Thursday, 3 November 2011

Deification/ theosis and C.S. Lewis



By Chris Jensen


When he was president of the Oxford Socratic Club during the 1940s and 50s, C.S. Lewis featured weekly discussions on “repellent doctrines.”

By these, he meant traditional Christian teachings that seemed puzzling or implausible—teachings on suffering, miracles, hierarchy, and the like.

Lewis thought these doctrines conveyed truths that modern people most needed to know but were least likely to recognize: “We must never avert our eyes from those elements in [our religion] which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”


For many Christians today, deification would be such a doctrine. Deification (also known as theosis or divinization) sees salvation not merely as divine pardon but rather as a process of spiritual transformation that culminates in mystical union with God.

As Lewis understood it, human beings could one day enter into the very beauty and energy of God and become “true and everlasting and really divine persons.”

In his book Mere Christianity, which can be seen as a manifesto on the subject, Lewis argues that the whole purpose of Christianity is to turn people into what he variously calls “new men,” “little Christs,” “Sons of God”—and “gods and goddesses.”


Lewis knew such language might give many of us a shock, but he insisted that this is “precisely what Christianity is about.”

Although largely forgotten by Christians today, deification is at the heart of Lewis’ vision of reality. From his sermons to his apologetic essays, from his space fiction to his children’s stories, one can hardly find a corner of his literary universe that is not illumined by the idea.


Lewis encountered the idea of deification everywhere from St. Athanasius to George MacDonald, and he knew the doctrine was held from earliest times by many church fathers (like Athanasius) who helped establish the canon of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.

These fathers taught that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, but after the fall they were estranged from their creator and subject to pain, sorrow, and death.

Deification, then, is the restoration of the divine likeness that humanity lost along with its beauty, purity, and incorruption.

In holding to deification, not only was Lewis in harmony with Eastern Orthodoxy, where the doctrine remains a distinguishing mark, but with many voices in the West like St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux—and a forgotten strand of Anglican tradition including Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Charles Wesley, and Ann Griffiths.


Lewis didn’t follow the path of Emerson or others who blurred dogmatic boundaries by confusing God and creation or by teaching that human beings are naturally divine.

Only God is transcendent, uncreated, and divine by nature.

Therefore deification does not mean the “actualization” or “realization” of one’s latent divinity, a belief that is less Christian than monistic or pantheistic.

Nor does deification mean that human beings eventually will evolve into something essentially equal to God (...) Lewis was always clear on the difference between creature and Creator—an irreducible ontological distinction.

Deified human beings forever remain human while at the same time sharing in divine grace or energy, just like blazing iron in the fire shares the properties of flame but doesn’t cease to be iron. Human beings will not melt into an impersonal God like a salt statue tossed into the ocean, or become new and independent divine beings in a type of polytheistic evolution.


For this reason, Lewis cannot be categorized with Neoplatonists, Hindus, Mormons, or even certain Christian mystics who seemed to lose sight of the essential distinction between God and humankind.



I agree that deification is a vital part of a coherent concept of Christian life: indeed I believe that it is deification which primarily sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam - because it is what the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ made possible, over and above monotheism.

The concept is found in all legitimate Christian traditions, but most centrally in Eastern Orthodoxy - as theosis - marking its superiority.


So, becoming a Christian is properly a two-step process: first conversion and then deification.

Salvation is certainly possible without deification (e.g. The Good Thief) - but it is deification which is the purpose of Life and which potentially fits humans for their proper place in an hierarchical Heaven.

It is deification which makes Holy Elders and Saints, and enables them to do what they do.


But for some, probably for me, deification is merely the turing back to God again and then again, taking the first step and back-sliding a step. It is the qualitative movement towards God - even if it gets no further than that - but of course it has, in some people, in some times and places - gone much further than that.

For instance,  theosis went much further than that in C.S Lewis himself...



Anonymous said...

Peter S. said:

The doctrine of theosis or deification is crucial, as perhaps expressed most gnomically by St. Athanasius: “God became man so that man might become God.” However, far from being unique to Christianity, deification is a necessary correlate to any properly conceived metaphysics, the doctrine and experience of deification finding closely analogous expression in the theosis of Hesychasm, fanā’ and baqā’ of Sufism, mokṣa of Vedanta and nirvāṇa of Buddhism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter S - I tend to think comparisons of similarities are misleading - since Christianity is a completion of paganism (and paganism underlies, or actually is, all variants of religion).

And there is the additional problem of considering unusual sects as if representative of major religions - e.g. sufism, or liberal Christianity.

There are always gray areas, but hard cases make bad law! The basic outlines of median tendencies (over time and space) are clear and comprehensible enough.

Theosis is therefore a distinct doctrine of Christianity, when understaood fully and distinctly - I think this is well explained in the article I cite.

LDiracDelta said...

Professor Charleton,

Has anyone yet pointed you to John C. Wright?

I find both you and he on a plane far above me, but I wanted to chance a guess that you mind find Mr. Wright's writing to be interesting. He seems to have converted to Christianity around the same time you did and now I see him posting on the topic of Pollitical Correctness.

- Ross

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ross - No - I hadn't previously noticed John C Wright.

Thanks for the links.

I read both the pieces, and they are excellent - I especially liked the 'conversion experience' post, which is certainly one of the most impressive I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

Dr Charlton, this is amusing as I havde just recommended Thought Prison to John Wright and he in turn is recommending it to others.

Bruce Charlton said...

joetexx - thus nature balances itself...

I can't work out how to leave a comment at JCW's site - I wonder if you would do it for me, inviting him to e-mail so I can send him a (draft) copy of Thought Prison (and please do so yourself).

HenryOrientJnr said...

I took a look at Wright's blog too. Very interesting and yes, his conversion story is compelling. Now I will have another atheist-to-Christian convert to read. Lewis, Charlton, Wright - the most interesting Christians to read all turn out to be former atheists. It is kind of scary. You go to bed an atheist one night and wake up the next morning a Christian - rather like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. [Note to self: "must stay awake..."]

The same thing is true of conservatives; the most readable are former liberals and socialists. I think a goodly percentage of National Review's early writers were ex-communists (eg. Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham etc.)

Maybe the common thread is that converts know all the arguments their opponents employ, because they used to use them too.