Feast of St Sisoes the Great
NOT MANY readers of C. S. Lewis know that, despite his well-known sympathies with the major texts and theologians of the West, he embraced a radically Eastern vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage toward total transformation called theosis. This is a Greek word that does not actually appear in the New Testament. Yet like Trinity and Atonement, as terms also absent from Scripture, it is crucial for comprehending the Gospel. Roughly translated, it means the “divinizing” or “deification” of human life. C. S. Lewis’s friend Charles Williams gave it an odd English translation: “in-Godding.” We are called not merely to be yanked back from the brink of Hell, so that we remain ransomed but still sodden sinners for the sake of the Kingdom. Nor are we meant to follow Jesus as our Exemplar, striving for moral improvement so as to become “good people.” Important though these things surely are, they don’t touch the depths of theosis, which calls us to participate in the very life of God. We are summoned to be nothing other than icons of Christ.
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Already by the 4th century theosis had become indispensable for the life of the Church. St. Athanasius (c. 296-373) gave it the most celebrated and succinct formulation: “God became human,” he declared, “so that humans may become God. And he manifested himself by a body that we might receive an idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”
The 4th century saint is here recalling our Lord’s pronouncement from John 10:34—it is the virtual leitmotif of the Fourth Gospel—where Jesus quotes Psalm 82: “I said, you are gods.” Yet the real basis for theosis lies in a somewhat obscure remark from 2 Peter 1:4: “You shall become partakers of the divine nature.” Athanasius was a Father of the Greek-speaking Church of the East, and theosis and deification have lain at the center of the Orthodox East far more than of the Latin West. The Eastern Church insists on reading human nature in dual rather than singular terms, taking with utmost seriousness the Hebrew doublet which declares that we are made in “God’s image and likeness.”
For the East, the image of God in us remains virtually indestructible: we can escape it no more than we can avoid our own shadow. It ensures our unique and distinct identity, permanently setting us apart from the other animals. We can destroy it, in fact, only by becoming beasts (Athanasius) or demons (Gregory of Nyssa). Our likeness to God is also divinely given but it is not divinely fixed. Because God never coerces his creatures, he grants us freedom that is at once wondrous and terrible—namely, the liberty to become either more or less like the image in which we are made. We are already, here and now, on our way to ever greater likeness to God or else, alas, ever greater unlikeness. The first is called Paradise, the last Perdition. We are already embarked on our way toward either Heaven or Hell. Hence this sharp saying from Maximus the Confessor:
By his gracious condescension God became man and is called man for the sake of man and by exchanging his condition for our ours revealed the power that elevates man to God through his love for God and brings God down to man because of his love for man. By this blessed inversion, man is made God by divinization and God is made man by hominization. For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.
In The Four Loves, Lewis draws a similar distinction while using different terms. There are two kinds of “nearness to God,” he argues. The first is the nearness that comes from God’s having impressed his character onto the whole creation, and supremely on us humans as the utter “given” of our human condition—the equivalent of what the East calls “image” or icon. The second nearness is “a nearness of approach” that requires our consent and collaboration; again, this is something akin to “likeness” in Orthodoxy. Always and already enabled by divine grace, the achievement of this nearness of approach is not imposed on us by anything akin to forensic justification or substitutionary atonement. As Lewis says, it is “something we must do.” He clearly believes in the necessity of our human response to God’s Incarnation. Hence Lewis’s remarkable claim in The Screwtape Letters:
The likeness they [i.e., believers] receive by sonship is not that of images or portraits. It is in one way more than likeness, for it is union or unity with God in will…. [O]ur imitation of God in this life—that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any [image] which He has impressed on our natures or states [of being]—must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Cavalry, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.
As Lewis also argues in Mere Christianity, the whole purpose of the Gospel is to turn Christians into what he variously calls “new men [and women],” “little Christs,” “Sons [and Daughters] of God”—all of which may rightly be called true icons.
The life of theosis entails our becoming fully human even as Christ was fully human. We are to become by grace what he is by nature, as the Lord’s Prayer indicates: we are meant to be gods dwelling in accord with each other on earth here and now as also in heaven. Lewis sounds this same trumpeted summons to theosis in his war-time sermon “The Weight of Glory.” There he calls for our transformative participation in God’s own life so as to effect not chiefly our own individual salvation but the deification of everyone we meet, even our life in the secular city:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw 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 circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all love, all play, all politics.
Ralph C. Wood has served as University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor since 1998. He previously served for 26 years on the faculty of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he became the John Allen Easley Professor of Religion in 1990. He has also taught at Samford University in Birmingham, at Regent College in Vancouver, and at Providence College in Rhode Island.
*Excerpted from full essay which is published in Synaxis Vol. 3 No. 2