Youth Work as Theosis

In Church history, the concept of theosis has been resigned to discussions only within the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity.  Recently, however, Western theologians have begun to explore this long forgotten concept and with it, have brought into light an important series of questions and thoughts that could have implications for how we approach education and nurture from a Christian perspective.

Theosis, or divinization as it is also known, is traditionally understood to be the process Christians embark on to become more like Jesus through the work of the Spirit, and will come to completion when Heaven and Creation are fully reconciled and we become like God.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…so that through them you may participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 3-4).  This passage, found at the beginning of Peter’s second letter is often cited as the basis for this concept and I admit it is an interesting one.  Paul writes of a similar idea in his letters, specifically in Romans that suggests we are “pre-destined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29) and in his second letter to the church in Corinth, “all of us will be transformed into the same image” (3:18).

Traditionally, in the West, we have understood these passages to mean that we will become like Jesus through our character rather that become part of the same substance as God[2].  The problem has always been to suggest that we might become part of this same substance, i.e. immanent, omnipresent and omniscient.  Yet, the letter by Peter does seem to suggest that it is not simply in character that we will change but that we will become part of the same nature as God.

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus is accused of blasphemy, he quotes Psalm 82, which reads, “You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High” (82:6).  Jesus seemed to be confirming the Old Testament’s idea that we are like God in some way.  So what does theosis actually mean and do any of the recent discussions around this concept help us to form a definition that actually makes a difference to how we live our lives?

Let me answer that question in two parts.  First, through studying the letters of Paul, the theologian Stephen Finlan has helpfully produced what he describes as the three stages of theosis, which are 1) dying to sin, 2) moral transformation and 3) eschatological transformation.  Theosis, as a concept then, has present and future consequences.  What issuggested is that we are currently in a process of moral transformation.  As we grow in our faith there is an expectation that we will become more like Jesus in thought, word and deed.  This seems to be the concept spoken about in Psalm 82 that I mentioned earlier.  The passage suggests that we are “gods” when we, “defend the cause of the weak and the fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy” (82:3-4).  The process of theosis or deification then is becoming more like God in our character whilst we live on Earth.  Although I agree with Finlan’s claims, his writings focus mainly on theosis as conveyed by Paul and because of this he does not explore the Jewish view of divinization.  This, I believe, results in a limited view of the subject that focuses only on moral transformation and leaves out other aspects of present transformation.

But even still, that is not the end.  This present moral transformation will lead to what Stephen Finlan describes as eschatological transformation.  In the future, when Heaven and Earth come together and we fully see God, we will become like Him.  Paul mentions this idea in his second letter to the Corinthians where he writes, “all of us will be transformed into the same image” (3:18).  There will come a point, the bible suggests, when we will be as we were truly meant to be.  Now, although most East and West Christian traditions would agree with this process, the Eastern tradition has a more nuanced version that differs from the traditional beliefs of the West and in order to fully explore the definition of theosis entirely, there needs to be space to hear this side of the story.

Divinization, or theosis, for the Eastern tradition has less to do with the transformation of character and more to do with entering into the triune relationship of God.  Becoming partakers in the divine nature is about entering into the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit.  Becoming like God is more about allowing our relationships to be characterised by the Trinity.  If the essential characteristic of each Person of the Trinity is to be “for the others, through the others, with the others and in the others” then our relationships will become like that too.  This understanding is difficult to get our head around because it is not a concept that has been taught widely in the West but if we choose to embrace it, it has profound implications for how we live now.

If we believe that we are in a process that will end with us being taken up into the community of God, then we should be serious about trying to reflect that kind of relationship with people now.  We should no longer exist for ourselves but for other people.  The Church then should be a place that is defined by community and relationship.  To be like God is to be in relationship with other people.  Reading the bible through this ‘lens’ could shed new light on verses and stories we have heard hundreds of times.  When Jesus informs the disciples if two or three of them are gathered, he is there (Matthew 18:20) he could have meant that the relationship between the three people allows God to be reflected more than if there was just one of them present.  In other words, to be Christ-like has less to do with our individual actions and more to do with how we conduct our relationships.

Further scriptural evidence for this is found in Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of the first creation story.  He suggests that when it says that “God created man in his own image… male and female he created them” (1:27), this essentially means that each human was male and female.  There was no distinction.  It is a consequence of the broken relationship between us and God that male and female became separated into genders and through the process of eschatological theosis, we will become one again. Marriage is such a key biblical mandate because it is the closest example of how we were intended to be.  Now, there are issues with this interpretation, specifically how the second creation story with Adam and Eve fits into this version of events but it is still worthy of consideration.  Therefore, with all of this in mind, let me illustrate how this can significantly impact the way we see education and nurture.

Regardless of whether you agree more with the Western or Eastern view of theosis relating to our present earthly situation, the process remains the same.  It is a process of transformation.  We are being made into the image and likeness of God.  In Jesus, we have the physical representation of what we are becoming.  Jesus is the blue print.  We are in a process of becoming more like him.  In essence, I agree with the writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis when he stated that divinization “does not suppress humanity but makes it more authentically human”.  Although a controversial writer, more in the West than in the East, Kazantzakis studied under Christos Androutsos, an important Eastern Orthodox theologian, and it was during this time that he became enthralled with the concept of theosis and the work of Gregory of Nyssa.

So to become like Jesus is to embrace more of our humanity.  In his book on the same name, Sir Ken Robinson describes the term ‘the element’ as the place where the things we love to do meets the things that we are good at.  During his lecture given to ‘TED’ he argues that education should be about helping people find their ‘element’.  If as Christians we believe that we are all on a process of theosis then our approach to education should be influenced by this theory.  If the person is an artist, we should help them express that to the fullest of their ability.  If they are a mathematician, then we should give them the space to become a better mathematician.

I understand that this definition of theosis can be seen as controversial as we have to discern what are the aspects of humanity that are ordained by God and which are fallen but even still, an approach to education inspired by the concept of divinization should compel us to create spaces where people are allowed to learn and grow, not just be fed information.  There needs to be, as Jurgen Moltmann suggests, a return to an ethic of play.  A return to the image of God as creator that helps people build relationships that are enjoyable and playful and allows them to reflect more on who they are as children of God.

But as we have already seen, the process of divinization has eschatological significance also.  In John’s gospel, when Mary meets the resurrected Jesus, she first assumes he is the gardener.  As Tom Wright points out, this term is loaded with Jewish meaning.  It is forcing us to think back to the garden in the story of Genesis; to creation.  Jesus is the first born of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).  But there is more to it than that.  He looks different but kind of the same.  Mary and the disciples do not recognise him at first but once they know who he is, they do recognise him.

The new creation has begun and we get to be partakers in the divine nature.  We are working with God to build this new world.  I believe that when Paul tells the Corinthians that their labour is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58) he is alluding to the fact that the work they are doing now has eternal significance.  Eternal life is not something that starts when you die; it starts now.  This should have a profound effect on the way we approach education.  It is eternal.

We are helping to build the coming kingdom and we should work in this knowledge.  Education is not an area that should be taken lightly. How do we help the people we educate become the people that God wants them to be? If it is to reflect the relationship of the Trinity then education should be inclusive and reciprocal.

Education needs to be transformed.  But before that can change, the definition of knowledge and intelligence also need to change.  Education is a life long process of which the aim should be to free people to be more like God.  If that means to be more human, then education has to become personal.  Educators have to be sacrificially involved with those they teach so that they can discern ‘who’ that person really is.  If it is about moral transformation, then there needs to be a return to ethical education.  An education that puts emphasis

on values and character alongside academic intelligence.

“What we do in life… echoes in eternity”.  A quote made famous by Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, “Gladiator”.  It has been quoted too often but the message still ringstrue.  We are all becoming something.  We are all in a process of transformation.  What that process is, is clearly still up for debate but regardless of which nuanced theology we follow, there is much to learn about the concept of theosis and how we can help people along that process.


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One response

  1. Let me offer some help thinking about the Orthodox view of theosis.

    The problem in the west was that it came to be an axiom that there wasn’t anything that was deity that wasn’t the divine essence. If that is true, then to become deified in the fullest sense would be to become God by essence. But this is impossible. So they sought to speak of deification in terms of ways of divine inhabiting and the created effects it produced in the soul.

    For the Orthodox in the East, this wasn’t a problem, since they never accepted that axiom. They distinguished between what God is in terms of essence and energy. What is a divine energy? It’s a doing or act that is also God or deity. These are things like knowing, willing, loving, etc. We participate or do the acts of God and hence become what God is by energy (be-ing, where being is a verb and not a noun, its not a “stuff”). Every creature is made after a plan, a logos, or energy which is in God eternally. These are predeterminations or predestinations for what every creature is to be. The image of God in man is one of those logoi (plural for logos).

    Our potential character then has always been divine, but it has not been actualized and can’t be on our own, but only with Christ. So theosis is character transformation, but the virtues are divine, yet naturally human powers (love, faith, hope, etc.) brought to act by us, but just not only by us. This is how divinization perfects nature and doesn’t obliterate it or suppress it.

    Another difference is that in the Orthodox tradition we do not ever “fully” see God. No one has nor can see God, not in this life or the life to come. There is no beatific vision then in Orthodox theology. See Lossky’s The Vision of God. God is known in his actions which are actions of the Trinity of divine persons. The divine persons bring the essential powers to act. God then is in and of himself essentially beyond be-ing or beyond act. There is always more to God than his actions. His ways are beyond finding out.

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