READ : Genesis 1:1-31
We are most like God when we are in community and when, like God, we are bound by this love that we ought to have for one another.
Christians have long been struck by the wording of one particular verse in the Genesis account of the creation of the world. It comes on the sixth and last day of creation, after God has made the light, the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon and stars, seas and land, plants, fish, birds and animals. At the climax of the story, when everything has been perfectly prepared, when a good world teeming with light and life has been built up, layer by layer, God announces his intention to make one last creature. In Genesis 1:26 God proclaims his purpose with these words:
Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
Then the next verse describes the result:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
What attracts Christian attention in this passage are the plural pronouns in God’s initial statement: Listen again, “Let us make man in our image.” Christians have always read this statement as at least an indirect testimony to the truth about God’s very nature, namely that he is in his being both interpersonal and relational. God has always existed as a Trinity, a community of Persons, though living in the unity of One Divine Being.
But the implications of this description of human creation in Genesis 1:26 is also profoundly significant for our understanding of human nature. If God is a Being who exists in community in and of himself, and if we are creatures made like him, as Genesis says, in his very image, then we too must be relational by nature. When God created humankind, he did not make a solitary individual. He didn’t just create a man; no, “male and female he created them.” That is what it means to be human.
Now this fact has many profound implications for our view of ourselves, including, not incidentally, the role of women and the relationship of the sexes. But most importantly it shapes our understanding of the importance of human community. We were made like God, made in order to know God, and to enjoy communion with him. We were also made like our fellow image-bearers, made in order to know one another, and to live in community with each other. When God says in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone,” he wasn’t just talking about Adam. He was speaking about each one of us.
In a conversation I had with Jack Roeda I explored some of these ideas and themes. Jack is a gifted preacher and writer, and has been for many years the pastor of the Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. So I thought it would be helpful to talk with him about his insights into the meaning of community, and our hunger for it as humans made in God’s image, and the ways we can find community.
David Bast: I’ve been thinking about the idea of community, remembering something I heard once about the great hungers that affect the human family, one of them being a hunger for transcendence, for meaning that is greater, someone who is reaching out for God. And another being the hunger for community, reaching out to other people. Do you think that is true, that this is one of the basic human needs?
Jack Roeda: I think that people want very badly to have this sense of belonging, I mean, that program like Cheers where everybody knows your name. I think it had a tremendous appeal to have some place where there are people who know you and who care for you. I think what they’re looking for is not only a place where they can belong but where they can find meaning, to have some kind of common purpose.
Bast: So it’s not just a circle of friends.
Roeda: No, they want to belong to a community that has some significance, that’s useful, that does things, that has a mission.
Bast: So Cheers isn’t enough just a bar where . . .
Roeda: No, a bar wouldn’t be enough.
Bast: It’s interesting to think about that program, probably the most popular television comedy of the early 90s, late 80s and the most popular comedy that followed it, Seinfeld, where you had a sort of a community but there was no meaning at all. The program itself didn’t have any meaning. They bragged about being a show about nothing.
Roeda: Yes, right.
Bast: Is there something post-modern about this? Is this reflective of a bigger truth about what’s happening to people’s psychology, this sort of terrible individualism and cynicism, you know, there’s the veneer of hip-ness you don’t really belong to anybody, you don’t commit to anybody, sex doesn’t mean anything, it’s just kind of recreational.
Roeda: I mean it’s true with that program, there was no real connectedness to the people that they had sex with, for instance, but I don’t know whether that was symptomatic of society.
Bast: I’m just wondering. I kind of get down on our culture fairly easily and see this sort of obsessive self-centeredness. I mean it’s being held up as being hip. This sort of thing, whether they want to or not, or whether they would claim to be it or not, they’re modeling what they think is being cool.
Roeda: Yeah. I’m not sure how this ties in exactly but I think that one of the things you have now with community is a kind of consumer mentality. Even in churches, there is that sort of consumption attitude. I go, I sort of test it to see whether it meets the needs that I have, whether it delivers the kind of services that I want, and I think that is in a sense anti-community. And because it’s basically, “they’re there for me” and not . . . I don’t see it as a reciprocal kind of thing.
Bast: So what’s the real thing? What’s genuine community? What does that take or how do you define it?
Roeda: Well, I think you take ownership of the community. You care for the individuals, you get involved in its well-being, you esteem, you think highly of its welfare. And so whether as a matter of fact you have benefitted from it is kind of, in a sense, secondary.
Bast: So part of our problem is, we’re hungry for community and we want the warm, accepting atmosphere and all that. But the real thing is more about giving than getting.
Roeda: I think it has a certain cost. Now I think in the long run the benefits are enormous, to be actually a part of a community that you care deeply for and the community in turn cares deeply for you. You find yourselves walking in the same way, hoping for the same ends, accomplishing some of those things. You come to a point in your life where you can look back and say, “You know, we’ve been useful in the kingdom.” I think that’s just enormously satisfying.
Bast: But painful, costly.
Roeda: Yes. Sometimes you have to do it because it has to be done, not because you happen to feel like doing it.
Bast: I’m just thinking of one of the really powerful experiences of my life. Ten years or so ago I was visiting India and went to Calcutta. We were being shown around by our Indian hosts and they took us to the temple of Kali which is in the old market area of Calcutta. It was just evening so everything was bathed in this lurid red light from the setting sun. I was completely overwhelmed already, just sensory overload, from the experience of seeing that place. And then they take us to this shrine where the goddess Kali, the goddess of destruction, is being worshiped. I had about had it. As they escorted us out of there, right on the door step was Mother Teresa’s original hospice to care for the dying, the place that she first established when she received permission to leave her order, and go outside the walls of the convent. We went in there and had a brief tour, a look around. Here was this building filled with rows and rows of people that they simply picked out of the street to die. No one cared about them. They had been rejected even by their families. They were given a place, not to receive treatment, because they were beyond hope, all of them, but simply to die in peace and dignity. A staff of sisters and some volunteers from the west as well were devoted to caring for these people, bathing them and feeding them and giving them I.V.s with saline solution. Maybe that is the most genuine community I’ve ever stumbled into or witnessed. Not a pleasant place. And then the contrast was so great between what I had just seen and this place.
Roeda: Now, for me, I think community happens, one, at time of worship where you have people who may not know each other, but who are joined in that common activity and who, at the time of the communion service. . . .
Bast: Interesting same root word. Community, communion, common.
Roeda: Yes, having things in common. Then, even though they might not know each other’s names because they are all united in praise, in gratitude, there’s a real, I think at least, a real sense of belonging, of being a part of this community. The other place where that happens is in their smaller groups, where people get together to talk about their lives, the issues that they’re struggling with, when there’s prayer together.
Just this past Sunday we had a woman who had to be admitted to the hospital. She was very nervous and afraid of the whole thing. So about ten women after the service got together, went to the prayer chapel and they had this incredible time of prayer. Each person, I was told, in their own authentic way came to God on behalf of this woman. And it was quite a remarkable community.
And then the other time when community happens is when you have projects that you all work on and what happens in each of these, I think, is a kind of a forgetting of self. You have either God or some concern or some project that brings you together so that you are forgetful of self. You get lost in the activity.
Bast: It’s like so many of the other most important things in life. If you strive for them they always elude you. It’s when you forget about them I mean, if you try to have community or you say, “Okay, we’re going to build community,” it never happens.
Roeda: And every time you get together for a Sunday, there’s a lot of things that you do, thinking, “this will make it work again,” but it may not. There’s something mysterious about it. Something happens in the service where it’s the Spirit that catches the group and brings them together, and the same thing with these prayer things. You know, you can say, “That was such a wonderful time. We ought to do that again next Sunday.” And it might just bomb.
Bast: Yes. Right.
Roeda: But you do it because when it does happen, it’s only happening when you do it.
Bast: You follow the channels. And sometimes the Spirit flows. So worship, prayer, service.
Roeda: I’d say those are three avenues that create a sense of community.
Bast: What is it, do you suppose, that makes us keep coming back for more of that? Is there something about the human personality or human nature itself that demands this sort of experience?
Roeda: I think so. You know, already back in the garden after God had made man. Adam, he said, it’s not good for him to be alone. The fellowship that he had with the animal world just wasn’t sufficient. And so he needed community, someone who would complement him or her. But I think that we were made to be in community. And I think there is even a deeper reason for it. That is that we are icons, image bearers of God, and God, we say, is community at heart.
Bast: Yes, three persons.
Roeda: Three persons.
Bast: Perfectly in tune.
Roeda: So we are most like God when we are in community and when we, like God, are bound by this love that we ought to have for one another.
Bast: Older Christians have often read that verse in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image,” and then “male and female he created them” as a reference to the inter-personal nature of God himself. It’s sometimes frowned upon, I guess, by modern interpreters but what do you make of it?
Roeda: Well, see, I think for myself, I think I had always thought that being in the image of God meant your capacity to reason. They were qualities that I possessed, abilities that I could do. I think scripture points to the fact that our being in God’s image has something to do with our having dominion, but it also has something to do with the fact that we are creatures in fellowship. That fits what we know about God as Christians. There’s the phrase that I sometimes will use which goes something like this: “The best in us is not foreign to God.” And I think the best in us is community, loving someone. That is not only not foreign to God but it has its source in God. And so for us to be at rest, to be fully human, that requires community because that’s how we were made. That’s the design of the Creature.
Bast: And the converse of that would be true as well, that individualism is a kind of idolatry? Kind of rejection of God, the God in whose image we’re made?
Roeda: Yes. I think it spoils us. I think that when we as human beings live for the self, it results in a famine, a spiritual famine. I was doing a series on Amos. Amos talks about the days that are coming where there will not be a famine of bread or a thirst for water but a famine for hearing the word of the Lord. And when you read that, Amos sees that famine coming because there is a total lack of pity or compassion.
Bast: The poor are sold for a pair of shoes.
Roeda: And I think that there is a link there that is not capricious or arbitrary. When we live for the self and have only thoughts for the self, we lose community with God and with the people around us. So that if you want a New Testament example of that, it’s the rich farmer. He had to build bigger barns and had much goods laid up but he had no soul.
Bast: It’s all “me and my.”
Bast: “My barns, my crops, . . . what shall I do with my . . . I know what I’ll do.”
Roeda: And then God says, “You don’t have the things that really count.”
Bast: And Jesus adds the punch line: “So will it be with all who are not rich toward God.”
Roeda: So I think that a full life needs to be a life that is open both to God and to the neighbor. Individualism short circuits that and is a kind of spiritual suicide.
Some time back I ran across this analogy that describes the human condition. “We are,” said one writer, “like a man who wakes up in the middle of the night, hungry. He gets out of bed and stumbles groggily into the kitchen, where he goes to the refrigerator. Opening the door, he stands there, bathed in the light, unable to determine just what it is he’s hungry for.” That’s how it is for so many people. They know they aren’t satisfied, they’re hungry for something in life, they long for completion and fulfilment, but they just don’t know how to find it. If the Bible is right, then our fundamental hunger is for relationships because we are relational beings made for community, supremely a relationship with God, but also relationships with each other. Where there is no true community there is a famine in the soul. A life lived only for the self is one that can never be satisfied.