The Image of God

Imagine an art historian whose life work is to study Picasso paintings.  She analyses the minute flecks of paint on each work, to determine their composition.  She also goes to conferences where people divide the paintings into different eras, and tries to see if her results can be related to their discoveries.

However, she doesn't believe Picasso actually existed.  Nor do most of her colleagues.  A few of them do, but it is considered somewhat gauche to mention it in talks or official publications.

It's a bit like this whenever a scientist doesn't believe in God.  The work may have technical expertise, even brilliance, but it misses the forest for the trees.  It is blind to the biggest, most important result of all.

I don't mean to imply that Atheism is as implausible as Picasso-denial would be.  The philosophical arguments for the existence of God require careful contemplation, and some thoughtful individuals have resisted them as (in their opinion) fallacious.  Indeed, most scientists don't give the question careful thought at all.  But as somebody who is convinced God exists, the final outcome still seems (regardless of how understandable it may be) a little bit comic or absurd.  You may not believe in God, but you carefully study his laws and decrees.  Look up from your work, contemplate the ocean or hills, and ask your heart where all this beauty came from!

There is yet another respect in which God haunts Science, as its inspiration and origin.  We can also look at the scientist as a human being.  Without the human mind, Nature would of course still exist, but Science (which is just the careful study of Nature by beings with minds) would not.

Jews and Christians believe that all human beings — no exceptions! — are created in the image of God.  It is because we have a likeness to the Creator, that we are capable of both Science (understanding God's creation) and Art (making our own creations).  So scientists who don't believe in God aren't just blind to what's in front of them, they are also blind to their own true self, to the spiritual power that enables them to work on a calculation or a measurement.  But, their work still reflects God's glory, even though they don't recognize it.

Now God is invisible.  As the Creator, God precedes Nature and transcends it.  Divinity has no physical form, and the human mind cannot comprehend it.  To make a graven image of any animal or person, and worship that as if it were divine, is regarded in the Bible as idolatry, a serious sin.  Yet this same book insists from its very first chapter that God created men and women in his own image!

The human animal may be a rather Picasso-esque, surreal representation of the uncreated, bodiless, singular Power that set the stars in the sky and binds quarks into nuclei; yet it is the representation that is given to us, as a handle to reach out and touch the divine.  We are not God, but we are like God; and by serving our neighbor we also serve the one who made him.

And although none of us yet fully live up to our potential as icons or paintings of God, we have the promise that the Master Artist is working on us, striving forcefully to mold us into that perfect image (if only we allow ourselves to be worked on).  We are all broken in many ways, and that definitely includes me!  But the same God who patiently waited billions of years to make our world — who brought forth the evolution of single cells, sponges, fish, dinosaurs, and (in these last days) birds — is also working to redeem each of us, and the human family as a whole.  That is why Christ came to earth, on a daring rescue mission: to put us back in touch with the source of the whole universe.

This is far more exciting and interesting than the shallow sentiments that most moderns try to console themselves with.  As St. Dorothy Sayers observed, "There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy, nothing so sane and so thrilling."  In that respect it is, again, like the best moments of scientific discovery.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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15 Responses to The Image of God

  1. Philip Wainwright says:

    "The philosophical arguments for the existence of God require careful contemplation, and some thoughtful individuals have resisted them as (in their opinion) fallacious." Most of the philosophical arguments for God are not formally fallacious, but they are not persuasive, except for those who already believe in God. I find Michael Polanyi's book 'Personal Knowledge' a good explanation of why this is so, but a more important question is whether there are better philosophical arguments than the classical ones. The argument from the reality of right and wrong, which C S Lewis outlined in 'Mere Christianity', seems to offer the best way forward, although Lewis's link between the reality of moral distinctions and the existence of a moral lawgiver is its weakest point. Lots of opportunity for a bright young mind there...

  2. Luke Lea says:

    "Jews and Christians believe that all human beings — no exceptions! — are created in the image of God. "

    Perhaps. But for the early Hebrews as depicted in the Patriarchal Narratives only "God fearers" — i.e., those who believed in God — were considered trustworthy and hence fully human. In other words, being created in the image of God, only those who believed in God were fully human. This at least is one possible reading.

    See here for details:L

  3. Matthew S. says:

    congrats on the prize Aron

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the shout out!

    Philip writes:

    Most of the philosophical arguments for God are not formally fallacious, but they are not persuasive, except for those who already believe in God.

    Since at least some people have converted to Theism as a result of these arguments, the second half of your statement isn't true unless qualified.

    As for the first half, almost any argument can be made formally valid simply by adding the necessary assumptions as axioms. But this is a cosmetic change, since the question is whether we have good reason to accept these assumptions.

    While your linked article makes some interesting points, your assertion here (that the Bible teaches you have to have the right religious views to be human) is a complete load of horse manure. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that! The texts in Genesis about the "image of God" do not make any such exceptions.

    Also, God tells Abraham that through him, all nations will be blessed (and recall that, at that time, nearly all nations were polytheistic). Thus the Covenant exists for the benefit of non-Hebrews, just as much as for the Hebrews.

  5. kashyap vasavada says:

    Congrats Aron on winning New Horizons in physics. I knew you were good!

  6. Mactoul says:

    I offer you congratulations on winning the prize. My doubt is regarding your thoughtful person who finds fallacious (all) philosophical arguments for the existence of God. So, how can he believe in God then?
    It can't be rational for him to believe in God unless he finds a non-fallacious argument, even a plausible one.
    An unthoughtful person may simply declare the matter to be beyond his competence and believe on trust the judgements of tradition and his intellectual superiors. But this way isn't easy for a thoughtful person.

  7. dylan says:


    I don't agree. Descartes tried to give a non-fallacious argument for the existence of the physical world outside of his own mind. He failed. No one has succeeded since him. Does that mean a thoughtful person can't believe in the existence of the physical world outside their own mind? I don't think so. Just because you can't prove it with an argument doesn't mean you shouldn't believe in it.

    If you think about it, there have to be some things you just believe in without being able to establish with a persuasive argument. All arguments have premises, which are just assumed. In order to have persuasive arguments, there have to be things you reasonably believe without argument.

    You could respond that the existence of God, specifically, isn't one of those things. It can only be believed by a thoughtful person on the basis of an argument. But why is that true? I don't see any reason for thinking that.

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks, everyone.

    That part of my blog post was referring not to theists, but to (a subset of) atheists and agnostics. That is, I was talking about thoughtful people who do not believe in God. Such people obviously exist, even if I think they are wrong.

  9. Mactoul says:

    The external world must be affirmed prior to any argumentation. You may call it a presupposition but it is a presupposition for sanity, and not for any particular argument.
    In other words, arguments presuppose sanity and sanity requires non-consideration of certain ideas. As Chesterton said in a similar context, that there is a thought that stops thought. The the Church exists to prevent that thought. (The Suicide of Thought).

  10. PC1 says:

    Although I am a Christian I fully understand why some people do not believe in God. If they have suffered considerably in their life, seemingly without purpose or reason. If life seems pretty random. If evolution etc provides a purely naturalistic explanation for the existence of life on earth, including humans. If prayer goes unanswered. If you're gay and you know the Bible condemns gay sex. The list goes on.

    For me, the main reason why I became a believer and continue to believe is that I am convinced that the resurrecton of Jesus of Nazareth happened as a fact of history. Therefore He holds the truth, regardless of what life can seem to portray.

  11. Patricia Gray says:

    Although Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, feels dated according to current tastes, so does the Bible, but Kant had put his finger on the essential dichotomous problem of science v. religion. Scientists continue to use the reasoning system that has taken them so far in the physical world. That system doesn't work with religion, and when used, results in a stunted comprehension of--and I'm going out on a limb here--both the physical and extra-physical worlds. Science has done a splendid job of explaining the world to us, but it has not made us wise. It has made us frightened of going beyond reason, but we are human and must use all of ourselves to become wise.

    I've arrived at this view because I'm a poet. Poems, unless they are rants, can put dichotomies together in one place to create a true picture, to make something whole that was partial or lopsided without its contradictions. Metaphors and images, those workhorses of poetry, provide ways for us to move beyond literal exactitude. That's why Aron Wall's story of the historian who studies Picasso without believing he existed, does its job so well. It's a lesson in getting beyond our provable everyday literal assertions, as is Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry," In it Collins shows how using metaphors could help you get inside a poem when approaching it literally, factually, provably as a lawyer or scientist might, won't. It won't get you very far to think about religion using the tools of reason, either.

    For myself, it has helped not to anthropomorphize God, which, then, lets God be energy. The more benevolent features of universal energy help guide my life. This energy is something I can peacefully relate to, without having to research the ins and outs of Christ's life or sanction the cruelties of organized religion because its part of the whole package. I do believe in spirituality, however, and by that I mean a connection with a benevolent essence beyond myself.

    Aron Wall is right about the image of God, or the existence of God. It is a basic and nagging question that underlies so much of our lives, and which each of us has to somehow settle individually.

  12. J Cook says:

    Are we as a conscious species entangled with the universe and all creation from the Planck Era to today as being somethingness and nothingness that was both in and before the singularity was expressed in time and space with an unfolding of a new creation through the Big Bang

  13. Marc Bridgham says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. For this. What a joy to discover your blogs. In most of my conversations with non-believers (which I mean to be descriptive and not perjorative) they often project a very shallow, unsophisticated view (or all they think is wrong with Christianity) onto the whole of the Faith. Because that is often the dominant image of Christianity is portrayed. Instead, I wish they could see the richness, diversity, and beauty of thought that is woven throughout the history of the Church into today.

  14. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome to my blog, Patricia!

    First, let me say that I really enjoyed the poem you linked to! I think that metaphors are so important to the way we think, especially in theology.

    At the same time, I'd like to respectfully push back a little at your idea that we shouldn't use anthropomorphic metaphors for God. I think we should and must do so, while still recognizing that they are metaphors. Let me share with you the following quote from C.S. Lewis' book "Miracles":

    When [people] try to get rid of manlike, or, as they are called, ‘anthropomorphic,’ images, they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kinds. ‘I don’t believe in a personal God,’ says one, ‘but I do believe in a great spiritual force.’ What he has not noticed is that the word ‘force’ has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation. ‘I don’t believe in a personal God,’ says another, ‘but I do believe we are all parts of one great Being which moves and works through us all’—not noticing that he has merely exchanged the image of a fatherly and royal-looking man for the image of some widely extended gas or fluid.

    A girl I knew was brought up by ‘higher thinking’ parents to regard God as perfect ‘substance.’ In later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.) We may feel ourselves quite safe from this degree of absurdity, but we are mistaken. If a man watches his own mind, I believe he will find that what profess to be specially advanced or philosophic conceptions of God are, in his thinking, always accompanied by vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd than the manlike images aroused by Christian theology. For man, after all, is the highest of the things we meet in sensuous experience.

    Let me try to apply this (if you don't mind) to your own case. I hope you understand that I am saying these things because I respect your openness enough to think you'll appreciate an honest reply!

    You say you think about God as "energy", but remember that you're talking to a physicist, who doesn't usually write poems. Not to be too crude, but to me energy means something like (1/2)mv^2 where m is the mass of a particle and v is its velocity! I don't think that's what you really meant by energy. You speak of the "universal energy" as being "benevolent". But neither electricity nor gravitation are aware of your existence. Only a person, or something relevantly like a person, can be benevolent. So really, if we unpack your language, it's clear that even you have some anthropomorphic ideas hidden in your conception of God. And I think that's a good thing!

    If I may humbly suggest a possible trap, I think a lot of people like a more impersonal conception of God because it is more convenient. They can still get a sense of inspiration and joy in life, but there is no danger (they hope) of this God turning out to be real enough to tell them to do specific, practical things they don't want to do, like go to church or do what Jesus commanded.

    You may also be interested in my blog post on Surprised by Something, which relates to many of these same issues.

    Thanks so much for your kind words!

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