The following is the second in a two-part review of John Kilner’s new book entitled Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Eerdmans, 2015). This review was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2015 (Vol. 4.1) issue of the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID), for which I serve as Book Review Editor. Information on the JCID, including subscriptions and downloadable articles, can be obtained at http://www.joniandfriends.org/jcid/
My last post (“Dignity and Destiny, Part 1,” January 14, 2015) traced John Kilner’s argument that creation in the image of God has to do more with God’s intentions for us—to be conformed to the image of Christ—than it does with our present capacities or functional abilities. For Kilner, the “image of God” is not a substantial (physical) object to which one can point, or a degreed property of which one can have more or less. Instead, it is a fixed and invariable standard—namely, (the person of) Christ himself—to which people made “in,” or “according to,” that image, and who have “embraced” their intended destiny through faith in Christ, are being conformed over time. At present, sin interferes with our ability to reflect godly attributes; it does not, however, affect either the “image of God” itself, or humanity’s status as created in (according to) that image. Consequently, a lack of present capacities or functions on the part of any individual human being cannot be taken as evidence that that individual somehow fails to be “in,” or to “bear,” the image of God.
In the book’s concluding chapter, Kilner lays out a few of the implications of the foregoing theological investigation. Here, his remarks are preliminary and suggestive, leaving it for others to develop these possibilities in greater detail. Still, as he recognizes, the potential implications are far-reaching. One could imagine, for example, applications to a wide array of contemporary concerns, including bioethics, spiritual growth/formation, pastoral care and counseling, personal relationships, church life, social/political structures, and our interaction with the natural environment, among others. For people with disabilities, the potential ramifications are especially profound. Consider, for example, the person in a persistent vegetative state, or an individual with a severe cognitive or intellectual disability. On the account developed here, there is no reason to conclude that such an individual has somehow “lost,” or never was “in,” the image of God. Whatever else we might say about her current condition, we cannot say that she does not bear the image of God; instead, we must conclude that she bears the image just as much as anyone else and thereby has the same dignity that all others have. Importantly, this means that she is entitled to be treated with the same respect—and afforded the same protections—as other human beings generally, regardless of her present functional capacities (or lack thereof). She is, in a word, an image-bearer and must be treated accordingly. This does not, of course, automatically tell us what specific course of action should be taken when faced with difficult bioethical decisions. It does, however, mean that we cannot justifiably proceed in such cases on the assumption that we are dealing with anything—or anyone—less than a human being who is fully “in” the image of God.
As this illustrative example shows, readers of this book should expect to be challenged. They will likely recognize ways in which they themselves have spoken about the imago Dei—ways which turn out to be inadequate, inaccurate, and (in some cases) even harmful. If taken seriously, the argument of this book has potential to catalyze a major paradigm shift in how the church thinks about, speaks of, and acts in regard to the image of God—with powerful implications for its interactions with various marginalized groups, including persons with disabilities.