Let’s leap straight into some Bible verses: “[Jesus said] I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20a-21) “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20a) “[God] has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world”. (2 Peter 1:4) And a final quote from the Church Father St. Athanasius of Alexandria: “The Son of God became man so that we may become God.” (The Incarnation of the Word, 54, 3)
These sayings paint a picture rather different from the conventional characterisation of Christianity, perhaps something more like the ‘Gospel of Thomas’. Or you may think they make it sound more like a form of new age spirituality or eastern religion. But of course there is no real new spirituality, such trends are just people picking and choosing the bits of traditional religion that they like and discarding the rest, and it should be even more clear that -geographically at least- Christianity is an eastern religion.
The mystical aspect of Christianity ties in strongly with what we’ve been exploring, the nature of salvation in Christ. Although this is arguably a distinct school of thought on that issue it is compatible with each of the three major images of redemption we looked at previously. Essentially what we’re talking about here is a process of divinisation (becoming divine) or deification (uniting human life with God’s life). This perspective on salvation, however, is characterised by drawing more on Christ’s Incarnation than on his redemptive sacrifice on the cross.
We discussed the issues posed by understanding salvation in this way. We thought that this approach makes a major theme of being close to God. This is a very complex notion to unpack as it is relative to both the sense in which we are describing God and what we mean by closeness. Of course in Christianity there are senses in which we both experience ourselves as always significantly separate from God and where God is with us always- there is no escape. Closeness to God is usually associated with perfection and holiness, feelings of joy and peace, but somewhat paradoxically we can also find ourselves close to God when we are suffering or in need of help. Here we find God in prayer and in the reassuring feeling of being loved. There is then a third sense of being close to God, our creator preserving our relationship with him after our death, perhaps ‘escaping humanity’ in the process.
There is then quite a different sense in which one can be close to God- not so much close in terms of relationship or proximity, but by being similar to him. For Christians this is a response to the call to be Christlike (John 13:13-17; 1 Pet 2:21; 1 Cor 11:10; Gal 3:27 & 4:19). In living our lives more like Jesus we’ll become a new kind of person, a me-shaped Christ. As with closeness to God, being Christlike doesn’t just mean acting altruistically and with the gifts of the Spirit, it also means accepting anxiety, pain and indignation at what is wrong since these are things that Jesus himself felt. Yet we also thought that being Christlike means being ‘unhooked’ from neediness and not worrying about the future (Matt 6:34), while at the same time not being unnecessarily consumed with things as they in the present. This disinterestedness or detachment is about living timelessly, or eternally.
Another aspect of divinisation we discussed was being integrated into a body. This idea is connected to theories A and C in our last but one session, and is expressed in another concept called Recapitulation. This is a tradition stemming from St. Irenaeus of Lyons who wrote: “Now it has been clearly shown that the Word which exists form the beginning with God, through whom all things were made, who was also always present with the human race, has in these last times, according to the time appointed by the Father, been united to his own creation and has been made a human being capable of suffering… When he was incarnate and became a human being, he recapitulated in himself the long history of the human race, obtaining salvation for us, so that we might regain in Jesus Christ what we had lost in Adam, that is, being the image and likeness of God.” (Against Heresies, 5, 1.1)
Though linked this is quite different from the idea of a personal eternal life, it is the grand theology of the Cosmic Christ, the metaphysical culmination of the Johannine concept of the Logos and the Pauline concept of the Church as the Body of Christ. It is a picture built up from a number of Biblical sources: Rom 8:14-23; Col 1:1-16; Eph 1:4-6 & 10-12; Heb 1:2; and of course, John 1:1-3. Essentially in this perspective God’s creation is (in) an ongoing process of ‘Christification’. The whole cosmos is becoming divine- part of Christ’s body, so that Christ can finally be King of the Universe- the Father’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. (Because of its concern for nature this perspective is popular with environmentalist theologians such as Matthew Fox.)
As these ‘last days’ after Christ are still very new from the perspective of the cosmos we are only at the beginning of an incredibly gradual process and thus the divinisation currently taking place is at a much smaller level. It began with God’s revelations to the Hebrews which culminated in the revelation of God in himself in Jesus of Nazareth. This is then communicated to his followers through union with him (which is also union between his followers, or ‘comm-union’) and will culminate at the end of the universe when Christ, as all in all (1 Cor 15: 28), will truly have come again (Parousia).
Another aspect of Christlikeness we discussed was the revelation of what it means to be fully human. In Eastern Orthodox theology, which takes the divinisation/recapitulation perspective on salvation, the objective aspect of this process, Theosis, is complimented by the more personal, subjective side, Theoria. This is meditation on God, which gives insight into human nature via the divine image in which we were created.
In catholic theology as in eastern Orthodoxy both these aspects are incredibly important to the Sacrament of the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’) in the communion service, which is the central/highest point of those forms of spirituality. And as we discovered in our discussion, the Eucharist can serve as a model for divinisation in general; the bread and wine like mustard seeds which through the work of the faithful are grown into to the fruitful dominion of our loving Father.
See the rest of Theology and Doughnuts.