Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Partakers of the divine nature, but how and to what extent?

The ancient Christian doctrine of theosis, or, as Roman Catholics tend to call it, divinization, refers to our participation in God's triune nature, becoming as much like God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as it is possible for us to become. However, we can never be Gods because there is an ontological barrier that cannot be breached. Yes, I used the word cannot. Well, can't God do all things? Certainly God can do all things. However, a contradiction is not a thing. If you throw out the law of non-contradiction, the universe moves from being created by the divine Logos to an incomprehensible place in which science, among other things, becomes futile at best and impossible at worst, where chaos replaces cosmos.

The best and most succinct way of explaining the Most Holy Trinity is as one God in three divine persons. It may interest many readers to know that the mystery of the Trinity is not somehow trying to figure out how 3=1. Three does not equal one, it never has and it never will. Hence, such a blatant absurdity has never been proposed for anyone's belief, at least not by the Church. Such an approach kind of divorces faith and reason from the get-go. Three differs from one exactly by two. It works every time and can be mathematically proven. Beyond that, any orthodox understanding of the triune God must recognize that there is a real distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In others words, the Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit, the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. As I mentioned recently, the Holy Spirit is not merely a modus, that is, merely the way Jesus Himself present to us. While it is true that the Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence in us and among us, the sacraments being His masterworks, the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is also a divine person in His own right; he is a hypostasis.

When we consider the attributes of God, both those that can be known by reason alone and those that are known only because God has revealed these things to us (revelation is how we know God is a trinity of persons), all of these attributes pertain equally to the three divine persons of the Most Holy Trinity. A good introduction to the divine attributes is the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, which lists the divine attributes that flow from and to a large extent can be said to constitute God's divine nature.

It is precisely here that it is useful to make the classic distinction between person and nature. Nature is about the whatness of a being. For example, we all share what we call human nature (my apologies to any dolphins who may be reading this). By "human nature" we mean those attributes we have in common that make us recognizably human to each other, what makes us the same. Conversely, by "person" I refer to who I am, what makes me different from you.

God is uncreated. We are created. As noted at the beginning, God cannot make something created become uncreated. So, at least in this way, we will never be fully "like" God. Nonetheless, God wants us to share as fully in the divine nature as we are able, which is why the Father sent His only begotten Son into the world. One of the things a deacon does in his service at the altar is pour the water into the wine. As a deacon, or in the absence of a deacon, the priest himself, pours water into the wine, he says (inaudibly), "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity." In this vein, it bears quoting something I once heard then- Fr. J. Augustine DiNoia say in a seminar I attended: "God created human beings because God could not create other gods." This is just a more philosophical way of saying that God cannot perform a contradiction by turning a created being into an uncreated being, as well as a masterful way of highlighting the sublime nature of the Incarnation.

All of this and what follows is prompted by a recent article that appeared in the LDS Church-owned Deseret News, which tries to link the LDS idea that human beings can become Gods in our own right, just as a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants (Section 132 verse 37) adequately demonstrates, with the Christian doctrine of theosis. The Doctrine and Covenants is considered scripture by Mormons along with the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. Daniel Peterson, the author of the article, concludes that Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr., by teaching that human beings can become Gods, "restored an authentically ancient Judeo-Christian doctrine," writing that rather than being "a scandal," this "restoration is "a miracle."


Quite a few years ago now a student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Jordan Vajda, who went on to be ordained a priest in the Order of Preachers Friars (the formal name of the "Dominicans") before leaving the priesthood and the Catholic Church to become LDS himself, wrote a master's thesis entitled Partakers of the Divine Nature. Like Peterson, Vajda sought to demonstrate how the LDS understanding of exaltation was somehow intrinsically linked to the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis. Vajda's treatment of the issues in play is rather thorough, taking into account how the Christian Church understands divinity and humanity and how different is the LDS understanding of both divinity and what it is to be human.

The LDS explicitly reject the Trinity, believing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be "separate and distinct" from one another. Beyond that, according to LDS teaching, the persons of the Godhead are not ontologically different either from one another, or from you and I. So, for the LDS becoming a god only makes explicit what is already implicit. In the third chapter of the Book of Abraham (found in the Pearl of Great Price) we find out about this and that God did not create the world ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing), but organized it from already-existing matter. Even God the Father is not ontologically different, but chronologically prior to you and me. This is made clear, again, by the Lorenzo Snow couplet: "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become." But this is only to cover what I have covered before and quite recently.

The LDS, according their second Article of Faith (also found in the Pearl of Great Price), reject original sin: "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." Well, in point of fact, we believe this too, but we believe that it was through Adam's transgression that sin entered the world in the first place. Sin is what Christ needed to atone for and the reason we need to be redeemed. This is where experience comes in handy. As Malcom Muggeridge observed- original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world.

What was the original sin? From something I posted a long time ago, Original Sin: The Need for Justification- "there is really only one temptation from the beginning of the world. It is this temptation to be "like God" in our own right, determining for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is good and what it is evil." So, let us heed what Scripture teaches:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are... we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:1-2- ESV)
Keep in mind the Father has only one Son who is "begotten, not made" (like begets like, whatever we fashion ourselves we are said to make). We become children of God through Jesus Christ in the re-birth of baptism.

Let us also listen to St. Maximus the Confessor, one of the greatest patristic expositors of the doctrine of theosis taught:
Nothing in theosis is the product of human nature for nature cannot comprehend God. It is only the mercy of God that has the capacity to endow theosis unto the existing... In theosis man (the image of God) becomes likened to God, he rejoices in all the plenitude that does not belong to him by nature, because the grace of the Spirit triumphs within him, and because God acts in him (Letter 22)
For Christians, too, partaking in the divine nature means making what is implicit explicit because it is for the communion that human beings originally enjoyed that each one of us and all of us together are made. This is why our most privileged moment is receiving communion, prompting no less than St. Augustine to exclaim: "Become what you eat; receive what you are," meaning what we are not by nature we become to the fullest extent possible by grace, building as it does on nature, sanctifying us in a way that shows that experience is the instrument for our human journey. Even grace is not able to overcome the ontological barrier of our creaturliness. In the end, experience trumps fanciful religious ideas, especially ones that deny reality by playing to our vanity: "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5-ESV, underlining emphasis mine).

Remember, God did not make you for yourself, but for Himself, which why God is our origin and our destiny. As Scripture teaches, 'for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exo. 34:14- ESV). Rather than a restoration of an authentic Christian doctrine, something that was perverted after the so-called "great apostasy" that took place, according to Mormon teaching, sometime during the early centuries of the Church, the LDS doctrine of exaltation is a rehash of a persistent and ancient form of gnosticism, rejected by Christians from the very beginning, a doctrine that finds no place in the apostolic teaching.

I post this only to highlight some of the fundamental differences between LDS belief and Christian beliefs, differing as we do not only about who and what God is, but who and what we are, as well as the possibilities concerning what we are to become.

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