Recent remarks by Pope Francis have caused quite a stir. Reuters summarized the essence of this message, saying “Atheists are good if they do good.” But the Pope’s remarks actually went much further. According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis stated, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists.”
This seems to be a change of pace from the previous pope, who made some strong statements against atheism. The Vatican itself seemed a bit startled at Pope Francis’ comments, and went so far as to issue an “explanatory note” correcting this recent pronouncement.
What could possibly move Pope Francis to make such jarring statements? The larger context of this statement sheds some light on the matter:
The Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil. The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there. (emphasis added)
Setting aside questions of what the pope meant by “redemption” in this address, I would like to focus on his vision of a population unified in doing good and its biblical underpinnings. The idea that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27) appears to provides the foundation for such optimism. But what does it mean to be created “in the image of God?”
Like the pope’s recent remarks, this statement in Genesis 1 was fairly revolutionary in its own social and religious environment, though not in the way you might think. For the nations surrounding Israel (especially the Babylonians), their gods were represented by physical images (statues), which were very carefully constructed and over whom prayers were said to endow the image with the essence of the deity. These images of the gods were regularly washed, anointed, clothed, and fed by priests within sacred houses (temples) constructed for them. This was a very tangible way in which worshipers could “serve” the gods. Such “service,” however, was limited to certain classes of priests, and for the most part, these “images” of the gods were hidden from the sight of the masses.
Genesis 1 turned the concept of a remote, rarely visible god on its head: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (v. 27). Thus, from the perspective of Israel, each individual was seen as an “image” of God and bore the stamp of his or her Creator. This sort of paradigm makes the “image” of God more proximate, more visible, more real.
What, then, are the implications of such a view? Whereas the more prevalent view held that the images of gods were a scarce commodity, for the Israelites the world was overflowing with images of God. Every encounter with another person was an encounter with the image of God, and every kindness done to another was a “service” to the image of God (for an intriguing parallel in Mormon scripture, see Mosiah 2:17). From this point of view, the prohibition against making and worshiping “graven images” (Exodus 20:4-6) becomes a prohibition against limiting one’s love for God and being constrictive in one’s devotion toward him and his ever-present images.
Here’s where our discussion intersects once again with the pope’s remarks. Pope Francis sees in the shared divine heritage of humanity — created in the image and likeness of God — a shared imperative to do good and to be good. He suggests that this impulse has been placed “in the depths of our heart,” and that the realization and development of this impulse will lead to what the pope describes as a “culture of encounter,” an everyday encounter with the images of God. “We must meet one another doing good,” he continues, for it is in seeing the good in others that we come to see God.
According to some early Christian writers, this “culture of encounter” wherein one can somehow “see” God was intimated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:8 reads, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” No elaboration or explanation is given, but the prolific early Christian scholar Tertullian (AD 160-220) restated this idea in the following:
Vidisti…fratrem, vidisti dominum tuum
“[When] thou hast seen a brother, thou hast seen thy Lord”
According to Tertullian, there is a deep connection between seeing another human and seeing deity. Mormon Prophet Harold B. Lee made this connection more explicit:
If you would see God, you must be pure… You can see only that which you have eyes to see… Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the “God” or good in man and love him because of the goodness you see in him. (Decisions for Successful Living [Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1973], p. 59)
To the degree that we are willing to cut through various layers of prejudices and recognize the good in another — any other — person, to that same degree we will be able to see God, or in other words, the “image” of God standing before us in all his or her glory. C.S. Lewis came to the conclusion that “it is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to” (The Problem of Pain [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009], p. 149). Seeing the image of God or good in others takes serious, sustained effort. Such a faith-filled effort is rewarded with a more expansive and ennobling view of human potential for good — a small-scale theophany, or manifestation of God, if you will.
Pope Francis suggests that by believing in humanity’s genesis from God, Christians can envision a world where every human being has the potential to do good, and that good must be both recognized and nurtured — served — in order to “reveal” the image of God more clearly to the world. The Pope describes this process of actively searching for and responding to the good in others as “a beautiful path towards peace.” The Pope has worked to make this path more recognizable and accessible, as demonstrated by his service to the images of God. In his controversial remarks, the Pope calls for a recognition that all have the capacity for good, and that our interaction with others — social, political, and religious — must begin with the assumption that they can, in some way, do good in the world. He calls us to “do good [because] we will meet one another there.” In doing good and fostering good in others, we will not only “meet one another” on the common ground of realized human goodness, we will also meet God there.
What would such a world look like? How would this change what we expect from ourselves and from others? How would this change our social, political, and religious discourse? These questions are a cause for serious reflection, and should be carefully considered by all who believe in a benevolent God, regardless of religious affiliation. The idea that such a God has created all of humanity is a potent idea, one that has only begun to be excavated in public discourse. Its effects have the potential to radiate outward to all of humanity – to “Everyone…Even the atheists.”