Theosis, Humanness, Personhood and Race – a Brief Assessment.

A proper assessment of the issue of racism in general, and in particular in the Church, is fundamentally related to the question of what it means to be a human person. While there are many different approaches to the question of what it means to be human (in ethics, bioethics, sociology, politics, and economics), the Orthodox Church focuses on the Patristic tradition regarding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God.

According to contemporary definitions, racism is a “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group . . . a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”[1] Racist ideologies and practices depend on a definition of being human in which race is a fundamental determinant of human traits, and define differences that apply to individuals and groups as to a spectrum (e.g., from superior to inferior).

However, from a Christian (and particularly Orthodox) point of view, any definition of humanity, and of being fundamentally human, has absolutely no relation, fundamental or peripheral, inherent or accidental, with any issues related to biological race.

What does it mean, then, to be human, according to the Church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a person?[2] The Orthodox Tradition, while having no single canonical definition of what it means to be a human, has nonetheless identified several characteristics of humanness. They stem originally from the account from the book of Genesis;[3] briefly, the image relates to inherent human qualities that remain even if marred after humanity turned from God (in the original account); and likeness refers to those qualities that constitute the human goal from the beginning, and our present calling.

Here we can identify, with reference to the Patristic exposition, six major characteristics of what it means to be human, or to be a person, according to the image of God.[4] First, a person is unique and unrepeatable.[5] Each individual has a unique personality, history, self-expression, etc.[6]

Second, every person is free. Reflecting the image of the only true God, who is a free communion of Persons, each human being, each person, possesses and exercises the sum of their personal characteristics as they exercise their free will.[7] Third, all persons are on a path to continuous, infinite growth. As we are created by an infinite God as finite creatures to be in communion with God, our journey to communion with the infinite, is, always, infinite.

Fourth, we are created as the Body of Christ through Baptism and communion, and, as such, we are created for ecclesial communion.[8] Fifth, we are inherently creative beings, reflective of the God who created all things out of nothing (ex-nihilo) in beauty and creativity. Lastly, and ultimately, we are created freely by the love of God, and as human beings who fulfill ourselves in love, especially and ultimately in self-sacrificial love for God and one another – the highest form of our likeness to God.

In this way we are on the journey in the becoming like the True, the Good and the Beautiful, as we are transformed in our reason and cognition, in our memory and imagination, using our whole selves, including our body, emotions, and souls. The Orthodox Tradition has a maximal vision of humanity, one in which the Resurrection and Pentecost, both and respectively redeem, in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, the human nature and the unique persons.[9]

As the analysis of the Orthodox Tradition on what it means to be human persons, created in the image of God, and called to fulfill his likeness, it is clear that race is entirely outside of the purview of what it means to be a human person.[10]

As to the goal of attaining to God’s likeness, a few points could be made about what it means to be called into  communion with God, into what the Church calls theosis (or, θέωσις). If persons are to share in God’s glory, they are to become by grace what God is by nature, i.e., we are to be deified.[11]

Deification involves not only the inward person but also the body, for human beings are hylomorphic beings, unities of body and soul, and Christ took upon himself full humanity in order to redeem the whole person. And yet, this has no reference to accidental modes of race, According to St Maximus, “our body is deified at the same time as our soul.” Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we are to offer them as living sacrifices to God (1 Cor. 6:19, Rom. 12:1).[12]

The Incarnation, of course, is both the basis and means through which God redeems all of creation, including matter. Christ took flesh and thus the material order in him was united to God. From his Incarnation springs God’s cosmic redemption (not limited to any race) and the Orthodox doctrine of the deification of the body, its iconology, and indeed its view of the holiness and even sacramentality of the created order are firmly grounded on it.[13]

Metropolitan Kallistos lists six points that must be made in order to avoid misunderstandings concerning the doctrine of θέωσις: First, it must be clear that θέωσις is for every Christian without exception, regardless of race, culture, origin, age, tribe, tongue, or nation. The process of divinization begins in this life for all Christians, and not for a select few. However weak our attempts may be to follow Christ and keep his commandments, of using our will in making choices that conform to the grace of God, we are already in some degree deified.

Secondly, the process of deification does not mean that one becomes perfect or sinless in this life, or that one ceases to be conscious of sin[14]. Deification always presupposes a continual act of repentance, and the Jesus Prayer says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The doctrine of θέωσις is not mutually exclusive with a doctrine of ongoing penitence, but rather presupposes it.

Thirdly, θέωσις does not come about through some esoteric or magical technique. Rather, the process of deification, in which we cooperate with the grace of God, takes place in one’s life through the means God has appointed  to bring that about.[15] Therefore, fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a “social” process. The commandments are summed up in the love of God and the love of neighbor. These two are inseparable, for one cannot fulfill one without fulfilling the other. Only if one loves God – and therefore only if one loves his neighbor – can one be deified. As the Persons of the Trinity dwell in one another, so we must also dwell in our neighbors.

Fifthly, and consequently, θέωσις is practical because love of God and of our neighbors must be expressed in action. The process of θέωσις does not exclude mystical experience, but it certainly includes the service of love. This communion in love excludes all objectifications of the other, including of race, which is irrelevant both to the constitution of human persons, and to the process of being transformed into the likeness Christ, our prototype. In Him, there’s no Jew, nor Greek – even the constitutive characteristics of our individualities (e.g., male and female) are transcended in Christ (Gal. 3:28).

In our efforts, our synergia, we cooperate with the grace of God by conforming not only our minds and hearts to him, but also in imitating his love through actions. Deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments, for they are the means appointed by God for us to acquire the Holy Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.

[1] Merriam-Webster.

[2] In the Orthodox Tradition, “humanity” is considered  an abstract construct, denoting certain general characteristics that are shared by human persons. For example, that humans have a body, a soul, emotions, capability of thinking, etc.[2] Yet, this abstract construct, while helpful and even necessary, does not exist apart from concrete realities. In other words, one can refer to the concept of being human, but humanness does not exist apart from concrete individuals. If there were no living men and women in the universe, humanness would be a concept that does not refer to anything real, like, say, a unicorn.

[3] Which presents אָדָם, Ἀδάμ, man – or more precisely, humanity – as created in the image and  likeness of God.

[4] Anton Vrame, The Educating Icon, pp.67-80.

[5] As God is unique even beyond comparison to created things, there is also an analogous, irreducible quality among human beings who might share many – or even almost all (e.g., identical twins) – physical characteristics and yet are not identical persons to say the least.

[6] From a Christian perspective, each unique person is uniquely known by God, has received a “name which no one knows” but God, Rev. 19:12.

[7] This free will, moreover, is most fully exercised in relation to other persons, since no one can become fully human on his or her own; no person is a island

[8] This is expressed in askesis, in prayer, and in ministry – all three which care communal efforts.

[9] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pp. 101-135.

[10] All human persons have a body of some sort, and those bodies have – to use philosophical categories – accidents which are not referent to their “humanness.” Some are tall some short, some have brown hair and/or skin, others are blonde; some have other kinds of bodily characteristics. From the previous discussion, it is clear that what constitutes the image and likeness of God is irrelevant to racial accidental qualities inhering in the human substance and in persons.

[11] As St Athanasius put it, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine [also translated, that we might become god]. He displayed himself through a body, that we might receive knowledge of the invisible Father. He endured insult at the hands of men, that we might inherit immortality. On the Incarnation, 54 –  Αυτός γαρ ενηνθρώπησεν, ίνα ημείς θεοποιηθώμεν·

[12] Indeed, the doctrine of θέωσις, which informs a worldview of God suffusing human beings with his grace, in his energies, is also the framework for the understanding that God redeems not only human beings, but all of physical creation as well. Not only our human body but the whole of the material world will be eventually transfigured, for Christ came to make all things new, and God’s redemptive plan culminates in the establishment not only of a new heaven, but also a new earth. Creation is to be saved and glorified along with humans, and icons are the firstfruits of this redemption of matter

[13] As C. S. Lewis has famously stated in Mere Christianity, “God likes matter, He invented it.” Indeed, he also has redeemed it.

[14] It was St Paul who called himself the “chief of sinners,” for it is characteristic of great saints to have an acute awareness of their own limitations

[15] Metropolitan Kallistos lists six such means: Church (i.e., participating in the liturgy and in the life of the community); the regular reception of the sacraments; perseverance in prayer; the reading of the Gospels; the keeping of God’s commandments; and Christian service.

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