, let us keep in mind the difference between our essential nature and vocation and our existential condition: according to the former, we are mediators in Christ; according to the latter, we are such “broken middles” that our Christian vocation is no longer even apparent. Indeed, far from seeing ourselves as mediators, all that we may see in ourselves and the world is a bare existence, which is to say, a bare and meaningless univocity of being. But our essence, let us also be clear, has not been destroyed; nor could it be—no more than a divine intention could be destroyed. It is rather that what we are needed to be restored to its original integrity, which, happily, is what Christ did when he “fulfilled the unifying and mediating function of man,” not only “becoming himself man in true relationship to God” but restoring human beings to their original dignity as microcosms and mediators.

Having now sketched out the sense in which the human being is an analogia in the sense of a “unifying middle” called to participate in Christ’s office as the Mediator, let us now consider the human vocation in temporal terms, which reveals yet another sense in which the human being is a kind of “middle,” to wit: in that this exalted vocation is “in” human nature (given with human nature) but also “beyond it” as something to be realized in the power of the Spirit. In other words, viewed temporally, the human being appears as a middle not just between heaven and earth but now between its potentiality and its actuality, or between its being-as-existent and its being-in-essence. By the same token, viewed historically, the human being is an analogy in the sense of a middle between fall and eschaton, who therefore exists in a state of tension between protology and eschatology: between the first man and the second (1 Cor 15:46), between what one is (or has been) and what one will be (1 John 3:2). In sum, the human being is an analogy of being on both transcendent (so to speak “vertical”) and historical (so to speak “horizontal”) planes, being a “unity-in-tension” [Spannungseinheit] between the above and the below from beginning to end. Thus, curiously, as an analogical being, the human being is a formally cruciform being, which makes anthropology in some sense proto-Christology. Indeed, however fallen and broken—or precisely in the midst of its fallenness and brokenness—the human being appears as a mysterious figure, a type or foreshadowing of Christ, the true middle, who restores humanity to its original integrity and vocation to bring about new, analogous modes of consubstantiality.

With this multi-dimensional picture of the human being as homo analogia, we now have a provisional answer to our initial question: anthropology is proto-Christology. But let us immediately acknowledge that insofar as the human being is an analogy, and more truly an analogy than all other creatures, including angels, the question of who or what the human being is admits of no simple—much less any precise—answer. For an analogy is by definition irreducible to any concept and therefore difficult to put into words. The very possibility of any anthropology, theological or otherwise, would therefore seem to be thrown profoundly into question if the human being is a deep like God (Ps 42:7; 1 Cor 2:10–11) and cannot be understood apart from God, who is himself incomprehensible. What indeed are we to make of a being that is an unfathomable unity-in-difference of the “above” and the “below,” mysteriously stretched between what it is and what it will be? In the words of Jean Yves-Lacoste, “It is proper to [the self ] never to be gathered in one point of time, but to be stretched between what has been and what has not yet arrived.” How then shall we proceed, if metaphysics has led us to the point of sheer incomprehension, and if, according to Scripture itself, the truth of our humanity is an apocalyptic truth that will not be unveiled until the second appearance of Christ in glory (cf. 1 John 3:2)?

Such questions bring us back to the beginning of our essay where we indicated that any theological anthropology—and a fortiori any nontheological anthropology that would seek to fathom the mystery of the human being, the imago Dei, apart from God—will necessarily be provisional. Now, though, we have even more reasons to find this true. Indeed, the further we go in our inquiry, the more perplexing the meaning of our humanity—and therefore the more daunting our task—becomes. We are a species that can increasingly master the world through technology, and yet, apart from revelation, we have no idea why there is a world or who or what we really are. But this does not mean that we must abandon our inquiry. For the glory of God and the end of our own humanity—a divine humanity—was seen in the face of Christ, in the contemplative beholding of whom we see who we really are and are called to be. So, having sketched out the basic meaning of the human being as homo analogia, let us now return to Scripture.

3. Homo Analogia: Between Image and Likeness

Earlier we took our bearings from the psalmist’s question, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4), because of its centrality to the whole of Scripture, standing between the mysterious theanthropological promise of Genesis 1:26 and the mysterious theanthropological fulfillment of Revelation 1:12–18; moreover, because of its reappearance and recursive function in the letter to the Hebrews, which presents Christ as the fulfillment not only of the Law and the Prophets but also of the original promise of Genesis 1, presenting Christ as the image of God and hence the archetype of our humanity, as “the radiance of God’s glory and the image of his being” (Heb 1:3). Now let us finally go back to Genesis to verify that the analogical anthropology we have proposed is what Scripture itself implies—first with respect to the notion of the human being as a “middle” (and thus with an implicit vocation to be a “mediator”), and secondly with regard to the traditional notion, which derives from Irenaeus, that the human being is an image with an implicit vocation to be a likeness.

With regard to the first notion, we have already seen that for Scripture, the human being is indeed a kind of “middle” or (in the language of Philo, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor) a “boundary” (μεθόριος) between the sensible and angelic (or intellectual) worlds. This is indicated by the verse we have already adduced: “You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). But the second creation account in Genesis 2 is more precise since it presents the human being as at once material and spiritual: Adam is said to be composed of the earth and directly inbreathed by the spirit of God (Gen 2:7). And if we may take an “is” to imply an “ought,” then the human being is that being which has a vocation to mediate between God and the material cosmos—a vocation that was lost as a result of the fall but is restored in Christ.

Now let us consider in more detail the testimony of Genesis 1, the locus classicus of any biblical anthropology, that the human being is made in the image and likeness of God: “Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demuth]” (Gen 1:26), which the Septuagint translates as κατ ̓ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ ̓ ὁμοίωσιν. What does this mean? And, more specifically, what are we to make of the Elohist’s distinction between image and likeness? Fortunately, on the basis of the foregoing we are in a position to attempt an explanation of these notoriously mysterious verses. Admittedly, some have explained the mystery away by taking “likeness” as a pleonasm that adds nothing to the meaning of “image.” For our part, however, we find good reason to believe that the two are not semantically equivalent: whether we take image to mean something more concrete and likeness to mean something more abstract, or whether we take likeness to mean an intensification or the proper sense of image. Complicating matters, there are at least two possible senses of likeness here: one that is more positive (the image is elevated to a proximate likeness), the other more negative (the likeness demotes the image to a mere likeness). What are we to make of this? On the one hand, the ambiguity of the philology confirms the ambiguity in the anthropology. In other words, we now have even more warrant for understanding the human being as a kind of middle. But is there not something more hidden away in this mysterious distinction between image and likeness?

To answer this question let us avail ourselves of a traditional Orthodox reading that stems from Irenaeus and has been ably explained by Kallistos Ware, among others, to the effect that “image” signifies humanity’s potential and “likeness” its perfection or realization. The advantage of this reading, aside from its venerable origins in the Greek fathers, is that it not only helps us understand the dynamic nature of the human being, who exists as an imago in constant transition between its potentiality (δύναμις) and actuality (ἐνέργεια) with respect to its end (τέλος), it also substantiates everything we have developed thus far in terms of an analogical anthropology, according to which the human being is created with a vocation to become what it is, that is, to ex-ist into its essence or, in the idiom of Maximus, to realize its logos by a certain way of life (tropos), that is, the Way of the Logos, and so realize the human essence (to be a divine likeness) in a specific, unrepeatable form.

But let us not think that this reading has no basis in the Latin fathers. For Jerome notably renders verse 26 as ad imaginem et similitudinem nostram, which similarly suggests that the human being is made “to” or “toward” something. And, following Jerome, this is how Augustine, too, understood it. As he puts it in De Trinitate, “But that image of God was not made in any sense equal, being created by him, not born of him; so to make this point he is image in such a way as to be ‘to the image’; that is he is not equated in perfect parity with God, but approaches him in a certain similarity. From this it is clear that the image of God will achieve its full likeness of him when it attains to the full vision of him.” Clearly, Augustine, too, understands the imago as Orthodox theology does, as a kind of dynamic analogy underway to “its full likeness.” As A. N. Williams puts it, stressing the cooperative element: “The likeness to God we are given in virtue of the imago is the dynamic basis of that evolving likeness of holiness which comes from ascesis and contemplation.”

Sadly, however, in almost all the English translations of verse 26, this dynamic sense of the image is completely lost. Most of them, following the King James translation, tend to render image and likeness pleonastically as “in our image, after our likeness” (which underscores the problem with translations done apart from spiritual traditions of interpretation, since on philological grounds alone it is often impossible to decide which is the best translation of the biblical text). In view of patristic tradition and the larger spiritual tradition of the Church, however, we have reason to find Jerome’s translation superior to its modern counterparts—whether we understand the image as an image ordered through the perfection of memory, intellect, and will to become an imago Trinitatis, following Augustine, or as an image ordered to Christ understood as the image of God, as is our preference here, following Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3. Either way, on metaphysical and spiritual grounds, it is clear that the human being as imago is that unique being that has a vocation to become what it is: to ex-ist into its essence (or better to unite essence and existence) and so become what by divine intention it is—a divine likeness. For again, according to the terms of the analogical metaphysics we have proposed, it is God alone who IS, whereas rational creatures are called to become who they are.

But Jerome’s translation is not only superior because it agrees with our proposed metaphysics and patristic teaching; it is confirmed by New Testament paraenesis—as when Paul tells the Romans and Galatians to “put on Christ” (Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27), reminding them to live in a way that accords with who they are by virtue of their baptism; or when he reminds the Corinthians that they are the temple of the Holy Spirit and to live accordingly (1 Cor 6:19); or when he tells the Ephesians to put on the “new self, which is created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 3:24). In all of these cases the paraenesis is formally the same: become what you are! Nor is there any significant difference between the fathers of the East and the West. For Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius the Great, for instance, the Christian life consists in becoming who or what one is by virtue of one’s baptism, namely, a “God-bearer.” And we find the same logic in Augustine who famously tells his congregation that they should “be what they are,” namely, the body of Christ, so that their own lives might embody the one they receive in the Eucharist: “Be what you can see . . . and receive what you are.” In each case the point is the same: by following Christ, the Christian is to become like Christ, the Image of God (Heb 1:3), and so become who one really is—a likeness of Christ. But how does this happen? If it involves the following of Christ, what, more concretely, does this look like? Can we even describe this process in universal terms?

One attempted answer is that given by Gregory of Nyssa in his allegorical interpretation of the life of Moses, whose entire context, let us note, is one of God’s grace going ahead, as it were, clearing the way: one must wrestle with the Egyptian taskmasters (the passions of a fallen nature), follow Moses (Christ) out of Egypt (i.e., a life of sin) into the desert (of a life detached from the love of the world), where one can find shade under the palms trees (apostolic teaching) and be nourished by the manna (the Eucharist) and water from the rock (the Spirit) until one is strong enough to ascend the mountain (of the knowledge of God) and at last behold God in the darkness (of contemplation). Of course, how the saints understand contemplation varies, but all suggest that it is in contemplation that the image is transformed into the likeness; for unless the soul beholds that of which it is an image or is in some way transfixed in love by the one who beholds it in love, it cannot come to reflect it. Put differently, it would not be still enough for the likeness to be painted; nor, apart from the ascesis of prayer could the soul even learn to be still or how to stand in the presence of the Creator long enough for the waters of baptism to flow, the accrued impurities to be washed away, so that the image can be prepared to receive the gift of the likeness.

4. Toward a More Adequate Anthropology

But what are we to say about the image prior to this ascetical-contemplative process—whether we understand it as the restoration of an original or as the coming into being of something new? Thus far we have taken an admittedly elliptical path to what is surely the most basic question of theological anthropology: What is the image of God in us? But, nota bene, our reason for doing so, for beginning with the analogy between the image and the likeness, is that there is no image that is not so ordered. In other words, there is no abstract imago apart from its ordering to the likeness of God in Christ. To try to understand the imago in the abstract would invariably be to misunderstand it: it would be like trying to understand an acorn without knowing that it is essentially—and destined—to be an oak. And something similar applies to the whole material universe, it would be like trying to understand it without having the slightest idea why or to what end it exists in the first place.

But neither can one understand the likeness without understanding something about the imago and what it is, however incomplete, prior to its realization. Indeed, the likeness would be just as abstract without the imago as the imago without the likeness—as abstract as Christ himself without flesh, tears, and wounds. So by all means, let us ask with the rest of the tradition about the imago itself, which evidently, in view of the saints, carries such profound, divine potential. Does it consist, concretely, in sexual fruitfulness or bestowed authority, as the immediately following verse would suggest (Gen 1:28)? Or does it consist in the fact that human beings are, more specifically, rational and free agents? Or does it consist, as for Augustine, in something subtler and profounder, namely, in the soul’s perichoretic triunity of memory, intellect, and will, whose perfection in the light of God renders it a genuine likeness and mirror of divine things? If so, is the imago, then, an exclusively immaterial and mental reality? Or is it something more concrete but similarly trinitarian in form, being constituted by the unity-in-difference of a material body and a spiritual soul (the former imaging the latter as the Son images the Father), or by the unity-in-difference of man and woman, whose union is imaged in their offspring, or by the unity-in-difference of individual and society? Or does it consist in being a mediator between the material and the intelligible worlds with a vocation to unite them?

Our own view, in keeping with the foregoing, is that the individual imago consists primarily in its analogical ordering to the Logos as the eternal image of God the Father, and, concretely, in its analogical ordering to Christ, the incarnate Logos. For if Christ is the Image, in whom the fullness of deity dwelled bodily (Col 2:9), then we ourselves are per force images per analogiam. At the same time, however, the individual imago is not an isolated imago but a fundamentally social imago whose being consists in relation, and so whatever we mean by the imago cannot exclude these other interpretations. On the contrary, we somehow have to think how they go together: how the most fundamental unity-in-difference of the individual imago to Christ, the Logos, informs and factors into the unity-in-difference peculiar to all the other relations—not just that of the relation between the soul and the body but also that peculiar to the psyche itself (as a unity-in-difference of memory, intellect, and will); and not just at the level of the individual as a unity of soul and body, but at the level of the family as a fruitful unity of man and woman, at the corporate level of the unity-in-difference of the individual and society, and, finally, at the level of the unity-in-difference of the nations and various ethnicities one to another. For the realization of all these other analogies depends upon the realization of their constituent images. Conversely, to the extent that the individual imago is not yet perfected as a likeness, all of these other analogies are prone to fall apart, for instance, in divorce or war or, at the very least, mutate into one or another form of dialectic or cultural polarization. Even the intimate relation between body and soul can fall apart into a schizophrenic dualism. All of which exhibits what Christianity means by a fallen-apart state of affairs, beginning with the separation of God and human beings who are meant to go together. If, however, the human image is perfected as a likeness, which is to say (in metaphysical terms) that essence and existence have by the grace of Christ been reunited in the individual human being, we have reason to hope that these natural opposites, which have fallen apart and apart from grace continue to fall apart without cease, can also be reunited in such a way that one side of any given binary does not dominate the other but is united to the other in love, precisely in the form of analogy (ὥς ἄλλο πρὸς ἄλλο).

Needless to say, such an analogical understanding of the imago Dei, which is far richer than an abstract affirmation of various mental capacities, bears considerable implications. Consider, for example, what it might mean for individual rights: to be grounded not in an abstract, deracinated concept of rights, which do not really exist except as useful political concepts, but more profoundly in the concrete dignity of every single person as made in the image and likeness of God; or for an analogical understanding of marriage, which recognizes both the equality and complementarity of man and woman; or for an analogical politics, which recognizes the respective rights of the individual and the community, which would oblige the community to respect the rights of individuals and individuals to respect the common good, or for an analogical understanding of the nations, such that no one nation, however powerful, should be allowed to dominate another, but all are related to one another in their common relation to God the Father, “from whom every family (πατριά) in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Eph 3:15). Indeed, analogy is not just a more adequate way of talking about the imago Dei but arguably the key to understanding the reality of difference in general, in a way that absolutizes neither difference and freedom at the expense of unity and order, nor unity and order at the expense of difference and freedom, precisely because it admits the reality of difference as a good, while at the same time relativizing it in relation to its divine source—not as a necessary fall from reality and the uniformity of a divine singularity but rather as its intended analogical manifestation. In other words, an analogical account of the imago shows us how to admit the goodness of difference within an analogical economy in which opposites are not just related at a phenomenological level but also metaphysically by reference to a single source that is in-and-beyond them. But analogy, as we have seen, is the formal figure of Christology; conversely, Christology is the concrete realization of analogy. Ultimately, therefore, if every natural polarity is intended to be an analogy in the sense of allo pros allo, and if every created analogy is ultimately based upon the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in Christ, we may speak of the perfection of humanity in terms of the hypostatic union of body and soul, the inter-hypostatic union of man and woman (in marriage), and the inter-hypostatic union of individual and society (in the mystical body of Christ) within a divinized cosmos.

But this is the kingdom, which is not yet reality except in those members of the Church who have been perfected as likenesses of Christ and entered into the communion of saints. In the meantime, we know too well how differences and natural oppositions, though they are the condition of the possibility of any created analogy of God’s own being and life, can lead instead to polarization and conflict. Indeed, as we have noted, the analogies of creation can fall apart into terrible dialectics—to the point not just of tearing apart man and woman in divorce and leading nations into war but of reducing individual human beings, the “marriage hymn of the world,” to a schizophrenic state in which souls are alienated from bodies. How then can we still speak of the analogy of creation? Must we not speak instead, following Hobbes, of conflict as the natural state of affairs? No, because the natural state of affairs is not the state of affairs as we perceive it at any given moment, but the divinely intended state of affairs; it is what creation was intended to be. In Aristotle’s completely apt idiom, the natural state of affairs is “that which was to be” (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι). By the same token, therefore, creation remains essentially an analogy, however fallen or damaged it may be; for that is what it was intended to be: a created analogy and manifestation of divine things. But, of course, existentially things can be very different, and it is at this level that one must speak not only of sin but of alienation, polarization, and even dialectic. The practical question, therefore, is not what creation is but how the analogy of creation, which is factically in a state of dialectic, can be restored to its essence.

The clearest answer to this question is the one that has been provided by revelation: creation has been restored to its essence through Christ, in whose power we, too, as individuals are restored to who we were always intended to be in Christ, as incarnate logoi in the incarnate Logos of the one Father. But one cannot comprehend this answer or be prepared to receive it unless one at least implicitly recognizes the basic point of the analogy of being: that the universe does not rest in itself or have its meaning in itself but is an analogy of being. For only then can we take the next step and see that it is meant to be a manifold explication of the One God whose Word is declared in it as beyond it.

Conversely, the more this basic metaphysical insight is obscured or ignored, there can be no hope of reconciliation at any level. The analogy of being will instead fall increasingly apart into dialectics. For if being is no longer understood in terms of analogy—that is, a mysteriously poetic relation of immanence and transcendence—and being means immanence alone (the last of the modern “solas”), then not only is there nothing sacred about it (it is just a brute fact, not a miraculous gift or work of divine genius), there are also no transcendent ideas by which immanent differences can be adjudicated. Instead, we are we left with the dark world of Nietzsche where power is the only real reality, where “might makes right” (even after Socrates disabused Thrasymachus of the notion) and violence is ontologically basic. As a result, with no third eye (of contemplation) open to reality, our relation to the things around us is reduced to crass utility. We are, in turn, the subjects and objects of technology, including the technology of mass marketing and manipulation. And yet not recognizing our own vanity we wonder why nothing (transcendent) is shining through, why things are so polarized, and why the world is always falling apart. In truth, though, all of these things are the inevitable result of the denial of the analogy of being (and of any created order), which is why the rejection of the analogia entis, and not its affirmation, is the invention of Antichrist. For when everything (from our own lives to the whole universe) is reduced to a purely “immanent frame” and eo ipso evacuated of any transcendent significance, we have opened the door to the opposite of a divine humanity in Christ: we have invited that state of affairs in which nothing ultimately matters or means anything, which Jacobi aptly called “nihilism,” and whose horror Jean Paul depicted long before Nietzsche’s madman.

Of course, this has not prevented any number of postmodern philosophers from trying to embrace this situation by celebrating difference as such—in a kind of ongoing intellectual protest against the ancien régime. And, if we are honest, they are justified to the extent that the analogy of being, whose proper form as commercium (as we have seen) mutates into a Neoplatonic hierarchy, which forgets the kenotic presence of transcendence and ends up justifying a rigid ecclesiastical hierarchy that instead of tarrying below with the people, as Christ enjoins it to do, establishes walls between itself and the laity and elevates itself above the people. As long as this is what metaphysics is taken to mean (an intellectual prop for oppression of one form or another), the French are justified in raging against the Bastille. But difference, pace Deleuze, Badiou, and the host of French postmodernists who celebrate it as God, is not a self-standing principle because it has no meaning apart from unity; nor is it obviously good apart from its ordering to a common good; nor does it imply anything whatsoever about how differences, in the absence of a transcendent principle of unity, could possibly be harmonized, in short, how difference could become music. Instead, its absolutization, to the neglect of every transcendent principle, will produce only more polarization, discord, and outbreaks of violence.

Obviously, we cannot expect metaphysics to do the job that only grace and spiritual conversion can do. And this is why the metaphysical task of the Church is always secondary to its proclamation, which it serves merely to introduce and ex post facto clarify. But if we are to have any hope of an intellectual change of heart, which could lead to a saner social and political order, we simply cannot do without metaphysics, to wit: without more thoughtful individual and cultural reflection upon such perennial questions as the relation between the one and the many, immanence and transcendence, and at least some consideration of what the Catholic tradition and its saints have long attempted to explain in terms of the analogy of being, which at least formally (as a proto-Eucharistic philosophy) explains how the many could be thought together (allo pros allo), peaceably not violently, and gathered up in thanksgiving as one to the one God, who is the source of all being and difference. For once immanence and difference are de-absolutized and relativized with respect to the transcendent One as the beginning and end of all things, something similar becomes possible for intra-mundane differences: they, too, become de-absolutized, de-polarized, and energized anew by reference to the one God who is the transcendent source of body and soul, man and woman, individual and community, and of the nations one to another.

And let us note that this picture of reality, so far from being a novelty of Christianity, has been shared mutatis mutandis by virtually every known wisdom tradition, whether philosophical or religious, and could therefore be considered a kind of common metaphysics, indeed, the metaphysical basis for any reasonably enlightened civilization. At the same time, it also points, specifically, to the Trinity inasmuch as we can reasonably say that what is ultimate is neither, pace Badiou, unhinged, anarchic difference nor, for that matter, an undifferentiated and oppressive uniformity but something more beautiful and compelling than either, namely, a unity-in-difference whose perfection is intended to image an even more mysterious and beautiful identity-in-difference. (In this regard, even our aesthetic sensibility can be of help since beauty, wherever it is recognized, always involves a certain proportion of freedom and order.) And it points, finally, to the mystery of Christ, the Logos of God and creation, in whom all differences are One, in whom, as the letter to the Colossians says, “All things hold together” (Col 1:17), including man and woman, Jew and Gentile, indeed, heaven and earth (Gal 3:28; Eph 4:9–10). The final word of creation in Christ, therefore, is not an absolutized diversity but rather a genuine university in which all things in their perfected diversity constitute a likeness of the One God whose identity is to be distinctly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Christ the Logos of Creation: An Essay in Analogical Metaphysics (238–260) with the kind permission of Emmaus Academic, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: The Cathedral Santissimo Salvatore Cefalu, photo by Holger Uwe Schmitt; Source: Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


John Betz

John Betz is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in systematic and philosophical theology. He is the author of After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J.G. Hamann and the co-translator of Erich Przywara's Analogia Entis.

Read more by John Betz