I grew up with my mother, who had a Roman Catholic upbringing. She was a “cafeteria catholic– one who takes what they like and leaves what they don’t”, who attended services during major holidays. I wasn’t taught much about religion as a child, nearly nothing. I moved to live with my father when I was seventeen. He was attending mostly Evangelic Protestant churches. I went a few times, but didn’t learn much in the way of theology: by much, I mean I learned nothing. The services were comprised of an active ‘pop’ style musical performance, followed by a homily. The homily was more of a Bible Study. When trying to find out how the Christian life was meant to be lived, I was mostly told to confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and then you will be saved. That’s it. It’s not as if they didn’t tell christians to behave, they did. But, “one can’t be saved through works,” I was told.
When I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I learned, what I consider, a much fuller theology. Orthodox Christianity teaches that we are to be Christlike. We should strive to be like Christ on earth: join ourselves to Him. The process is known as deification.
Deification is the process of man striving to become god. This can never be fully achieved in this lifetime. I will briefly, and inexpertly, explain deification and how it is achieved. I will also discuss the relationship between God and man, also known as synergy. The process begins at the creation of man, and culminates in the Resurrection of the Son of God and His gift of the Holy Spirit to the world.
In the beginning, there was the Triune God Who created man in His Image and Likeness. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. Man fell from grace by turning away from God’s will and commandments. Man retained the image, but no His likeness. We read in the ancient Scriptures through Holy Prophets that God would send Israel’s Messiah, the Anointed One. He would be born of a Virgin and would suffer and die for the sins of man. The Jews had sacrifices that cleansed sin, but Christ would now defeat Satan, Hell, and death. God the Son took on flesh and became exactly like man, except for his sin. His first public appearance, or Epiphany, was the day of His Baptism. By Himself being baptized, Christ set aside water as a sanctifier for man. After three years of public ministry, the social and religious leaders plotted to crucify Him. At this point, Jesus trampled down the death of this world with His own death. After this is the most powerful event in all of history. Three days after His death, Jesus was resurrected from the dead. We sing this hymn in the church during Pascha, “Christ is Risen from the Dead, Trampling Down Death by Death”. Christ is victorious over death! Christ proclaimed, “Because I live, you will live also”.
For forty days after The Resurrection, Christ taught his disciples the Gospels and established His Church. The Church is made up of the believers, the Body of Christ. It is in His church that we begin our “Life in Christ”. Our life in Christ begins with baptism. This is actually how we participate in the Resurrection. The water is our tomb and we are raised out of this tomb into the newness of life. We are then sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. We can then partake of the most fulfilling of all of the mysteries, the Eucharist. This is the Body and Blood of our Lord. It is through the Eucharist that the believer realizes the fullness of the Church. These are what the Church refers to as the divine mysteries, or Sacraments. They are what really allow us to partake in the greatness of the cross and resurrection of Christ.
One of the most striking phrases in all of Orthodox literature is found in an ancient patristic writing by St. Athanasius. In his book, “On the Incarnation,” he tells us that God became man that man might become god. This, in essence, defines Christianity. This is a profound statement that is seldom discussed in the Protestant tradition. When it is discussed, it is often dismissed as pure Christianity being corrupted by eastern pagan philosophy. So, what does this statement mean?
We are privileged through Orthodox Christian teaching, or traditions, to be endowed with the writings from many Holy Fathers and Saints. We are also privileged to have beautiful works of holiness known as icons. An icon that clearly depicts this dynamic of the struggle for deification is called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. The icon, I believe, was derived from the writings of St. John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. He wrote of a process of steps that Christians need to take in order to attain salvation. The icon portrays a spiritual ladder that ascends to Heaven. At the top of the ladder is Christ with His hand extended toward those struggling upward. He pulls believers in as they struggle toward Jesus. This represents the relationship between God and man known in the Orthodox Church as synergia. The icon illustrates how Christi’s relationship to our salvation. The believers who are on the upper part of the ladder are turning white; this symbolizes how their body is being transfigured as they are becoming deified. As the believers are climbing the ladder, they are becoming more like God! This tells us that the ascent is not solely our spirit, but our bodies. Our bodies and souls both play a role in our deeds, good or bad. Through our own free will, we strive to become like God, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to partake of the light of the world to come. Attaining the ladder’s final steps is not a simple task.
The icon also shows the demons trying to knock the faithful off of the ladder. Some of the believers are hanging on desperately. We see at the top of the icon that the angels and deified saints are praying for us. This exemplifies the human struggle and the spiritual warfare that we must endure in order to keep moving forward. St. Paul tells us to, “Forget the things that are behind, and reach toward the things ahead” (Phil. 3:13).
Synergy is a word that describes how two things work together. In the Church, this word is used in a similar manner to describe the relationship between man and God. Synergy means that God allows us to participate in His covenants. We read in the Scriptures that Christ could heal no one in a certain region because of the people’s unbelief. It is important to note that God responds to us based on how we respond to Him. St. Athanasius also offers an amazing biographical portrayal of St. Antony, a dedicated monk who went into the desert of Egypt. One event that St. Athanasius shares is when St. Antony enters a tomb and struggles with demons for several years. It is after he has shown his perseverance that God comes as a bright light and scares away the demons. God told Antony that He was waiting to see if he would endure before interceding. This is an excellent example of the synergetic relationship and the ability of the saint to move God on his behalf. Most of us, unfortunately, don’t achieve St. Antony’s faith and dedication, and may not even be able to fully appreciate how this could even happen in today’s world.
In The Apocalypse of St. John, “Revelation,” Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he will dine with Me”. It is up to us to answer the door or ignore the call! Christ has done a bountiful part when He came and was crucified on the Cross. He then resurrected and conquered death forever. It is up to us to participate in what He has already done. It is important to note that through sin we participate in Evil and are in communion with the Evil One. We must spend our lives turning from this and participate in the fullness of Christ.
Synergy is really about us working together with God to achieve His purpose in this world. We are painted some clear pictures of this relationship in the Old Testament. Abram’s promise wasn’t simply handed to him. He was required to travel a long distance. This was an action that Abram could have declined. Noah was saved because he had faith, listened to God, and built the Ark. We see a different kind of story with Job. Job had important things taken away from him in order to put his faith to the test. As with the monks in the icon, if we resist and remain faithful to God, we will also participate in His divine glory.
Also vital to the discussion are the notions of ‘image’ and ‘likeness’. God Himself spoke these words as early as the Genesis of man. Man is but a microcosm in the Universe, which is why we should note that our true perfection does not lie in our composition of the created elements. The earth will pass away; everything in it is transitory. Man’s perfection is achieved by his ability to distinguish himself from the created order, and to assimilate to the creator.
We have free will and choose whether to assimilate to His likeness. There were some teachers outside the Church, such as Calvin, and even some teachers from inside the church, like Blessed Augustine, who taught that we are predestined to be either saved or dammed. This throws off the relationship of synergia. This teaching makes the whole process only God’s doing. This is true from a broader standpoint, but God has empowered us with the choice of our own salvation. He has given each of us the power to work out our own salvation along with Him and His Church. Many of the pains that are endured in this life are blamed on God, but can be drawn back to man and his free will. Our will is often used not for the purpose of becoming linked to the likeness of god, but towards worldly cares. Many of these worldly cares are at the expense of other people. Ultimately, free will shows us the love that God has for all of His people. Predestination implies that not only are only some people “chosen” to be saved, but more sadly, some people are in fact brought into the world for no other purpose but to be dammed. This theory shows God as One who everyday brings people into the world just as food for the fire. If this were true, no matter what we did, we could not earn salvation through our faith and actions on earth if we were not previously chosen to be with God.
The issue of salvation has been ultimately left up to the individual. God has the power to do as He wishes and could decide to impose Himself on us if He so chose to. As we read the Holy Scriptures, we find many instances when God has restrained Himself for the good of man. In the Book of Daniel, the Prophet explaines that God restrains Himself for the appropriate time. We wonder why Christ waited so long to come and redeem man, but we are told by St. Paul that Christ was waiting for man to be ready.
In the New Testament Gospels, we are told that Christ came to save all sinners and that it is His desire that all should be brought to salvation. If we are in His likeness, then we choose to be like Him in virtue. We learn from Christ that the greatest virtue is love. Christ set the example of love for us by taking on a human body and dying in it for our redemption. This is the ultimate sign of love that we are to follow. To know love is to know God. We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are taught that we cannot love God or ourselves unless we first love someone else.
The common factor is the unchanging likeness of God. God is a constant. Man is the variable. The only thing that can change is the virtue of our actions. The man may change, but the goal remains the same. It is acquiring this constancy, the likeness of God, which describes deification most simply. Those of us who choose to aspire towards the Likeness of God, become one with Him. If we are ultimately deified, we are a part of God, although we are still distinct persons from Him.
It is important to point out that we are in union with God through His divine energies, not His essence. The teaching is that if deified, we as humans are linked to God but distinct from Him. We become like God in His energies but can never be like Him in His essence. Free will remains even then, and is fulfilled to what it was always meant to be. He became all that we are, so that we might become all that He is. The important factor is the deified are created gods while the Triune God is without beginning or end. This deified “status” is achieved through God’s grace.
The Church is the living body of Christ that allows us to be in communion with Him. The Church is Heaven on Earth. Within the Church are the sacraments that allow us to remain in communion with God. The beginning of our life in Christ starts with the Holy waters of Baptism. This is the part of our Christian life where we actually get onto the ladder of divine ascent. Baptism is where Christians partake of the burial and resurrection of Christ. We are cleansed of all of our past sins and our past life. We take on a new life in Christ and become members in the Body of Christ. Next, believers are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Chrismation. Once we are members of the Church of Christ, we are able to participate in the fulfillment of all sacraments, the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are then partakers of Christ and are in communion with Him.
Alternately, if we choose to sin, we are in communion with The Evil One. When we turn away from God during sin, we are actually communing with the author of sin, Satan. All man falls short of God’s glory on his own, but it is essential that man repent, turn away from his mistakes, and reenter into Union with God through a life of prayer and sacrament.
The path to salvation has a very distinct teaching in the Orthodox Church. The teaching of salvation in the United States is overwhelmed by the fundamentalist protestant views. I was told from my Protestant friends that this process is as simple as believing that God exists, making a verbal statement of faith in front of other people, a public confession, and then I would be saved.
In actuality, our salvation is broken down into three historical markers. We were saved nearly two thousand years ago on a hill in Golgotha with the death of our Lord. We are working out our salvation daily striving to be saved, and we hope to be saved when we face the judgment seat of Christ.
The teaching of the Church in this matter is that salvation is not static but dynamic. St. Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Christ has done His part by being crucified and resurrected, it is up to us to climb the ladder of salvation and partake in His divine glory.
Further reading on this subject:
Bishop Kallistos Ware; The Orthodox Church, 1997 Penguin Books, England
Peter Gillquist; Entering God’s Kingdom; Conciliar Press, 1995 Ben Lomond, CA
St. Theophan; The Path to Salvation; St. Herman Press, 1997 Platina, CA
Anthony Coniaris; Introducing The Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life; Light and Life Publishing 1982 Minneapolis, MN
St. Athanasius: The Life of St. Antony the Great; Eastern Orthodox Books, Willits, CA
Vladimir Lossky: The Image and Likeness of Christ; SVS Press, 1985 Crestwood NY
Vladimir Lossky: Mystic Theology of the Eastern Church; SVS Press, 1976 Crestwood NY