Image and Likeness

Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?

Archdiocese of Washington: Year of Faith series

Written by:

Dominican Brothers of the Province of St. Joseph

Once, when I was a fifth-grader, a friend’s mother was giving me a ride home after his birthday party.  During that half hour ride home, I talked and joked with both of them.  When we finally arrived at my house, my dad was there it took less than a minute for her to light up and say,  “You are your father’s son!” It’s true; I am just like my father, who always has had a particular way of joking around with others.

I think this is a good starting point for our next question in the, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-grader?” series, which is about our being created in the image and likeness of God.  Now, we all know what it means to say that someone is “a striking image” of his father.  Beyond physical similarities, there are many likenesses in personality and temperament which we see in parents and children.

But how can we be in God’s “image?”  What sort of “likeness” or similarity can we have to God?

It’s easy to start with what it can’t be.  We don’t have the same chin or smile as God does.  If we’re going to find out how we’re like God we’re going to have to look higher.

The book of Genesis is a fruitful place to start our reflection.  It recounts God’s creation of man in two stages.  It says that, “then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  This account portrays man as having two essential principles.  He is formed from “the dust of the ground,” made of stuff like all animals are.  But there’s more– he also has the breath of life blown into his nostrils.  There is something higher in man than mere matter.  Man also has a soul.

It is finally here that we see our likeness to God.  Because of our soul we have the power to know and to love.  Rocks and stones, trees and plants are only things. But because of our soul, “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something but someone” (CCC 357).    For, “of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator”” (CCC 356).    This grounds all of the awesome abilities which human beings have– of entering into communion with other persons, of responding to God in grace, and responding to God in faith and love (CCC 357).  No other animal tells jokes, prays, gets married or writes poems.  No other animal searches for happiness and meaning in life.

God’s creation of man is indeed very special.  The Psalmist asks God about this and wonders, saying:

Yet you have made him little less than a god,

crowned him with glory and honor.

You have given him rule over the works of your hands,

put all things at his feet (Psalm 8: 6-7)

God created all of the visible creation for us.  But He also gave us an additional gift: the ability to give all of it back to Him in love.

Join us on November 15th for our next “Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader?” post.

Please don’t forget to follow our questions on the Archdiocese of Washington Facebook page.

9 Replies to “Image and Likeness”

  1. Man also has a soul.
    It is finally here that we see our likeness to God.

    Yes, but . . .

    Stated this way, what are we to make then of the angels, who are pure spirit? If this is where our likeness is to God, then does that not place the angels above man? Meanwhile, the animals do not possess a human soul to be sure, but then again, they do not sin either, while man does. Does that not place man below the animals?

    Or, so that the answer to both questions must be “no,” does our image and likeness to God go further than merely possessing a soul, especially since one cannot see (image) a soul?

    One cannot see the soul, but what can one see? The body. Man — male and female — is in the image and likeness of not just any generic God, but is specifically in the image and likeness of the Triune God. This does not mean that God “looks like” that depicted in Michelangelo’s painting, with a human-like body, but it means that, constituted as male and female (and not male or female), man is a social creature, a being that inherently exists in relationship, in a fruitful (procreative) communion of persons, just as the Trinity is a fruitful (creative) communion of three persons in one divine being, in short, in a relationship of love, because that is what the fullness of love is, it is by its very nature unitive and fruitful.

    This is made manifest in observation of the human body itself, but is further revealed in scripture, where the man and the woman are shown to be made of the same one body, bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh, one become two, two become one. Man — male and female — are one being, one creation, which is even depicted in Michelangelo’s account, where Eve is already lovingly under the arm of God as He reaches out to touch and give life to Adam, while her gaze is intensely upon him. This unity of the two is also present with respect to the human body and the soul.

    This theology of the body is something that even fifth graders can benefit from in gaining a greater understand of just exactly who and what are we as human beings, why are we here, what is the meaning of life?

  2. Bender,


    When St. Thomas Aquinas treats this, he says that “properly speaking, only intellectual creatures are in the image of God.” This is because it is precisely on the level of knowing and loving– which in man is in his soul– that we are like God (the ‘brute’ animals lack a rational soul).

    It turns out that angels are made to the image of God for the same reason. But, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, “and thus, the image of God is more in angels than in men: because their intellectual nature is more perfect.”

    But he also notes that there are other ‘secondary’ concerns we can attribute the image of God to man, with respect to certain aspects pertaining to the body. In this sense we can draw out many fruitful comparisons, for instance in married love, as the theology of the body often notes, in which a communion of persons is in the image of God– which is beyond what angels can do.

    The Dominican Brothers

    1. Are Angels creative beings?

      We can create both ideas and products of those ideas as well as let God create children from us through our union of man and woman.

      1. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, God alone is a creator, because God alone can make things from nothing. Creation means making something without presupposing anything at all. In this sense neither angels nor men are ‘creators’ in a sense that would put them in the image of God.

        The Dominican Brothers

  3. Does St Thomas say that animals can be in the image of God in a lesser sense than men are?

    I have had difficulty understanding the image of God in man for some time now insofar as the explanation I get is always based exclusively in human intelligence. Perhaps you disagree; perhaps St Thomas disagrees; but I think animals have intelligence in varying degrees. We are not unique, in my opinion, in being intelligent.

    I believe animals demonstrate other qualities that we have, such as behaving in a self-sacrificial manner.

    So it seems to me, either human intelligence has a certain quality which makes it categorically different from animal intelligence, which therefore qualifies us as being made in the image of God; or, we have some additional qualities in addition to our intelligence which qualifies us as being made in the image of God; or both.

    One option would be to say that only human intelligence is rational. But then you would have to define rational and tell me why animal intelligence is not rational. Animal intelligence certainly doesn’t produce irrational results.

    So I don’t think it is such an easy question. I am certain by faith that humans are made in the image of God; and I am certain by experience that there is a categorical difference between all animals and man both in terms of quality and breadth of ability. But I can’t articulate the basis or point to single explanation. ‘Intelligence’ doesn’t seem to be enough, to me. Any help would be appreciated.

    1. Regarding the intelligence of animals and the presence of a soul in animals or the lack thereof, all of these might be interesting to wonder and ponder about, but in the end, they are absolutely irrelevant to the issue of man’s salvation or of the question of how man is in the image and likeness of God.

      If animals are below man on the hierarchy of things, that does not help either you or I get to heaven any easier. And if animals are above man, then that too does not help us or hurt us in getting to heaven. (Same with the whole question of whether animals are in heaven or not.) But getting all tied up in knots trying to figure out the status of animals might so confuse us and have us focusing on the wrong things that it makes things more difficult with respect to salvation.

      The proper point of comparison is not man and animals, but man and God. All else is beside the point. Let God worry about the animals, we just need to worry about man.

  4. Bender:

    You may be right that I shouldn’t think about animals in relation to this question but I can’t help it. We are animals, and it seems that theologians tell us that what makes us different from other animals is the image of God, which they relate to intelligence. But if animals are intelligent then what makes us uniquely created in the image of God?

    As for souls, I didn’t think there was any question about that. I thought St Thomas taught that even trees have souls. Everything that is alive has a soul. But only man among the animals has an immortal soul, I think. Come to think of it, maybe that’s part of the answer to the question of what it means to be made in the image of God.

    The question of what makes me get to heaven or not doesn’t interest me in relation to this topic. I know God loves man; He sent His Son to take on humanity, not any other kind of animal. I don’t feel I have to question that. So I don’t understand your concern that asking a question about the meaning of the image of God in man should make anything more difficult in respect to salvation. I respect God’s choice and it is also obvious to me that man is different than any other animal, so I can see a little bit why God would want to save man and not any other animal.

    What I don’t understand is the explanation given by theologians that God’s choice had to do with the fact that man is intelligent, as if that encompasses the primary distinction between man and animals. To me there is a vast gulf in aptitude but we are still dealing with the same quality in both men and animals. At least, that is my observation.

    Anyway thanks for your thoughts.

    1. In fact, understanding and reason belong to men alone, and not to animals. Animals have a power of sensing particular things, but they don’t have the power of understanding that men have. From this power of understanding flows our moral ability– we can know right from wrong, and thus be good or evil. Mere animals can’t be good or evil because they don’t have understanding.

      You said, “So I don’t understand your concern that asking a question about the meaning of the image of God in man should make anything more difficult in respect to salvation. I respect God’s choice and it is also obvious to me that man is different than any other animal, so I can see a little bit why God would want to save man and not any other animal.”

      God chose to save man because we sinned. Animals aren’t moral agents. They can’t do morally praiseworthy acts, or evil acts either. Animals don’t need to be saved. Men need to be saved because men are sinners.

      The Dominican Brothers

  5. Man is not, strictly speaking, an animal. He is not merely an animated being, but a someONE. Animals operate purely out of instinct. We see this clearly in sexual ethics. A human person may naturally experience a sexual urge (vegetative reaction independent of the will). But out of love for God, he or she may make a rational choice, an act of the will, not to indulge and follow through on that urge.

Comments are closed.