I heard over the weekend that German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has died. He made immense contributions to theology in the past several decades, especially to interdisciplinary work on how the natural sciences and theology relate. I’m no expert on his expansive writings, but one of his ideas has particularly enlivened me in the decade since I first encountered it. I was in my last semester of seminary, taking a course on theological anthropology and paleoanthropology with Dr. Wentzel vanHuyssteen, who studied Pannenberg’s early work for his own doctoral dissertation. In the course we were exploring questions of human uniqueness—what makes humans distinct, and how do theology and science understand whatever uniqueness we possess over against animals and the rest of creation? This led us to consider the Imago Dei—how does being “created in the image of God” set human beings apart, and what exactly does that image consist of?
Pannenberg suggested that the God’s image in human beings is expressed in exocentricity, an openness to the world and to relationship with others, including God, that brings transcendence to human experience. We yearn to transcend the immediacy of our environment, to move beyond the egocentricity that lures us into thinking we ourselves are the center of the universe—a tempting scenario but one which leads to self-absorption, not self-transcendence. For Pannenberg, exocentricity was both a gift and a destiny; it represented a capacity innate to human life, but one which only finds fulfillment in the eschatological future. Something that we have, and something we’re moving toward, simultaneously. Pannenberg understand Jesus Christ, as the Image of God, to be the fulfillment of our exocentric desires. As we are formed to the image and likeness of Christ, so we experience the fulfillment of relationship with the divine. And for Pannenberg, who staunchly believed in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, and saw the arc of history as the place where revelation unfolds, this exocentric inclination can be understood not just theologically but also through the lenses of anthropology, biology, and so on. The image of God, then, is not a theological abstraction but a flesh-and-blood, lived-out reality.
Here’s why I like exocentricity: unlike other historical understandings of what it means to be created in the image of God, it makes space to encompass a wider range of what being human really looks like. For a long time, the dominant understanding of human uniqueness was that humans are specially endowed with reason and rationality. Other interpretations have claimed that humans are image-bearers of God because they are entrusted with dominion over God’s creation. Some have explained the image of God as a relational concept, that we bear the image of God insofar as we engage in human relationships that reflect the Trinitarian life. Each of these interpretations has its perils: for instance, if the image of God rests in our rational capacities, how can those who live with major cognitive deficits fully reflect the image of God? If bearing God’s image lies in dominion over creation, do humans forfeit that image when we fail to steward the earth and allow it to deteriorate in ecological crises of our own making? And if bearing the divine image relies on our participation in relationships, how do we understand God’s image in those who for whatever reason live in alienation from every possible form of meaningful relationship?
Exocentricity, that openness toward self-transcending experience, helps me see the image of God in all people. Not just in the ones who walk around saying intelligent things and accomplishing great things, but also in those who will never be able to take care of themselves, in those who will never know that 2+2=4, in those who have lost the memory needed for flourishing relationships, who barely know their own names anymore, let alone those of their beloved ones. For me, accepting that the image of God is a capacity allows me to appreciate the vast range of ways that capacity gets expressed—it may look different based on age or ability, but it is present nonetheless. Moreover, by seeing the image of God as a capacity we’re both gifted with in the present, but also destined to one day experience fully, I find a perspective from which to lament the myriad ways in which the world’s brokenness burdens, stunts, and distorts our trajectory towards transcendence. Bearing God’s image is both our birthright and an inheritance whose promised fullness we await.