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Image of God and abyss of desires: the human being

Image of God and Abyss of Desires The theological implications of anthropological conceptualisation in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and pagan-religious Platonism.

The bible speaks of humans as the image of God despite their mortal and fallible nature. We spoke to Professor Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, Professor Georgiana Huian, Dr. Beatrice Wyss, and Ilya Kaplan about their research into how this paradox is addressed in different religious and philosophical traditions. Apl. Prof. Athanasios Despotis also contributed as a team member to this research. The idea of the human being as an image of the good and eternal God is difficult to reconcile with the everyday reality of human fallibility and mortality. How is this corporeal being supposed to represent the transcendent and incomprehensible God? In what way can the human abyss of desires and ignorance be related to God’s bottomless depth of love and wisdom? Researchers in an SNSF-funded project based at the University of Bern are exploring the paradox between the view of humans as an image of the divine and a bodily creature driven by emotions, appetites, and desires. “The project’s aim is to show how this paradox is addressed in various religious and philosophical traditions,” outlines Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, Professor of Theology at the University of Bern, who leads the SNSFfunded project together with Professor Georgiana Huian. “We want to show how, in light of the claim that the human being is an image of God, all aspects of human existence can be used in these traditions to eludicate bits of what the incomprehensible God is.”

How can we talk about God? The research centers on the analysis of texts from Hellenistic Judaism, early Christianity, and pagan religious Platonism. A fundamental question of the respective thinkers is how any affirmative statements about God are possible in the first place. “How can we talk about the Divine, especially in a platonic framework, if God is wholly transcendent?” asks Professor Hirsch-Luipold. Starting in the 1st c. CE, it is argued by theologians and philosophers alike that the divine is incomprehensible and unknowable. As a result, rather than describing what God is, some authors have looked to describe what God is not, an approach called negative or apophatic theology. “Negative theology is not a sceptical position, or an agnostic stance, it can be constructive and we are investigating how it becomes constructive,” says Professor Georgiana Huian. In her research, Professor Huian is looking at how the idea of humans as image of God provides a glimpse of the incomprehensible God: “If a human being really is an image


of the invisible and incomprehensible God, then a human being will also be essentially incomprehensible,” continues Professor Huian. “But human beings are fallible and make mistakes. How can we integrate fallibility in the concept of the human as an image of God?” “How then is the human, this mortal, passible, shortlived being, the image of that nature which is immortal, pure, and everlasting?” (Gregory of Nyssa)

The question then is what it is that turns a human being into an image of God, with researchers in the project looking at how this is addressed in different theological traditions. Dr Beatrice Wyss is examining the work of Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish thinker who used negative theology to look at this question. “For Philo as a Platonist, it’s the

insights about God. A further part of the project involves writings of Early Christian thinkers, beginning with the Gospel of John. The 2nd century author Irenaeus of Lyons and the 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa figure prominently. The project focuses on concepts of the initial relationship of human beings to the Logos and their potency to be brought to completion in union with and assimilation to God throughout these various Jewish, Christian, and pagan-religious traditions. John draws on earlier Hellenistic Jewish exegesis and makes radical steps towards a new synthesis that presents the Logos (incarnate in Jesus Christ) both as the creator and the telos (aim) of human life, as Apl. Professor Athanasios Despotis shows. Professor Hirsch-Luipold sees human fallibility and mortality not as an accident.

If a human being really is an image of the invisible and incomprehensible God, then a human being will also be essentially incomprehensible. But human beings are fallible and make mistakes. How can we integrate fallibility in the concept of the human as an image of God? human mind that is created in God’s image,” she says. While God was viewed as being beyond human perception, Philo believed that we could come into contact with God’s Logos or Word, an intermediary which acts as a kind of bridge, as in the Gospel of John, where Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Logos or Word. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

The project also includes research into a pagan-religious Platonist philosopher and priest of Apollo in Delphi, Plutarch, who lived between approximately 40-120 AD, around the time that the New Testament was being written. Plutarch’s philosophy of images views not only exceptional humans, but also the physical world at large, as an enigmatic image of the Divine that can, if interpreted correctly, lead to

“In a way, it is the pre-requisite of any form of creation” he says. “Because whenever God creates, God necessarily creates something different to himself, and that means: something imperfect”, he explains. The concept of a “new creation” is therefore at the heart of PhD student Ilya Kaplan’s research. “It seems that God’s project, as it were, has two steps. At the moment, in this first step, we are still being created – we do not think of the work of God as being finished,” he explains. “The idea of the human being as an image of God is not static, it’s dynamic, humans are becoming God’s image.”

Project Objectives

The human being is seen as “image” of the incomprehensible God, bridging the epistemological gap between the world and God. As fallen creature, the human being is an “abyss” of desires, which reflects the utmost distance from God. This project investigates the implications of this paradox in religious Platonist circles from 1st c. AD – 6th c. AD.

Project Funding

The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

Project Partners Light and darkness in the Apse Mosaic of the Transfiguration in the Basilica at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt/Greece/Italy. Photo: © CCA, Centro di Conservazione Archeologica - Roma

gradually darker hues. In a Christological image, this captures beautifully the paradox addressed in this research project as a paradox of light and darkness: while we often think of light as the way to see and understand (and the image of the sun and its rays is prominent in the tradition), it is in fact only darkness through which we might be able to get a glimpse of the invisible God. The issue of sense perception is fundamental to this research. “The idea of an image implies some kind of perceptibility, in a bodily form. But if that which we are striving to perceive is non-bodily – how is that supposed to work?” asks Professor Hirsch-Luipold. An alternative metaphor for the unsearchable and hidden is the depth, the ‘abyss’ – of the divine and the human, which Professor Huian is exploring in modern theologians. The research outcome of the project will be published in a collective volume “The Human as Incomprehensible Image of God. From Anthropology to Theology and Back.” The sub-title of this volume is a good description of the central research agenda in the project. “If we call human beings the image of God, then we are projecting something theological onto them,” explains Professor HirschLuipold. “The next step then is to ask the

question – is there also a way to project back, from the human being as an image of God, to learn more about God?” The project brings together researchers from a variety of backgrounds, including theology, philosophy, and classics. This diversity allowed the project to bring together discourses in different areas that are too often separated in “God is not apprehensible even by the mind, save in the fact, that he exists.” (Philo of Alexandria)

The project is based at the Faculty of Theology, University of Bern, involving the collaboration of the Institute for New Testament Studies and the Institute of Old Catholic Theology.

Contact Details

Project Coordinator, Prof. Dr. Georgiana Huian Systematische Theologie und Ökumene Theologische Fakultät der Universität Bern Institut für Christkatholische Theologie Längassstrasse 51, CH-3012 Bern T: +41 (0) 31 684 41 92 E: W: Rainer Hirsch-Luipold Georgiana Huian

research. “The collaboration between members of different academic fields and different Christian denominations, protestant and Orthodox, has been enormously helpful,” says Dr Wyss. Rainer Hirsch-Luipold is Full Professor of New Testament and Ancient History of Religion at the University of Bern and since 2015 also Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University (SA), Department of Ancient Studies. Georgiana Huian is Assistant Professor of Systematical Theology and Ecumenical Theology at the Institute of Old Catholic Theology, University of Bern, and since 2021 invited professor of ascetical theology at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.

Inset manuscript images sourced from; Parisinus Graecus 923 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

Light and darkness A mosaic from the church apse of the St Catherine Monastery in Mount Sinai shows the Transfiguration of Jesus. Against the viewer’s expectations, what is supposed to be the brightest center of the light surrounding Jesus, appears in

EU Research

Team Members (f.l.t.r.): Severin Jonas Küenzi, Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, Beatrice Wyss, Georgiana Huian, Athanasios Despotis, Ilya Kaplan.


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