Sunday, 20 November 2016

Imago Dei - The Foundation of Everything

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam is situated in the Sistine Chapel. It documents the very moment of man's creation as found in the book of Genesis. It was only human kind that was created in the expressed image of God and the Latin phrase Imago Dei is used several times in the Bible: Genesis 1:26–27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10 and James 3:9.

This week I was leading a day of inset for teachers new to working in Catholic schools. We looked at what it means to be Catholic, the history and politics of Catholic schools, the Mass, some of the challenges as well as the joys of working in a Catholic school. Towards the end of the day, I explained the concept of Imago Dei and how for those working in Catholic schools it is essentially the foundation of everything.

There can be theological discussion about Imago Dei and exactly what the term means: similarity? Counterpart? Dominion? Representative? Indeed the meaning is implicit and has been debated by theologians and scholars since the earliest of Jewish times. However the simplicity of a belief that all human beings are created in the image of God can help those new to, or outside of, the Catholic school understand what they will hopefully witness, experience and share in.

We believe that every member of our school community is created in the image of God, always.

This is incredibly powerful. Each child, each teacher, each member of support staff, each cleaner, each caretaker, each visitor. Every single one is created in the image of God and is a gift to the world. Each has a purpose, each has a role to play that no other has. Each has God given talents and skills that need to be discovered and developed. Every single person, all the time.

Many claim that it was the Puritan's that first developed the notion of human rights based upon Imago Dei some 50 years before John Locke, as during this time, some Christians were favoured over others by Charles I of England. Richard Overton, a founding Leveller, argued for human rights for all human persons, based on the idea of all men being created in the image of God: "We are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety — as it were writ in the table of every man's heart, never to be obliterated."

Many would argue the same basic principles exist in many schools; the Golden Rule is hardly unique to Catholics (see this great poster <here>). Indeed many secular humanists come to the same conclusions as Christians, that all are equal, but claim a basis of reason and belief in humanity. 

Therefore, does it matter if we base our rational on the belief in Imago Dei or simply equality and basic human rights? 

I think it makes a significant contribution to the ethos of a Catholic school. We treat people properly because it is the law, because it is right thing to do but also because we see the face of Christ within them as a child of God. This can often make you stop and reevaluate your position, I believe, in a positive way. When you stop and remind yourself that the student, colleague, parent, governor, member of the public, inspector, et cetera in front of you is created in the image of God, you speak a little differently. You might still come to the same conclusion, but you do it with love, compassion and mercy - that may well be a tough love though! 

Nevertheless, this is far from being easy, and can create real challenges: admissions policies, discipline (particularly exclusions), staff capability procedures, results/league tables, SEND etc. If all are created in the image of God, how can we reject or exclude anyone? How can we select? How can we stop offering opportunities for reconciliation? When we do we decide there is no more opportunities for improvement?

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. - Matt. 18:21-22
Sometimes, the leader needs to decide when '77' is up. In the gospels, Jesus suggested some, such as scribes and Pharisees, would be excluded from the Kingdom of God. They were given opportunities to be reconciled, and Jesus did not cut off the relationship, yet there was an expectation that they change their ways and conform. Jesus' inclusivity was neither simplistic nor generic. However, it was shaped by a clear vision of the kingdom of God and the priorities of his ministry as Messiah.

The inclusiveness of Jesus was exceptional (women, lepers, tax collectors, sinners). Yet, it wasn’t absolute. He reached out widely to sinners, but didn’t simply accept them as they were. He invited them to be transformed; they were forgiven and shown how to turn around their lives as they responded to the good news of the kingdom of God.

Therefore as we consider the belief of Imago Dei, and the impact it must have on our Catholic schools and Catholic leaders, this must be done in light of the Gospels. It's not straightforward, nor easy. It is the everyday challenge for all those working in Catholic schools.

If you do believe each and every person is created in the image of God, let it influence you daily: 
  • Smile and ask the cleaner about her day
  • Ask the caretaker if he needs a hand with those boxes
  • Pop into the school office and offer to man the phones so the receptionist can go to the loo
  • Hold the door open for students
  • Bring in biscuits to share, just because!
  • Ask your colleague how their family is doing
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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