The Imago Dei: A Folk Psychology Construct of the Whole Person

[The following are the notes from Eric Johnson's presentation at 125th APA Annual Convention August 3-6, 2017]


The most common ways to think about and perceive the whole human in modern psychology are personality, the self, and narrative (a temporal holistic concept). However, two other whole-person constructs were extremely important in the West for two to three millennia before modern psychology came on the scene: character and the imago Dei (or “image of God”).[1] The latter construct has been foundational to the folk psychology of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities, though the Christian community has historically utilized the concept to a greater degree than the other two groups. Given the positivism and secularity that has dominated modern psychology throughout its short history, it is not surprising that this perspective on the whole person was not appropriated. However, in what follows, extending the work begun in Johnson (2015), it will be shown that the construct is foundational for contemporary theistic psychologies, because of its psychological, relational, axiological, and religious implications that bear on human self-understanding. However, it will also be suggested that this ancient, theologically-based, folk-psychology concept might be of interest to contemporary mainstream psychology. To indicate something of the latter agenda, consider that all humans are evaluative beings with various kinds of positive and negative values, and a central part of their being involves making determinations continuously regarding good and bad, and then living in such a way as to obtain the good and avoid the bad. While there are plenty of ways to approach the study of humans as evaluative beings, one way is to view them as the imago Dei

The Value of Lay Psychology Constructs

The Value of Psychological Constructs Found Only in Specific Subcultures

There has been a growing recognition that cultural assumptions affect the psychological formation of human beings, as well as their scientific investigation. Cultural psychology has found that many psychological phenomena (e.g., intelligence, narrative, emotion and motivation, psychopathology) are at least partially constituted by cultural factors (Kitayama & Cohen, 2007), and such research has begun to document the impact of culture on positive psychology phenomena, for example, like character strengths (McGrath, 2015), especially happiness (Park, Peterson, & Ruch, 2009; Tov & Diener, 2007).


The Basic Meaning of the Imago Dei according to Christianity

As already above, the three main theistic religions of the West all make use of the concept of the imago Dei, but from my vantage point (which may be biased), Christianity has worked the most with the concept. Regardless, I will conduct my exploration of the topic from the Christian tradition, of which I am a member. As is well known, the concept first occurs in Western literature in the opening chapter of the Bible: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heaves and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1: 26-27). However, little explanation was given there as to what it means. Research on the relevant texts (including the texts of related cultures), suggests that the original meaning was that humans are considered to be concrete images or representations on earth of an invisible God, ruling over the creation as he does (Genesis commentary citations) (citations). Subsequent reflection on the concept among Christians has led to three basic approaches to what the imago Dei means.[2]

Resembling God’s Ontological Form

The first involves the identification of features of human beings that are believed to resemble features that the God of Western monotheism also possesses: reasoning and wisdom, personality, freedom and personal agency, creativity, relationality, virtuous character, and oversight of and care for the creation are some of the most common features identified (Aquinas, 1949; Bavinck, 2004). The overlap between the imago Dei and personality architecture should be obvious, but it encompasses much more.

Since such features develop throughout childhood and into adulthood, it suggests that the imago Dei also develops over time (Pannenberg, 1985; Grenz, 2000). Considered as a unified, composite, dynamic structure, this interpretation brings out the transcendent, “pointing function” that the whole human is believed to have. In Western theism, a human being is considered to be a sign of God: similar to, but different from the form of God. Such an assumption bestows transcendent meaning and dignity on human life that many find encouraging, meaningful, enlightening, and morally significant. The imago Dei construct, therefore, provides a way that organizes and unites the above psychological capacities around a single meaningful concept: resemblance to God. In addition, to know that one is merely an image of God—and not God—would seem to provide at least a theoretical limit on unhealthy perfectionism and narcissism.

What are psychologists to do with such lists of capacities. In classical Western thought, rationality was often given as a reason for human distinctiveness and value, and so it has often been highlighted as humanity’s key likeness to God. However, rationality “seems to be not a single, simple feature of persons but a complex system of capacities….” Instead, it may be better “to count this system of capacities as an excellence with respect to which we surpass sheep,” for example (Adams, 1999, p. 115). So then, human excellence “includes rationality, but also emotional, social, and creative capacities related to rationality but going beyond it in various ways.” (Adams, p. 117)

We might ask the question at this point, is there any significance to the fact that humans have an extraordinary set of capacities compared to the rest of known universe? Positivism said no, and modern psychology accepted such a conclusion as a necessary implication of intellectual progress. However, we might wonder if this nihilistic approach to human life is actually adaptive, fulfilling, as well as true. 

Resembling God’s Character

Another prominent model considers the imago Dei to be ethicospiritual in nature; humans image God by becoming more holy, good, and righteous. The emphasis of this model is on taking on more of the moral traits that God has. Like the previous model, it too is developmental, but the imago Dei in this case involves more intentionality as one is being transformed more and more into a representation of the beautiful, virtuous character of God by seeking God through prayer and meditation and practicing the virtues, and one becomes more whole, the more one is like God. All three theistic religions of the West also affirm this model, while also teaching that the human relationship with God has been compromised by human sin, and they each have articulated different pathways for the quest for God-likeness.

Actively Receiving God’s Form

A third model of the imago Dei found in Christianity is much less prominent than the others, but is also, I think, the most profound. It is reflected, in part, in Sören Kierkegaard’s (1849/1980b) definition of faith as “that the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God” (p. 82), which highlights both the human activity involved and one’s relationship with God. In this approach the imago Dei is viewed as essentially dynamic, personal, and relational, involving God as much as the individual human, who actively receives and participate in God’s own goodness, who is simultaneously giving the goodness. In that sense the imago is more like a mirror (Irenaeus, ????; Calvin, 1559/1960), than a pattern of similarities to God, except that the metaphor of a mirror does not do justice to the personal activity of either God or humans. As it is, this model ennoblizes human beings, while at the same time providing a transcendent basis for humility.

Worship and Devotion

Finally, some theists consider the imago Dei to refer to an intrinsic orientation that all humans have to worship or to give themselves to some object of ultimate devotion, termed God, the gods, the Good (Adams, 1999), a hyper-good (Taylor, 1989), or an ultimate concern (Emmons, 1999; Tillich, 1957). Here, the imago Dei has to do with the human capacity to love someone or something maximally. The human quest for meaning and significance that logotherapy, and existentialist and narrative therapy work with are given a theistic interpretation from this perspective.


Psychological Functions of the Imago Dei Concept

So to what psychological use can such theological work as the foregoing be put?

The Imago Dei as a Basis for the Sense of Human Dignity and Self-Respect

One of the paradoxical challenges that modern psychology has faced throughout its short history is how does one maintain a sense of meaningfulness and value when one’s WV and epistemology necessitate that such concepts are meaningless. This is particularly problematic in psychotherapy, when people come in who are suffering from a lack of meaning, if there is no meaning to be had beyond what one posits for oneself.

Western theism offers a WV framework for psychology that contrasts sharply with naturalism and positivism, because it typically assumes a values-realism grounded in the meaningfulness of God and all that God has created. Historically, as we have seen, theists have believed that ontological and characterological features that humans share with God constitute the imago Dei. Such features, or at least their potential, have been considered to be grounds for human sacredness. Such a belief is attested to “by our reaction to violations to human persons” (Adams, 1999, p. 108; much that follows is indebted to Adams). When most humans witness various forms of moral horror—which Adams defines as a serious, direct, hostile attack against humans, usually crossing their will, body, or selfhood, and damaging or destroying something—they respond with revulsion and perhaps a shudder. Humans typically feel bad about the destruction of a work of art, but most feel considerably less anguish and revulsion than if the object is another human. This suggests that humans possess a kind of sacredness that humans are aware of at some level, which gets activated most clearly when faced with violations to human persons. The concept of the imago Dei provides a label for that which humans are aware of that points to their own dignity, mystery, and uniqueness. Adams bases this awareness on human ontological resemblance to God.

I can imagine a plausible evolutionary account of the origins of this sense. However, a strictly secular evolutionary account seems to undercut the experience, for it grounds such a sense in species survival and reproductive fitness. But when one becomes aware of a specific case of moral horror, for example, when someone is raped or tortured, a strictly secular evolutionary explanation would seem somehow to trivialize the experience of the horror, that is, the sense that someone’s personhood has been violated. It appears, however, that a sense of one’s own sacredness or the sacredness of others can be impaired by repeated trauma and maltreatment.

The Imago Dei as Love of the Good

One way of combining certain aspects of the four models of the imago Dei that we have looked at suggests that humans resemble God the more they share God’s loves. This raises the topics of values and goods and human evaluation of them.

The human emotion-system is genetically, neurologically, and hormonally wired to discriminate between what is good for us and what is bad for us. This set of evaluative abilities is in turn shaped by social and cultural influences, and as we mature, it becomes quite wide-ranging and fine-tuned. We have tastes and preferences, the obtaining of which we can do without, and we can tell apart from our goods and our loves, which are more substantial and meaningful. Humans differ from one another in striking ways in terms of their respective loves and often judge each other in reference to what they perceive as an objective order of goods. To love food is good, but love one’s neighbor is better, and we pity or despise those who cannot make such basic kinds of discriminations regarding goods. Humans are furthermore able to distinguish between a subjective side of goods—how we feel about them—and an objective side—whether they are really good for us or not, because we can be profoundly mistaken about our perceived goods, as with a drug addiction. So that Taylor (1989) argues that all humans desire “to be rightly placed in relation to the good” (p. 44). This means that humans assume value-realism and that there are genuine goods to obtain in life and genuine evils to avoid.

Of course, the fact that we disagree with each other shows that human finitude and turpitude inevitably render our judgments imperfect to some degree. But the observations we made above suggest that the values relativist is wrong to conclude from such human limitations that any confidence in our value judgments is unwarranted. Rather, values discernment involves taking such limitations into account and not being overly confident in our abilities, so that we seek out counsel when needed, particularly while developing the skills of discernment. But human limitations cannot undermine the nearly universal human desire to “make the best sense of our lives” (Taylor, 1989, p. 57) that we can. This quest for the good and for meaningfulness in relation to the good defines one’s identity and gives significance to one’s story. To know that one is turned away from the good is to plunge oneself into despair. On the other hand, “the assurance that I am turned towards this good gives me a sense of wholeness, of fullness of being as a person or self, that nothing else can.” (Taylor, p. 63). So, among the many abilities of human beings that distinguish them as a species perhaps at the top is the evaluation of goods and evils.

According to theism, God is the greatest Good, that is, the greatest being there is; and being made in God’s image means human life is rendered most meaningful by being like him and loving him with all our hearts. This is to mirror God and also to participate in God’s goodness, which theism believes leads to the greatest fulfillment of our nature. This orientation to love the greatest Good is, of course, the essence of religion. However, there is no reason to exclude any humans from this aspect of being. As was suggested, all mature humans have the tendency to know, admire, identify with, love, and even worship that which is ultimate to them. In most cases, historically and culturally, such ultimate objects of devotion have been the explicit and transcendent center of what we call religion, but they need not be transcendent. Secular objects, activities, persons, causes, and ideals can serve the same ultimate function.

Though religious experts are divided on this score (perhaps distinguished by whether they are theists or naturalists), theists might suppose that when such objects are regarded as ultimate they are implicitly religious. Classical Buddhism has been commonly considered a religion in the West, but its hyper-good is thoroughly secular, the good of individual enlightenment. And in the modern era, humanism and Marxism similarly posit and pursue immanent goods, self-realization or economic equality respectively, and not the transcendent goods of what have traditionally been called religions. Working for a meaningful cause, like exposing political corruption or fighting against systemic discrimination, can also constitute such a good, and one can think of any number of secular examples of ultimate devotion, including science, the environment, or even wealth and possessions. That which is ultimate is that for which one lives.

A psychologist-philosopher no less secular than John Dewey has suggested that “The religious is ‘morality touched with emotions’ only when the ends of moral conviction arouse emotions that are not only intense but are actuated and supported by ends so inclusive that they unity the self.” “This comprehensive attitude…is much broader than anything indicated by ‘moral’ in its usual sense.” (p. 179; Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 22f).

To perceive the ultimate is to experience what some have called elevation, awe, or transcendence (Haidt, ????; Selgiman & Peterson, 2004), and happens in religious ecstasy, a walk in nature. “In the experience of beauty—the beauty of a person or work of art or the evening light falling on leaves or mountains—is it not true that we are apt to feel that we are dinly aware of something too wonderful to be contained or carried either by our experience or by the physical or conceptual objects we are perceiving?” (Adams, 1999, p. 51). Such experiences are accessible to all kinds of people, regardless of their WV beliefs or values, but the theist interprets them as signs of God or of the Good. However, another of the limits of human life is that such experiences are fragmentary, transitory, and feel somehow distant from the source.

But What of Lesser Goods?

According to classical Western theism, because God is the greatest being there is, God loves goodness wherever it exists according to its measure of goodness. Being in God’s image, therefore, would mean finding our greatest fulfillment in loving God supremely—the essence of Goodness—but also loving lesser goods according to their measure of goodness, as well as one’s calling, present relationships, and limitations. Such a love of the Good encourages humans to love all the other good things of this world in relation to the greatest Good: sunsets, rainbows, animals, children, our neighbors, human virtues, and the quest for greater Goodness.

The Problem of Idolatry      

An evaluative science also has to address the problem of excessive devotion. Even a love of the Good can become excessive when it results in self-righteousness or judgmentalism. Idolatry occurs when one gives “to anything finite a worship, a devotion, a trust, or any other response that belongs only to God.” Tillich (1951) wrote that, “Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy,” for example, “religious nationalism” (Adams, 1999, p. 200).

Another problem, from a monotheistic standpoint, is having a plurality of objects of ultimate devotion: polytheism. According to H. Richard Niebuhr (1970), what distinguishes monotheism is “the relating of all beings and all value to a single source” (p. 33). Without an explicit, clearly defined object of ultimate devotion, it may be the case that secularism inevitably leads to having multiple, implicit objects of ultimate devotion.

All this creates some different ways of thinking about psychology and also opens up some new avenues for research. Modern psychology has typically viewed human beings fundamentally individualistically (though some approaches in modern psychology are admittedly more relational, like family systems theory, attachment theory, and object relations theory). However, the imago Dei concept necessitates a relational model for the study of human beings. According to theism, the psychological functioning of human beings cannot be fully understood apart from their relation to God or the Good. With regard to research, this approach provides a framework for the study of tastes, preferences, values, goods, and loves, and how they differ subjectively and objectively, in light of the Good. The investigation of emotions, drives, motives, desires, and loves can be conducted in light of the Good. Then, a “negative psychology” could be developed that studies healthy negativity: resistance to and hatred of evil in relation to the Good. Research can be conducted on people’s hierarchy of goods and evils, including the ultimate Good and those secondary and tertiary goods that nevertheless take up much of our time, in light of the Good, and how cultures differ in their hierarchies of goods and evils. Finally, there is the psychopathology of evaluation: the study of idolatry, the excessive love of inferior objects, and the love of evil and the hatred of good.


The Imago Dei Offers a Transcendent Perspective for Intrapersonal Integration

Earlier, we looked at the nature of evaluation culminating for humans in love of the Good, which for theists is identified with God. But if love of God is supreme, what is the value of all other things? Part of the challenge of any model of human evaluation that assumes the existence of a normative system of goods is the relation of subordinate goods to the highest good. Does the love of lesser goods compete with our love of the greatest Good or can the enjoyment of lesser goods be ways of loving God, their telos and fulfillment? Understood in the latter way, enjoying lesser goods for the sake of God is a way of participating in God’s goodness. Such an orientation points to one of the most valuable psychological aspects of the imago Dei concept: its potential to foster the integration of the human person. 

For many reasons, contemporary humans live fragmented, harried lives that leave many people depleted, exhausted, and chronically dissatisfied. Research on poor attachment and early childhood trauma suggests that greater internal fragmentation and dissociation leads to compromised psychology and relational functioning in adulthood. Many have suggested that human development, maturation, and recovery from trauma are all facilitated by promoting greater internal coherence and integration of one’s brain, through the integration of one’s narrative, emotions, thoughts, and desires. One way this can be promoted is by deliberately subordinating the secondary goods of one’s life to the highest Good, organizing one’s life around that Good, and relating all of one’s internal world to that Good. In the Christian tradition, that process has been called recollection or being centered, it leads to a state of simplicity and unity, and it is likely one of the greatest psychological benefits provided by many of the world’s major religions. They differ greatly, of course, with regard to how secondary goods are related to the Good. Some gain simplicity in the ascetic renunciation of all secondary goods, and this undoubtedly leads to greater coherence and less internal conflict, and it may be the quickest way towards a degree of wholeness. However, for most theists, the ascetic way seems too severe to work as a universal rule and too antagonistic to the genuine goods that come from God, which though secondary, are still good.

Consequently, it will be argued here that the healthiest, most comprehensive, and most wholesome way towards internal integration is the folding of one’s secondary loves into the supreme love of the Good, so that they remain distinctly secondary, but are also relished in proper proportion to their relative goodness. This way of integration allows humans to participate in the Good and constitutes one of the most important psychological functions of the imago Dei. Of course, this merits empirical investigation.

Doesn’t this entire talk belong in psychology of religion?

I would argue that that it all depends on one’s WV assumptions. If naturalism is true and positivism is a valid epistemology, then yes this is a psychology of religion paper.

But if theism is true, then what I’ve been describing is the way human beings actually are and has been psychological all the way through, whereas psychology of religion ironically trivializes ultimate concerns that profoundly affect human life and distorts human life by marginalizing ultimate concerns as if only explicitly religious people have them.

Our problem is that WVs and their views of human beings are contestable, and they cannot be proven to those who don’t already hold them.

Another possibility would be to consider it an example of cultural psychology (or subcultural psychology). But if we do that, I would ask that discussions of psychology based in naturalism also be considered as cultural (or subcultural) psychology, and what we’re left with is most of psychology will be considered a pluralistic set of psychologies, at least in those areas where WV assumptions affect what is being described. That may be the best way forward.

But I’m grateful to Div 24 for allowing this talk to be given as a theoretical and philosophical talk. In philosophy, there is a such as Christian philosophy and it happens to be a thriving enterprise these days, with journals, conferences, and countless books being published from that perspective. It is my hope that theistic psychology and even Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu psychologies will be allowed a voice within American psychology.

The Imago Dei and Attribution

The Imago Dei as a Form of Virtuous Beauty

The Imago Dei as Social Union

The Imago Dei as Relationship with God

The Meaningful Function of Values



I realize this discussion will not be helpful to everyone. But to move towards a cultural psychology that is truly universal requires addressing concepts that not everyone will recognize. From the standpoint of a Christian theist, this concept is rich and universal. However, outside a theistic community, the value of this concept will seem limited.

At the same time, I hope that even hearers who are not members of a theistic WV community will recognize that the foregoing considerations are fundamentally psychological in nature and therefore worthy of inclusion in a comprehensive model of psychology. Over the centuries in the West, and now increasingly in many different cultures, the imago Dei concept has provided a major sense of unity, coherence, and meaningfulness in human life, tying together all of one’s life in relation to God. As a result, for theists the imago Dei provides a way to integrate all the forms we have considered under a transcendent, unifying, spiritual orientation.



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[1] The Latin form of this concept is used to distinguish it from a very different psychological construct, the God-image, which is the mental representation one has of God (see Moriarity & Hoffman, 2007).

[2] Being most familiar with the Christian tradition, I will restrict most of my comments to that model.