Bill was one of my very best friends in college. We went to music school together, we played in bands, and we pledged a fraternity. Bill’s daughter, Kaylie is a graduate of the university where I currently teach and sang in our university choir. So as Bill and his wife Shelia would attend Kaylie’s choir concerts, I had the opportunity to renew our friendship and maintain close contact.
But recently I was disheartened to learn that Bill is suffering from Frontotemporal Dementia (or FTD). FTD is a rare neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve cells in the brain to lose their ability to function over time.1
So back in January, I journeyed to Charlotte, NC to visit Bill. He who was once so bright, so talented and so witty did not recognize me. Though Shelia had warned me, I teared up to see my friend in such a state.
But even amid this tragedy, Bill is blessed. He has a family that loves him, cares for him, and ministers to his needs. So recently I have reflected on this blessing and did some theological introspection. What is it about humankind that would evoke or elicit such compassion and care?
Truly in the animal kingdom species do care for their own. Birds build nests and gather food for their young. Mother bears nurture and care for their cubs through adolescence. Even hornets protect their hives. But humankind is unique. We not only care for our young but also the helpless, the infirm, and the elderly among us. What eagle ever returns to the nest to protect and defend their parents?
This unique care shown forth by humankind seems to be universal throughout cultures, and is codified in multiple legal systems and moral codes throughout societies and histories. Humans not only pay it forward to their young, but they have the unique capacity to pay it backwards to their infirm.
So why do human beings care? I deem the answer to be simple. Humankind is different because we are created in the image of God. Consider Genesis 1:26-28:
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”2
We are unique because the Lord God made us unique. Because he made us in His image, we have this capacity to care for the helpless, infirm, and elderly, just like our Heavenly Father cares for us. And if we have the capacity to reflect His care for the helpless, the infirm, and the elderly, are there other ways we see God’s image among us? I posit that His image is manifest in multiple ways.
Let’s touch on the capacity for language. Yes, you might say other creatures have language. Cats can purr or growl to communicate affect. Monkeys chatter to communicate a warning. Whales send sonar to communicate location. Frogs croak to communicate mating. But do other creatures have the sophisticated capacity to communicate concepts, abstract thoughts, or analogue constructs? Do whales engage in deep discussions of epistemology, ontology, or metaphysics? We, however, see God’s image in us by our capacity for such sophisticated language behavior. In the beginning, the Word gave to us words.
Humankind also has the capacity for reason and logic. Isaiah quotes God saying, “Come now, let us reason together.”3 I deem this capacity to be lacking in other creatures. If you put seeds in front of birds, they will eat them. We, however, can reason that if we eat the seeds, they are gone in the moment. But if we plant the seeds, there could be a harvest of hundred times as Jesus says in the parable.4
My mother was the Director of Education at the Western Carolina Center, a residential school for mentally handicapped children. One of the custodians would often play a friendly game with one of the residents named Robert. The custodian would hold up a ‘fat shiny’ nickel and a ‘thin scrawny’ dime and offer Robert the choice of one or the other. Robert would always take the ‘fat shiny’ nickel. One day my mother asked him, “Robert, you do know that a dime is worth more than the nickel.” “Yes,” said Robert. “But if I ever took the dime, we would stop playing the game.” We see God’s image in us by our capacity to reason.
Humankind has the capacity for engineering. Yes, birds build nests, bees build hives and beavers build dams but what beaver created anything as grand as the Hoover Dam? It seems that ever since the Tower of Babel, humankind has strived to reach further, taller, bigger, and grander. We see God’s image in ourselves through our capacity to engineer. The creator God made us to be builders and creators.
Humankind has the capacity for inquiry. Humans are curious and crave knowledge. God has given us a wonderful creation to study: geology, biology, astronomy, and chemistry. Also, in the humanities: literature, poetry, psychology, history, philosophy, and religion. God’s creation provides us with inexhaustible opportunities for inquiry. We see God’s image in ourselves through our capacity to seek an understanding of God’s creation.
Humankind has the capacity for art and beauty. One might say that whales sing. Their songs are undeniably beautiful. Yet humankind composes symphonies, writes plays, and creates words of poetry that touch the soul and stir our emotions. Are other creatures so moved by the aesthetics of a sunset that they would take a brush with a palette to capture the essence of the experience? I do not recall a squirrel with a violin or a paintbrush. We, however, see God’s image in ourselves by our capacity to create and appreciate art and beauty.
Most interesting is humankind’s capacity for contemplation of the divine. No doubt squirrels do exactly what God had created them to do. They go about gathering acorns, but I seriously doubt that they consider the existence of God, question their presence in creation, ponder the kairos of the moment, or the chronos of eternity. Yet, humankind has the capacity to seek God with a longing to reestablish that once perfect relationship we enjoyed in Genesis Chapter Two.
While we could make numerous applications of Genesis 1:26-28, let’s leave with just one impression. Do we have an eye to see God’s image in our students?
Admittedly for many students, we can answer affirmatively. Most are industrious, eager for inquiry, appreciative of art and beauty, builders, caring, compassionate, and preparing for purposeful and meaningful lives.
Yet for some, we struggle to recognize this image. So as professors, we can intentionally embrace the ministry of helping students to shine forth the image of God that is in them. I liken this ministry to the ministry of the Apostle Paul as he sought to “fan into flame” the gifts of God within his young student, Timothy.5
As an act of devotion, I have written a hymn that delineates my philosophy of Christian higher education.
If you resonant with the text, Please sing and embrace the sentiment as your own.
A Professor’s Hymn
We rise each day with morning sun
And lift to God a humble prayer,
That He would use His gifts in us
For those entrusted to our care.
The call which we embrace with glee
Was practiced also by our Lord.
The Master Teacher guides our way
Instructing us throughout His word.
What better way to serve our Lord
Than in the service of youth-kind?
What better legacy to leave
Than op’ning up a young one’s mind?
And as our students learn to ‘walk,’
Our task is only half complete.
The youth must also know the path
Upon which they should set their feet.
The Lord has trusted us to be
The pedagogues of precious souls.
So humbly now we dedicate
Ourselves to fill this sacred role.
“Lord, grant to us the gift to see
Your image in each student’s face;
Not seeing color, caste, or race,
But seeing through Your eyes of grace.”
Words: Ran Whitley
Tune: IN CHRIST ALONE (LMD)6
- Genesis 1:26-28, New International Version.
- Isaiah 1:18, English Standard Version.
- Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:1-9.
- 2 Timothy 1:6.
- Background track without vocals for text: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OysZtQLlA0s
Ran, I recently spent some time exploring the topic of God’s common grace which includes our ability to communicate, reason, and theorize. To see everything–as encouraged by James–as God’s good gift is helpful in an unsettled world. Like you, I too have someone close who is facing an all-encompassing health challenge. Thank you for such a timely reminder.