The Image of God and the Secret of Life - Faith & Science Series Part 5

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We're very excited about the new Day1 "Faith and Science in the 21st Century"  formation resource from Church Publishing, Inc.!

Faith and Science in the 21st Century presents a way to start this important conversation. Built on existing audio files and videos produced by Day1 with assistance from a John Templeton Foundation grant, this series features notable faith leaders across the denominational spectrum in brief video presentations and longer audio excerpts on scientific topics in which they are experts.  Intended for use in a variety of settings, including congregations, schools, and campus ministries, it can be presented as an 8- or 16-session series of studies, but each session can also stand on its own for a one-time formation offering. Media files are available for download at a modest additional charge. This guide enables facilitators to foster fruitful discussions of each session topic. It includes an introduction about the program and how it can be used, and eight detailed session plans to utilize with a downloadable video sold separately on the Day1 website.


David Wood:   Insight into the intricate make up of a human being that science provides does not discredit, diminish or make obsolete the ancient story that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That story predates the rise of science. To be sure, it is a story that is updated and enriched by science.

_ Peter Wallace: _ That's the Rev. David Wood...and today he joins us for our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day 1.

Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life.

Today we continue our fascinating series of special programs, and to introduce this week's preacher here's our host Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace:  Thank you, Sherrie. Today we continue our special series of Day1 programs, "Faith & Science in the 21st Century," which is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Through this series we're exploring some of the major issues of science today with a goal to facilitate meaningful conversation around these issues particularly among people of faith. As we continue on our quest to engage the big questions that have riddled humanity since the dawn of civilization, we're delighted to have with us the Rev. David Wood, senior minister of Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, IL. An ordained American Baptist pastor, David has for the past 25 years served churches in Paris France, Kentucky, Maine, and Connecticut. He studied theology and ministry at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. David has also served as a consultant to the John Templeton Foundation. David, welcome, and thanks for being part of this series.

David Wood: Thanks. It's good to be here.

Peter Wallace: You've served since 2009 as the pastor of a unique congregation, Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, Illinois. Give us a sense of its history and mission.

David Wood: Well, the church began around the 1870's in Glencoe, founded about the same time that the village was founded. And then at that time it was a congregational church, and then around 1910--actually, exactly 1910--a new minister came to the congregation, and he called the congregation to become a union church, which essentially means a non-denominational or an inter-denominational church. At that time that basically mean to become the Protestant church in the village of Glencoe. It was also the same time--as you probably know--that the ecumenical movement had its historic beginning, and so my guess is there was some connection there. And so since 1910 this has been what today we would characterize as liberal, mainline congregation. It seems to draw people from all across the spectrum in terms of theology and church backgrounds.

Peter Wallace: And Glencoe is just north of Chicago. What are some of the ways your church serves the community?

David Wood: Let me give you an example of right now actually. We have a local theater company called Writers Theater. It's a nationally recognized theater; they have reviewed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. They're in the midst right now of building a new theater, and so they don't have a home for their productions. And they rehearse in our congregation; they have rehearsed in our basement for years. And we were chatting one day and I said, "Well, why don't you do a production here?" So they transformed our fellowship hall into their stage for the whole summer, and they're producing the play known as "Doubt," which was a movie and produced on Broadway. So all summer long they have been utilizing our building, and we've had hundreds of people coming to this play, which has been a huge hit. So that's one way we serve the community as a whole.

Another illustration I could give you is that we also are proud of a program in which homeless families--temporarily homeless families--are housed in churches for a week at a time. We are one of many churches across the North Shore of Chicago that have been serving as residences for a week at a time for these families.

Peter Wallace: You've had an emphasis on science and theology in your ministry work. How did your interest in scientific endeavors arise?

David Wood: Well, it was through a good friend. His name is Paul Ossa, and he's a vice-president actually--the Templeton Foundation. And he and I have known each other since the 1990's--early '90's--when he was working at Bates College, and I was serving a church in the same town as Bates College in Maine. And his passion has always been science and faith. Quite frankly, it was not mine. I mean, I was not the science student at all, and yet over the years these conversations have helped me to understand just how important this is. At one time I was working doing programs with the Lily Foundation about pastoral formation and church life, and so forth, and Paul became employed at the Templeton Foundation. And he was doing work on science and religion. But none of these worlds connected. So he and I would take vacations, actually, and on vacations we would talk about how these worlds should get together. That was how he and I began imagining together what these programs could look like. That cultivated in me a conviction about why this is so important to the life of churches. Templeton had done almost nothing directly related to church life, and yet it was very much at the heart of Sir John Templeton's mission, and so out of all these conversations and developments, my interest as well as my imagination, was sparked about all this.

Peter Wallace: John Templeton was a genius who seemed to have a unique calling. I wonder if you would describe the mission of this foundation and his own mission.

David Wood: He was an interesting character, that is for sure. I think one way to put it is that he felt that all knowledge, all truth, belong in a non-conflictual relationship; and so where people think there is conflict, it is simply because they have not rightly understood the truth that is being revealed, whether it is through science or theology or philosophy or whatever it might be. So his mission in life was to cultivate this understanding and experience. He was a very religious person, but yet it would be very hard to pin him down on a theological spectrum as to where he belongs. So he also set out to fund things that nobody else was funding. I think we have a lot to be grateful for, for Sir John's vision, because without it, I don't think this conversation like we're having would be as prominent as it's becoming today.

Peter Wallace: Your work with the Foundation has focused on helping to develop programs that stimulate a more intelligent and interesting engagement between science and faith in the life of congregations especially in North America and around the world, but give us some examples of how that's been happening.

David Wood: So one of the most important efforts we did along these lines was a program that we called Scientists in Congregations, and so we received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to make small grants to a range of congregations across North America. They were around $30,000 grants, and the purpose of these grants was to get pastors to work with scientists within their congregations, to help lay people and others experience how these worlds are integrated--can be integrated. So instead of bringing in experts from the outside, the point was to encourage conversations with those scientists who have already been working this out in their lives and to have that become part of a larger conversation with fellow church members about how this works. So that has been working across the country with about, as I said, about 35 congregations, and now also has a parallel program in Scotland. Perhaps one of the surprising outcomes of that effort has been that congregations have begun to realize that as they take up these questions in constructive and generative ways that it catches the attention of those outside their congregations who have just seemed to assume that churches are against science, even liberal churches. It doesn't seem to matter. There's a cultural image, and unless and until churches begin to make this a prominent part of their life, the public continues to hold this assumption about church life--period. So it ends up having this kind of missional outreach impact that nobody anticipated.

Peter Wallace: How did you experience your own call to ordained ministry?

David Wood: My father is a minister, and so I was raised in a pastor's home. Certainly, that had a huge impact upon my own sense of calling. And so for me, it always felt like a natural expression of who I was and the gifts that I had; and it just felt like that was where I was meant to be in a very sort of organic, natural way.


Peter Wallace: Well, David, your message today focuses on humanity in the image of God in light of science, and one of the Bible passages you'll address is Genesis 1:26-27. This is of course just a snippet from the first creation account in Genesis. Would you read it for us?

David Wood:"Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth'. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them."

Peter Wallace: David, your sermon is entitled "The Image of God and the Secret of Life." Thanks for being with us.

David Wood: Thanks, Peter. Great to be here.



_ Sermon _

_ "The Image of God and the Secret of Life" _


Last summer I was in Cambridge, England, for a conference. I had a free afternoon and I set out to find the Eagle Pub. The Eagle is just a short walk from the Old Cavendish Laboratory--the laboratory where some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the 20th Century have taken place. Breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, and medicine--resulting in more than two dozen Nobel Prizes.

On the morning of February 28, 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick made their way to the Eagle Pub from their lab at the Cavendish. They were well known at the Eagle--it was where they ate lunch six days a week. Finding their usual table, they called everyone to attention. Then Francis Crick announced to the astonishment of his hearers: "We have found the secret of life."  

It was the first public announcement of their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA--the genetic code for all living things. To put it simply, DNA is what all living organisms on earth have in common. It contains the molecular instructions for life. The implications of this discovery are still rippling out: from providing an understanding of how evolution actually works at the molecular level, to the mapping of the human genome, to producing a whole new range of possibilities for the treatment of disease.

Science has discovered just how deeply human beings are stitched into the fabric of the natural order of all living things. There is nothing in the biblical story that should cause us to resist this disclosure. If anything, the biblical stories of creation make abundantly clear that all living things find their origin in God. A surprising commonality amidst a wild diversity is entirely consonant with the heart of the biblical story. 

Too often, talk of what it means that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God has focused on what separates humans from the rest of the natural order. As a result, the "image of God" can read as a liberation of human beings from an entanglement with nature cultivating detachment and even indifference in relation to the natural order. A more straightforward reading of these early chapters of Genesis places humankind into a constructive, generative relationship with all that exists. 

The image of God is not so much about what makes human beings different from the remainder of creation. More accurately, it is about situating the human being in right relationship to the natural order. It is not a difference FROM the rest of creation that is at the heart of being made in the image and likeness of God. It is a difference FOR--a difference FOR the sake of God's good creation--for its care and cultivation.

The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has been among those who regard human uniqueness as something to be acknowledged and embraced. As she puts it, "It is not our boast, it is our burden."[1] 

Any sense that we possess capacities and skills that make us distinctive from the animal and plant kingdoms is not to be understood as a rationale for arrogance or exploitation, but as a sacred responsibility to be exercised in accordance with the character and goodness of God. If the human being is placed at the apex of God's good creation, it is an apex of responsibility, not of power.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the enduring relevance of the image of God to our contemporary situation is to look first at the meaning it had in its ancient context. 

Scholars explain that in the Ancient Near East the term "image of god" was used exclusively in relation to kings and royalty. They and they alone were bearers of a divine image. In contrast, the Genesis narrative applies the "image of God" equally to all human beings. Its location in the beginning of the biblical narrative where we learn of God's commitment to the world establishes the rationale for the intrinsic dignity of human beings--of every human being.[2]

Even more clearly, any gender discrimination is excluded when explicitly the creation of humankind is complemented by the phrase "and created them male and female."

To a people in exile, as the Hebrew people likely were at the time these words were first transcribed, these were liberating words that formed the cornerstone of their fundamental identity as a people. That they were image-bearers of God became the baseline of their hope and the story they would preserve and eventually bear to the world.

In the New Testament, this understanding of the human being is carried forward and elaborated. The redemption of humankind becomes understood as the restoration of the image of God in human life and existence. 

In the first chapter of Colossians we read that Jesus Christ is nothing less than the human being reflecting perfectly the image of the invisible God and calling us to follow.  Recognizing our fellow human beings as created in the likeness and image of God is surely at the heart of our calling to follow in that way. 

If we have learned anything from our history, it is that the recognition of the essential dignity of every human being cannot be taken for granted but rather has to be elaborated again and again. We have empirical evidence of just how crucial and relevant our understanding of a human being as created in the IMAGE of God has been and remains for our society. 

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis, made a famous speech in 1861. It became known as "The Cornerstone Address" and was delivered just a few weeks before the start of the American Civil War. 

Speaking of the Confederacy, Stephens declared, "Our new Government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man: that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition." And he continued, "Our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, [to be] based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science."

Three years before, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in his campaign for the Senate, gave a speech in Lewistown, Illinois. Lincoln had a different take on things. Recalling the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln elaborates for his day and ours what it meant that we are made in the image and likeness of God:

He spoke, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights....''   

He went on, "This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to ALL His creatures, to the whole great family of man."

He continued, "In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages."[3]

Some 150 years after that speech, that beacon still guides. No human can claim for themselves that they are made in the image and likeness of God without claiming the same for all of humanity.

The Divine image is not ours to endow or withhold. God is the Creator, not us.

Our work, the work God has given us to do, is to cultivate communities and societies in which the fact of the Divine image-bearing nature of humanity becomes self-evident in our regard for one another and for God's good creation. 

In his latest encyclical, "On Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis reminds us of how these narratives in Genesis shape human existence. He points out that, "The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest," he says, "that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself."[4]

One does not have to read far beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see that fulfilling this calling is no simple matter. The recent tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, and our emerging environmental crisis reminds us that our work is far from done. 

Insight into the intricate makeup of the human being that science provides does not discredit, diminish or make obsolete the ancient story that we are created in the image and likeness of God. That story predates the rise of science. To be sure, it is a story that is updated and enriched by science. It is another thing altogether to claim that science has outdated that story.

The philosopher Calvin Trillin, in his book About Alice relates a story about his wife, whose name was Alice. She was volunteering at a camp for terminally ill children. In the course of the camp, Alice encountered a young girl who was severely disabled. 

Trillin recounts Alice's description of the young girl from their correspondence--she referred to her simply as L: Alice writes, "She had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food. She had to be fed through a feeding tube at night." Alice went on to write of how one afternoon, L was playing a game of duck duck goose with her fellow campers. Her turn came to be chased around the circle. She asked Alice to hold her mail. On top of that pile was a note from her mother.

"Then," Alice wrote, "I did something truly awful which I am reluctant now to reveal. I decided to read the note. 

I simply had to know what this child's parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.  I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on this sentence:

'If God had given us all the children in the world to choose from, we would only have chosen you.'"

Alice immediately passed the note on to a young counselor who was standing nearby and whispered, "Quick, read this. It's the secret of life."[5]

Indeed. That we are "made in the image and likeness of God" is about as close as we get to the secret of life.   




Peter Wallace: David, thank you for a stimulating exploration of science and the Imago Dei, humans being made in the image of God. You spoke of the work of Watson and Crick in discovering the double helix structure of DNA, the genetic code for all living things. You noted that the biblical stories about how everything came to be make clear that all living things find their origin in God. But too often, the image of God has been overly identified with what makes humans unique and exceptional from the rest of the natural order. How would you explain how the imago dei both connects us and distinguishes us from all other living things?

David Wood:  Well, I think one of the primary messages from Genesis is that God is as involved with the material world as the spiritual world. It's only in late modern times that we've made some distinction or separation or dichotomy between those things. So this notion that the material world is just as much and as deeply related to God as our spiritual beings is embedded in the text in Genesis. It's not in addition to; it's not being opposed to it. It comes right out of it. So there's no need, it seems to me, within the tradition itself, to oppose these things. That right from the beginning--this is what's so remarkable about Genesis--right from the beginning God is equally related, even as the human being is given from just a straightforward reading is a unique role. It is not a role in opposition or over against, but in relation to integration to live in a material world.

I was going to give a quote--I've been thinking about this from Francis Collins, who is now the director of the National Institutes of Health, and he put it in these words, which I think is just poetic.  "DNA," he said, "is the language God used to speak us and all other living things into being." I think it's just a poetic way to respond in short form to your question.

Peter Wallace: You said in the Genesis narrative, the notion of the image of God is applied equally to all human beings--establishing the fundamental rationale for conceiving the intrinsic dignity of every human being, without discrimination. It seems that's a concept we've struggled with over time. What might this tell us about our relationships with others in the world?

David Wood: Well, I think, again, Genesis lays out this grand vision that you don't have to go far in the biblical narrative to realize this doesn't play out all that well. It's a problem from the very beginning; and so as I say in my sermon, we are still a long way from realizing this reality, so to become self-evident, that I think it provides what I call the baseline for how we ought to regard each other. It's where we can go from as opposed to feeling that we're always trying to get to it. It should be where we begin, and that's why it's laid out at the very beginning.

Peter Wallace: You said one does not have to read far beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see that fulfilling this calling is no simple matter, and we have a long way to go, as you said. But truly God will go to whatever lengths it takes to empower us to be what we were created to be. How might we respond to that realization in our everyday lives?

David Wood: I do think that having this understanding as our framework for how we see the world--again, this is not just human beings--but how we see the world in created order in all its forms, I think it provides that positive, constructive, generative framework for how we experience and related to each other; and you know, again, even in a society that wants to claim this is our shared understanding, we have a history that demonstrates that this is not a simple matter. So I think to have this always before us creates possibilities and imagination that we desperately need.

Peter Wallace: David what's one thing from your message today that you hope our listeners will keep in mind this week?

David Wood: That to see in every person we encounter in the course of our everyday lives that they are bearers of the image of God; and that if we have that in view, it has to make a difference in how we respond and interact with each other.

Peter Wallace: David Wood, thank you for being with us!

David Wood: Great to be here.


[1] I first heard this phrase from Marilynne Robinson at a Symposium on Spiritual Progress in Philadelphia, PA. For a full report on this symposium with more reflections from Marilynne Robinson go to

[2] For a full discussion of the relationship of Genesis to Ancient Near East writings, see J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005), esp. pp. 204ff,

[3] I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Marilynne Robinson's sermon, "What is Truth, and How Do We Recognize it?" This sermon was preached on March 25, 2012 at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, Iowa.  It was that sermon that pointed me to the speeches by Lincoln and Davis.  The speeches themselves can be found in several sits on the web.

[4] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for our Common Home.  paragraph 66.

[5] Calvin Trillin, About Alice, (New York: Random House, 2006), pp. 65-66.

The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.


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