Dear Friends and Family,
As some of you may know, I used to have a blog over on blogger. I switched not too long ago to WordPress liking the format better. There are, however, some posts from my old blog that I still like. So, over the course of this week, I will be reposting some of them here. I hope you enjoy them. My thoughts may often appear less mature or at least differently attuned, but I think this could be fun.
Please le me know what you think of them.
Dear Friends and Family,
Last week I was asked to give a presentation in Dr Karen Kilby’s class on Christology (the study of Christ) on deification. Deification is a topic that comes up often when you study the early Church. I thought it might be helpful for me to post my presentation here. Please let me know what you think of it and if you have any questions. I will also post a short bibliography I made for the students in Karen’s class of seminal secondary works on the topic of deification.
Karen has asked me to give a brief description of what is and is not deification. It is not surprising that deification has come up so frequently in a course on Christology. Deification was often used in discussions about the Trinity and the Incarnation, being, for the Church Fathers, inextricably tied to these doctrines. Broadly, a doctrine of deification is a way of understanding salvation and redemption. For most of the Church Fathers, deification is what has always been intended for humanity.
The simplest possible definition of deification is that it means Christians become gods, insofar as that is possible. What this might mean I will go into more in a moment, but I wanted first to note that at its core deification quite literally means becoming God.
Tied to Incarnation
The second thing it is important to note at the beginning is that deification is tied to the notion that God became man in Jesus Christ. As Athanasius said in On The Incarnation, ‘He became man that we might be made God.’ The way this is typically seen to work is that when the Logos took on human nature he deified not only his own human nature, but made it possible for all human nature to be deified. This is enough to get on with, for the moment. Now I want to look at what deification does not mean.
What Deification Doesn’t Mean
Losing one’s self/Absorption
The first thing deification does not mean in the Christian tradition, is the total loss of one’s self in the divine. The Christian is not so absorbed into God that they cease to be themselves. This is the kind of deification you see more in Eastern Religions and Neoplatonism, but none of the Church Fathers speak of it in this way.
Becoming a god in a Pagan Sense
Next, deification does not mean becoming a god in some kind of pagan sense. The Christian does not, upon death, like Herakles, become a god to be worshipped by those still alive. For the Church Fathers there is only one true God, and whatever deification means, it does not mean becoming a god in the same way God is God.
Crossing the Creator-creature Divide
Finally, deification does not mean creatures become uncreated. Being a creature is inherent to humanity. Thus, Christians do not become new members of the Trinity, there is still a distinction between them and God, as there must be for only God is uncreated and Creator.
What Deification Does Mean
Now I want to turn to what deification does mean. It is important to remember that what I am doing here is giving a general synthesis of what the Tradition has taught about deification. Reading individual Fathers and theologians you will find different emphases, but, I think, that at the core they all have the same general view in mind.
Becoming Truly Human
The main aspect of what deification means is becoming human, truly human. As I said earlier, deification does not mean ceasing to be an individual, nor does it mean crossing the divide between Creator and creature. Instead, when the Logos became human, he gave humanity the ability to be deified. In his death and resurrection, he defeated the weaknesses somewhat inherent to humanity and so allowed them to transcend humanity as we understand it now and come to humanity as God intended it to be.
The Four Aspects
Finally, I want to give you what I have found to be the form main aspects of deification. These aspects describe how it is humanity is said to be deified. In some ways, looking at these terms gives us the best chance at defining deification. The four aspects of deification, then, are Participation, Transformation, Imitation, and Virtue.
Participation, which is often synonymous with grace, adoption, and union, has two basic definitions. The first is that by having existence all created things participate in God. It is something very passive and inescapable. The second aspect of participation, however, is what allows Christians to be deified. It is in this sense where terms like grace and adoption are helpful for understanding it. Essentially, what Christ is by nature, God and Man, humans can become by participation (or grace, or adoption, or union). This aspect of participation is neither active nor passive, or better yet, it is both active and passive. It is something the Christian both actively does by prayer, contemplation, the Sacraments; and yet is something done to them by God. This active-passivity or passive-activity is inherent to understanding deification. I prefer to use the grammatical middle voice, which usually signifies reflexivity, to understand this paradox.
The next aspect of deification is often tied to participation, namely, transformation. This transformation is in one sense ontological, that is a change in being, for it is a change in human nature. However, as I said before, this change cannot be into something inhuman, but precisely human. This transformation is brought about by participation, as well as imitation and virtue. Also, it is important to note that while, as I said, deification does not mean the loss of identity, transformation does mean being transformed into Christ. This is why, as I shall show in a moment, imitating Christ, and understanding who Christ is is so important.
Imitation is then the next aspect of deification. This imitation means both imitating Christ in his earthly life as well as imitating those who have best imitated Christ. You could view imitation as a subset of participation, a kind of active aspect. However, for the Fathers, even imitation is something that is middle in voice for while it is done actively by the Christian, they are only capable of doing so because of the grace of God.
The final aspect of deification is the acquisition and employment of virtue. This is directly tied to imitation in that the virtues sought out by the Christian are those revealed in Christ, throughout Scripture, and seen in the saints. Essentially, virtue is about orientating one’s self to God and desiring to live a godly life that will aid in being transformed into the image of Christ.
I know this has been a whirlwind run through what deification means, but I think it is important both for understanding the ancient texts we have been reading in this module, as well as why, at least for the Church Fathers, discussions of what the Incarnation means and who Christ is are so important. For them, Christ’s being God has far reaching implications not only for all Christians, but all of creation.
Seminal Secondary Texts on Deification
Christensen, Michael, and Jeffery A. Wittung, eds. Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2008.
Collins, Paul M. Partaking in Divine Nature: Deification and Communion. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.
Finlan, Stephen, and Vladimir Kharlamov, eds. Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. Vol. 1. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2006.
Gross, Jules. The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers. Translated by Paul A. Onica. Anaheim: A&C Press, 2002.
Keating, Daniel. Deification and Grace. Naples: Sapientia Press, 2007.
Kharlamov, Vladimir, ed. Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. Vol. 2. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.
Lossky, Vladimir. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Ian and Ihita Kesarcodi-Watson. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.
Meyendorf, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. Oxford: Mowbrays, 1974.
Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Dear Friends and Family,
Part of my normal routine is to get up at five in the morning, do my morning ablutions, and then I come into the study, say my prayers, and by no later than 5:45 I begin my morning reading. Right now, I’m reading my way through The Everyman Chesterton, a collection of some of G. K. Chesterton’s most famous writings. At the moment, I’m in the middle of Orthodoxy, a fantastic book that ought to be read by all. Today I came to the chapter entitle ‘The Ethics of Elfland’. In this chapter, Chesterton lays out the laws and guidelines one usually finds in Faerie. There’s a particular quote I want to share with you:
‘I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened–dawn and death and so on–as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine a tree not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by their tail.’ (300 in my edition).
What Chesterton here is critiquing is this notion that simply because something has repeatedly happened does not mean it is what always must happen. He later adds, ’But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible the God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon’ (309). For Chesterton, imagination was the key test of a law. If you could imagine it differently, then it was not a law. This is magic, for Chesterton.
In Faerie, however, there are still laws. Two plus two must always equal four (unless you change the meaning of the words), black can never be white or blue or green and vice versa. Finally, good can never be evil and evil good. You see, in Faerie there are absolutes. I am reminded of George Macdonald, a nineteenth Scottish story writer and theologian. In his story The Princess and the Goblin, the princess is described as being beautiful and truthful for it is the mark of the princess to be honest. Faerie is a world where the transcendentals (Truth, Beauty, and Goodness) have not been separated and so where you find one you find them all.
I now have a secret to tell you. Perhaps you’ve guessed it already. Faerie is real, truly it is more real in so many ways than the earth as we know and understand it. We must look to Elfland for our ethics for they turn to the same Christ we do. This world is enchanted, if only we have the eyes to see it.
Dear Friends and Family,
I’ve decided to add some pages to my blog. The first you can find here. It is a list of the papers and reviews I have presented and/or published. I thought this could be a useful way both to promote myself when I start the job hunt and allow any of my readers an opportunity to get in touch with me about things I’ve written. The second page can be found here. This page is dedicated to the things I am currently writing. I’ll try to keep it up-to-date so if anyone has questions, comments, or suggestions about my work they can see what I’m doing and contact me.
I hope at least some of you find these pages useful and that they don’t appear self-aggrandising. Please, feel free to contact me about my work, especially if you’re working on similar topics. I appreciate any opportunity I can have to discuss theology, literature, and more with people who enjoy it as much as I do.
Dear Friends and Family,
I’m on what is something like my umpteenth reading of the Harry Potter series. This series, along with Tolkien’s Legendarium, and Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles and Space Trilogy, are books I return to every year. Sometimes I read them all multiple times a year. While I could easily make this a defence of the Fantasy genre, I rather wish to defend the Harry Potter series explicitly. It’s been my experience that this series more than any other has earned the ire of many well-meaning Christians (One could argue that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Series, or any of Dan Brown’s books receive more ire and condemnation, but neither author would probably care much for Christian approbation. Pullman’s writing is actively anti-Christian and thus is different, as we shall see, from Rowling’s books).
I once knew someone who, when I told them I was rereading the Harry Potter series, said that they did not as a matter of conscience. Also, when I was an undergraduate I took the Non-Western Religions Class. The teacher was a native Kenyan and very intelligent on all matters sociological. She had a guest speaker come in for an extra-credit lecture. I was unable to attend, but was informed afterward that speaker claimed that Harry Potter was too reminiscent of the witchcraft practiced in their native country, but that Lewis and Tolkien were ok, because magic was different in their writings.
Herein lies the major Christian rejection of Harry Potter: magic. When we normally think of magic, we normally relate it to people who call upon either the spirits of the dead or the spirits of nature to work through the individual as a vessel in order to reach a desired end. Sometimes it’s simply an incantation, other times it’s a witches brew with words spoke over it. The key here, however, is the channeling of spirits. This is not what magic is in Harry Potter.
Magic in Harry Potter has a simultaneously genetic and Calvinistic feel to it. Those who have read the books know that one must be born a witch or a wizard. If you or I existed in the world of Harry Potter, we would be Muggles, that is, incapable of performing magic. A wand would do nothing in our hands for it is a channel for the innate power within the witch or wizard. So, magic is primarily genetic in Harry Potter, those born of wizarding families are usually born with the ability to do magic. However, there is a kind of Calvinistic election about it as well. One can be born of a non-magical family and yet have the ability to do magic, and, sometimes, there are those born of magical families who cannot do magic. Thus even magical ancestry, not unlike coming from a Christian family, is not a 100% guarantee that you would be able to do magic.
Even once we start looking at how magic is done in Harry Potter, we find that the incantations are merely simple Latin phrases or sentences that merely describe what the witch or wizard is attempting to do. Never do witches or wizards in Harry Potter call upon something purely external to them to work through them in order to accomplish magic.
When I read Harry Potter, I often think of those with the ability to do magic as elves or faeries, in both the Tolkien and Medieval traditions. They are like humans, they are even genetically related to humans, but they are different. They have a different relationship with the world than ordinary humans do, they live incredibly long lives, and the best of them serve as great inspiration for us all. If Rowling’s faeries fall flat at all it is that they are too human.
You might be wondering why this matters. Why have I written what is quite possibly my longest post about a series of children’s books? Well, I’ll hopefully do another post later to show the various Christian themes in Harry Potter. For now, however, I simply want to inform those well-meaning Christians who have, up to now, despised Harry Potter for a presumed Satanism through witchcraft, to look again at these stories for they are not evil. In fact, they bring to prominence the greatest of the theological virtues: love.
We as Christians have been failing somewhat in the imagination department. We should not descend to despising what is essentially Christian literature merely because it uses language that in other contexts may indeed be demonic. We must remember that pure evil does not exist, for all evil is a perversion of the Good. We must remember that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed, for our God is greater.