Edmund Burke on the “Image of God”

What does it mean to have a nature, or, more specifically, a human nature? Often we think of natures as pure things—the thing itself. We may all have tables in our homes, but the nature of a table is a pure, uncorrupted thing, a perfect table. We may all be human, but in some way or other we are all corrupted humans—we fail to participate fully in our human nature. Life is to be spent more fully approximating that perfect nature.

But Edmund Burke gives us an altogether different account of human nature. When we strip off all the cultural, familial, experiential odds and ends that constitute our history and our experience, we are left with nothing “to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature” (77). A nature, according to Burke, seems to be a thin, weak, vulnerable thing, a turtle without a shell or an astronaut without her space suit. This isn’t a pure and powerful thing; not at all—natures, by themselves, are weak and vulnerable.

And this was meant to be, for we, in large part, are creatures of our own making. Man, Burke tells us, is a wonderful structure, “whose prerogative it is, to be in a great degree a creature of his own making, and who when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in creation” (92).

But what does all this mean? What do cold shivering natures, and self-made persons have to do with each other?

Burke thinks of human nature, and natural rights, as real but limited and vulnerable things. To think of yourself only as your nature, to live on the basis of natural right alone, is to be able to judge in your own case, to use those freedoms inherent in human being as such—but is likewise to be vulnerable to the ways that others use those same freedoms. This may work well in Eden, but after the fall of Adam and Eve, this is no laughing matter, and to rely on natural rights in a situation of conflict reduces to your choice to either comply with, or enter into full conflict with your opponent.

Burke has no interest in this—it is too vulnerable, too violent and too brutal. He has in his “contemplation the civil social man, and no other” (59), humans as they have divested themselves of their natural rights that society might create conventions which will nurture and protect themselves and their wants.

This matter of convention is what fascinates Burke, for it is what takes cold, shivering human nature, and fills it out, clothes and protects it, so that it can be warm, safe and more fully human. Full humanity is not something we attain by reaching back to our nature, but by adorning our nature: by making and fashioning ourselves.

Now this might sound crazy—are we really the kinds of things that can make ourselves? But it’s not, for Burke offers powerful constraints to this self-making enterprise: “when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in creation.” The key, of course, is the “ought”—to be human is not to be infinitely flexible, to craft and shape ourselves in any way we see fit. Far from it: our privilege and responsibility is to adorn our naked nature in the way that it ought to be adorned.

This leaves us with a profoundly interesting take on the doctrine of the image of God (which harmonizes interestingly with Peterson’s work on the subject), though Burke does not himself make this move. What does it mean to be human? This is not something to be settled by looking back to the roots of things, to our nature or to Adam and Eve. Such a nature may exist, but it is not of interest to Burke, for the real question is: how should we adorn that nature? What moral sensibilities, what traditions and institutions, rights and ceremonies, should we develop so as to make the bare structure of human existence a meaningful and rich human life? This is no matter of individual decision: for Burke, this is a reality that grows and develops over time, which we inherit and then pass along to our descendants. Human life is an inherited and bequeathed matter of convention-clothed nature, which enables us to hold, if well done, a significant place in God’s good creation.

But how do we reach this? How do we attain to it? Not by looking back to the beginning, not by looking back for something pure and imperturbable, a “human nature” as such, given to the creature. Rather, we inhabit and appropriate the lived history and heritage of the people of God, being clothed in the garments that the tradition of the church hands down. Not that such traditions are ironclad bonds, not that there can’t be change and development (these are essential in Burke’s view). But to be made in the image of God is, Burke might say, a matter embracing the way church (through its relationship with its maker over the centuries) clothes our naked and shivering nature, filling out that bare structure with all the conventions, inherited beliefs and traditions which ultimately enable us to be fully human.