What if humanity was not made in the image of God, as Genesis tells the reader, but God was made in the image of man? I was confronted with this question by the first thinker I read who directly challenged the “truth” of Christianity. Now it is commonplace in evangelical Christianity to highlight the difference between man-made and God-made elements of religion. There are postmodern theologians who do this so well I can’t even tell what it is they are still hanging on to, or why they continue to use Christianity as a life narrative (I’m thinking of some aspects of the Emerging Church movement here, and this is the camp I identified with for a couple years). Even within broader evangelical circles, though, it has become easy for the postmodern Christian to dismiss long-standing ritual aspects of Christianity or traditional stances on political hot-button issues, declaring them to be concerns of man and not God. This has more to do with contemporary cultural trends than actual study of Christian history or the Bible.
Discerning between authentic religion and historical accretions is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the core, God himself. If it were the case that theology was anthropology, that the study of God was actually the study of man, how would this have happened? (You’ll notice the gendered language here that passes unnoticed more often than not in religious circles. It seems much more important to me to draw attention to the strongly patriarchal orientation of Judaism and Christianity by maintaining the use of masculine pronouns for God and humanity than softening the blow with gender-inclusive terms.) In this paradigm, man exists and becomes aware of his existence. With the knowledge of that existence, he also becomes aware of its finite nature; in other words, he was born, and he will die, without exception. He sees the limitations and possibilities within himself compared to others. Some are stronger, some weaker. Some are more intelligent, some…not so much. Within that social environment, man sees the potential for what he can be. He envisions the ideal, the potential of the maximization of all these variable qualities that make him up. This ideal provides both a goal and an image for self-reflection, because the ideal is a perfected image of himself. It negates or minimizes the limitations of finiteness.
In the founding of any great institution, however, the arbitrary nature of its foundation, the fact that its principles are unjustifiable in any universal sense, is erased. So the anthropological connection between God and society is lost, and when the individual contemplates the ideal, he thinks himself to be contemplating something wholly other. Rather than thinking of God as the perfection of all the qualities of humanity, he thinks of God as the opposite of himself. He is all-knowing, my knowledge is finite. He is perfect, I am imperfect. He benches infinity, I can only bench 225. In contemplation on God, then, the individual can feel reinvigorated, imbued with a sense of value or self-worth, or ashamed of the discrepancies between himself and God.
Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the Essence of Christianity in 1841 at the age of 37, where he expounded these ideas, explaining Christianity (the only significant religion on his radar at the time) as a mirror of the ideals of mankind. Man, he claims, needs an object, and those we revere in history devoted their lives to the realization of that object, which in all cases was an objectification of their own natures. For most, however, to know God and know him as other is a source of disunity, causing unhappiness. Feuerbach’s aim was thus that we should uncover the mask under which we separate the idealization of man and pursue it directly, not as theology, but as anthropology.
There is much more to Feuerbach’s work, as he engages many of the major theoretical and ritual aspects of Christianity to test his general theory. I will return to some of these later. However, it is worth noting that even if one refuses the idea that God could be created in the image of man and concludes that God must exist, the practical result is much the same. We engage in a continual project of reconstruction, driven by the influences of our social and cultural environment, to maintain an image of what this wholly other divinity is like. The emotional significance, the emotional “proof” of divinity, is far more influential than its lack of verification. In other religious traditions, different deities exist for different functions. Consult Mars for war, and Venus for love. In Christianity, God must take all those qualities on himself. You will notice how the god of a particular denomination strongly reflects the group who worships him. The god of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps keeps score and kicks ass. The god of others is more flowers and puppy dogs. Are they the same god, different gods…or creations of God in our own image?