Imago Dei and Coram Mundo: Theological Anthropology for Human Life Today or, The World is The Woman

[1] My systematic theologian’s mind has serious limitations when it comes to talking about genetics, medical science, and the age of biological intervention. One thing I can say with a great deal of confidence is that science clearly shows us that human beings are complicated: in every way and at every level, physical and biological, as well as spiritual and theological, from beginning to end. I do know enough to know that there is more detail to it than that, and briefs on websites like the ELCA’s Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences provide more focused and more in depth articles relevant to the topic, and give theologians like me workable and provocative information.[1]

[2] In order to help me get to my theological reflections on the subject, I am going to look at genetics as part of the science of human development, and I will focus my discussion of human development around the experiences of beginning and ending pregnancies. The reasons I do this have to do with my academic, political, and personal narratives. As an academic, I not only teach courses and publish scholarly work in religion but also publish, teach and supervise a good deal of work in gender and women’s studies. In that work especially, women’s experience is the source and norm; it will be for this presentation. As someone attuned to political realities, two events in the past year stand out as significant: the Gonzales v. Carhart Supreme Court Decision of April 18, 2007, and its apparent disregard for both science and women, and the recent unsuccessful but hugely significant attempt to ban all abortions without exception in the state of South Dakota. Both events will be used as counter-examples in this discussion. As someone with a personal life and personal relationships, I bring the experience of seven of my eight closest friends actively seeking pregnancies and children through a variety of methods over the past year. If all goes as currently expected, five of them will have given birth in the calendar year 2007. These academic, political, and personal sensibilities have led me to think about theological anthropology and genetics in terms of the pregnant woman. They are behind what I will say about what it means to be human in an age of biological intervention.

[3] As Lutheran Christians, we have some basic affirmations about what it means to be human that we can explore in conversation with science about genetics and human development. First, the claim drawn out of Genesis 1:26 that humans are imago Dei, created in the image of God. Second, Martin Luther’s discussion of human life and its relational existence: coram Deo, coram mundo, coram hominibus, and coram meipso ¼ in the presence of God, the world, other human beings, and one’s own self. In each of these dimensions, a discussion of what it means to be human that is theological now takes place in the light of genetics, raising new questions, and reminding us of old problems.

Imago Dei
[4] “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and 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, male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV)

[5] This is a familiar text on which many have taught or preached or reflected. Some common questions explored in research, exegesis, and teaching include: Why does it say “Let us” and “our image”?; What does it mean that God created humans “in his image”? and What happens when we notice that male and female are created at the same time? The phrase “image of God” gets much attention by scholars, preachers, teachers and students. I know that I discuss with my introductory theology students the many things that are possible when we say that something is “in the image of” another thing. I say that my nephew is the spitting image of my brother, implying their physical resemblance. This is but one possibility for this well-covered theological idea, of course. It makes sense for the ELCA to look at what Martin Luther suggests the passage implies for a discussion of human life, and what that might mean to us in the twenty-first century.

[6] In his commentary on Genesis, Luther notes first what the church fathers had to say about this notion of humans being created in the image of God. He says that for them it implied something unique and special about humans, and this phrase indicated what it was that distinguished them from other creatures. This might, he says following Augustine, include human freedom, the mind, memory, the will, etc. As the passage supposedly describes humans in a pre-fall state, Luther takes great pains to try to help us understand what it meant, which is exceedingly difficult in our present fallen, depraved condition: “I am afraid,” he says, “that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent. Memory, will, and mind we have indeed; but they are most depraved and most seriously weakened, yes, to put it more clearly, they are utterly leprous and unclean.”[2]

[7] Luther says that the image of God cannot be merely human memory, mind, and will because they are now leprous and unclean, so he concludes that the image of God is this: that Adam had it in his being and that he not only knew God and believed that he was good, but that he also lived in a life that was wholly godly; that is, he was without the fear of death or of any other danger, and was content with God’s favor.[3]

[8] Luther uses Genesis 2:17 to arrive at this conclusion, following his method of using scripture to interpret scripture. Luther interprets God’s instruction to Adam about the punishment for eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil this way: It is “as though He said: ‘Adam and Eve, now you are living without fear; death you have not experienced, nor have you seen it. This is My image, by which you are living, just as God lives. But if you sin, you will lose this image, and you will die.'”[4] Luther further remarks that “Adam lived in supreme bliss and in freedom from fear; he was not afraid of fire, of water, or of the other discomforts with which this life is beset and of which we are inordinately afraid.”[5] For humans to be in the image of God, then according to Luther, is for humans to be free from fear and anxiety about the details of life and death, to be content.

[9] In her 1995 essay, “Honoring God’s Handiwork,” Kristen Kvam concludes that Luther is ultimately talking about humans being in right relationship here, and that is what it means to be in the image of God.[6] This is where Luther’s study of the concept of human being as imago Dei connects nicely with his reflections on human life in relationship. I will return to that theme shortly.

[10] For now, let us focus and reflect on the meaning of Luther’s suggestion that for humans to be imago Dei is for humans to be content, to be free from anxiety and fear, especially fear about death and life. Anxiety about death and life is one of the major driving forces in human life as we know it, and surely is an ingredient in much debate about genetics and medical research. About what are we anxious? Now there’s a complicated question. We want to know, right? We want to know how human life works, how it comes into being, how it develops, how to make it better, and so on. As educators we can surely rest on the fact that the pursuit of knowledge is in itself a good and valuable thing. As theologians, we carefully consider what the relationship is between various types of knowledge and our theological endeavors.

[11] If we return to Genesis for a moment, the text framing this section of my remarks, we note the important role that knowledge plays. The tree is said to be the tree of knowledge. In Genesis 3, Eve is portrayed as wanting that knowledge. In Alice Walker’s poetic words, she is “wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one.”[7] Mary Solberg’s epistemology of the cross reminds us that knowledge is compelling, and it “requires participation and demands both commitment and judgment from the knower.”[8] We cannot know and not do. We might even alter the Cartesian maxim to claim “I know, therefore I do.”

[12] For some or maybe for many, however, more knowledge brings more anxiety and more fear. This anxiety and fear is, I think, what drives much of the anti-intellectualism hobbling too many religious and secular Americans today. Anxiety and fear are partly behind the tight grip that many so-called helicopter parents hold on the young undergraduate students that I teach. Some of them are perhaps afraid of the knowledge that their daughter or son will gain, both knowledge in the classroom and knowledge in the midst of campus social and political life. They are understandably anxious about how that knowledge will affect their view of the world, of their family and hometown, of politics, and of their religion. Not only is human life complicated at the molecular level, but it exists in a complicated and messy world, and once you know that, you can’t very easily not know that. All of us who are educators have certainly witnessed the impact that knowledge can have on individuals and families, both positive and negative.

[13] Anxiety and fear are also behind much of the debate in science and religion concerning genetics. When we have more and more knowledge about how human life emerges, about what markers indicate what traits, about how and why it varies, and so on, we realize that we have more and more power. What will we do with it? This raises the “fear of playing god” argument discussed in much science and religion literature. It seems to me that this itself is a form of the fear of power – this is often rightly placed, and sometimes wrongly applied. When the debate circles around to building human life, to conception, human development, pregnancy and abortion, patriarchal fear and anxiety about the power that women who are gestating embryos wield surfaces.

[14] In the Supreme Court decision, Gonzales v. Carhart, known colloquially as the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban, we see paternalistic fear and anxiety surface.[9] In her written dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first footnote states that the title itself is a misnomer, as the term “is neither recognized in the medical literature nor used by physicians who perform second-trimester abortions.”[10] The choice of terminology already indicates the intent to sway public opinion based on fear and anxiety, which is then prevalent throughout the Court’s opinion.

[15] Ginsburg’s dissent recognizes first how the decision fails to take both science and women into account. She states:

Today’s decision is alarming. It refuses to take [precedent] seriously. It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). And, for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.[11]

[16] The particular logic of the Court decision from which Ginsburg dissents is then highlighted:

The Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from “severe depression and loss of esteem.” ¼ Because of women’s fragile emotional state and because of the “bond of love the mother has for her child,” the Court worries, doctors may withhold information about the nature of the intact D&E procedure.[12]

[17] In a lengthy note to this claim, Ginsburg cites a 2005 Briefing Paper from the American Psychological Association “rejecting [the] theory of a postabortion syndrome and stating that ‘access to legal abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is vital to safeguard both the physical and mental health of women.'”[13] Despite credible professional opinion based on evidence, experience, and scientific consensus, the court decided on the basis of sexist paternalistic views of women who must be protected from themselves.

[18] I mention this case and its written dissent in some detail here because it reflects the very fear and anxiety about life and death and even power that humans in the image of God are theoretically freed from. This decision is trapped in fear and anxiety that here specifically breeds mistrust of women, their power, and their moral sensibilities.

[19] If I may shift now and return to the idea of human life in relationship, something that Kvam in particular takes out of Luther’s reading of Genesis, I’d like to focus on the word coram. Gerhard Ebeling suggests that coram is a fundamental facet of Luther’s human ontology, in the way that various relationships are in his words, “interwoven.”[14] The Latin term is a compound one, from cum and os: cum meaning with or together, and os referring to the mouth or face. Coram usually then indicates something in the presence of, within speaking distance of, within eyesight of, face to face, in the face of, something else. The term is provocative for a discussion of human relationality: When you can see the face of another person, when you can hear another person speak, when you are in some measure face to face, you are in relationship.

[20] Ebeling indicates that various levels of relationship constitute human identity for Luther: We are always, even right now, four things: coram Deo (in relationship to God), coram mundo (in relationship to the world, which here means the concrete physical world of existence), coram hominibus (in relationship to other people), and coram meipso (in relationship to ourselves). These relationships are all constitutive of human life. In a 1999 article, Marty Stortz describes baptism as the key sacramental indication that relationship defines the Christian life.[15] In baptism, we can see all of these relationships at work: God’s grace is present, the world is actively present in the living water, other people are witnesses and supporters, and the self is newly defined. Human life is coram.

[21] As glorious as all of this can sound, we also know that those relationships are also precisely the locations for conflict, confusion, and violation. When we focus on the medical science of genetics, complexity and ambiguity can win the day. Consider again the issue of conception, human development, and abortion. Over the past few centuries, scientific research on human development has moved our knowledge of the building of a human life backwards in time before birth into the uterus, in the uterus we go back to the fetus, back to the blastocyst, back to the zygote, and back to conception. Genetics moves our discussion back in time even further to the constitutive elements that come from sperm and ovum, and the DNA coding that they bring to the newly formed entity.

[22] Basic reading in the history of contraception and abortion shows the direction of our knowledge in this area and how it has affected human practices and moral sensibility. Christine Gudorf notes several things in a chapter in Daniel Maguire’s book, Sacred Rights: First, knowledge of contraception predated Christianity in the ancient world; Second, elimination of unwanted children historically occurred first through infanticide, eventually through abandonment and then oblation and foundling homes, eventually it occurred through abortion and more widespread prevention of pregnancy in the first place; Third, she states that “There is no clear and continuous Christian tradition on abortion beginning in the early church and extending to present times.”[16] Until the nineteenth century, abortion was acceptable prior to what was called “quickening,” perhaps the fifth month, which is when ensoulment was presumed to occur. She goes on to note that the discovery of the ovum and the process of fertilization in the nineteenth century was used by the Catholic church in particular, from that point forward, to claim that a person is fully present from the moment of fertilization. Gudorf is quick to note, as do many other scientists, theologians, and ethicists, that “conception is an extended process, not a moment, and that individuation is not necessarily complete for weeks.”[17]

[23] It seems that many people, including the makers of a pregnancy test currently being advertised on television, don’t know this fact. In a current ad for First Response Home Pregnancy Tests, the spokeswoman says dreamily, “imagine knowing you’re pregnant the moment it happens.” There is some small print on the screen about how no test can determine pregnancy at the time of conception. You wouldn’t know that there is any sort of process with variability underway if you only listened to the inflamed anti-choice rhetoric from those who want to completely ban abortion; having grown up in and spent some time during the last election cycle in South Dakota, I know what this rhetoric looks like.

[24] The 1991 ELCA statement on abortion preserves much of the ambiguity of the issue and preserves both human freedom and a keen sense of the tragic reality of unwanted or unviable pregnancies. It also contributes something interesting to this discussion of human life in the light of genetics. The statement in fact is favorably referenced in the newer 2001 publication, “Genetics! Where We Stand as Christians” available from the ELCA Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology on the church’s website. What the 1991 statement does well is to view the question of abortion in context, to view the zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus in context: “The language used in discussing abortion should ignore neither the value of unborn life nor the value of the woman and her other relationships.”[18]

[25] That the statement includes this final phrase about “the woman and her other relationships” is very significant, I think. Remember two of the dimensions of relationality in human life in Ebeling’s reading of Luther: coram mundo and coram hominibus. This is a moment when the mundo – the physical context of a life, is homo – another person. As theologians we rightly spend much of our time talking about human life coram Deo, in relationship to God, even life at the compound cellular level. In discussions about embryos and fetuses, theologians and other religious folk want to talk and talk and talk about that life in relationship to God – coram Deo. Jeremiah’s call and commission from God which happened “in the womb” and “before you were born” (1:5) supports many people of faith in their insistence that gestating human life is sacred and ought not be ended under any circumstances. They take that sentiment and plaster it on billboards across the country. They imply that any pregnant woman considering abortion does not know full well what she is doing, and we must save that embryo from her.

[26] It seems to me that in discussions about medical science, genetics and human development, we would do well to not forget about that fetal relationship to God, but to focus a bit more on its relationship with the world and with other people – coram mundo and coram hominibus. I already indicated that this is an extraordinarily unique circumstance where the mundo is the hominibus ¼ the world is the woman. As Luther suggested, these levels of relationship are also constitutive of human life and must not be forgotten. In the anti-choice, misogynistic rhetoric of abortion-ban proponents, fetal life is so sacralized that it becomes a free-floating entity divorced from the reality it inhabits, and their pictures and propaganda reflect that view. We must remember that the erased reality is “the woman and her other relationships.”

[27] When theology and public policy take that context into account, when women are taken into account, when we admit the power that women have and trust them to exercise it rather than fear them, the discourse inevitably shifts. “Her other relationships” are to things like a partner, money, housing, a church, parents, employers, a neighborhood, and herself. The character of those relationships might be that one or more of them are absent, abusive, apathetic, dangerous or diseased. What anti-choice and abortion-ban rhetoric is fundamentally about is that fear and anxiety from which Luther suggested humans in the image of God ought to be free. In this case, that fear and anxiety take specific forms: fear of women, and anxiety about women having power. Only patriarchy feeds and fosters such a fear, and as we seek to move beyond it, we are moving closer to the image of God in which we were created.

[28] If human life is imago Dei, then it ought to be free from anxiety and fear, especially of life and death. If human life is constituted by relationships – to God, to the physical world, to other people, and to itself – then it ought not be examined outside of its context. The two particular and perhaps controversial events that I have connected to these theological ideas center on ways in which these ideas have been absent or misconstrued in discussions about human development and the biological interventions possible in human life. The flawed Supreme Court decision reveals paternalistic ideology and anxiety trumping medical science and women’s experience. The movement to ban abortion ignores completely the unique and complex web of relationships that surrounds developing human life. If we are able to comprehend any piece of what it means to be in the image of God, then we might not let fear and anxiety rule our laws and lives. If we are able to justly navigate the relationships that constitute human life, then we might be better equipped to manage knowledge when it inevitably comes our way.

End Notes

See and

“Genesis 1:26” in LW 1:61.

LW 1:63.

LW 1:63.

LW 1:63.

Kristen Kvam, “‘Honoring God’s Handiwork’: Challenges of Luther’s Doctrine of Creation,” in A Reforming Church: Gift and Task, ed. Charles P. Lutz (Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers, 1995), 178.

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1983), xi.

Mary Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross. (New York: SUNY, 1997), 165

I discuss this case in its political context in more depth in the article “What America Needs in 2008: Educated Problem-Solving and Kitchen Table Values,” Political Theology 8:4 (October 2007) 429-441.

Gonzales v. Carhart 550 U.S. ____ (2007). Justice Ginsburg, dissenting, fn1.

Gonzales v. Carhart 550 U.S. ____ (2007). Justice Ginsburg, dissenting, p. 3.

Gonzales v. Carhart 550 U.S. ____ (2007). Justice Ginsburg, dissenting, p. 15-17.

Gonzales v. Carhart 550 U.S. ____ (2007). Justice Ginsburg, dissenting, p. 16.

Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. R.A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 196.

Martha Ellen Storz, “‘The Curtain Only Rises’: Assisted Death and the Practice of Baptism,” Currents in Theology and Mission 26 (Feb. 1999), 14.

Christine E. Gudorf, “Contraception and Abortion in Roman Catholicism,” in Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in the World’s Religions, ed. Daniel C. Maguire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 68.

Gudorf, 69.


Dr. Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.