Tanner on Human Nature: Part 4, How Can Human Nature Bear the Image of God?

Following up from the last post, if human nature is able to be remade and remolded by participation in the divine image, Kathryn Tanner asks the following questions in Christ the Key

"What created qualities and capacities allow humans both to receive the presence of the divine image and to be transformed thereby in the imitation of it?" 

In addition: "How, moreover, do those qualities and capacities themselves image the divine image through a weak form of participation in God?"

To summarize, the first question is concerned with the particular qualities of human nature which allow it to be reformed in the image of God in a way we don't see with stones, plants, or other animals. How is human nature different from the natures of other created things in a way that allows us to strongly reflect the image of God?

The second question, after we answer the first, is how does this particular capacity of human nature, simply as a created thing, reflect back some quality of the God who made it? 

We'll look at Tanner's answer to the first question in this post, and her answer to the second question in the next and final post in this series.

So, what are the qualities of human nature that allow it to be remade in the image of God?

Tanner starts by observing that human nature must make room for God:

First of all, human nature must be characterized by an expansive openness that allows for the presence of God within it. It must be the sort of nature that has or makes rooms for the divine within its basic operations. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, talks of human nature in this respect as an expanding receptacle or container...The presence of the divine is what makes the human capacities or reason and will expand, but for this to happen these human capacities must be expandable, open-ended, that is, in their ability to grow in the good.

This insight, it seems to me, goes beyond mere anthropology. There is practical wisdom here about spiritual formation. Specifically, the first step in reflecting back the divine life is making room for God, making space for the divine life in our lives. Practices of contemplative prayer play a central role here. God can't change you if you fail to make room for God in your life.

Beyond this capacity for "making room" for God, Tanner then turns to a second quality of human nature, one we noted in the last post, our ability to change:

To be changed into the divine image in that way, one must have a changeable nature...If humans are to be radically reworked through attachment to God, then what is of interest about human nature is its plasticity, its susceptibility to being shaped or molded by outside influence generally. Becoming a human image of God through the impress of the divine image is just an extreme case of having one's character made over by relations with what one is not...All creatures may be formed in relation to what they are not but humans seem to have an exaggerated capacity for this that opens them to a radical sort of re-formation from without in the divine image. In contrast to other creatures, human beings are unusually flexible, capable of adapting, of altering their behaviors in order to adjust to changing social and natural environments.

In short, the most obvious thing we notice about human nature, its adaptability to diverse ecosystems, is what makes it such a powerful means of reflecting the divine image within creation. 

Specifically, given that humans adapt to diverse environments, what would human nature become were it to live, move, and breathe within a divine ecosystem? 

The answer, it seems, is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the perfect image of God in human form.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply