Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Spiritual pride and the necessity for theosis


The sin of spiritual pride is a focus of the ascetic monastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. It is also recognized by the Western Catholic tradition - although not given such prominence; and indeed by monastic Zen Buddhists.


Spiritual pride is the particular sin of those who embark upon a personal quest for holiness, for sanctity (the path to Sainthood), for theosis (becoming more like God) - and the sin is something like regarding one's own will as if it were the divine will - or perhaps being deceived into regarding demonic promptings as if they were divine.

The particular problem of spiritual pride, is that the person who suffers it imagines they are at a higher spiritual level than those around them, and so becomes immune to advice, warning, criticism.

The Eastern Orthodox antidote is to embark on ascetic disciplines only under supervision of a spiritual Father - and initially in a monastic (group) setting, with the monks 'looking out for each other'.

The assumption is that the spiritual Father has attained a sufficiently high level of theosis that he can detect and help solve the problems in the apprentice; and the apprentice must, for his own good, submit to this authority. The religious life is thus transmitted from Master to apprentice in an unbroken chain - implicitly originating and emanating from the Apostles at the time of Christ. (

However, it seems that the chain of tradition has been broken in many or most places in the world, which means that this method of attaining theosis is no longer possible - at least for most people in most places.)


My impression is that spiritual pride is especially a problem of spiritual ambition, when spiritual ambition is contaminated by the desire for one's own power and glory - e.g. the desire to make a 'successful career' of being a recognized Holy Man (rather like those fake 'gurus' of the 1960s), or simply the status of holiness - even purely the the self-satisfied 'smugness' of regarding oneself as of higher holiness than others.


Yet of course spiritual ambition is in itself 'a good thing' - and very necessary in a world such as ours where spirituality is at a pitifully low ebb.

But it seems that an onslaught on spirituality, aided by fasting, many hours of prayer, vigils (staying awake all night to pray) is - while often effective - hazardous; and hazardous in a similar way to the 1960s use of psychedelic drugs to create spiritual experiences - selfish, evil, demonic experiences are mistaken for insights, miracles and divine revelations.

These smack of a very modern impatience, sensation-seeking, mere curiosity, desire for novelty and impressive, extreme, experiences which can be boasted about.


It might have been expected that, on theological grounds, the Mormon religion would be especially prone to spiritual pride - since it makes theosis (called exaltation) into a central tenet: we are God's children - hence of the same nature as the divine - in a much more literal sense than in mainstream Christianity; there is a different concept of The Fall, thus no Original Sin to 'worry about'; and there is at least a remote and theoretical potential of each human becoming a God (under God the Father, but of similar scope) - which would seem like a very direct invitation to arrogance, selfishness.

Furthermore, all Mormons are told to ask for and expect to receive personal divine revelations - direct communications from God - to guide them through life

And yet spiritual pride is not a particular feature of Mormons nor much of a problem in the LDS church.


This apparent relative immunity to spiritual pride (at least, compared with other Christian traditions which emphasize theosis/ sanctification) may be related to the much more human ('anthropomorphic') understanding of God.

Mormons would tend to regard God the Father as a vast, almost infinite amplification of Man - i.e. starting from Man; while most mainstream Christian theology starts with abstract definitions of God, and tries to move towards Man - but typically cannot get very far with the comparison. It is a matter of starting at opposite ends.

Terryl and Fiona Givens - writing in The God Who Weeps - also suggest that the traditional Mormon emphasis has been much less on a God of infinite Power and Glory, and more on a God of infinite love and compassion (as depicted in the weeping God of Enoch's experience and depicted in the scripture Moses 7: http://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/moses/7?lang=eng).

To become ever more like a God the Father whose love is 'infinite' such that his suffering for the sins of the world is 'infinite' (like the mortal earthly Father of a vast family of deeply loved and profoundly suffering children) is not really the kind of goal likely to be provoking of spiritual pride.


Another difference is that the Mormon spiritual life is ideally in a family context - not a monastery nor in solitude.This guards against the many problems of ascetic monasticism.

Indeed, the opposite problem of worldly busy-ness - too much social doing, and not enough solitude, contemplation and prayer - would seem to be the characteristic limitation of Mormon spirituality.


Another difference is that for Mormons the path of theosis (exaltation) goes beyond death into the next life - and indeed stretches out into infinity.

Mormons may be aiming to become a God at some point in the unimaginably remote future, but in the meantime the main business is the hourly, daily, yearly business of living by the Commandments, working, serving, striving and so on - and this continues into the after life.

In other words, for Mormons there is not much sense of urgency about theosis - quite the reverse, since it stretches into an eternal future - exaltation it is mostly a matter for patience and endurance.


This is in stark contrast to mainstream Christianity where sanctification/ theosis is urgent and the clock of mortality is ticking.

Protestants generally regard spiritual progress as stopping at the instant of death, at which point the possibilities of salvation are fixed.

Catholics acknowledge a short period of potential spiritual development after death (e.g. the forty days of Orthodoxy or Roman Catholic purgatory) during which salvation/ theosis may be affected - but this seems to be conceptualized as a period when the soul may be helped by the intercessions of others, rather than its own efforts.


All this is very important stuff, to my understanding, since sanctification/ theosis/ exaltation is the main business of our continued experience of mortal life - it is what we ought to be focused on as our main business, day by day, hour by hour, year on year.

The main business of incarnate mortal life is - as the name implies - to experience 1. living in a body, and 2. dying. It is these which are the essence of this life we live - and these are experienced by everybody.


Beyond that, human experience is very varied - some die in the womb, or as infants, others live for varying times and in varying circumstances. The question is, beyond the necessity of not-rejecting that salvation which Christ has given us - what should we do with our days?

The answer is theosis - so we are called-upon to be spiritually ambitious, to progress as far as we can towards divinity during incarnate mortal life.

Therefore (assuming the above reasoning is correct), theosis is a topic which deserves, which requires, a lot more consideration than it is given in most Christian traditions.



The Crow said...

The mistake made by so many is to seek spirituality for themselves, to gain, to empower, for reward.
People pray, but mostly to ask for something.
To seek is holy, but knowing when to stop seeking is the key. It is the last thing anybody would ever think to do.

Anonymous said...

This clarifies for me a couple things. One is the requirement not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Two is the admonition of Jesus to be more childlike. We are supposed to leave certain things to God, but by trusting God and leaving things to God we do not become less but more.

Matthew C. said...

what should we do with our days?

Serving our fellow man in the unique way God has moved our hearts to do. This will lead to love, sanctification and theosis. In your case, I am sure this blog is part of your service.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MattC - Yes, but I think theosis needs special emphasis and explanation, otherwise too many people regard 'being a Christian' as a species of social work (and therefore replaceable, in principle, by state bureaucracies).

alexi de sadesky said...

@Matt and Bruce

C.S. Lewis has a great chapter on this, I believe in Mere Christianity, in which he uses the example of the word gentleman and how it has lost all meaning. It ceases to be useful as a description of anything. The same can be said for being "a Christian". Without proper explanation and emphasis the word loses its meaning and thus becomes another arm of the state. Another word for "welfare" or some such like it. So, yes, I quite agree, Bruce.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

All this is very well said, except the following about the grounds of spiritual pride: …It might have been expected that, on theological grounds, the Mormon religion would be especially prone to spiritual pride…

Spiritual pride, like any other sort of pride, is not attached to theological tenets, but to morals. People are rather protected against spiritual pride if the most important thing for them is to do their duties in life in a morally good manner, which is obviously the case for most Mormons. Holiness is to be attained through everyday life, not outside of it.

The same is true for monasticism: monks and nuns assemble and submit themselves to their superiors as to fathers and mothers in a special kind of family. Everyday life is organized in view of worship and personal prayer, but it is nevertheless the frame in which it develops. It is said that even hermits are not likely to succeed in attaining holiness if they are not able as well to live among their fellow humans. All failures are due to the lack of virtue, good sense or both in the candidate to holiness and, in a lesser part, in his guides.

Dave said...

Prof. Charlton,

The Lutheran Church Missiouri Synod has a new focus theme that attempts to answer your question posed - what shall fill our days as Christians? The answer: Witness, Mercy, Life Together.

Here is the link to their page:
The links on that page, by Pastor Matt Harrison, are full of theological substance.