On gods and Aesthetics, Psalms and Theosis

Happy heavenly birthday Jack! Pray for us down here!

Today in honor of the 50th anniversary of CS Lewis' transposition from earthly life into the greater life of God, I preached a sermon on the idea of humans becoming "gods" which is found in several of CS Lewis' writings, but most especially in his sermon "The Weight of Glory". The texts I chose to speak on were the following:

1Corinthians 4.6-18: "For it is God who... has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ... For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure..."

Psalm 82.6: I say, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you..."

John 10.34-36: Jesus answered [his opponents], "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said you are gods'"? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?

In the process of the sermon, I used these Scriptures to talk about how we are made in the image of God, and this gives us the vocation-- the calling, the mission-- to grow "into all the fullness of God" [cf. Ephesians 3.19]. As such, we are made by God (capital "G") to become gods (lowercase "g") who show forth the glory of God in our lives. It is precisely our choice to live into this Divine vocation that CS Lewis elaborates on in "The Weight of Glory", when he says:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - These are mortal. They die and fade away, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

Part of the inspiration for this sermon, and the desire to talk about CS Lewis' ideas, was an ongoing conversation I have had with several colleagues about the nature of art and beauty. And so today's sermon was quite intentionally an exposition of the theological background material for the essay I shared with them, and on my blog, entitled "On beauty after becoming gods".

In reading that essay it might at first seem that the idea of humanity "becoming gods" was some type of über-postmodern, kitschy-Nietzschean turn of phrase. But the idea is actually decidedly ancient, and encapsulated in CS Lewis' sermon "The Weight of Glory", the material in book IV of Mere Christianity, and the Eastern Orthodox idea of salvation as "theosis" (that is, the divination of humanity as they participate ontologically in the nature of God through the incarnation of God in Jesus).

In the course of the sermon I made the point that these Scriptures form the most explicit Scriptural basis for the idea that we are called by God to become "gods" (that is, to grow into the fullness of God as we participate in the Divine Nature). But as soon as I preached the sermon, one of my colleagues took issue with my use of Psalm 82 in this context. He rightly pointed out that my treatment of Psalm 82 was not in line with "original authorial intent" of said Psalm (and by implication, both Jesus and CS Lewis may have mis-used this Psalm).

This critique is quite right. He is absolutely on target when he notes that Psalm 82 is clearly an enthronement Psalm in which Yahweh is shown as High King chastising the assembly of the gods of the surrounding nations. In the original context, each kingdom/culture was assumed to have its own God which represented the "élan vital", or animating power, of that culture. Yahweh was seen as having sole authority to judge and depose these other "gods" for not doing justice and defending the oppressed (cf. Psa 82.3).

However, Psalm 82 is used in the same basic way that I did today by Jesus, and myself, and one stream a rabbinic tradition, and the Orthodox theosis tradition. So, is that a misuse or not?

If I speak strictly as a Biblical theologian, then yes, I misused the passage. So did Jesus. So did Lewis. So does the entire Orthodox theosis tradition. However, as a mystical theologian, I did not misuse it. Because I followed a telescopic or thematic link in this passage that takes the historic referent to one of many possible conclusions.

Here's how the linkage works in mystical theology:

The human rulers of ancient societies were often seen as embodiments of their gods, the focal point of their culture's "élan vital". And so, the prophecies of Yahweh against foreign Gods are often so interwoven with judgment of their earthly Kings, that it is impossible to rhetorically separate them. For a great example of this, read Ezekiel 28 and the lament against the King of Tyre which ALSO seems to be a lament against the Satan-type angelic power which animates the King of Tyre (in fact, one of the most common Christian interpretations of this passage is that it is symbolically about Satan).

In the same way, the great prophets of the Jewish tradition are said to be embodiments of the Holy Spirit that fills them. Indeed, King David and the later Messianic promises call the anointed one "the Son of God" (the same language used in Psalm 82.6). So by the end of the Hebrew Bible there is a sense in which exceptional figures in Jewish spirituality are embodiments of the Divine.

This type of linkage is broadened between the Testaments by the Jewish encounter with Platonic philosophy and the idea of "participation" of the earthly with the Divine Realm of the "forms". So, by Jesus' time, there was already a strong tradition of Jewish mystical theology, strongly influenced by streams of Platonism, that applied passages like Psalm 82 to anyone who participated in Yahweh's life by faith and obedience to Torah. So, that is roughly how the symbolic understanding of that passage moved from referring to Divine Beings, to referring to earthly Kings who represented Divine Beings, to referring to humans bearing the Divine Image.

Of course Eastern Christianity, post-Jesus, strengthens the flow of this logic. Since Jesus is seen as the fullest possible participation of humanity and Divinity, as the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, then human nature itself becomes the site in which Divine Life is most fully encountered. The frail body of flesh becomes the very vehicle by which embodied souls become [g]ods as they grow into the image of [G]od.

And if you think I am making this up, these kinds of ideas find expression in the West not only in CS Lewis, but also in the Roman Catholic Catechism. In paragraph 460 it states: The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods."

This is where the Orthodox mystical tradition takes this whole idea. Now, to add a Liberation Theology spin to the issue. If we go back to Psalm 82 (ad fontes!) we will note that social justice- defending the dignity of the oppressed and meeting the needs of the helpless- is actually the very task of the "gods" that Yahweh is castigating for not performing. To fulfill one's duty and role as "god" is precisely to do justice and embody covenantal love. To reject this task and mission is to participate in the opposite of God- to participate in death.

And thus how we fully grow into god-hood then becomes to enact and embody the life and values of Jesus in our daily life. It starts to look a lot like Matthew 25.31-46, where Jesus says "what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me". This is precisely where the theologian Irenaeus was headed when he said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive". When humans give mutually to one another, and enable each other to fully live into the Divine potential we were created to manifest, then humans show forth God's radiant glory and beautiful splendor. And the more we manifest love and creativity and justice and compassion and beauty, the more God is glorified.

And not only was Irenaeus one of the earliest Christian thinkers to really grasp the linkage between "the weight of glory" and the realization of human potential through Christlike living. Irenaeus was also one of the original proponents of understanding salvation as Theosis or Divinization. Athanasius draws on him a century later when he wrote the seminal bumper-strip summary of Theosis in "On the Incarnation". The most memorable English translation of Athanasius says: "God became human so that humanity might become god". This is a slight paraphrase of section 54.3, which reads "Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν", and translates literally as "Indeed he [the Word of God] was humanized in order that we may be divinized".

So then there is a synergy and a systemic connection between (a) the Incarnation of God in Christ; (b) the Divinization of humans through Christ in the process of Theosis, and (c) the glory of God manifested in divinized humans who fulfill their Divine potential, through (d) the pursuit of Christlike Love, altruism, social justice, and compassion.

The link between our day-by-day moral choices, and our divinization as "gods" is also made by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity:

"People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, "If you keep a lot of rules I'll reward you, and if you don't I'll do the other thing." I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other." 

So to be divinized is to participate in the life of God through Jesus. And the route of participation is to embody and enact the kind of life that Jesus did: A life of living prayer to God, and a pursuit of justice and compassion toward other potential gods and goddesses made in God's image. That is a fancy way of saying that the secret to becoming gods who mirror God is following the Great Commandments to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Which is pretty much what Jesus said too [cf. Matthew 22.37-40].

This kind of life will result in our becoming like God-- becoming gods-- who not only reflect the beauty of God, but who become the beauty of God. For as CS Lewis says in "The Weight of Glory": "We do not want merely to see beauty... We want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it."

And this we shall do, by the grace of God, through the Incarnation of God. Amen.

In postscript and in honor of CS Lewis' legacy, check out this incredible video of Lewis' talk "The Grand Miracle" which ties together the Incarnation and Theosis quite nicely. And well illustrated!

Also, to strengthen the connection between CS Lewis and the theosis tradition found in Athanasius, check out CS Lewis preface to a mid-20th-century translation of "On the Incarnation". The text is found here.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.