Catholic 101: Imago Dei

I realise I have written an absolutely random series so far, as I’ve taken questions from people as they came and not worked them out in advance to go as a sort of progression from basic to advanced topics (topic suggestions welcome both from curious people and people who know the faith and think there is something I ought to talk about!). However, as it’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week I will touch upon a topic that is both one of the hardest, and also a great part of my recovery, which isn’t as final as it sounds but I’ve reached a stage at which 80% of the time I don’t care about the size of my hips and 10% of the other 20% I’m trying to buy tights at M&S as a half size. I have a goal to go back to fitting my favourite clothes from before arthritis but it’s a pretty relaxed one, I have enough clothes for a party conference wardrobe 5 times over without them. In fact, I also have clothes that are already too big as it is and, while they look nice, they would look so much nicer if the size was a perfect fit. It is something briefly touched upon in my review of Am I Beautiful? too.

Mine isn’t a rare story. Similar stories of not knowing our worth are told by Christians and non-Christians alike all the time. That book and the stories it tells are some of them. Mary Lenaburg, who gave the Blessed is She Workshop on this subject just this past Tuesday, is another. The difference is, for all these women, as it is for me, this teaching was the key to freedom from our low self-worth.

So, imago dei. Made in the image of God. CCC Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 1. I’m only leaving this there so you know what to Google, because this topic allows me to put my Dominican hat on (I mean, I should seriously consider becoming a Tertiary…) and bang on about the Summa Theologiae *chair dance*
Quoting from a lesson in Moral Philosophy from the ICU that you can read in full online:

In the Ia-IIae of his Summa theologiae, Aquinas introduces the Trinitarian theme as a guiding one for moral theology. Everything that exists depends on the creative action of God. Theological anthropology points to creation. It is impossible for the Christian to carve out a world of freedom that remains independent from God’s creative and sustaining providence. The scholastic philosophers coined the phrase “being precedes actions” (agere sequitur esse) to remind us that human actions are dependent upon the human creature.

If you are familiar with Aristotle and Scholastic theology, you would be already thinking about the will and the appetites etc. That, in a way, goes back to eating disorders, as EDs make a moral entity of choices that are supposed to be mainly how you fuel your body. However, there is another way in which this theological anthropology relates to EDs, and that’s the theology of the body.
Theology of the Body is mostly famous in relation to sex, as Catholics not having sex outside of marriage has nothing to do with us not knowing how to have fun. We famously have a collective drinking problems after taking Jesus turning water into wine a bit too far…
Sex outside of marriage is linked more broadly to the idea of the dignity of the human being, but this is a topic for another time. Suffice to say, the Theology of the Body connects to the Genesis account of what man is supposed to be, what man was before the original sin.

St. Thomas Aquinas saw original sin as “the inherited tendency of the soul to choose a lesser good rather than the greater good of obedience to God. Humans are therefore flawed images of God, but the goodness of their original creation remains” (Cynthia Stewart, Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence). There is also 1 Corinthians 6:19: Do you not know your bodies are temple of the Holy Spirit? It’s very hard, on a theoretical level, to reconcile the kind of self-hatred that I had with being a Christian. Psalm 139 is a love letter about creation. Of course the practice didn’t follow through for quite some time, I was entrenched in some borderline Gnostic opinions of the body, but something started to change in me: I became aware that, like Adam and Even naked in the garden, I had a point of view on my body that God had all along, but, unlike God, I had shame about it. My recovery started because I knew, as starkly as black ink on white paper, that I was the problem. I had internalised all the messages around me, sure, but ultimately it was me who had the agency to reject them. I had the agency to internalise the one message that, to me, mattered. God’s message. The message that said no matter what I look like, I am loved and I am valued simply because God created me, and hating myself was hating God’s creation so, ultimately, hating God. And creation also implies a purpose, which counters the feelings of life and suffering being meaningless which many people have felt at some point or another. I certainly have.

As far as theology goes, there are more levels to interpret this concept and the teaching of the Church as exposed in the above section of the CCC. I couldn’t do them justice even within the word count of my longest blog posts. Human dignity is the most basic and fundamental view. Catholicism is a strongly relational and incarnational interpretation of Scriptures, after all. “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.” (CCC 359)
It is also the way to sanctification, through imitatio Christi. Like a child with her mother, us humans reflect a degree of where we came from innately, and the rest we pick up from being around others, especially our parents (those of us who had them). In Becoming Jane, Mrs Austen tells Lady Gresham that her daughter, contrary to her accusation, has family. I think this is a beautiful metaphor of what it means to be made in the image of God. Self-worth, unlike self-esteem, is about humility with a profound sense of our dignity. We may have fallen, but we have family.

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