In God’s Image: An Anthropology of the Spirit – Michael Welker

In God's Image Michael Welker
In God's Image: An Anthropology of the Spirit by Michael Welker
Also by this author: In God's Image: An Anthropology of the Spirit
Published by Eerdmans on February 4, 2021
Genres: Academic, Theology
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From the 2019/2020 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh 
In God’s Image describes how centering our culture on the human and divine spirit can revitalize four universally acknowledged characteristics of a thriving human existence: justice, freedom, truth, and peace. Inspired not only by religious sources but also by scientists, philosophers, economists, and legal and political theorists, Michael Welker develops the idea of a “multimodal” spirit that generates the possibility of living and acting in the image of God. 
Welker’s new approach to natural theology explains why the human and the divine spirit cannot adequately be grasped in simple bipolar relations and why the human spirit should not be reduced to the rational mind. Addressing the question What is the calling of human beings? in the context of late-modern pluralistic societies, he aims at explaining to believers and nonbelievers alike what it means to be persons created in the image of God, moved by a spirit of justice, freedom, truth, and peace.

In 1885, Lord Adam Gifford bequeathed a sum of money to four Scottish universities to sponsor a lecture series in the field of natural theology. This field seeks to explore God (theology) through God’s creation (natural). Over the past century, it has become the preeminent lecture, often considered the capstone of the author’s career. Each series is then edited and revised into a written format for public consumption. This is an extremely academic lecture series, dealing with some very narrow and precise topics. Wading into these lectures is not for the faint of heart. When I thought I had prepared myself, I jumped into In God’s Image: An Anthropology of the Spirit by 2019/2020 Gifford lecturer Michael Welker.

I debated on how to review this book because, the truth is that most reviews of a book like this are going to be in academic journals. And while I could have written an academic critique of this book, I didn’t feel like it would be truthful to what this website is about. So instead, my focus here is to do my best to translate Welker’s academic speeches into something consumable for the average person. If you’re the average person, let me know how I do.

Welker begins by questioning whether or not humans are made in the image of God. This isn’t a theological heresy. It’s an academic necessity. Don’t assume anything. Given what we know about humans and their capability for evil, can we truly say that we retain God’s image within us? And, if so, what does that tell us about God that his image and our evil can coexist? He moves on to a discussion of this interplay between the human spirit and the divine Spirit and how we can partner together with the Spirit in pursuit of freedom and justice.

With that foundation, he then writes that humans are called to four things: justice, freedom, truth, and peace. It’s here that, in my opinion, things get good. Up to this point, Welker has been a bit meandering and circumspect—at least to my mind. It’s all very philosophical so perhaps I’m just not linking all the pieces together or seeing the need to spend so much time on the setup. Each of these four final chapters focuses on how humans image the divine through their pursuit of these four things.

By aligning these things are theological and not simply sociological, Welker infuses a practicality (ironic given the philosophical nature of his lecture) into theology that is often lacking. Yet, because of that philosophical nature, Welker never brings those practicalities to light. Whose freedom? Whose justice? How do we define peace? As a philosopher, Welker is content to simply ask the questions and move on.

In terms of content, while I agree with most of what Welker writes, some of that is because he offers very little in the way of conclusions. It is almost as if he is guiding students on a path toward trying to determine these answers. A lot of PhD dissertations may be written out of this. In the end, though, I’m left unsure of the value of academic discussion without practical implementation. I won’t offer it as a critique against this book or the lectures because I understand that isn’t their intended goal, but it still stands. In a lot of difficult words and fancy phrases and high philosophizing, Welker has offered a detailed and nuanced natural theology that offers little in the way of implementation. The book’s primary value is for how Welker explores the imago Dei as something social and cultural and not just individual. I wish that more time was spent drawing out how that might practically work.