Theosis & Eros, Celibacy & Marriage

Feast of St Euthymius the Great

Dr. Adam G. Cooper recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his newest books—Naturally Human, Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre-conciliar Catholicism and Holy Eros: A Liturgical Theology of the Body—and his research into salvation, liturgy, theosis, the meaning of the body, and the crucial relationship between celibacy and marriage.

CWR: At first glance, these two books might appear to be about two rather different topics: soteriology and liturgy. But would it be accurate to say that each, in its own way, focus on shared topics, including the nature of man, the purpose of existence, and the end (or End) to which each of us is oriented?

Dr. Cooper: Yes, that’s a fair observation. Much of my writing has tended to revolve around theological anthropology in one shape or another. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it revolves around Christology, from which a good deal of my thinking about what it means to be human and bodily emerges.


CWR: Naturally Human, Supernaturally God is rather unique in that it takes a topic—deification—usually discussed from a biblical perspective or a patristic foundation, and examines it in the writings of three great twentieth-century Catholic theologians: Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Karl Rahner, S.J., and Henri de Lubac, S.J. How did you first become interested in the topic of deification? And how did you end up writing about Garrigou-Lagrange, Rahner, and de Lubac and their theological work about deification?

Dr. Cooper: My interest in deification goes way back to the first year of my Lutheran seminary education, where I had the chance to read Irenaeus and Origen for a research paper. I was struck by the centrality of this idea in their respective works. At that time quite a bit of work was also being done by the Finnish Lutherans on deification in Luther’s theology, so I was able to draw some tenuous links.

Several years later I found myself studying deification and the body in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor. To master Maximus on this topic one needs to master the whole Greek patristic tradition. Soon after becoming Catholic, I realized how much I stood in need of orientation in twentieth-century Catholic theology. So I chose a theme I already knew well from the Fathers—deification—and set out to discover whether and how it had featured in pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. It turned out to be a really worthwhile project.


CWR: What are some of the common points of emphasis among the three theologians? And in what ways did they differ? Why is it important to study both the points of agreement and of disagreement?

Dr. Cooper: All three theologians locate the heart and center of human meaning and fulfillment in Christ, the incarnate God. That may come as a surprise to some who think that Garrigou-Lagrange is too neo-scholastic or that Rahner is too modern. I didn’t know what I would find. I just knew the three figures represented very different streams or traditions in contemporary Catholic theology.

What surprised me was this convergence, revolving around human deification in Christ. Perhaps I am naïve, but it seems to me that here is at least one way towards healing and overcoming some of the many unnecessary polarities that afflict the post-Vatican Catholic Church, as well as offering a fruitful point of dialogue with other ecclesial traditions.


CWR: You acknowledge that you think de Lubac’s thinking and writing about deification, while controversial in some ways, is the best of the three. Why?

Dr. Cooper: Maybe because of my own formation in biblical and patristic theology, de Lubac speaks a language that is most familiar to me, and that rings true from what I know of authentic Christian tradition, spread over space and history.

He also speaks what I would call a more universal Christian language, one that is not narrowly bound by the categories of neo-scholastic or transcendental philosophy. That may sound subjective, but I think de Lubac’s theology has also been more clearly corroborated by magisterial teaching in the last forty years or so.


CWR: Another shared theme of these two books is what you describe as the “cruciform humility” of Christ and those who share in His divine life. What is the place and role of the cross in what you call “holy eros” and the “liturgical theology of the body?”

Dr. Cooper: The cross to me is everything. It’s the defining center of God and human history. Failure to come to grips with what happened there in our Lord’s bleeding and broken body results in a vague, abstract, evanescent theology entirely lacking power to change lives.

A theology of the cross does not simply mean that the cross is important. It requires the paradoxical reversal of all worldly perspectives, and the discovery of life in death, power in weakness, honor in humility, salvation in judgment. Christianity proclaims a glorious salvation, but it is not found in this life except under the veil of blood, tears, humility, and surrender to death.


CWR: How can the theology of the body equip Catholics to better understand and participate in Liturgy? What misunderstandings about worship and adoration can be countered by a deeper comprehension of the sign and symbolism of the human body?

Dr. Cooper: Christian faith is not first of all a mental event. It is born in the body, and shaped by what we do with and in the body. Our bodies furthermore are not just neutral, mute instruments, but already inscribed with meaning and purpose, already indicating something about the shape of human and spiritual fulfillment. In the Liturgy, which is nothing less than the body language of Christ in the world, all these dynamics come together.

The Church in worship is a living, breathing body. Its communion with God is physically mediated. Sensitivity to the meaning of our own bodies, especially what John Paul II called the body’s “nuptial” dimension, as well as to the “physicality” of the Church’s Liturgy, goes a long way towards strengthening effective participation in and understanding of Christian worship.


CWR: Celibacy has often been presented as a discipline with an ancient heritage. But what are the theological roots and meanings of celibacy? And how can they help us to better understand marriage and the nuptial relationship?

Dr. Cooper: Our Lord is a virgin. So is His Mother. In His virginal conception and incarnate virginal life “nature is innovated afresh” (to use a phrase of Maximus the Confessor). This means that in Christ’s bodily virginity, which even now is enclosed within the Trinitarian communion, something new enters the sphere of salvation history, revealing and effectively realizing a new and more ultimate meaning for marriage and sexuality.

According to the Creator’s plan marriage is not just a means for human reproduction. Rather it bears a paradigmatic status, directing us toward our ultimate end in the marriage of the Lamb and the Bride. In a hidden yet real way sacramental marriages already participate in the redemptive grace of this Christ/Church union. But celibacy for the sake of the kingdom more manifestly embodies and anticipates the ultimacy of heavenly fulfillment. In their lives and teaching both Jesus and Paul subordinate marriage to discipleship and the kingdom.

Marriage thus needs the witness of celibacy to prevent it from appearing as god, as ultimate. Celibacy on the other hand needs marriage to indicate its relational, nuptial meaning and erotic trajectory.


CWR: There is currently a strong push in Western culture to erase or dismiss the differences between men and women, as well as to redefine marriage. How can the theology of the body and a better understanding of the nuptial nature of Christ’s relationship with the Church help the Church in defending and lauding that which is truly masculine and feminine, as well as presenting the nature of authentic marriage?

Dr. Cooper: Every true union presupposes difference. This is true at the level of the Trinitarian communion, the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, the union of Christ and the Church, and the union of human persons in marriage. Bodily, sexual difference iconically signals this fact. We can ignore it, but we cannot erase it.

This is why proposals to redefine marriage in generic, non-sexually specific terms, amount in fact to an anthropological devolution. With this anthropological genericism goes a more or less subtle eradication of the iconic nature and function of human sexuality, its symbolic capacity to disclose divine mysteries. The body and sexuality lose their inherent, divinely-inscribed meaning and transparency. They instead become playthings, pure instruments, subject to the arbitrary manipulations of human will.


CWR: You conclude Holy Eros with a short chapter on the “prophetism” of the body. In what way does the use of our bodies—in marriage, in worship, and so forth—give witness to divine truths and realities?

Dr. Cooper: The holy prophets of Israel were more than just mouthpieces or disinterested conduits for the powerful divine word. This word gripped them and took hold of them. It burned inside them, it weighed constantly upon their hearts, it overturned their lives and histories. Above all this word effectively enacted the realities of which it spoke.

In marriage, and most poignantly in conjugal union, the bodies of the spouses function similarly. Their bodies do not just communicate information, but effectively enact new realities. The language of the body in marriage is, like the language of the prophets, a performative language, an effective word-deed. This of course implies the possibility of falsification. The language of the body can be falsified. The body can be used to tell sexual lies.

For the prophets, fidelity to the word of God was paramount. On it turned the wellbeing of Israel and the history of the world. For spouses, and indeed for all, fidelity to the God-inscribed language of the body is no optional extra, a useful possibility worthy of consideration. On it turns the wellbeing of God’s people, and the future of society.

*Originally published at, Oct. 2, 2014

*Adam Cooper is a plenary speaker for the 2019 Symposium. Click here for registration to join him at the Symposium.

**New Eighth Day Members at the Patron or Pillar level attend Symposium free, plus you receive an auto-subscription to both annual editions of Synaxis (Symposium Journal and Florovsky Journal), plus the annual Eighth Day Books & Culture, the annual Microsynaxis (Eighth Day events in print), and the quarterly Catechetical Word from the Fathers. Click here to join the community of Eighth Day Members today!

*** Click here to purchase a copy of Synaxis 6.1 on "Eros & the Mystery of God: On the Body Sex & Asceticism"

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.