Responding to Claudia Welz’s Humanity in God’s Image

January 30, 2019

In Humanity in God’s Image: An Interdisciplinary Exploration, Claudia Welz interprets the theological notion of the imago Dei. She does this with innovation and grace, leading the reader through a multidimensional interpretation of what it means to be made in God’s image. Designed in a four-part sequence, Welz’s book questions not only how the state of being a reflection of God affects humanity but also how this reflection influences the perception of God.

The first section of the text traverses models of interpretation of humanity in God’s image. Here, Welz interrogates how something that is invisible or transcendent becomes visible. Next, she traces movements of revelation and concealment, adding depth to the juxtaposition of invisibility and visibility. This dichotomy, she purports, distinguishes the imago Dei from God’s self. The third section examines redemption against a back drop of suffering which demands acute attention. This move introduces a critical aspect of her book as it fosters critical thinking about what it means to be created in God’s image in the face of atrocity. As a result, the traditional and often obscure notions of the imago Dei and imago Christi become more nuanced. Last, Welz navigates the ethics of the imago Deiwith what she calls “an eschatological proviso,” where the dichotomy of visibility and invisibility has no concrete resolution.

Over the course of this symposium, five authors will respond to Welz’s work. Each respondent draws attention to a critical thread in the book: the theological need to understand what it actually means to have dignity and to be created in God’s image in the face of human despair, tragedy, and traumas of human design. They grapple, alongside Welz, with the historical interpretation of imago Dei and imago Christi, pressing theological and ethical reorientations about human dignity. The authors are attentive. Each engages Welz’s work with respect, highlighting some of Welz’s core ideas and designating avenues for further research.

In the first response, Melissa Raphael explores how Welz’s negotiation of an invisible God’s visible expression challenges the second Genesis account of creation (2:18-24), which Raphael asserts is much older than the first (Gen.1:27). Raphael argues that while Genesis 1 ensures that “iconicity” is the claim of “every human being who will ever live,” Genesis 2 does not. In fact, Raphael maintains, Genesis 2 enacts “the first crime (of many) against the humanity of women.” She exhorts Welz and other feminist scholars to attend to this paradox, so that the “not-yet woman” of Genesis 2 remembers the woman made in the image of God in Genesis 1.

Stressing the importance of embodiment, Jeffrey Bloechl urges a need to attend to Jesus’s body in interpreting what it means to be made in the image of God. The focus on a corporeal, incarnate Christ, according to Bloechl, makes imitation of Jesus as the image of God possible. As a result, he critiques what he sees as a preoccupation with the face in Welz’s text. Through the lens of phenomenology, Bloechl contends with the dichotomy between the face as revelatory and the face as opaque, while asserting that the human is “already a revelation of what or who God is.” This leads his encouraging a robust consideration of Jesus’s body, as a historical reality, as a locus of suffering, and as a source of revelation that “[strikes] our senses.”

Next, Jennifer L. Geddes grapples with the concept of the unseen insofar as it applies to “sufferers and survivors.” Geddes pushes against, as she thinks Welz is doing, a “normative, counter-factual understanding of human dignity” that has the potential to lead to objectification. She also alerts readers to the possibility of difference between the imago Dei of a perpetrator and the imago Dei of a victim. To this end, Geddes supports the need for a nuanced vocabulary for what happens to the concept of the image of God in each, adjudicating an imperative against eliding the perpetrator victim roles.

Illuminating a core concept in Welz’s work – human dignity – Andrew Benjamin leads readers through a discourse that explores the dignity of the corpse as it is explored in Humanity in God’s Image. Benjamin relates dignity to the “potentiality to be,” calling it “unconditional,” thus thinking through the concern that the human can be present in its absence. He asserts that dignity is a “quality that cannot be reduced to the body.” Attuned to the concept of the relational, alongside the demand to see the invisible, Benjamin contends that Welz’s hermeneutic and phenomenological approach works only when human life is dignified by the actualization of the “potentiality to be” understood, as Benjamin asserts, as appearing with others.

The final respondent, Shelly Rambo, returns to the imperative to reinvision theology post-Shoah. Rambo recognizes Welz’s innovation in her embrace of the imago Dei as flexible, not rigid. Challenging “the posture of Christian theology toward Jewish suffering,” Rambo’s diagnosis is one of perception. She identifies “Christianity’s distorted self-image” and its cultural formulations which privilege triumphalism, recognizing in Welz’s work a methodology capable of loosening such logic. Accordingly, Rambo advances a Christology in the shape of an embodied, synaesthetic experience that can break through doctrinal formulations based on triumph. Thus, the focus of attention shifts to the body and affects, “orienting us to suffering” and to what is not visible to the eye.

As evidence of the sophistication of Welz’s work, the contributors engage different discourses and aspects of the text. As a result, Welz’s contribution to theological discourse grows. This expansion will continue as readers of the symposium imagine the imago Dei differently, for example, envisioning it as a fluid concept that entails embodiment. I hope that the symposium invites readers to engage in the critical exploration of how theology responds to suffering while exploring of the concept of human dignity in a framework that entails more than human achievement but includes grace and relationality with others.

Check out the scholars’ responses here.

By Stephanie Arel