Called to Be Human

In last Friday’s post introducing this series on vocation, we saw that God’s calling works on both general — what God calls us all to be — and particular — what God calls us to be as individual persons — levels. Today I’d like to look at the idea of general calling through the lens of the creation stories in Genesis 1-2. This will allow us to look at what our tradition believes about God’s vision for humanity ‘in the beginning’ (and also what went wrong).

The first creation story in the Bible, found in Genesis 1, has God calling the world and its creatures into existence. Life itself is, then, a vocation of sorts. The final step in this creation process is humanity:

Then God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1.26-31)

This passage mentions several aspects of humanity’s general vocation, which are worth unpacking.

First, we were created according to the image and likeness of God. This idea has been interpreted in many different ways throughout history and its full consequences deserve a whole series of their own. However, irrespective of what particular qualities we believe this ‘image and likeness’ to entail, it is clear that this has a vocational aspect for us. In the Ancient Near East, kings were understood to be the ‘image’ of the gods, standing in the gods’ place within society. Similarly, a statue or stele could be the kings’ ‘image’ in the distant provinces and cities. In Genesis 1, it is all humanity that is to have this role for God on the earth. As Lisa Sharon Harper noted in her wonderful book The Very Good Gospel, “This is a bold, even revolutionary, challenge to the dominant view regarding who represented God on earth. … [T]he writers of Genesis 1 democratize dignity by redistributing it to all humanity.”

In the ancient Church, this vocation to represent God on earth was taken to its fullest possible extent with the doctrine of theosis, which claims that “The human vocation is to fulfill one’s humanity by becoming God through grace, that is to say by living to the full. It is to make of human nature a glorious temple (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism). According to the great fourth-century theologian St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil of Caesarea went so far as to define a human being as “an animal who has received the vocation to become God” (Eulogy of Basil the Great, Oration 43). This is intentionally bold and shocking language, and the Tradition has certainly clarified and constrained this idea in major ways (e.g., we become divine by grace and not by nature, and in ‘energies’ and never in essence), but even if you aren’t entirely comfortable with this language of theosis, it definitely demonstrate just how important the doctrine of our creation in the image of God was in Christianity’s first centuries: We are called to become by grace all that God is in and for the world.

As a side note, the text (remarkably for such an ancient document!) applies this equally to male and female. There are at least three ways this can be spun, and I think each has something to contribute to a full understanding of the doctrine: 1. Men and women share equally in the image and likeness of God; gender equality is part of the original human vocation. 2. Men and women, for reasons both biological and socially-determined, often live out this image and likeness in typologically different ways, and so are best thought of as embodying the image and likeness of God together, in cooperation, collaboration, and communion. And 3. because of this, we as individuals best live out the image and likeness of God in us when we integrate both masculine and feminine energies (however these may be defined in our cultures) within us. (Jesus is a good example of such an integration, since he embodied characteristics associated in his culture with both masculinity (leadership, teaching, etc.) and femininity (nurturing, healing, etc.).)

The second term, ‘likeness,’ helps to define ‘image’; we live according to the image of God when we resemble God, ‘taking after’ God in the way a child takes after (or bears the likeness of) a parent.

Another consequence of this doctrine is that, because this aspect of humanity is held in common, it is part of our vocation to recognize and honour the image and likeness of God not only in ourselves, or those ‘like us’, but also in all humanity. As Diana Hayes beautifully frames it:

For we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. God has placed upon all of us the responsibility of following in God’s own footsteps, of loving all people as God loves us, of seeking their greater good rather than our own individual success. We can only do this by letting go of the ‘isms’ that continue to plague humanity — negativisms based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religious creed. We must begin to remove the blinders we have placed on ourselves that restrict our vision, blinding us to the light of God shining through the face of all God’s people. (No Crystal Stair, 78)

Second, we care called to “have dominion over” the rest of creation. I wrote a whole post last year about the harmful ways this has been interpreted in recent history and how to move beyond them, but to summarize that discussion here, it seems best to interpret this phrase in light of the parallel passage in Genesis 2, where God places the humans in the garden “to work and keep it.” Far from the ‘domination’ imagery handed down to us, here dominion is understood more in terms of good governance, protection, maintenance, and stewardship. As Harper notes about this, “Stewardship requires agency: the use of one’s voice to guide and direct and the use of one’s mind to make choices that impact the world.”

Third, we are blessed by God — and by extension, called to live into that blessedness.

Fourth, this blessing entails the command, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth...” A couple of things are important to note here. First, in the text, this commandment to reproduce is connected to the exercise of dominion over the earth; so the point is not reproduction of the sake of reproduction, but in order to fulfill other aspects of human vocation. And second, this means that Christianity is not a fertility cult. I mention this because there are slices of conservative Christianity that have turned the legitimate and wonderful blessings of family life into something of an idol, into the be-all-end-all of human existence, even to the point of shaming those who for one reason or another do not have children. There can be no doubt that the production and raising of children is the most obvious way of fulfilling this aspect of human vocation. And, I am amazed by the power children have to inspire love, humility, maturity, and self-giving — and all kinds of good fruit — in their parents. The joys and difficulties of family life are indeed a beautiful arena in which human life and vocation can play out. But it is far from the only one. There are many legitimate reasons why it might not be for everyone: age, biology, sexual orientation, historical context (e.g., in the aftermath of war or plague), particular calling, or simply personal choice. This is not in and of itself an abdication of human vocation. But, it means that those of us without children have the responsibility to express the vocation to “be fruitful” in other ways. Childlessness is not an excuse for selfishness. If anything, not facing the demands of child-rearing frees those without children to live out our vocations to serve the world more fully. And, since child-rearing can be such a powerful crucible for growth and change, we have to take extra care that our lives contribute to the needs of the many and the life of the world.

If we put all of this together, we have a powerful perspective of the human vocation: To be human is to reflect God’s character in the world, to acknowledge, uphold, and sustain God’s image in others, to tend to and protect the rest of creation, and to live our lives, flourishing and fruitful, for the sake of others. This is our original blessing, and our shared human vocation.

This is the life that God called “very good.”

Of course, as much as we need to uphold this universal human vocation, as Christians, we also recognize that something has gone spectacularly wrong with the human experiment, a something we call ‘sin’. Sin, within us and in the world around us, prevents us from living out this vocation as God intended. Where we have been called to represent God on earth, we have represented our own interests. Where have been called to honour the image of God in each other, we have dehumanized those who are not like us. Where we have been called to shape and guard creation, we have deformed and damaged it. We have failed time and time again to fulfill our human calling. This is absolutely true; and yet this does not undo our original vocation.

And, as Christians, we believe that God has intervened in history to help put the broken pieces of God’s image and likeness back together again, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus our common human vocation is complemented by our shared Christian vocation to live lives that reflect Jesus’ life. And it is to this aspect of vocation that the next post in this series will turn.

19 thoughts on “Called to Be Human

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