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Old 09-05-2014, 01:20 AM   #88
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More excerpts from “Orthodox Christian Theosis and Deification in the New Religious Movements” by Rev. Dn. Dr. Brendan Pelphrey

Deification: the opposite of theosis

For Christians of any background, the idea of wanting to be God—or even to be “like” God—is dangerously wrong. The First Commandment says that only God is god, and there can be no other (Exodus 20:2-3). At the same time, there is a genuine Christian tradition called theosis, “sharing the divine nature,” which is relatively little-known today in the West. While it may be thought of as a process, it is not the process of “becoming” which the Master advocates; nor is it compatible with the idea of “discovering the god within.” Nevertheless, it asserts that it is possible for human beings to take on the divine nature, and by becoming divine, to become truly human for the first time. This teaching is not only part of the Christian tradition, but it may be said to be the most important part. It is the substance of the Christian faith and the very thing which Christians have historically meant by “salvation.”

It is important to understand from the start that there are real differences between Christian theosis and deification as it appears in the new religious movements. Many new religious movements claim that their teachings about deification are compatible with Christianity. However, to make this claim is fundamentally to misunderstand Christian faith. Some religious movements recognize this, and say that their doctrine of deification is derived from early Christianity, that is, from esoteric teachings which were later “suppressed by the Church.” What is really meant are doctrines of various Gnostic sects of the second and third centuries, whose teachings were always regarded as heretical by the Church and which are still rejected by Orthodoxy. In fact, some of the earliest Christian texts known, outside the New Testament itself, contain the idea of theosis but also vigorously oppose Gnostic doctrines of deification. The two concepts are perhaps related to one another as a mirror image is related to the real object, or the right hand is related to the left hand. At first glance they look alike, even identical, but if we look more closely we will see that they are opposite at every point.

In a sense it seems natural for human beings to desire to be divine. This desire lies behind all religious movements. Indeed, Christians believe that God has given us the desire to know divinity, because the purpose of God in creation itself was for humanity to be in communion with God. However, there is a perversion at work in the human psyche. The fall into sin is the desire not to know God, but to be “like” God. Deep within every human being is the desire to manipulate God and to have the power of God for ourselves. This desire drives us to occupy ourselves with myths of the gods, to make offerings to various divinities and to seek religious answers, especially in the hope of improving our own condition and our lot. We seek immortality in a world which is constantly passing away. In its strongest form this desire is not really to worship God, but to be God.

The desire to be deified is the whole point of the biblical story of the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). Like disciples of New Age thinking today, Eve wanted simply to realize her hidden potential to be divine. She was instructed by the serpent how to go about it: by eating the forbidden fruit (following an esoteric “natural” diet?), becoming enlightened, knowing and understanding all things.

Of course the Hebrew story does not mean that Eve ate a literal fruit, but that she desired to experience the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that is, knowing all things. The story illustrates a process of attempting to gain secret knowledge (gnosis, the origin of the term Gnosticism). Eve would discover her hidden powers, powers which God had failed to reveal to her. Perhaps (is this what the serpent wanted her to believe?) these powers had not been revealed to her before because God wanted to keep her subservient, both to Himself and to Adam, her husband. Or perhaps it was merely an oversight on God’s part, since the will of a truly loving God would naturally be for all human beings to be fully “realized,” and therefore, divine. Thus the desire to know all things, as God knows all things, is portrayed as the highest human aspiration—something good and holy, something God-like, which even God would approve. Unfortunately, it is the serpent who has portrayed divine realization this way; for God Himself had warned Adam and Eve not to attempt to know all things.

In the Christian tradition the story of Eve’s fall illustrates exactly what is not theosis. To seek to be divine ourselves prevents us from truly knowing God. Thus the desire for deification, which may be understood as natural and even as the highest of all human aspirations, the basis of all religious quests, is itself evil. Eve found that the fruit of her desire was not to draw closer to God but to be driven away from the Creator. The reason is that if we are gods unto ourselves, we have no need for any other God. The result is inevitably death, because our nature as creatures is that, whether we like it or not, we are utterly dependent upon God for all that we have and are, including life itself.

Christianity teaches that human beings were intended to share the divine nature from the beginning. This was the purpose of creation itself: we were made in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). Why, then, were Adam and Eve commanded not to share in the knowledge of good and evil? The answer lies in the fact that we are not gods, but created beings. The phrase “good and evil” means “everything.” But human beings cannot know everything, all that God knows, because we are created.

At the same time, the nature of God is love (1 John 4:16). It is possible to receive divine Love, God’s own nature, just as it is possible to receive life from the Author of Life. We can experience the love which is given by God and which is identical with the Being of God. Thus, in the beginning humanity was not commanded to refrain from the “tree of life” but only from the attempt to know all things, as if we were gods.

The sharing of divine nature which is Love, as God’s image and likeness, does not make us “like” God, which would imply that we remain separate from God and somehow equal to God. Rather, it draws us into God in a mystery of co-inherence. God desires to live intimately with us, to dwell within us, and for us to live in God. Moreover, we are to be living pictures (Greek eikone, icons) of God, in the flesh. Nevertheless we are not God, and God is not identical with ourselves. Furthermore, our sharing the divine nature is not something which can be accomplished from our side, but from God’s side alone. It is initiated by God and is created in us by the Spirit of God.

The Christian doctrine of the fall into sin asserts that the apparently natural desire to be divine is in fact not natural, but a perversion of human nature. It appears natural because from the beginning of time, humanity has been twisted by the desire to replace God, to be gods unto ourselves. Human beings were intended to be creatures who live in the image and likeness of God, sharing the love-nature of God, but not seeking to replace God as our only Father.

Summary: ten points of contrast

If God or divine nature is above-thought and above-being, and if the divine nature cannot be known to (or in) the material world, then several corollaries follow. These corollaries have all appeared historically in non-Christian religions. Even though they appear to contradict one another, they often coexist within the same religious framework. They are as follows:

God cannot be known in the material world, or to material beings. (Some systems conclude, therefore, that practically speaking, there is no God.)

God exists, but God cannot be known under ordinary circumstances. To know God one must become all “spirit,” either through a discipline or through acquisition of secret knowledge (gnosis).

God (or the divine spirit) is hidden within ourselves and is the only true reality. This inner Self must be discovered carefully through personal development. Therefore…

We ourselves are God.

It is sometimes asserted that Christian theosis is the same as the doctrine of deification as taught by the new religious movements, and essentially the same as Gnostic deification, Hindu Advaita monism, even the Buddhist experience of the Third Body of the Buddha. Such identifications should not be made too quickly. Certainly within New Age, a key point is the assumption that human beings have a divine nature hidden deep within; however, the material world is a hindrance to the realization of this inner divinity, which is essentially spiritual. Historic Gnosticism, the original “New Age,” shared this perspective and taught that Jesus was one of the avatars of divinity (the embodiment of the Logos, one of the Aeons), who came to earth to help humanity realize its inner potential to be divine. It should now be clear that theosis as taught by the Church fathers is entirely different. That is why such early writers as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr wrote so strongly against Gnostic doctrines of deification. Some points of difference may be summarized as follows:

In the Christian tradition God is the Creator and we are creatures of God. God is not “within” us in the sense that we ourselves are divine or take the place of God or are gods. God is never identical with ourselves. Rather, we bear in our flesh the Image of God, and by grace, may grow into the divine Likeness, which is Christ.

The material world, including the human body, is not illusory, but quite real. It is not evil or an impediment to knowledge of God. Rather, it was created by God in order to have a relationship with God and to participate in God. The process of theosis is a transformation of life in the flesh, and is visible in flesh itself: for example, in the light which was visible at the Transfiguration of Christ, transforming even his clothing; and in the miraculous signs which accompany the relics of certain saints.

Christians agree that the essence of God cannot be understood or experienced by any creature. Nevertheless, it is possible to know God personally and intimately in this life. This immediate knowledge of God is made possible by the Incarnation, in which God became flesh in order to redeem flesh.

Knowledge of God is not esoteric or “secret” knowledge available only to some initiates, but is given freely to the whole world. It is ours through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who receive Christ and are willing to follow Him.

Theosis is the result of God’s own initiative. It is ours through trust (faith) and by participation in the life of the Church. It is not a matter of our own achievement, since it is not within the power of human beings to rise even to full humanity. Therefore, it is not a matter of techniques of meditation or psycho-physical exercises, but of being receptive to the grace of God which is in Christ, and is ours in the sacramental life of the Church.

To be transfigured into the divine image is to become more human, that is, to grow into the fullness of humanity. The transfigured person is, therefore, drawn closer both to God and to the world itself. This occurs in this life, and is evident in our relationship with others and with nature itself. By contrast, in the new religious movements deification ultimately means rejection of the world and withdrawal from the material plane.

The Christian experience of drawing closer to God and being transformed by God (theosis) is humbling and is always accompanied by repentance. The fathers speak of the gift of tears as one of the chief signs of true spiritual transformation. One becomes conscious of being “the least of all and the servant of all.” In the new religious movements, on the other hand, the experience of deification raises up the Self as divine and even all-powerful. The promise is often made that the true disciple can gain power over others and over the world itself. The aim and purpose of deification is to elevate the self and to become a Master.

The Christian experience of theosis is to be drawn into the Love which is the Trinity. Here there is a mirroring in the self of the mystery of the Trinity. In the Trinity, the divine Persons are not confused or mixed with one another; similarly, there is no confusion between the person of faith, and the Creator. We are not God, but we are made one with God. The doctrine of deification, on the other hand, is that there is a merging or union between the self and the divine nature so that there is no “other” at all, no essential difference between self and God, or self and the Absolute (in Buddhist terms, the dharmakaya or Third Body of the Buddha). There is an experience of being “one” with the universe; all enlightened beings are One. By contrast, in Christianity all disciples are unique, with differing gifts. There is a synergy of persons, but not an identity.

Christians locate theosis in Christ. To say this is not enough, since many religious movements speak of “the Christ” or “the Christ-spirit.” Usually Christ is said to be a spirit who has reincarnated in all the great Masters through history. Christians, however, are not concerned with an appearance of God (the “Christ-spirit”) on earth, but with the incarnation of God on earth, which is unique and historical, not an appearance but actual flesh and blood.

Christian theosis takes place through participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Those who truly love Christ love the Church, his own Body. It is, furthermore, the Church of history, with real bishops, priests, deacons, people—not every sect which calls itself “Church.” Any promised “deification” which turns one away from the historic “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church, is not deification but a false promise.

For Christians, then, theosis describes the life in Christ. It is humbling, turning us outward in love and joy towards God and towards the world which God has made. It is the gift of life itself. For those who would seek deification on their own, looking inside the human spirit to find the divine, it is important to recall the mysterious words of a Psalm of Asaph: God said, “you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men” (Psalm 82:6). The goal of the Christian is to die to self, so that we might live in Christ.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
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