Imitation of God
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Imitation of God (Latin: imitatio Dei) is a religious concept by which man finds virtue by attempting to imitate God. It is found in ancient Greek philosophy and several world religions. In some branches of Christianity, however, it plays a key role.
The concept of imitatio Dei - generally taken to be a mitzvah - in Judaism is derived, in part, from the concept of imago Dei - being made in the image of God. Not only do people in the Torah aspire to take on godly virtues, they are aided by the depiction of God as a human - anthropomorphism. The concept is arguably best expressed in the following quote, taken from Leviticus:
Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
This concept was later to become part of the basis of rabbinic Judaism. Jews are exhorted to perform acts of kindness similar to the ones ascribed to God. Examples are burying the dead (as God buried Moses), visiting the sick (as God visited Abraham) and some very similar mitzvot. The Talmud states: "As He is merciful, so should you be merciful".
Ancient Greek philosophy
The Christian disciple is told to imitate God on several occasions. Matthew 5:48 states, "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Luke 6:36 states, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." In Ephesians 5, they are told by Paul to "Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children". The believer is also advised to follow the ways of Jesus, notably in 1 Corinthians 11:1: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."
Catholicism and other ancient Christian traditions
The Imitation of God is one of the core principles in Catholicism, as well as Eastern Orthodoxy, and Oriental Orthodoxy (Syriac Orthodoxy, Coptic Orthodoxy, Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and the Armenian Apostolic faith). The Catholic Church fully endorses the concept of Imitatio Dei/Christi. In Catholicism, it is integrally related to the concept of theosis.
The general understanding is that a person can become more similar to God over time, a process called theosis in Greek. This doctrine derives from the biblical mandate to be holy as God is Holy (Lev 20.26). It can be achieved by purification (katharsis) and illumination (theoria), the highest point in illumination is the union with God. The best imitation of God is not only the man's effort, but it is mainly achieved by the grace of God.
In the Roman Catholicism the same concepts have been treated under different names (Via purgativa, via iluminativa and via unitiva) by St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. Via purgativa is the Roman Catholic equivalent to katharsis, and theoria is subdivided between illumination and full mystical union. This three-step scheme is also found in the Eastern categories of prayer; ordinary prayer, prayer with mind and heart, and unceasing prayer.
In Protestantism, the picture is different. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition Imitatio dei is widely accepted, whereas the Lutheran tradition prefers to talk of conformitas (in German Nachfolge) instead of Nachahmung (imitation), because Jesus was singular and cannot and need not be imitated, but followed.
Though lacking an official scripture, the practice of Deism is described by Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason: "The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical." He also explains that the works of the Deity are strictly found in "the Creation we behold" where "God speaketh universally to man." Paine gives an example when he condemns the doctrine of loving the enemy, in which he states, "We imitate the moral character of the Creator by forbearing with each other, for he forbears with all."
- Robert Eisen (2011). The peace and violence of Judaism: from the Bible to modern Zionism'. p. 59. "Rodd has been particularly adamant in arguing that the imitation of God is not important in the ethics of the Bible. According to him, very few passages in the biblical text speak about the imitation of God, and thus claims about the importance of this idea in biblical ethics are overstated."
- Christopher J. H. Wright (2011). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. "Rodd is undoubtedly correct in his analysis of the predominant use of the metaphor, but I think he too rigidly rules out the concept of the imitation of God from the expression."
- Leviticus 19:2
- tractate Sotah 14a
- tractate Shabbat 133b