Becoming God: Gregory Of Nazianzus and Theosis

Gregory’s poetry is inseparable from theosis.  If you can’t quite remember what that is, or don’t know, theosis is the Eastern Christian doctrine that the ultimate goal of humanity is to become God.  If your heresy alarm is going off, don’t worry.  Nobody is becoming a lightning-bolt flinging god in and of themselves.  It’s more nuanced than that.

A lot of the nuance comes down to understanding essence and energy.  Humanity is supposed to become a part of God’s energy (his action in the world), but is incapable of becoming a part of his essence (his core being). Consider the classic example of the sun.  Can you see the sun?  No, actually.  You can’t see it at all. You can see the sun’s rays.  The sun is that burning ball of gas that sends off the rays of light that we see.  All the same, when we look up at the sky, we don’t say that we see the sun’s rays of light.  We say that we see the sun!  The essence of the sun would be that burning ball of gas, while the rays would be the energy of the sun.  Both are considered “the sun,” but one is the sun proper, while the other is actually the product of the sun’s action that is tied to it’s identity.

Consider God to be like the sun.  God’s essence is that is so holy and beyond our understanding that we can’t look at him directly (Exodus 33:20).  We can’t be this all-powerful, all-holy, pure being! That is for God and God alone. But sometimes we might say, “I saw God today in that person’s actions!”  We didn’t see the burning, mind-blowing essence of God; we saw his energy, or the action of God throughout the world.  Through theosis we become God, but we don’t become his essence.  As creations, we participate in God’s energy, and thus become him since his action in the world is a part of who he is.

As cheesy as it is, we are not the Son.  We are the Son’s rays of light (which are a part of the Son).

It’s a very participatory understanding of God, and one that’s thoroughly ancient.  For example, Athanasius (the guy who usually gets credit for establishing that Jesus is actually God) coined the popular phrase: “God became man so that man might become God.” (54:3, On the Incarnation). 

Gregory’s writing is absolutely soaked in the same logic.  For example, who could read this line from On the Son without hearing the logic of Athanasius?

through Christ’s sufferings, you may become God hereafter (48-49, On the Son)

Similarly, his poetry on the Father and the Holy Spirit both include references to humanity’s ultimate theosis:

Oh Spirit of God, may you waken my mind and tongue
As a loud-shouting clarion of truth, so that all
may rejoice who are united to the entire Godhead. (23-25, On the Father)

God’s gift [is] his own divinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 54)

To properly understand the Triune God, he expects people to understand how they’re being asked to become a part of it. You can’t know God without knowing how he’s inviting you to join the divine life.

The theme of theosis isn’t limited to those God-centric poems either. In considering the world and humanity’s ultimate journey towards heaven, he writes:

Of these worlds, the first-born was that other heaven,
The region of those who bear the divine, perceptible to minds only,
All-luminous; To it the man of God wends his way from here
Later, once he’s perfected as god, purified in mind and flesh. (95-96, Concerning the World)

Again and again, waves of theosis crash over the reader.  We are expected to become one with God. 

Why is it so hard to imagine someone saying this in a Western church today?

I’ve seen a few writers attempt to answer that question by blaming the way Westerners think about knowledge.  Western knowledge is often understood to be knowledge about something.  This type of knowledge is a dispassionate, supposedly objective, factual sort of understanding. Science textbooks are full of this kind of knowledge.  For example, if I look up knowledge about an apple, I might learn where it best grows, what it’s Latin name is, and how many of them were sold commercially last year.  All of this is technically true, but removed from the more intimate knowledge that comes from a genuine, firsthand experience with an apple. People who have knowledge of an apple know what it tastes like, they know the tension of an apple’s skin beneath their teeth, and they remember the shine that reflects off an apple as it’s held up to a light.  You can’t find that on Wikipedia!  That’s a different kind of knowledge; knowledge that is usually relegated to poets and artists. It might even sound more like feelings than art, but both are valid ways of gaining knowledge about something. Westerners just favor knowledge about over knowledge of.

If the apple feels to far removed from relational knowledge that you need to consider in Christianity for a being such as God, just think about how you could know a friend in the same ways: “my friend has brown hair,” (knowledge about) or “my friend is delightful,” (knowledge of).

In any case, the claim that has been made that Westerners are so concerned with knowledge about (represented by scholastic theology) that they have little interest in direct knowledge of God (as reflected by mystics and monks). Since theosis is an experiential, intimate knowledge of God, it wouldn’t really appeal to the Western mind as a worthwhile, valid source of theology.

I think that claim is completely wrong. I would even go a step further and claim that it’s biased enough that it was probably written by an Easterner that was explaining the importance of their traditions without full knowledge of vibrant Western Christian traditions.  We have no shortage of influential mystics (Julian of Norwich, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross, etc.) and I’ve met people that passionately seek God without any scholastic bent.  There are whole traditions that (sadly) actively deride an academic approach to faith!  And even if there were some hint of truth to the claim, I do believe that knowledge about God in the scholastic sense is important.  We need both types of knowledge to really thrive as Christians. Pitting one against the other isn’t helpful. To use the example of an apple again, if I only had personal knowledge about apples, I probably wouldn’t be able to grow apple trees.  I wouldn’t know the proper climate, anything about how they’re fertilized, or the best variety to grow for my region.  If I’m really desperately passionate about apples, both kinds of knowledge are crucially important.  The same is true with knowledge about people.  I know what it’s like to spend an evening with my wife.  If, however, I forget her birthday because I don’t value knowledge about her, then I’m going to guess our relationship will suffer for it.

No, the “Westerners don’t appreciate personal knowledge” explanation both derides some very good sources of knowledge and doesn’t speak to the vibrant Western sources of spirituality that actively exist.

My guess is that a large amount of it comes down to language and culture.  The essence/energy distinction sounds very platonic (something derived from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato) and understandings about theosis flourished in places that had close contact and influence from Greek culture and writings (Russia, Greece, etc.). Could it be that an idea with roots in Greek thought made more sense to places influenced accordingly?

The West wrote and spoke in Latin.  The essence/energy distinction was not only unexplored; mindsets shaped by Greek words and philosophies were less common.  Things simply were what they were!  God was God, and not-God was not-God.  Essence defined identity; energy translated as something like “action,” and it was not linked with identity.  The creature-creator distinction ended up being considerably sharper as a result.

Of course, the energy-essence distinction wasn’t officially given as a teaching until the 12th century, but words usually bubble up out of pre-existing logics that require definitive explanations.  And here we see Gregory talking about theosis readily, and he’s all the way back in the fourth century! The Greek language and mindset made theosis reasonable.  The Latin language and mindset made it sound heretical.

In any case, it’s a teaching that inspires me.  It’s intimate.  It’s close beyond close.  To imagine that I might not just achieve a certain level of goodness, but might reflect the actions of God so well that he and I are inseparable?  It captures the idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit so perfectly. The fact that the guy who helped establish Jesus’s divinity (Athanasius) and one of the fighters for the Godhood of the Holy Spirit (our dear Gregory) are both onboard makes it seem like a crucial truth that we’ve forgotten. Were we made to become divine?

What would it take to make full use of the doctrine of theosis in Western churches?  And is that something we should be aiming for?  It’s a doctrine that is complicated for the Western mind, but one that illustrates the closeness of God and the importance of our transformation so well.  At minimum, I love that Gregory’s forcing me to consider a divine destiny for humanity, and, even with my little explanation, I keep pondering why it’s so hard for us to imagine.