Theosis and the Hipster Christian

Elise Amyx’s critique of the Emergent Church movement‘s theology and social philosophy is a good one (you can read it here).  I’ve read some of McLaren’s work and found it well-intentioned but lacking on a number of levels.  I appreciate the spiritual longing that informs both McLaren’s work and the Emergent Church Movement in general but I find both inconsistent. Both seems  to hold dogmatically to being non-dogmatic. There is also a tendency to hold moral relativism as the only absolute moral standard.

More importantly for me as an Orthodox Christian and priest, for all that there is an interest in the liturgical and spiritual practices of “ancient Christianity” this interest is more appropriate for tourists than disciples.

This brings me to Nicholas Freiling interesting comment that “the ‘Christian hipster’ culture is simply a resurgence of interest in the ancient, historical Christian faith, and especially the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of ‘theosis’, whether the hipsters know it or not.” I confess I don’t know enough about Christian hipster culture to be sure how accurate this is. But as an Orthodox priest I am confident in my assessment of my Church’s understanding of theosis.

The very first thing I would point out is that theosis is not unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church; it is also part of the spiritual patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, St Thomas Aquinas and St John of the Cross—to name but two—both write about the deification of the person. In the context of the discussion here this matters because while there are theological differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, there is a fundamental agreement that theosis is the goal of the Christian life.

There is also an agreement that our deification is rooted in divine grace poured out in the sacraments—especially baptism, chrismation/confirmation and the Eucharist—and acted upon personally in the ascetical life. (On the latter point I think Metropolitan Jonah’s keynote at Acton University gives a good practical summary.)

What both East and West, even after the schism, would also agree that deification is not, contrary to McCracken’s assertion, a question of “heaven … com[ing] down to earth” but rather of bring earth up to heaven. We see this for example in Gothic church architecture. The faithful travel symbolically from earth to heaven down the long nave that unites the narthex and the altar, that is earth and heaven.

In my own tradition this same journey is expressed several times in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. For example, after the sermon and just before the beginning of the Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) in the prayer at the Cherubic Hymn the priest prayers that “No one bound by worldly desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near or minister to You, the King of glory.” Later he asks that God the Father receive the gifts of bread and wine on the heavenly altar. Indeed the whole of the Liturgy is understood to be taking place not on earth but in heaven.

I do agree, practically at least, with Hunter (or at least Nicholas’s summary of his argument) that we must develop “a life of faith–where Christ infiltrates every aspect of life, at work or church–rather than searching for the ‘faith moments’ of life.”  And yes, I would also agree—and more importantly affirm as consonant with the Orthodox and Catholic understanding of theosis—with Nicholas’s statement “that eternal life begins now as we grow closer to the person of Christ.”

I am however at a loss as to how we live all this without concurrently developing a Christian culture, however inadequate it will be relative to the Kingdom of God.  Yes let us as Christians, by all means, see to “the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone.” But for me as an Orthodox Christian, this is precisely what it means to “win the culture” and why I am involved in cultural debates.

Where I would disagree, or at least argue that “hipster Christians” are at odds with the classical soteriological teachings on theosis (and Elise points this out) is in their willingness to identify the Kingdom of God with this life. Yes we experience the Kingdom in this life but only partially, proleptically as Orthodox theology has it.

At the core though I think my disagreement with the Emergent Church and hipster Christians boils down to the difference between a sacrament and a non-sacrament view of the Christian life.  Are the sacraments a necessary part of Christian life? In other words, is the Christian world view and anthropology, necessarily sacramental?

The Orthodox (and Catholic) understanding of theosis—and so of cultural engagement—is rooted in the sacraments as the prophetic acts of the Church. They remind us that the Kingdom of God is not divorced from this life but neither can it be identified with this life. This is a distinction that I think is unclear in the Emergent Church movement and among Christian hipsters.

Again, an excellent post with very thoughtful comments.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Peter Berntsson

    Hello Father.
    Could you explain in further detail what you mean by saying that deification is not about “bringing Heaven to Earth” but rather the other way around?

    Because I like to use that expression of the Heavenly Jerusalem coming down FROM Heaven in the eschaton, as in Rev 21. That is in opposition to the quasi-dualistic view of “going to Heaven when you die and saying bye-bye to the failed project called Earth”, that is quite common in modern Protestantism.

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    • Fr Gregory Jensen

      Oh boy! A caller from Sweden!!!

      Hello Peter and thank you for your question.

      I appreciate the pedagogical point you are making in your use of Rev 21. Speaking to a roomful of Evangelical Christian psychologists at a conference a few years ago, I discovered they had the same concern as you do with trying to combat quasi-dualistic thinking among their peers. As you are, they were also struggling with the idea (evidently common among modern Protestants) that somehow Heaven is the escape from “the failed project called Earth.” (I do like that phrase, most eloquent!)

      Where I think we might be missing each other is in our respective understand the sacraments. Correct me if I wrong here, but it does seem to me that in an attempt to not hold to “works righteousness” many (most?) Evangelical Christians see sacraments as merely external acts of obedience devoid of any soteriological benefit. Put another way, in their view baptism doesn’t bring about the forgiveness of sins–it is purely an act of obedience. DO I have this right?

      Assuming I do, I think the longing among many contemporary Evangelical Christians is for a meaningful life. If, as a friend of mine once said, works don’t save, they don’t condemn and they don’t do either because they are meaningless in the face of God’s sovereignty. I’ve talked to a number of Evangelical Christians who have intuited that dismissing human acts as meaningless just doesn’t square with the New Testament. I would say that in the sacraments we discover the real meaning and significance of human action in response to divine grace.

      As an Orthodox Christian, I see the sacraments as works of the Holy Spirit and so prophetic acts. Through the sacraments, I come to share in the Life of God. This is important because, for us, salvation is not about “going to Heaven” as you describe (and rightly reject!) it here. No salvation is rather a matter of participation, of a sharing, in the inner life of the Holy Trinity. In Christ, in the Incarnation, God takes human life—and indeed all of the created order—up into the life of the Divine Community. God does this as well in the sacraments.

      I cannot bring Heaven down to Earth because, in the final analysis, Heaven is not a place. Rather Heaven, the City of God of Revelations 21, is nothing more or less that Holy Trinity. I can’t bring the God down, and historically those who try bring about evil worse than that which they would correct. . The Good News is that in Jesus Christ, God the Father can raise me up and, through the Holy Spirit, admit me into His life.

      Does this make any sense at all? Anyone else want to chime in here and give me a hand? I’m never at my best on Monday! 

      In Christ,


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