If you ask the theologians about this idea in Genesis 1-2 of man being made "in the image of God," they'd almost all say something about how this image has nothing to do with our form. Rather, it has to do with our faculties. Most important among these is our faculty for relationship.
Since God is, and always has been, in perpetual, perfect relationship with Himself as manifest through the persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - it is our ability to relate to each other and to God that makes us most remarkably like Him, most in His image.
The more I read about this idea lately, the more I wondered what that meant for, say, the autistic individual, who science tells us struggles to form relationships, if she can form relationships at all. If being in the image of God means establishing relationships, would we dare say that the autistic person therefore does not reflect the image of God?
I wasn't initially thinking about the autistic person. I was merely wondering if we could find someone on this earth - say, an orphan - who had not had opportunity to form relationships or say, a wounded individual who purposely avoided forming relationships, what would we say about the image of God in those persons? But it struck me that even those persons have formed relationships of their own, in their own ways. Science, however, and research, tell us that the hallmark of autism is the inability to relate, so my thoughts quickly turned here.
It's a question I immediately wrestled with, and one I could not shake until I came to a reasonable conclusion. Thankfully, I think the answer is quite simply once we understand one simple truth:
"Science" is wrong.
Autistic individuals actually have a remarkable capacity for relationship. Just not with everybody and, generally, not with you. Look at the way an autistic child bonds with a horse at a therapeutic riding center. Or with a special assistance dog assigned to be his best friend. Or a certain stuffed animal that brings her great comfort. Or...the list goes on and on. No, maybe we don't see the child bonding with a mother or a father or a brother or a best friend, but we still see her bonding. Sometimes, even the most autistic child is able to establish this bond - so often seen with animals - with some human. Usually, it's not a human strongly connected to the child. Maybe it's a staff member of some day center the child visits. Maybe it's a janitor at the school. Maybe it's a random person at church that you can't figure out why your autistic child feels such a strong connection to. Maybe it's the cashier at Walmart. We don't know why these children form the bonds that they do, but almost all autistic children end up having a bond with something.
An incredible bond.
It's a bond so tight, so amazing, so strong that if the child were not autistic, we might consider it more than a little weird. Or perhaps even dangerous. Yet in the face of this label, it's a tremendous relief. This child, this child who is not supposed to be able to connect with anyone, has found a connection in this world. And we find ourselves doing everything we can to foster that relationship. Taking the child routinely to visit the horse, welcoming a dog into the family, inviting the janitor for dinner, going to Walmart every day. Whatever it is, we see that and we value that.
And, if we were paying even more attention, I think we'd learn something.
Because it is this kind of pure, simple, incredible attachment that is the hallmark of true relationship. We who would say we have the fullness of our faculties engage in relationship as a give-and-take - give a little, take a little. We're always looking for a balance between loving and being loved. We're always counting the cards, trying to figure out who's playing what, trying to gauge our relationships by their fruitfulness, and all sorts of other quantifiers and qualifiers that we want to put on them. We're always calculating our relationship as if they were some sort of equation.
But these relationships that autistic children form, they are not give a little, take a little. They are give it all, take it all. When the autistic child latches on to that one thing in the universe that for whatever reason, she feels connected to, she gives her entire self to that. Purely. Freely. She climbs up on that horse without hesitation. She embraces the dog. She takes token gifts to the janitor. She smiles up at the person at church. She delights even in the long line at the cashier's check stand. She lets go of her inhibitions and gives all of herself, even though she does not realize the giving, to the object of relationship.
And so, too, she takes wholly. She goes wherever the horse might take her. She follows the dog's lead. She wraps her little hands around token gifts the janitor might bring. She notices the smile of the person at church and lets it wash over her without hiding her face.
Whatever it is that has formed the connection between these two, for the autistic child - this is the most pure relationship there could possibly be. It's everything. It takes everything and it gives everything, and somehow, that's perfectly okay, even for this child who is supposed to be, according to research, incapable of all this. She's far from incapable.
In fact, she's incredible.
Because this is what relationship was meant to be - give all, take all, without all the calculations.
I wondered, when I read some of the theologians, what we might say about persons who can't form the kinds of relationships that most people form. How do they manifest the image of God? And after some careful consideration, I think I've come to realize the answer is: