image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

by Eric Daryl Meyer

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

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