One of the most distinctive doctrines in Orthodox theology is that of theosis – divinization – becoming “like God.” Those who inquire into the faith likely stumble across this teaching fairly early, and, no doubt, some are drawn to it. Of course, there are those who run away from it and fear that it is saying something that it isn’t. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of theosis is the unabashedly positive note that it places in the midst of salvation. Whereas many Western treatments of salvation major in “not going to hell,” theosis gives tangible content and a goal that is more than avoidance.
But what is theosis? How should we think of it?
There are a few clues in the New Testament to which we’ll get in a moment. But I was first thinking about various images that have floated through my thoughts that are probably misleading. One of them is drawn from the Mount of Transfiguration. I remember the first time I read about the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He famously shone brighter than the sun in his conversation with Motovilov. He was also seen walking in the air, a few feet above the ground. The discussion of the Divine Energies and their association with the Mount of Transfiguration also suggested these images to me as I contemplated theosis. So the scheme goes: you pray until you glow or begin to float.
I know stories of a contemporary saint (not yet canonized) who was seen levitated in prayer a foot above the ground – and the stories are quite reliable. So this is not a pipe dream. On the other hand, such wonders seem to be far and few between. They also might be misleading with regard to the nature of theosis.
We fail to notice that St. Paul never says, “And then you begin to glow…or float…” It should be noted, as well, that such miraculous manifestations of theosis are utterly beyond our reach. In what way or manner would any cooperation (synergy) on our part have anything to do with transfiguring light or levitation? They are, when they occur, seemingly sovereign acts of God for purposes that are not at all clear. Witness the fact that neither sign is found in the accounts of most saints’ lives.
There is a milder form of theosis that likely guides the thoughts of many. That is the acquisition of moral perfection, or, at least, a progressive acquisition of moral perfection. That is very much of a piece with general themes within the modern imagination. “I’m getting better…” No doubt, Christian maturity is real, we do “get better” at some things, in some fashion. However, the perfectly “moral” human being would not seem to equate with theosis, in that it’s simply a “better” or “improved” version of what we already are.
In the New Testament, however, there is an abundant witness of conformity with the divine image. Theosis is a clear promise. That divine image, however, is that of the crucified Christ:
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christand be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.(Phil 3:8-11)
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.(1 Pet. 4:12-14)
In many ways, this theme of co-suffering with Christ, is embedded throughout the writings of the New Testament. Though the Transfiguration, or the Walking on the Water, or various miracles of Christ’s ministry have an importance, it is the Cross that is the very heart of the gospel. Of His death on the Cross, Christ says, “For this cause I came into the world.” (Jn. 18:37)
Central to Christ’s suffering and death is an understanding that these are not simply events that brought about our salvation. They are also revelatory events. The fullness of who Christ is and His making known the Father to the world are not fully accomplished until His death on the Cross and His rising from the tomb. His self-offering in the Crucifixion is also echoed throughout His teaching, whether in the commandments to radical generosity, the forgiveness of enemies, or the “loss” of self. He describes our kindness to enemies in terms of theosis:
“But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36)
Such passages are too often treated as moral exhortations, ignoring their reasoning: “You will be sons of the Most High.”
We may say (as has been said before), “Kenosis is theosis.” That is, self-emptying is the path to divine likeness. It should also, I think, serve as a check on our every thought of God and our obedience to Him. The crucified love manifested in Christ is the revelation of who God is. St. John says, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him [lit. “exegeted” Him].” Christ is the interpretation of the Father. (John 1:18)
In John’s gospel, to be “glorified,” is to be crucified. It makes for interesting reading if that meaning is held in mind when we read the word, “glory.” It also makes for interesting discipleship if we apply that same understanding in our lives. This “momentary trial” (whatever it may be), is the glory of God being worked out in my life.
My forgiveness of my enemy is the glory of God. My generosity to the poor is the glory of God. My kindness, even to the evil, is the glory of God.
If this is what it means to participate in theosis, then I have to say that I have been witness to it in many lives. It is the sort of thing that gives us pause, but it is the sort of thing which we only dare enter because of love. It is what we are all looking for, if we but knew it.