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Essay

Opossums and the Image of God

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I’m an animal lover. Furry creatures have their way with me. Except for opossums. They look greasy, grey, and snarly. Very low cuteness factor.

krattsA few weeks ago I was channel surfing and came upon “Wild Kratts” on public TV. It’s a children’s animal show. I lingered only out of nostalgia for “Kratts Creatures,” an earlier version of the program that my kids and I enjoyed in days of yore.

The animal of the day was the opossum. I knew opossums are the only marsupial in North America. I had heard of their prehensile tail, but not appreciated the true wonder of it. I did not know about the opossum’s rear paw. It has an opposable toe, not unlike our thumb or the thumbs of any primate. Those rear paws are amazingly agile and deft—at least according to the Kratt brothers. Between the paws and tail, opossums are able to hang and hold and pick with uncanny dexterity. Although now writing about it, I can’t quite muster the same awe of opossums I experienced that night, supine on the couch.

opossum 7That night, I found myself praising God for opossums and the incredible creatures they are, and saying to myself that somehow, in some way, opossums reflect the glory and goodness of God, even that opossums are made in the image of God.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the image of God. (Wouldn’t that be a great statement for a political foe to take out of context?) Yes, I know the creation story in Genesis tells us that we—humankind—are made in the image of God. But I contend it is an overused theological concept, a tired trope, a worn card we play too much.

Why do we build relationships with Muslims? Why should we try to be kind to that jerk at work? Why is pornography dangerous? Why do we seek universal medical coverage? The answer is always “the image of God.” It feels lazy, shallow.

We should have more, something sharper, to say. As Christians, when we talk about human beings shouldn’t that conversation always include Jesus, probably at the center? All persons have dignity and value because God became one. The incarnation, not the imago dei, should be our trump card in conversations about people. And shouldn’t our understanding of what the image of God actually is be informed more by Jesus, who is the “image of the invisible God” and “the exact imprint of God’s very being,” than by Genesis?

Years ago, laboring through Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Anthropology in Theological Perspective, I recall him proposing the idea of “exocentricity” as defining humanity and the image of God. I found it a helpful concept—humans centered outside of self, seeking relationships, inquisitive, sharing. (Sin, then, is turning in on oneself). But before the professor could even begin waxing eloquent about exocentricity, my wife piped up, “Our dog is more exocentric than most people!”

So there’s that.

But as the opossum and I were having our late-night, flat screen, holy encounter, I found myself wondering if the image of God might also segregate us from and elevate us above the rest of creation in unhelpful ways. Opossums are pretty incredible critters. I now mourn them when I see their corpses squished on the highway. Coral reefs and cedar trees and cheetahs and ravens and orcas are pretty incredible too. Is the image of God found in them, as well? The more I learn about great apes, I sort-of suspect that in a hundred years or so, the debate won’t be about treating them ethically, but whether or not we should evangelize them. (You heard it here first!)

When I teach the first few chapters of Genesis, I ask the group who-or-what was created on the sixth day? Always, quickly and proudly they reply, “Us! People, humankind.” Of course, that is only partially correct. We share the sixth day with all land animals—cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of every kind. “Don’t be too full of yourself!” I tell the group. “You and cockroaches share the same day.” And I mean it.

Many, many theologians and scientists have postulated that misunderstanding the “dominion” God gives to humankind in Genesis 1 is at the root of our ecological indifference. Perhaps seeing ourselves alone as the only creature bearing the image of God has also filled us with arrogance and intemperance toward our planetary partners.

Something I ponder, even as I marvel at and give thanks for the opossum.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Great stuff. Delight in the morning.

  • Jim says:

    Abolitionists found imago dei to be their strongest argument. Pro-slavery people liked to invoke the evident hierarchies in nature (great chain of being). So I’m inclined to be a traditionalist on this pt, tho endorsing your concluding question wholeheartedly.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Very Van Rulerian post!

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    I like opossums too. And the incarnation. Just learned recently that they eat an exorbitant number of ticks. What with worries of Lyme disease and all, they’re extra ecologically handy, from a people standpoint.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks everyone for your feedback. Jim, I hear you on the imago dei having cultural currency and persuasive power. It has almost become like “human rights.” I suppose I’m looking for a somewhat more particular slant through the incarnation. Al, sadly I must say I have never read a word of Van Ruler, so it must be through your good influence that I sound Van Rulerian!

  • James Schaap says:

    Okay, okay. Maybe, but this apostate still can’t help thinking they’re creepy.

  • Terry. Troia says:

    Labor Day weekend 2006. A possum mom and her 5 babies moved in under neath my kitchen sink. They came out only in the dead of night when the kitchen was hers anyway. She nursed those babies in the middle of my kitchen floor. And then disappeared in the morning. Occasionally you could see her tail sticking out from under the sink. About a month later, she and the kids pulled up stakes and moved on. I watched her with an unspoken respect the nights she made my kitchen her home. it was a privilege I am not likely to encounter again.

  • Roger Gelwicks says:

    Interesting Steve, but not sure if you are really serious. Doesn’t the image of God (in people) belong to the creation order, rather than the state of redemption? Don’t all people, whether Christian or not bear the image of God? Don’t Muslims, Hindus, Jews and atheists reflect the character of God? Or maybe you think that commitment to Christ brings out such a quality to a greater extent in Christians. You could have fooled me if you think so, as well as most other people in our culture.

    Listening to the author of Genesis, it seems obvious that he is distinguishing humans from all other forms of life. This is especially true seeing as Genesis was written pre-Christian era from a Jewish religious perspective. Looking for the obvious human characteristic that distinguishes people from the animal kingdom and makes humans most like God is the ability to use reason and logic. Animals act on instinct almost exclusively, whereas humans can reason through various options, weigh the consequences of choices made, and can plan for the future, and can use their intellect for good or bad. There is definitely a sharp distinction between animals and humans and the difference seems to elevate humans to a more god-like character. That’s just stating the obvious, without looking for hidden or below the surface Christian content in the Genesis account.

    I agree that the idea of being created in God’s image has led, especially, Christians (or a Christian impacted society), to devalue other forms of life. Destroying animal life for sport seems to be an extreme and sinful perspective on having dominion over God’s creation. Maybe the “animal rights” people on on to something. Thanks Steve, for your article that helps us think through some key religious themes.

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