The first generations of Christians saw in their new lives in Jesus Christ a way to transcend all the limitations of sin and death and become new creatures. St. Peter expressed this as “participating in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), while St. Athanasius stated it succinctly 300 years later: “God became a human, so humans could become God.”
This is the heart of the Christian faith and the pledge of the Christian promise: that those baptized in Christ become “divine” through their partaking in God’s own life and love. This is why Christians can live forever, this is the source of their charity and their holiness, this is why we do not need to live in a world ruled by fallen instinct and sinful desires. We have been made for more, for infinitely more.
A new book, Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, offers essays from more than a dozen Catholic scholars and theologians to examine what this process of “deification” means in their respective areas of study.
ZENIT asked editor Fr. David Meconi, S.J., to tell us about this doctrine, which might sound anything but Catholic, and about the book.
ZENIT: Deification of humans? Sounds pretty New Age … Could you give us a brief overview of what this concept means in Catholic theology?
Fr. Meconi: Far from being new age, deification is one of the most ancient ways of explaining salvation in Jesus Christ. Christianity is a two act play: in the first act, God becomes human, but that is just the beginning. In the second act of the play we humans are to become like God–more loving, more joyful, incorruptible and immortal. Think of a piece of iron: alone it is hard and cold, but in a fire it takes on a new glow, a new warmth and malleability but it never ceases to be iron. Look at section 460 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church–this is a very central component of Catholicism. The difference between the Church’s understanding of deification and the Mormon doctrine is that Catholics believe we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) in Christ but never the “possessors” of the Godhead, which (as far as I understand it) is more in line with the Mormon view.
ZENIT: We’re in the midst of two feasts that help us understand this theology: the Ascension and Pentecost. How does an understanding of God’s plan for human deification shed light on these two celebrations?
Fr. Meconi: This season of Ascension and Pentecost is the perfect time to think about this beautiful teaching. Christ descends in order to unite us to himself; he ascends in order to send us the Spirit in whose unity, then, we literally become the Body of Christ now on earth. Think of the way we pray at Mass: to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Just as the human soul gathers many disparate parts of the body to make it one and purposeful, the Holy Spirit gathers all in Christ’s name to make them his body. But even more, for in this we are also adopted as the Father’s own children. In his Son we become his sons and daughters: he is Son by nature, we are children by grace, but we have the same God the Father and the same Mary our Mother. It really is quite beautiful.
There is an ancient phrase: the Son’s kenosis is humanity’s theosis–a Greek saying which means that in the Son’s emptying is humanity’s godliness. It is at Pentecost that this great exchange of the Son’s humanity for our divinity is finally realized, making us “spiritual” people, meaning that we no longer have to live as merely fallen human beings but can now live empowered with the very life of God within us.
ZENIT: If people had an understanding of this theology, what kinds of practical things would change in our culture today?
Fr. Meconi: We need such a theology now more than ever. For too long our modern world thinks of being a Christian simply as being nice or undergoing some ethical improvement. Christianity is not a moral but a mystical religion: we are no longer saved by what we do or do not do, we are saved by who we become. It is allowing ourselves to be adopted into God’s own life that redeems us. Today people thirst for community and belonging and in Christ they can finally find an eternal dwelling place with all the saints.
ZENIT: What are some of the nuances or themes treated by the various essays in this book?
Fr. Meconi: This book aims to recover this traditional way of explaining Christian salvation as scholars turn to their chosen field or person of academic expertise. That is what makes the essays herein so intriguing: we asked a dozen experts to think of how this or that saint or this or that time period explained becoming godly to a world dismissive of the Good News. We need those voices now more than ever.