Is it possible to derive a humane applied ethic without reference to the Imago Dei, and to account for equality and liberty on purely secular terms without reference to a supreme creator?

It is possible to imagine an ethics without the theological principle of Imago Dei by prioritizing and developing a discourse of the “other.” Doing so helps to question the concept that human beings have a unique status within an anthropocentric view of creation.

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Throughout the history of Western thought, ethical systems and theories of ethics have indeed been developed which are not predicated on theological principles of Imago Dei. In fact, “secular” approaches often problematize the inherently anthropocentric worldview that traditional interpretations of Imago Dei perpetuate, on the grounds that such anthropocentrism is itself unethical.

In general, the assertion that humans are created literally in God’s image and are endowed with unique faculties—foremost the ability to reason and think freely—supposedly demonstrates humanity’s superior status in the hierarchy of God’s creation. This argument relies upon a human-oriented view of the cosmos (a word which comes from the Greek kosmos, literally meaning “order” and implying a human-ordered world). Thus, alternative theories of ethics function to a) trouble the assumption that God possesses human-like features (or even attributes) and b) problematize ingrained human values of sovereignty while subsequently dislocating the human from the center of creation.

Early modern attempts to refigure the onto-epistemological relationship between deity and human—as well as the process of creation itself—are perhaps most visible in the radical work of Baruch Spinoza and the ways in which he diverged from conventional theological renderings of God. Instead, he favored a more “secular” approach that engendered a critical opening for thinking ethics apart from transcendence. In short, Spinoza rejected the concept of dualism (itself a secular notion): that is, that God could or did exist outside the world and apart from creation at all. Spinoza maintained that the process of creation flowed inevitably and naturally from God, who was pure “substance.” Thus, humankind was in, and actively a portion of, God, who constituted the world. Such a theory not only denied God’s transcendence (because there was technically nothing to transcend) but also placed humans radically on par with animals, plants, and even inanimate objects—as equivalent aspects of creation (God) rather than beings rendered in a superior image.

Spinoza—as one example—portended the deep and lasting impact on ethics that is made possible by adopting a stance of imminence in which God, human, and all forms of otherness are more or less approximate, rather than one in which beings possess discrete and hierarchical essences, for instance. Indeed, much more contemporary theories of ethics not only deny the immutability and primacy of sovereignty; they often maintain that these concepts—embodied (literally) by, and inherited from, theological interpretations such as Imago Dei—work to perpetuate incredible violence.

Notably, the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas—drawing on Heidegger and Henri Bergson—argued that the principles of freely judging and thinking that are prioritized by epistemology and justified by doctrines of Imago Dei (in the sense that the highest attribute of God, and therefore the human, is freedom) efface the true presence of the “other.” Rather, in a dramatic reversal, Levinas argued that ethics, or one’s relationship to others, precedes reason and knowing: as Levinas famously wrote in his essay “Ethics as First Philosophy,”

One comes not into the world, but into question.

Subsequently, one’s selfhood and faculties of knowing are not only subservient to the other’s: one’s very ontology is dictated by an unwilled responsibility—the furthest possible stance from individual sovereignty imaginable.

Meanwhile, Jacques Derrida would take Levinas’s ethics even further by arguing that not only is the other primary over one’s own self, but that there cannot even be a differentiation between the notion of deity and the other. In short, something as grandiose as Imago Dei falsely presumes that God is discernible and discrete from any other, as in one’s “neighbor” or even one’s enemy.

It could certainly be said, then, that Derrida—and, to various extents, his predecessors—“deify” otherness by elevating it to the level of primacy once reserved for God, in a way that carries forth a certain sentiment of Imago Dei. At the same time, these secular theorists utterly disavow a rarefied deity and the human liberty that it has traditionally justified. However, it must be seen that, in any case, these contemporary maneuvers are toward a productive reimagining of ethics that does not allow human virtues and priorities to claim God-given supremacy over one another—or over any other form of being.

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