I have a weakness: I write best when I am disagreeing, refining, or challenging. But when Jacqui Lewis says that we need a grown up theology and grown up God, I can’t do anything but agree. I look forward to her upcoming book, Go Deep, Get Naked, and Come Clean: Getting a Grown Up God.

Reflecting her background in psychoanalytics, Lewis reminds us that growing up we first love our caretaker, then shift our love to a transitional object that we may eventually be able to set aside. Our stories often serve as similar caretakers and transitional objects, sources of comfort as we grow in life and faith. We are formed by those stories, reforming them as we go. The faith stories we tell, form, and create shape how we love, when we love, who we love, what we even think is or is not love.

The story of Christianity has so often been a story of in and out, win or lose, a zero-sum game where if God chooses me there is no longer room for you. Or the story of a God who punishes, and from whom we need to be saved. This is, says Lewis, immature religion that has springs more from competition on the playground than it does a mature faith that views faith and theology through a single lens, that of a God who is love.

She asks, does orthodoxy infantalize our faith? Do we need a new story? What if God speaks Buddhist, Muslim, woman, jazz? What if our canon is not closed? What if our theology allows God to be as large as God is? What if we are all called to create God together even as we are created? These are uncomfortable questions, and need to be asked.

I wonder if a metaphor here might be theosis. Theosis, or deification is best summed up by the words of St. Athanasius (quoted earlier in the day by Bp. Schori): God became human that we might become gods/divine. Theosis is how the Eastern Church understands salvation, that ongoing participation in God which is a life-long practice of virtue in relationship to all of creation. As with most tales of salvation, it is about salvation of individuals, though, as the Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae reminded us, salvation is undeniably corporate.

What if we were to expand notion of salvation together, of the shared deified life, to that space which is supposed to be a (note, I do not use “the”) vehicle for salvation? What if we viewed the church itself as undergoing deification? What if that we were able to see that the Body of Christ, as human as it is, is also growing into the same mature use of conscience (as Crossan referenced earlier in the conference), learning together what it is to rightly discern between good and evil? Theology is the story we tell about our shared life in God, and it is a story we retell, arguing and refining in midrashic fashion. Just as human persons are created to become mature, so too the Church becomes a more mature and spacious place in and through which the loving God can become known.

When asked what do we need to let go of to have a grown up God, Lewis answered without hesitancy: Confidence. So often, she noted, the theology of our past was characterized by an openness and curiosity that is lost in translation as it is passed down through the generation. She is right, tradition becomes ossified, no longer a joyful encounter with the Spirit who is expands our vision of God, always moving with us toward a horizon that continues to move. Rhetoric that the church is without error, so popular in Orthodoxy (especially as a foil to papal infallibility), allows a false-confidence that simply shuts our ears and eyes to the ongoing work of God that is already happening in the world.

Perhaps deification is a way to think about this, an orthodox (see, I do have one quibble: orthodoxy does not infantilizes us, we infantilize orthodoxy) metaphor that enables us to live into the humble realization that both individually and corporately we are growing into God, and that we need a grown up theology to match a grown up God. This is not a marker of our failure, but rather, a sign of trust in a God who is always with us, who is always calling us forth into greater love, the only criteria of any import, the only criteria by which we will be known.

16 thoughts

  1. I read this and thought to myself there are people on Earth like me…ones who question or have questions. Ones who won’t settle for what’s always been (hoping I’m not out of line with this). I just, for the last 7-8 years have been in an existential tropical storm I guess. I went from ultra, holy, I know everything because I speak and tongues to who am I? What does all this mean? I don’t know it all. I want to love and be loved. Be there for others without rules. I guess I’m rambling. This was a really good read.

  2. Why do you call corporate Theosis a metaphor? It seems to me that to Paul and the four Evangelists it was a very real phenomenon. Reading the canonical Gospels and Epistles in this light has really brought them to life for me. The idea of theosis as the ultimate Christian goal has also helped me to see Mary, the Theotokos, Birthgiver of God, as the model for both individual and corporate Theosis. The Church needs to look ahead and not remain stagnant. But we should never forget our roots are in the original witnesses.

    1. Theosis, “becoming god,” or deification, is the primary soteriological metaphor in Orthodox theology which interprets both the effects of the Incarnation and the appropriation of human “likeness” unto God. As a metaphor, it attempts to express how, through the gifts of God, we “may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.4). Calling it a metaphor does not make it an unreal phenomenon, but rather, it is the word we use to describe as closely as possible something that cannot be reduced to just that word. Metaphors aren’t untrue. Rather, they gesture (a metaphor) towards truth that we cannot fully describe.

  3. I resonate with every word of this, and am keen to read Jacqui’s book now as well. Confidence. Yeah. Say that word and our Orthodox authorities will start talking about pride or even prelest. But it comes down to honestly seeking God and trusting one’s own experience. This confidence can also be called honesty–weighing one’s experience against the wisdom one has been taught, not giving into a lie by denying one’s experience of God and making the received wisdom into idolatry. I like her notion of what I take to be our ideas about “God” as transitional objects. The problem isn’t with the transitional object–there’s some truth to the notion of God as super-parent or, then, Big Imaginary Friend, as long as one doesn’t get stuck there, as long as one can recognize that it’s just an idea about God and move on on the path from glory to glory. We get stuck on the trajectory, and that spot on the trajectory becomes our religion. Thanks, Maria

    1. Dave, I think we agree, but Jacqui was using “confidence” in a negative sense. More along the lines of absolute certainty, the kind of certainty you and I run in to all the time when we suggest that perhaps not all in Orthodoxy is as settled, sure, or clear as our interlocutor assumes.

      The confidence of which you speak seems more like the word you use, wisdom, that ability to discern in light of experience, and shift in light of new knowledge, experiences, and the awareness that we don’t actually know the mind of God.

  4. I’m interested in your idea of the church as experiencing theosis. I’m reminded of Julian of Norwich’s intentional use of the first person plural could get at the communal nature of theosis, which I see as always occurring through the gift of the Spirit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and recommending Lewis’ book.

  5. You poor lost soul. You insinuate that God is bigger than the images that we have learned to associated with him with through years of teaching. You mean he is not an old white haired, long bearded fellow sitting on a throne far, far away? I tend to agree with you. I really enjoyed the article and apologize for accidently sending the first two lines alone….
    My question is more, why do we use scripture to create this unattainable absolute instead of using it to show what we don’t know. Faith loses so much of it’s ability to function because we are sure in what we “know”. If we could look at what we don’t know, then Faith could intercede and guide us each on our own journey to understanding.

  6. As a part of a denomination in which “orthodoxy” has become a weapon – United Methodist – rather than something that offers us a guide through the thickets of our current experience, offering all sorts of opportunities to become more than who we are, I rejoiced as I read this. There’s beauty here, and joy, and the chance to understand our collective experience in so many ways. Thank you so much for this post. Thank you. Thank. You.

  7. Love it! Love the comments for the most part. But what if we dip ever so slightly into process theology and make room in our growing up faith for a growing God?

    1. I am intrigued by this possibility. Could you say a little bit more about how you envision process theology helping us to make room in our growing up faith for a growing God?

      1. Katie, glad you only asked for a little bit more. Because I am very much an amateur in process theology. My limited understanding of process theology is that God, as is everything, is in process. I. e., God is growing. We certainly see evidence of a changing God, or better, a changing understanding of God, in scripture. So maybe our understanding of God can grow as well.

      2. I think there is an important distinction between our understanding of God growing, and God growing. I admit that I am cautious about the latter since I think our understanding still has so far to travel that it might be a bit presumptuous to be all that certain that God is also growing. But here, I tend to be fairly traditional. I am just unconvinced by the (limited) process theology that I have read as it seems yet another way for us to make difficult scripture more palatable. I have my own preferred ways to do that, I just don’t happen to be convinced by the Process Theology method. I do, however, think that Jacqui Lewis might be more of a fan given some of the content of her presentation.

  8. So would you consider this Theosis another way to look at the transitions we see through out the Bible. I refer to the multiple covenants and resulting dispensations that God allows in the scripture. Not only do I see a changing God, but our change also. Like the result of Daniels sequence of knowledge leads to understanding, leads to wisdom resulting in a possible change due to growth? whether it is ours and a growing God’s or just ours alone?

    1. I am not a fan of dispensational theology in any of its forms, but I admit that my last serious encounter with it was at Fuller Seminary (where it was roundly rejected by my professors). I remain hesitant to talk with confidence about a changing God in large part b/c I see us, God’s people, changing so much that I am not sure we can accurately identify God with the kind of fullness that could also discern between our change and God’s change. I am not a process theologian.

      I see God’s invitation to us as utterly consistent throughout scripture: “participate in me by loving one another and nurturing all of creation as if you were me, knowing all the time that I am always with you in every success, and every failure.” So, ultimately, if there are dispensations, they are of our understanding of this, and our understanding alone.

      1. I agree. Our perception of God changes as our situations change. God will be constant without us even comprehending. Thank you for the article!

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