The Trap of Moralism
We were not created to have an external, moral relationship with our Creator, but rather a personal union with God. While the “personal relationship with God” line is largely taught in American Christianity, we often find we are still unfulfilled. Usually it boils down to: read your Bible, pray, and don’t do bad things. While all three of those are good suggestions, they fall short of our true calling: a complete union with God through our own deification.
The Western model of Christianity tends toward moralism as our final goal. Either we try to do good enough that God doesn’t smite us here on earth or we try to reform the earth through strict laws and/or social justice to try to pull God’s Kingdom down to earth. (More on that can be found in my blog Moral Progress at the Cost of Human Regress)
Even Eve Wondered about Greener Grass on the Other Side
Adam and Eve desired theosis. They were created in paradise but they obviously did not feel they had everything they could ever want. Otherwise, there would have been no desire to “become like God” by eating the fruit of the tree. I believe that while it was paradise, it was still not absolutely perfect.
The thought that Christ’s work was simply to turn back the clock and restore paradise is, I believe, a misunderstanding regarding Christ’s incarnation. Western Christianity can sometimes leave us with the thought that God was struck with a nostalgic moment, sent his Son to pay the legal debt of our sin, and is eagerly awaiting the moment to turn the clock back to the days of Eden.
Adam and Eve wanted to be like God and, despite being made in His image, knew they were still missing something. It seemed that perhaps there was greener grass elsewhere.
The Pattern Continues
Here’s the problem though: Adam and Eve went about it the wrong way – instead of cooperating with God they tried to fill the void on their own. Some Orthodox teach that the Incarnation of Christ would have happened regardless of whether or not humanity sinned. That God wanted to experience complete union with us through theosis was His purpose from the beginning. Our sin did not change His plan.
However, we must do this God’s way. The sin in the Garden of Eden began egotism or an anthropocentric view of life and the world. In this distorted perspective, man is the center of the universe rather than God..
This self-reliant system takes many forms. But one religious form I have fallen into myself is creating a “cafeteria-style” Christianity. I also call it “religion a la carte.” I pick out things that sound appealing from different theologians and religious systems and leave out the stuff that would truly challenge me and force me to reconsider my perspective.
For this reason, embracing Eastern Orthodoxy was so difficult for me at first. I was met with a Church that was bold enough to say, “If you don’t like something we believe, it is you that needs to change. Not us.” I was faced with the choice of aligning myself with what the Church taught for thousands of years or continuing to create my unique version of Christianity that was frankly leaving me spiritually unsatisfied.
Finding the Emptiness
We have this emptiness inside of us. I’m currently reading through Peter Rollin’s Idolatry of God with a discussion group. It is an excellent read because it states what we don’t want to admit: we have a void that we are all trying to fill and even Christianity seems to lack the ability to help us. The “noise” of this life often times keeps us distracted from the pain, whether our “noise” is religion, music, podcasts, or the latest self-help books. It can even include trying to create a better world around you.
All of these things are a prison in which we hide our emptiness. While many of them may be good things, unless our goal is theosis, we will feel a constant nagging that something isn’t quite right. You can read more on the empty pursuit of moralism in my blog here. The point is not to abandon doing good things, but rather allow those good things to be an overflow of our true purpose: theosis.
As Archimandrite George says, “Since man was created to become a god, as long as he does not find himself on the path of deification/theosis he feels an emptiness within himself; that something is not going right… He may numb himself, create a fancy world, [and] at the same time…cage and imprison himself inside it.”1
Now, I do not write these things in order that we Christians may escape the brokenness of this world. While I am sort of saying that I have found the solution, I am not saying that it will erase all of the pain of this life. Rather I write that we may embrace it; that we may feel it more deeply than we ever have before. But in doing so, we will also experience healing and fullness. When we move toward theosis, our hearts break for all of the wrongs we have committed. And when we move deeper into it, we shed tears, not just for our own brokenness, but for the entire world.
I am not writing about theosis to help us escape the pains of life; I am writing about it because I want us to learn what it means to be fully human: to love fully, to feel pain fully, and to find healing more fully.
1 Theosis by Archimandrite George