Of Cats and Creation and the Image of God

Of all the questions a human could ask, there are some that are repeated throughout all the ages and cultures.  These are the existential favorites, “Who am I?”, and “Why am I here?”  Science may address these questions one way, but faith may have other answers.  I have been thinking lately about how we may not have been completely honest in our dealings with these questions, and may have subsequently played the game that we have accused ancient cultures of playing: anthropomorphizing deity, or more simply, making God in man’s image.  Perhaps the question that most frequently stirs up this scrutinizing and revising of the role of God is the classic query of, “Where did I come from?”  From the vantage point of faith, there is only one good place to search for such an answer.   

Genesis.  The beginning.  The very opening line of the Judeo-Christian scriptures ignites controversy by setting forth a proposition untestable by empirical means.  But perhaps much of the controversy lies not with the assertion itself, but rather with our finite interpretation of that core truth.  We who are unskilled with linguistics are captives of those who are.  The bias and prejudice that the translators embraced, whether ancient, medieval or modern, continues to shape our limited view of what can only be understood as infinite possibilities. 

In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, Genesis 1.1 says, “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see.”  “First this” equates to “In [the] beginning….”  How could Peterson ever change Genesis 1.1 in such a way?  Maybe it was because in ancient texts, the definite article, “the”, is missing.  So, it is possible that Genesis 1.1 was not necessarily dealing with a specific moment, but rather a foundational truth.  From the very outset, God was behind all that there is.

Another interesting point, as brought out in the Asbury Bible Commentary, is that Genesis 1.1 can also be translated as “In [the] beginning, when God began to create…”  What implication does this present?  Well a very interesting one indeed:  Creation did not necessarily stop with Day 6.  If this term is allowed, creation may be construed as an ongoing process.  But how?  Geologically, the processes that shape the planet today are “creating.”  Rock weathers to soil.  Rivers cut canyons.  Volcanoes lift islands from the sea.  And populations of organisms subjected to environmental pressures, bearing genetic variation can evolve, adapt, and survive.  This ability to continue “creation” is inherent in the directive issued to each regiment of life: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” 

The Hebrew verb, bara’, which is translated “created,” can also mean to “cut” or to “carve” or to “sculpt” something.  But to do so implies that “something” already exists on which the “sculpting” can take place.  The “heavens and the earth” need not be taken only as factually literal, but also a statement reflecting that the ordered universe, all that physically exists, was shaped by the mind of God.  What if this were a way to express the congealing and accretion of matter from the energy that violently erupted, springing from that anticipated primordial singularity of the hypothesized “Big Bang”?  If it is true, does it negate, pervert, or even mildly contort the foundational truth of Genesis 1.1?  I don’t think so.

Now from this discussion to this point, it may appear that I am attempting to do what I have often decried: make the Bible into a science book.  I do not think that to be the case here.  I have merely pointed out that within the first verse, a central truth is posited.  The language that was selected to convey that truth is pregnant with possibilities beyond our “authorized”, though limited interpretations.

Yesterday, I did something that I have never before had to do: end a life to end suffering.  On a cold December day in 2000, my wife and I became the caretakers of a half-grown kitten who stole our hearts when he came through the snow to our door and adopted us.  Henry was his own cat.  Having been apparently mistreated as a youngster he was rather wary of humans.  Our daughter, Emily, who came along two years after Henry, can charm any animal.  She won him over.  So as he aged, he mellowed.  But as he aged, he also developed an aggressive form of cancer that stripped him of his strength and shrunk him from the high point of his vitality to a shadow of his former self.  When it became obvious that his life was becoming more of a burden to him than a pleasure, we engaged the service of a veterinarian friend who graciously and compassionately helped us with that final and heart-wrenching decision.


Emily’s 4-H award-winning photo of Henry.

Why should I relate this story here?  Well, because I think of Henry as one of God’s finest creatures.  I suppose we love animals because according to the Genesis story, we were given “dominion” over them.  I rather dislike this word, “dominion,” since it implies an imperialistic sort of attitude.  Again, in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Genesis 1.26-28 is rendered,

“God spoke:

“Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female.  God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

Another paraphrase further explores this idea.  In The Voice, the same passage offers,

“26 Now let Us conceive a new creation—humanity—made in Our image, fashioned according to Our likeness. And let Us grant them authority over all the earth—the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the domesticated animals and the small creeping creatures on the earth.

27 So God did just that. He created humanity in His image, created them male and female.  28 Then God blessed them and gave them this directive: “Be fruitful and multiply. Populate the earth. I make you trustees of My estate, so care for My creation and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that roams across the earth.”

Humankind, by force of its reasoning ability, its intellect, and its transcendent nature has been given a divine mandate.  Where some read “dominion” and see the potential for exploitation and profit, Peterson suggests a fuller concept: “be responsible” for the creation.  The Voice says, “I make you trustees of My estate.”  That takes the mandate to a new dimension: not exploiter, but caregiver.  Not thoughtless user, but thoughtful servant.

This is weighty on my mind this very early morning as I write this, because I am thinking about my cat (or was I more correctly, his human?), and about the implications of what Dr. Debbie Reynolds posted on her website regarding the esteem God places on his creation.  Dr. Reynolds simply notes, “When Adam was created, God surrounded him with animals.  When Noah was delivered from the flood, God surrounded him with animals.  When Jesus was born, God surrounded him with animals.”  Animals are more than our servants in this life.  They are our companions and fellow travelers.  They are part of the creation that God surveyed and saw that “…it was so good, so very good!” (Genesis 1.31, The Message).  They trust without reservation, and their acceptance of us says much about the human character.  They know that they are loved and cared for, and reflect that warmth with their own brand of animal appreciation and even affection.  To mistreat an animal is to violate one of God’s earliest and foremost directives to humankind:  to “be responsible” for the creation. 

Returning to Genesis 1.26-28, notice another extremely important idea, that being that humankind was created in the image of God.  The Imago Dei is a sticking point for many people in their ability to see beyond the literal and grasp a truth that transcends the physical.  According to literalists when you look in a mirror, you see the “image” of God.  But is that what that idea really means?  Could that not also mean that mankind was given a special insight owing to its God-likeness?  We are possessed of an intellect, a moral capacity, and the ability to fully and deeply love, even to love the unlovable.  These are aspects of God that go far beyond the physical form. 

Atheists tell us that we invented deity, whether God or a whole pantheon of gods, as a way of explaining questions we could not answer.  Death and suffering?  It’s God’s will.  How did life begin?  God did it.  What does the future hold?  God knows.  And to some extent, they may be right about relying on such easy answers to explain the inexplicable.  As earlier posed, in numerous mythologies, the gods essentially demonstrated larger than life examples of virtually all human failings and foibles.  The gods were lecherous, bickering, deceitful practitioners of vice, showing partiality in their capricious interactions with the lecherous, bickering, deceitful practitioners of vice that worshiped them.

When the image of God is reversed to make God assume the physical aspect and demeanor of man, we have acted no differently from the ancient Greek polytheists.  When we willfully refuse to see the fullness of the image of God, we limit ourselves to a stunted and incomplete understanding.   

If we see God’s image as the gestalt of consciousness, conscience, and moral reasoning, the physical becomes immaterial.  If the Imago Dei is not what you see but what you are, many things become easier to assess, accept and apply.  For example, there would be less of an issue with understanding evolution as a means of on-going creation.  How we arrive at a physical form is not nearly as important as the foundational truth on which that process stands: “First this: God created….”

Another issue has been teasing my mind lately, and it is related like bookends to the first question that was addressed, above.  This is, of course, the forward searching question of, “Where am I going?”  There is an ongoing and growing chorus of thinkers and believers that see a different future from the traditional interpretation of the end of all things.  Rather than seeing the fiery description of the end of the world as the end of all physical existence, the longing of all creation for redemption as seen in Romans 8 sets the stage not for destruction, but for renewal.  The fires of that final temporal event do not destroy, but purify, eliminating the imperfection and suffering that entered the world with selfish pursuits and evil. In Revelation, the image of the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven, the declaration that God would live with his creation, mankind, the exclamation that he is explicitly “making all things new” –not, as N.T. Wright points out, making “all new things”—all begin to coalesce into a new understanding of the redemption possible in a restored, perfected world, freed from the crippling effects of the burden of evil and sin.

I am neither so distraught nor so naïve as to assert that those beloved pets we have lost will find a place in Heaven, be it ethereal, as the Platonists espouse, or a restored creation as a growing number are starting to awaken to.  But as part of that “very good” system conceived in God’s mind and carved from whatever reality existed at or before the primordial event, I have no reason to believe that “very good” animals will not be a part of it.

I return frequently to one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis.  Writing about the beauty of a supernaturalist’s appreciation of nature, Lewis mused, “If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself.”

From a small child, I have observed the wonders of the natural world with enraptured awe.  Could there be anything more perfect than nature as it exists, at least without human insult?  If this restorationist view of the future is true, then eternity will be an awesome experience in a refined and perfected reality.  All that we have known and believed perfect in our imperfect world will be shockingly different, and more perfect than we are capable of experiencing presently.  It will not be a happy reunion with nature.  It will be so different as to be starting to explore it and understand it afresh, as for the first time.  I could not emphasize the introduction to a perfected creation any better than Lewis phrased it, in his characteristically British understatement, “And that will be a merry meeting.”  A very merry meeting indeed.


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