Liberating God from Heaven: Theosis and Emergence within Unitive Christianity

By James Reho
Published in Parabola: Where Spiritual Traditions MeetVol. 38, No. 4 (2013).

Heavenly Jerusalem

La Jérusalem nouvelle. Apoc. XXI by Facundus, court artist for Ferdinand I of Castile and Leon. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional (public domain)

I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[1]

These words, the opening of the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation, speak to a unity of heaven and earth, of the holy (other) with the humus (soil).  The extended vision recorded in the Book of Revelation goes on to say that this New Jerusalem, a symbol of the culmination of both cosmos and person, has no Temple, for the Divine Presence itself is the Temple.  That is, there is no boundary between the sacred and the profane; holiness saturates all reality, all matter, and the duality of heaven and earth disappears.  The veil is lifted to reveal that the Divine Presence exists “on earth as it is in heaven.”

This unitive experience expresses a deep insight of Christian thought and experience.  We will look at this insight both in terms of the human person and in terms of the cosmos as a whole.  We will see how the tradition itself, when put in dialog with modern cosmology, provides the keys to liberate God from being simply a God of the gaps, a distant watchmaker, and an anthropomorphic prisoner of heaven.

Dualist and Unitive Christianities

It can be surprising for those raised in a western dualistic mindset (Christian or otherwise) that this unitive picture is at the core of Christian understanding.  In recent times, Christianity is often portrayed as a religious system in which earth is contrasted with heaven, spirit with flesh, light with dark, and God with the Devil.  This dualistic model emphasizes the difference of God from God’s creatures and hints at a God that is fully transcendent, existing only in heaven, with little or no immanent presence on earth.  The material cosmos is seen as “fallen” or imperfect, perhaps even expendable, relative to an immaterial heaven.  Some popular recent American religious pictures of so-called “end times” point to the destruction of earth as the ultimate work of God, or to the abandonment of earth by the faithful in“the rapture.”  God in this model is relegated to heaven, and nature holds no religious significance.

For centuries, both unitive and dualist understandings of the cosmos and the human person have existed within Christianity.  When we look at the history of Christian thought, we find that the dualist pictures were assimilated into the tradition from sources peripheral to Christian life, such as the neo-Platonic philosophies of the first centuries CE and the Deist rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment.   And while such the dualist Christianity arising from these and other influences may be what is most familiar to many, there is another thread, continuous and strong, that runs through the tradition.  We can call this other thread “unitive Christianity.”  This unitive thread stands as a corrective to the polarized, dualist view of reality (espoused by both Christians and non-Christians) whose fruit is a poisoned earth, a damaged ecosphere, and dis-eased persons.  At this juncture in history, where the future wellness of earth hangs in the balance as never before, we need to heed the advice of the 13th century Franciscan St. Bonaventure:

Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine;
In the longing of the will, not in the understanding;
In the sighs of prayer, not in research;
Seek the bridegroom, not the teacher…[2]

Participating in God: Theosis

The Apostle Paul asks the early Christians in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?”[3] Paul understands the human person as a vessel for divine presence.  While modern Western Christianity often highlights differences between our and Jesus’ experience of divine presence, the early Church often focused on the similarity.  In another early Christian epistle (letter), we are told that, while it is true that the fullness of deity dwelt within Jesus, we too have come to such fullness in him.  The divine presence that Jesus experiences as part of his own self “by nature” we have “by adoption,” through our brotherhood with him. [4]

At first blush, the creedal statement that Jesus is “the only [child] of God”[5] can seem to be at odds with the idea of sharing in his experience of divine indwelling.  However, within the unitive thread “only” is not understood as exclusionary but rather as inclusionary: there is only one experience of Divine presence, there is only one child of God and each of us is that.  This one experience is brokered by Jesus, but the disciple comes to share in it fully.[6]

Early Christian tradition encapsulates this unitive experience of humanity and divinity through a phrase uttered in various forms and languages by such pillars of theology as Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas, among others:

God became human so that the human might become divine.

This process of becoming divine, theosis in the original Greek, moves us beyond our erroneous experience of separation from God to a real, repeatable, and eventually continuous experience of living in the Divine Energy, of finding the heavenly abode—and God’s activity—as near as one’s own heart.  St. Isaac of Syria (7th century CE) advises:

Try to enter your inner treasure-house and you will see the treasure-house of heaven.  For both the one and the other are the same, and one and the same entrance reveals them both.  The ladder leading to the kingdom is concealed within you…[7]

Practical methods exist among Christian monastics, mystics, and contemplatives that help open the human person to this awareness.  This experience of heaven within becomes the organizing principle of the human person.  As Nikephoros the Solitary (14th century) tells us,

[The practitioner of the Prayer of the Heart] sees that the kingdom of heaven is truly within us; and seeing it now in himself, he strives with pure prayer to keep it and strengthen it there…[8]

How do we describe the experience of theosis?  This experience is neither an annihilation of oneself into the Godhead as expressed in the Upanishads nor is it strictly an “I-Thou” relationship.  The experience of theosis is an experience of not-two, of non-duality, expressed in ways similar to the advaitic experience of Indian bhakti yogis, those yogis on the devotional path toward divine union.[9]  The idea that God would be distant or absent from the human and the earthly is impossible to imagine once this state of consciousness has been experienced.

In the fourteenth century, this unitive path as practiced in the Christian monasteries of Mount Athos, a semi-autonomous monastic peninsula in Greece still in existence, was attacked by rationalist theologians.  St. Gregory of Palamas rose up as the great defender of Athonite spirituality, of the path of theosis.  His theology represents one Christian way to talk about “not-two” that allows for our everyday experience of being finite individuals as well as our wellspring experience of being not-two with the Godhead.  Gregory says that within God there is an “ineffable distinction” which allows for the unitive experience: while God in God’s self, God’s essence, is unknowable directly, God’s energies or operations, which fill all of creation, can be known and experienced.  These uncreated energies are both the same as, yet distinct from, God’s essence, and one can “say that the divine nature is communicable not in itself but through its energy.” [10] The experience of divine indwelling gives rise to a theology in which the world, including the human person, is filled with the energies of God.

Can the person, who has in his/her heart the Divine fire of the Holy Spirit burning naked, not be set on fire, not shine and glitter and not take on the radiance of the Deity…?[11]

This divinization of the human person, according to Christian tradition, is not rooted in the intellect or rationality or even in loving kindness (agape) but rather in the deep life of desire (eros), the holistic impulse of the human person to reach toward greater relationality, complexity, and consciousness. The rooting of the mystical life in the erotic life is affirmed by Christian mystics of the both east and west, and goes back to such early spiritual giants as the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa.[12]

This rooting of theosis in eros means that neither intellect nor will can bring about the unitive state.  The unitive state comes about through a transformation of the whole person driven by the single-pointed desire for this state itself, and is experienced as pure gift.  In fact, we already exist in this unitive state, for we have been created in the image and likeness of God;[13] we simply need to have the scales fall from our eyes (and minds and hearts) to experience the numinous nature of our selves and of our experience.  We need spiritual practice to train our nervous system to allow for more complete ways of perceiving reality.  We find that the numinous inhabits our body, mind, and spirit.

The experience of the Christian mystic is that God is most findable in the heart of the human person, not in a distant abode of celestial exile.  The heavenly Jerusalem is founded within and upon the human heart:

The heart is a small vessel, but all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there, and there also is life and the Kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace.[14]

This [human heart] is Jerusalem and the kingdom of God, concealed within us according to the word of the Lord (Luke xvii.21).  This region is the cloud of Divine glory…[15] 

This tradition draws from the words of Jesus himself as recounted in the Gospels:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, [Jesus] answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.[16]

Creative Emergence: God in the Universe

One legacy of the Age of Enlightenment is that many of us find ourselves victims of a false quandary around the possibility of divine activity in the world.  This quandary poses, on the one hand, the possibility of a world in which an anthropomorphic God is “active” in an almost magical way, granting favors and bending the otherwise immutable laws of nature as God chooses for those whom God chooses.  This magical view creates an interventionist God who works by interfering with the processes of nature while being outside them. This is a Magician God who comes as helper or redeemer, but we note that rather than working through creation, this God seems to work best and most powerfully when working outside the processes of nature.

This understanding of divine activity is contrasted with the Deist view that posits God as a cosmic Watchmaker.  Those holding this view will point out that our descriptions of the anthropomorphic, interventionist God are often resemble our parents or other caregivers and represent a regressive and neurotic response to fear.  This is the argument against God’s existence made by Sigmund Freud in The Future of an Illusion.  Cosmologically, this viewpoint holds that in the absence of the God of our projections the universe must devolve into a random, neutral place lacking any intentionality.  In this model, God may be the initiator of the Big Bang, but since then has been observing a four billion year Sabbath.  This God is relegated to an extra-terrestrial heaven and does not, and cannot, interfere with life as we know it.

Some of the more popular books arguing against God’s existence in the last decade or so have not really progressed beyond this polarity, although research and new understandings in both neuropsychology and cosmology show that we need not remain there.[17]  Other, deeper possibilities exist that take into account what is partially true in each of the above views while transcending both of them.  Beyond both the Magician and the Watchmaker there are other options: for instance, we can understand divine activity at work in processes of creative emergence.

Creative emergence seems to best describe how the universe actually works.  Both in terms of the universe as a whole and in terms of our own biosphere, creative emergent processes drive the cosmos forward.  According to theologian Bruce Sanguin, emergent processes can be described by three principles: self-organization, novelty, and transcendence/inclusion.[18]  Familiarity with these concepts allows us to understand divine activity in a way consonant with the mystical insights of Christian tradition while honoring our deepest and most current perspectives of the natural sciences.

Self-organization describes processes in which components come together with what seems to be a common purpose in order to bring into existence forms of greater complexity and greater consciousness.  In the biosphere, self-organization is how originally independent organisms, for example, can end up becoming components of cellular life.  In the social sphere, we see how small nomadic settlements of humans can come together to form societies of high culture.  In the cosmos, self-organization can be seen at work through the gravitational attractions and other forces that give rise to stars, supernovas, and other great producers of the larger elements, as well as at work through the forces of nuclear and chemical attraction and bonding.

Self-organization is inherent to the cosmos itself.   While competitive processes such as natural selection do play a part in species development, it would be incorrect to see development fully predicated upon the existence of competition or aggression.  Rather, self-organization seems to be one dynamic of the deep “desire” of the universe itself.  A bag of flies with plenty of food, left to their own devices in a safe environment where competition is unnecessary, will end up after several generations being more highly developed than their predecessors.[19]  Self-organization moves us toward new and more complex—and more conscious and compassionate—beings, such as the human being.

Novelty tells us that as the universe continues to develop along new and uncharted horizons, it makes it up as it goes along.[20] The results are surprising, unpredictable, and move toward greater diversity as well as complexity.  Novelty is the principle of emergence that helps us understand how divine activity can be simultaneously pedestrian and miraculous.

If the universe progresses through novelty, any end is in fact open-ended; there is no pre-determined conclusion to the universe, except perhaps in the terms that Teilhard de Chardin, priest and scientist, used to describe the “Omega Point” toward which all creation travels: a state of maximal complexity, consciousness, and diversity.  The Omega Point is also maximally personal, and can be understood (as St. Paul did in the first century) as the cosmic body of Christ toward which all creation evolves:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… in hope that the creation itself … will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.[21]

The principles of Inclusion and Transcendence work together to ensure that the best of the past is carried forward in the very process of moving beyond the past.  Thus, the small sub-atomic particles and initial hydrogen atoms of the early universe are still present in today’s matter-energy matrix, albeit in forms that transcend the simplicity of the early cosmos.  The precariousness and statistical improbability of the present level of diversity and complexity in the universe correlates well with the sense of a real and intrinsic drive of the universe itself toward greater consciousness.

Historian and natural philosopher/theologian Thomas Berry pointed out that the human being was the universe, that part of the universe that is conscious of itself; we are not “outside” the universe, but rather fulfill a function as a part of the universe: self-consciousness.[22]  Although data have disproved Freud’s understanding of religious consciousness as neurotic,[23] data do support his theory that our images of God include projected material from our early caretakers.[24]

This means, in broad terms, that how we think about God is at least partially driven by how we think about ourselves: our theology reflects our anthropology.  If we view the human being as divorced from creation, as a dominator and exploiter of the earth rather than a component of the earth, we will likely experience God as remote and bound to heaven, at best a well-intentioned breaker of natural law.  If on the other hand, we see the human person as part of earth itself, as not self-referent but as earth- and cosmos-referent, we can begin to see how Christian tradition (among others) allows for an understanding of the divine as intrinsically woven into the cosmos.

Thomas Berry, referencing Thomas Aquinas, writes that the universe is in fact the primary scripture by which the Christian—or anyone—comes to know God. He reminds us that “Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.”[25]  The processes of nature help us understand the nature of God.  And we are learning that those processes are based neither on random chance nor on competition (perhaps another instance of human projection) but rather on creative emergence.  Nature, and therefore the divine, follows the principles of self-organization, novelty, and inclusion/transcendence.  The activity of the universe—from galaxy expansion to the maturation of an insect—is the activity of God, and it is far from dry and determined.  God’s activity is everywhere.

Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”[26]

In addition to resolving the Magician/Watchmaker quandary, an understanding of creative emergence can resolve a long-term dichotomy between the inner and outer life.  Is the Christian, for example, to be active in the world, or retire to contemplative practice?  Through the lens of creative emergence, we come to understand our inner life as a self-organized, novel reality that both transcends and includes our outer life.  That is, as Berry reminds us, our inner life is built of our outer life.  As an emergent reality, we can say that without an outer life, without our enfleshed, space-time reality, we would have no inner life.  When we practice prayer, contemplation or artistic work, we are not escaping or existing outside the world but rather entering into a deeper level of consciousness of and within the world, one form of intensification that pushes the edge of a future horizon of the cosmos itself. Our creative and spiritual work is not in conflict with our practical, social, or ecological work, but is rather a place of special fructification and novelty along those same axes.

Because of the dominance of the dualist version of Christianity over the last few hundred years, especially in the West, it is worth reasserting that the view of divine activity (and divine nature) based upon creative emergence is in fact consonant with the deep threads of Christian thought. As an example of an emergent process, we can see now how the sense of the Cosmic Christ first expressed by Paul and de-emphasized since the Age of Enlightenment re-emerges through the sciences of cosmology and ecology/biology independent of the theological enterprise.  The breakthroughs in these fields that illustrate and explain the creative emergent process have themselves offered new language and insight to Paul’s original vision of the Cosmic Christ as the goal of all creation, and allows new generations of scientists and theologians the ability to engage a model of divine activity that is woven right into the fabric of the universe and its own process of expansion and development as understood through scientific observation.

New Horizons

Paul’s vision of all creation coming to fullness in the Cosmic Body of Christ has itself been subject to development through the principles creative emergence.  We find this image returned to the fore in our own generations through theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox, and Bruce Sanguin.  Interestingly, each of these thinkers has training in, or has become conversant with, the natural sciences in addition to theology.

Divine activity as creative emergence allows for the freedom of human (and other) beings and affirms the human impulse to care for and co-create healthy ecological systems on earth together with and through divine activity.  As universe-referent ourselves, we are called to share in the “gardening” work of our emerging and emergent God who is revealed through our self-organizational, novel, and inclusive/transcendent universe.  This common gardening, in which Christians interpret biblical stories of creation as calls to steward, rather than dominate, the earth, will usher in a new age, a Pax Gaia.[27]

The Personal

Theosis matters.  A human person who is seen to be fully separate from God need not be cultivated or honored.  A person, however, in whom God is seen to dwell and whose final state is divine, is him/herself a temple of the Holy Spirit, a conduit of divine presence.[28]

Such persons carry intrinsic value and so violence toward, or oppression of, any person becomes impossible to justify.

The Ecological/Cosmic

Emergence matters. A world in which God is locked up in heaven is a world that carries only transient value at best.  A world wholly “other” from God is world that can be polluted and ravaged, where species can be brought to extinction and irreversible ecological damage tolerated.  In contrast, a world in which each species, each fragile relationship and balance, is itself an expression of divine activity, is a world that merits careful stewarding and care.  This is a world in which the human is part of earth-referent reality and in which human activity too is part of the anchoring of the heavenly Jerusalem to season and soil.

And the gift is two-sided; cosmology, complexity theory, and other sciences have reinvigorated and added new language to the traditional understanding of the heavenly Jerusalem come to earth, to the fullness of the Cosmic Christ.  Likewise, Christian and other faith streams offer an equally important gift to our scientific world: the ability to weave meaning, to create context, to make sense of all that we observe, both through the world of theology and philosophy as well as through that deeper world of symbol, ritual, and myth.

A world—and a cosmos—that is divinely self-revelatory, of which the human being is part rather than master, and for which an Omega Point remains a co-creative open question, is a world in which we are called to truly act in the image and likeness of God as a gardener, and join with God as present in the ecosphere around us.  We shall “hear the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”[29]

As the heavenly Jerusalem, and the God within it, is freed from the exile of heaven and descends to earth as promised in Revelation, we shall once again discover that God walks in the garden with us in the cool of the evening, alive in our personal process of theosis, alive in the cosmic processes of an emergent universe, pervading all energy, matter, and time.

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[1] Revelation 21:2-7, New Revised Standard Version Bible.

[2] St. Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind to God, quoted in Cyprian Consiglio, Prayer in the Cave of the Heart. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN (2009), p. 59.

[3] 1 Corinthians 3:16, New Revised Standard Version Bible.

[4] Colossians 2:10, New Revised Standard Version Bible.

[5] The Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and other early creeds of the church contain this phrase.

[6] Abhishiktananda: His Life Told Through His Letters. Trans. James Stuart.  ISPCK: Delhi (1989).

[7] St. Isaac of Syria, collected in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer.  Faber and Faber, New York, NY. (1992), p. 30.

[8] Ibid, p. 33.

[9] Kurt Bruder.  Following Sound into Silence.  Hay House: Carlsbad, CA (2008).

[10] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY (1976), p. 70.

[11] St. Simeon the New Theologian, collected in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. Trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer.  Faber and Faber, New York, NY. (1992), p. 118.

[12] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (4th c CE).

[13] Genesis 1:27, New Revised Standard Version.

[14] St. Makarios of Egypt (4th c CE) quoted by St. Dimitri of Rostov in The Art of Prayer. Compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. By E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer.  Faber and Faber: New York, (1966), p. 46.

[15] Callistos and Ignatios quoting St. Isaac the Syrian , in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. Trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer.  Faber and Faber, New York, NY. (1992), p. 233.

[16] The Gospel of Luke 17:20-21, Revised Standard Version Bible.

[17] For cosmology, see Brian Swimme, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY (1999) and Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe. Columbia University Press: New York (2009).  For neurobiology, see Jeffrey Schwarz, The Mind and the Brain. ReganBooks: New York (2003).

[18] Bruce Sanguin, The Emerging Church. Copper House: British Columbia (2008), Chapter 1.

[19] Joan Roughgarden, Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. Island Press: Washington, D.C. (2006), pp. 24-30.

[20] Bruce Sanguin, The Emerging Church. Copper House: British Columbia (2008), Chapter 1.

[21] St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:19-21, New Revised Standard Version.

[22] Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of the World. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY (2009), passim.

[23] Ann Ulanov, Religion and the Unconscious. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY (1985).

[24] Ana-Maria Rizzuto, Birth of the Living God.  University of Chicago Press: Chicago (1981).

[25] Thomas Berry, “The Universe as Divine Manifestation” collected in The Sacred Universe. Columbia University Press: New York (2009).

[26] The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 77 (Lambdin Translation).

[27] www.paxgaia.ca

[28] The First Letter to the Corinthians 6:16, New Revised Standard Version Bible.

[29] Genesis 3:8, Revised Standard Version Bible.

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