Published by Eerdmans on February 4, 2021
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, 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 non-believers alike what it means to be persons created in the image of God, moved by a spirit of justice, freedom, truth, and peace.
The Gifford Lectures are sponsored by a bequest to several Scottish universities by Adam Lord Gifford in the late 1800s. These lectures are meant to promote the thinking about and study of Natural Theology. Numerous gifted writers have been given the opportunity to expand society’s knowledge of God. Noam Chomsky, William James, Hannah Arendt, and now Michael Welker have added to this ongoing collection of lectures.
In God’s Image: An Anthropology of the Spirit, Welker suggests that the way that humanity works with and against itself represents another facet of natural theology—that is, ways of thinking about how God moves and acts which aren’t dictated by holy texts or religious traditions, or as Immanuel Kant put it, “religion within the limits of reason alone.” The book contains the text of six lectures, ranging on topics from the expansiveness of the human imagination to the existence of peace for all humanity that isn’t maintained by force.
Welker begins by laying out the highs and lows of human existence, how we care for each other, but also how we ruin one another catastrophically. He draws heavily from fellow lecturer, the late Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish person who lived statelessly for some time during World War II. Her academic explorations into terror and totalitarianism, as well as resistance to the same, can create new beginnings that permanently change the spirit of humanity.
In his second lecture, Welker explores both the human spirit and the divine spirit, and how they interact and coexist. When the divine spirit is invoked by a religious figure or a group of people, Welker says, the human spirit is summoned to respond to the ways in which the divine makes themselves known. The effects of this outpouring, fully apart from holy texts, happens within the context of natural theology. When the response isn’t unified, the responding people exist as a multi-polar constellation; they are working together towards some kind of end, even while in conflict with one another. The response of God to being invoked is not to appear in some ghostlike fashion, but to inspire people to think, speak, and act in ways which they haven’t thought, spoken, or acted previously.
The Call to Justice is the name of the third lecture, and in it, Welker proposes that there are two ways which humanity tries to bring about justice. The first is through the force of law; the second is through what Welker calls the multimodal spirit of humanity. This is an expansion on the idea that the varied and even contradictory ways in which humanity responds to the outpouring of God has a collective effect which moves that community or humanity as a whole toward a better future.
The fourth lecture is Called to Freedom, and in it, Welker discusses the way which humanity finds freedom, and what types of freedom are there to be found. Here he poses a haunting question. Any have asked whether humanity will move forward into the future with or without religion, but the thing to ask is whether that religion will be cultivated or uncultivated.
In keeping with the theme of callings, the fifth lecture is Called to Truth. Does Natural Theology allow us to make predictions about what anthropologists find in human behavior? Does a multimodal perspective allow for concrete truth? Here, Welker relates the anthropological search to a man who was the product of numerous cultures: the Apostle Paul. This lecture is carries some of the densest intellectual work, but also some of the most profound statements about how Christianity can relate to Natural Religion and theological anthropology.
One lecture remains, Called to Peace, and in this chapter, Welker returns to Hannah Arendt and her little-known text, Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin, or (Concept of) Love and Augustine in English. He discusses how peace may be wrought through force or through cooperation, mirroring Arendt’s discussions about freedom being a state of fearlessness, and love being a state of fearing that one may suffer loss. Both Welker and Arendt deal weightily with this issue, and not without controversy, but the end conclusion is that the imago dei is most clearly seen when the children of God fight for the freedoms of those who need liberating, and that in this fight, apart from scripture, constitutes an exemplary portrait of Natural Theology.
In God’s Image is not a text for beginners. Despite a total length of 131 pages, it is both theologically and anthropologically dense with the study of humanity. Students of Hannah Arendt will be particularly benefited by this collection of lectures and their analysis of her writings. There is also a great deal of time spent on Paul as a type of anthropological interlocutor which, to me, was fascinating.
The translator, Douglas A. Stott also deserves mention for his excellent translation from the German Zu Gottes Bild: Eine Anthropologie des Geistes into English, which is free from complicated and stilted language.
Overall, this is a very niche book, but one which will reward the reader if they have put in the time necessary for it to be accessible to them. It was nothing like I expected (as a student of theological anthropology) but turned out to be so much more.