If our making of beautiful things shows the image in us of the Maker of all beautiful things, we can see that the imagination is itself a shining forth of God’s image in us…
And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness…. And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. —Genesis 1:26-27
What does it mean to be made in God’s image and likeness? In what way does the image of God in us make us different from the rest of His Creation? Before we explore these questions more carefully, it might serve us well to recall that all of God’s creatures are in some sense made in God’s image because they are the fruits of His Creative Mind. He thought them or worded them into Being. He is, therefore, the All-Father and all of His Creatures are His Children. This is why St. Francis can speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, of Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, and Brother Fire. We share a kinship with all of Creation because all of Creation has the same Father.
There is, however, as the Book of Genesis makes clear, a way that Man is created in God’s image and likeness which differentiates him from the rest of God’s creatures. Although not the first-born, he is placed first in the hierarchy.[*] In this sense, we can truly say that the last shall be first. If, however, there is something unique about Man, something about God’s image and likeness in Man that is not found in the other creatures, we would do well to know what this is. What is it about us that makes us different from the rest of God’s creatures? In what ways are we like God? What makes us Godlike?
The answer is to be found in the way in which we share in the triune splendor of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Whereas all things are good insofar as they are made by God, there is a deeper goodness, known as virtue, which requires a freedom from instinct, a freedom of the will to choose freely to do the good. An oak tree is good, as a work of Divine art, but it is what it is. It can only be what an oak tree is and can only do what an oak tree is programmed or designed to do. It can do nothing else. It will do nothing else because it has no will with which to do it! Man, on the other hand, has a freedom to choose to be more fully whom he is meant to be, which is Godlike, or he can choose to refuse. To be more fully like God is to be good as God is good, to be true as God is true, and to be beautiful as God is beautiful. To become good as God is good is to love more fully, choosing freely to set aside ourselves in sacrificial service of the other; to become true as God is true is to reason more clearly, seeking to know reality in conformity to the way that God knows it; to be beautiful as God is beautiful is to see the beauty of God’s image and presence in His Creation and to seek to become creators ourselves, making beautiful things as God makes beautiful things.
If our making of beautiful things shows the image in us of the Maker of all beautiful things, we can see that the imagination is itself a shining forth of God’s image in us (image-ination). Man is not just made he is made to be a maker. He is, however, free to choose to use his imagination virtuously, using the gift in conformity to the will of the Gift-Giver, or he can choose to take the gift and use it for his own prideful purposes, casting the priceless pearls of the imagination into the gutter.
The gift of the imagination is no different from the other gifts of God’s image in us. We are free to use them or abuse them. We can be good as God is good, or we can refuse, choosing evil; we can be true as God is true, or we can choose falsehood; we can bring forth the beautiful fruits of the imagination as God brings forth from His own Divine Imagination all that is good, or we can choose the ugliness of les fleurs du mal, the sickly blooms of an imagination poisoned by pride. The imagination, like the soul of which it is a part, must be baptized. It must die to itself so that it may be resurrected in Christ. It is this baptized imagination which has brought forth the cornucopia of Great Books which are the beautiful blossoms on the tree of Christendom.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Austin Review (December 2016).
[*] I am speaking specifically of the material cosmos, so we are leaving aside the purely spiritual beings known as angels.