Humanity in God's Image

An Interdisciplinary Exploration

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Claudia Welz
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Claudia Welz is Professor with special responsibilities in Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Copenhagen. In Humanity in God’s Image: An Interdisciplinary Exploration, her second major monograph in English, she establishes herself at the forefront of constructive theological and philosophical reflection on the constellation of issues surrounding interpretations of the human condition, representations of the imago Dei, and contemporary discourses regarding human dignity. The book is divided into four parts, each of which dedicates two chapters to well-established motifs in salvation history and theological anthropology: creation and creativity; revealment and concealment, reorientation and redemption, and ethics with an eschatological proviso. Welz’s motivating question throughout is “how humanity in God’s image can be thought of in such a way that it still makes sense in our time” (13).

The first chapter lays a foundation for the interdisciplinary forays that follow. Welz outlines, critiques, and rehabilitates four models for understanding the imago Dei motif, each with its own particular emphasis, insights, and limits. The functional model, typified by exegetes of the priestly sources (Genesis 1:26-26, 5:1-3, and 9:6), emphasizes representation—the human functions as God’s representative in God’s creation, exercising creative dominion and care. The mimetic model, typified by Augustine, Luther, and Bonhoeffer, emphasizes resemblance—the human resembles God by means of an analogy, whether that analogy involves ontological structures or existential freedom. The relational model, typified by Thielicke, Barth, Ebeling, Benjamin, and Buber, emphasizes the event of dialectical encounter. The fourth dynamic model, typified by Mirandola, Eckhart, and Kierkegaard, emphasizes (con)formation—the image of God is an achievement attained through either divine grace, moral striving, or a coordination of divine and human work. Drawing upon hermeneutics, Bildwissenschaft, phenomenology, and Peircean semiotics, Welz deftly and creatively rehabilitates the four models, synthesizing contributions from each in a compelling construal of the imago Dei as a complex sign that is simultaneously iconic, indexical, and symbolic.

In the second chapter, Welz differentiates the human qua imago Dei from other species of images. Whereas all images are objects of interpretation, only the human imago Dei is simultaneously the subject of its interpretation, a self-interpreting and reflexive image. As imago Dei, we not only reveal but also conceal ourselves in seeing and self-consciously being seen. Even so, the human and divine are also incommensurable in ways that the image metaphor serves to disclose. A phenomenology of “the glance,” developed in discussions of Rembrandt’s and Kahlo’s self-portraits, contrasts with “the gaze of the omnivoyant” presented by Nicholas of Cusa’s The Vision of God. And Kiekegaard and Heschel point toward a further discovery that human self-recognition as imago Dei and his or her creative response as imitatio Dei, both have their condition of possibility in their Creator’s prior divine self-revelation.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine discontinuities between divinity and humanity that haunt human claims regarding the imago Dei. Comprehending the imago Dei requires inseparably thinking the human and God together, therefore outstripping finite and fallible human capacities. Welz explores these discordant dynamics of divine and human concealment and self-disclosure through Jewish philosophy (including the works of Benyoëtz, Levinas, Heschel, Rosenzweig, Scholem, and Wyschogrod) and Reformation (primarily Lutheran) theology. The image of God eludes any simple identification that is available empirically and sensibly. Nevertheless, Welz contends that the imago Dei (dis)covers itself “where and when we see creatures doing their creator’s will” (140).

Chapter 5 and 6 explore prospects for human re-formation, including ways that the verbal and visual images formed by humans reflexively act upon their makers. Again, several Lutherans (Luther, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer) offer resources for thinking through the dynamics of imaging and imitation, of the imago Dei and imitatio Christi. The imago Dei is an analogia relationis, which is to say that it consists in the ways that human beings exist in relation to God and one another that serve as analogues to the ways that God relates to human beings. For these Christian theologians, formation [Bildung] of the image of God [Bild Gottes] takes place as the human imitates Christ’s example [Vorbild]. Philosophy of language and phenomenology of the body combine to further disclose how embodiment and synesthetics of sight and sound are essential to representing the imago Dei in both word and image.

Chapters 7 and 8 close out the book with contributions from Arendt, Benjamin, Kierkegaard, Levinas, Sartre, and post-Holocaust theologians to address the challenges posed to the purported inviolability of the imago Dei and human dignity alike by crimes against humanity and other apparent violations of human dignity. Here, Welz applies Rabbi Dickman’s proposal that human actions be judged by their conformity to analogia actionis—that is, as acts analogous to divine action—and Raphael’s feminist theology of the Holocaust. Following Raphael, Welz reformulates the post-Holocaust theodic query, “Where was God in Auschwitz?” with a personalist-actualistic alternative: “Who was God in Auschwitz?” Having explored the relational and mimetic aspects of the imago Dei, Welz concludes that in Auschwitz, in “human faces turning to assaulted others, humanity in God’s image reappeared” (216). Following upon this daring formulation, Welz proceeds to examine the implications of her dialogical, relational, and mimetic account of the imago Dei for new horizons in ecumenical and Jewish-Christian dialogue and for promising research trajectories in theories of personhood, human dignity, and human rights.

A remarkable interdisciplinary exploration of the imago Dei, every chapter of Welz’s study builds upon her articles in German, Danish, and English previously published in journals and collected volumes. Each reflects careful scholarship on a range of figures, literatures, and disciplines and manifests the fruit of vetting by diverse academic audiences. An exemplary and welcome contribution to contemporary discourses about the imago Dei and human dignity, Welz ventilates a conversation at times dominated by historical, political, analytic, and jurisprudential categories by foregrounding other methodologies: hermeneutical, phenomenological, post-Holocaust theology, and philosophy of religion. This monograph deserves the careful attention of all who would seek to understand the imago Dei and its implications for human dignity today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Puffer is assistant professor of humanities and ethics at Valparaiso University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Claudia Welz is Professor with special responsibilities in Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Copenhagen.


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