Theosis and Kenosis

What is the relationship between “participation in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4) and the self-humbling of Christ (Philippians 2:7)? Part of the splendor of Christ, as described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians, is that Christ, “being found in appearance as a man, humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” Humility and obedience: self-emptying. Christ divested himself of the privilege of his Divinity, taking human form, entering so fully into the human experience to the point of becoming “obedient” to death.

Theosis, or deification, or divinization are all concepts that crop up again and again in the Christian mystery. We are not just called to be God’s servant or slave, but indeed to become “partakers” in God’s very nature. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in us. It is very tempting to see this “theosis” as getting in on how cool it must be to be Christ. To experience love like Christ loves; to be immersed in the wisdom of Christ; to know the joy that only Christ knows. It all sounds sweet and good.

But I think, perhaps, the real, ultimate, most important key to this mystical notion of theosis likes in this scriptural concept of  kenosis. We are invited to participate in Christ’s self-emptying. We know Christ through adopting his freely chosen humility (down-to-earthiness).

What does this mean? We become partakers of the Divine Nature by surrendering all claim to our own “divinity.” The wisdom of Christ comes to us through the humility of our own unknowing. The joy of Christ is ours when we surrender our own claim to joy (which means — eek — being available to suffering). To experience the love of God, we must simply, lavishly, prodigally give it away.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Yewtree

    Thanks, that’s a much more positive take on the connections between the processes of kenosis and theosis than any I have seen before. I had understood kenosis to be a pre-requisite for theosis, rather than the other way around as you imply here.

  • Shadwynn

    I find the timing of your topic to be eeriely uncanny; I have just ordered a book entitled The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault. All the reviews I have read say that her main emphasis is on the kenotic ministry of Jesus and how it provides us an example of another “less travelled” way of entering into union with God by “giving ourselves away.” Your thoughts on this topic just make me anticipate the arrival of this book even more!

  • Liz W

    This paradox is one I meditate on often. I think you have it spot-on.

  • Carl McColman

    I think it would be a mistake to see theosis and kenosis either as a necessary prerequisite for the other. Rather, they both function as almost yin and yang to one another.

    Also, anything by Cynthia Bourgeault is well worth reading.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    I agree that emptiness of the Cartesian ego is a prerequisite for divine union as well as a few other points, but question the conclusion that “we become partakers of the Divine Nature by surrendering all claim to our own ‘divinity.’”

    This is not something Jesus ever did himself and, in fact, spent a great deal of time trying to get other people to claim themselves and “see” in its proper contextual relationship. It was also this particular snippet of “knowledge” with which Jesus answered accusations of blasphemy and so strongly believe is one thing we should never “unknow” once known.

    Having read your posts about the new movie, Avatar, I’m a little surprised you would advocate “unknowing” or relinquishing claim of of our own divine nature. “Seeing” the divine within ourselves and others and the ramifications of this seeing on the deep, interconnected relationships of all things (which I sincerely hope isn’t lost on anyone who has or will view that movie) illuminates our path and our place in the Cosmos.

    • Carl McColman

      He who would save his life must lose it. Become like a little child. He who would be first must become the last. I think Jesus can only be understood in terms of radical kenosis that goes far beyond merely emptying the “Cartesian ego” (Jesus predated Descartes by what, 1600 years?). The Christian path to divinity lies precisely in surrendering all claims to divinity.

      And I don’t think this contradicts with the “Christian message” of Avatar in the least.

      It occurs to me that we may be arguing past each other here. In Christ, divinity is revealed in terms of agape, or self-sacrificial love. It’s less about knowing who we are (that’s the error of gnosticism) and more about simply a way of being, a way of doing life. I certainly can see the idea that we must unlearn some of the muck that has been socially embedded in us in terms of “total depravity” and other such nonsense. But Christian metanoia goes far, far beyond merely the namaste experience.

  • Angus Lyon

    as bruce cockburn sung:

    But I’ve got this thing in my heart
    I must give you today
    It only lives when you
    Give it away

    … and being living sacrifices – a good exegisis of which is the beatitudes.

  • noel

    phl 2:7 one of my favourite bible passages
    i like to say it over and over many times when i do read it
    sort of memorise it without trying to understand it at all
    my question is this……..did jesus have doubts as he hung on the cross
    i mean was HE fully sure that he would descend to hades AND rise again
    did he think perhaps his father had deserted and maybe all along at least in his final 3 or 4 years he may have been just carried along on a wave of
    whats the word……sort of fundamentalism of the day

  • Gary Snead

    “Why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer…”, “I have been longing to be all for Jesus and to make other souls – especially Indian, come and love Him fervently…” Mother Theresa. I just bought ‘Come Be My Light’ and started reading it last night. The first quote is from her letter to Jesus, the second from a letter to Archbishop Pe’rier. Even she seems to have struggled with the impact on herself of that commitment and continual effort of self-emptying, but accepted it as her way of fully loving Jesus.

  • InfiniteWarrior

    “The Christian path to divinity lies precisely in surrendering all claims to divinity.”

    No, it doesn’t. It lies in claiming it. There’s quite a difference in losing one’s life in the biblical sense and losing one’s ego.

    The relationship is not one of “gnosis” or “secret knowledge” because it’s certainly no secret and even (astonishingly) managed to be spared being removed from the official “canon” of the Christian church. Nor is it knowledge in the Cartesian sense of the word or merely the “namaste” of our relationship to each other and all else. It is common sense as opposed to something we see with the physical eyes or “know” in the conventional sense. In fact, I believe that being cognizant of it is also the only way one could possibly understand and act upon the exhortation to “be in the world but not of it”.

    I understand that you are not using the term “radical kenosis” in the sense of cutting off all worldly relationships, but my last comment on this was that the flow in much of “mystical” literature and circles is one way only : toward perceiving our true nature in relationship with “God”. Having perceived the All in All, then living in tune with and acting on that perception “in the world”, however, receives very little attention and I think that’s a huge mistake.

  • Infinite Warrior

    “I don’t think this contradicts with the “Christian message” of Avatar in the least.”

    Incidentally, I agree with Ali’s assessment that the message of Avatar is not a necessarily “Christian” one, but rather is shared by all our cultural wisdom traditions. In fact, Christianity has done a bang-up job historically of hiding this particular snippet of common sense and, in my case, it was my Cherokee ancestors who preserved and passed down that particular nugget of wisdom — precisely how I recognized it in Jesus’ teachings.

  • Jeff

    A response to Noel’s question concerning, I believe, Jesus’s words on the cross, ” My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me!” I believe it was him quoting from Psalm 22 which has been seen as Christians over the centuries as being descriptive of Jesus death on the cross. It’s a fascinating read. Jesus was being mocked by onlookers for his claim he was the Son of God and to do something to prove he was indeed the Son of God. I think he quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 as an expression of his soul anguish AND a loving answer to his mockers – who were versed in the Old Testament- that a scripture showing he was the Son of God was being fulfilled before their eyes.

  • Tomasis Marie

    “It’s less about knowing who we are (that’s the error of gnosticism) and more about simply a way of being, a way of doing life.”

  • Carl McColman

    Sigh. I don’t know if it’s ever possible to affirm what one believes without sooner or later saying something that will elicit a “frowning face” from those who walk a different path. I hope that Tomasis and anyone else reading this will appreciate that I struggle with the limitations of human language, and am continually challenged by the problem of how to express the teaching I’ve received from my own tradition in a way that refrains from attacking or dismissing other traditions. Clearly, my own lack of charity and wisdom works against me here.

  • Jeff

    Kenosis and Theosis – I’ve ran these concepts through my New Testament/Gospel of Jesus Christ/Charismatic grid (repentance and faith in Jesus, be filled with the Spirit, believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved and so on) and here’s what I came up with. The end goal is to be before the Father for eternity as his beloved children, participating in and having the perfect human nature of Jesus as a gift. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, but we don’t realize that “Gee, I really am God after all!” as the final reality. We remain human flesh and bone individuals but are permeated with God even as Jesus is(Philippians 3:20-21). The process begins here through kenosis and theosis via repentance (kenosis) – a deepening realization we’re not innately holy or God, that our own persons and desires are not the center of reality but God and his will is instead, and that through faith in and union with Jesus we can become truly Godlike(theosis) (Whosoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God, I John 4:15) We receive the Holy Spirit as a gift and have the love of God flowing from our hearts and empowering our lives. Our repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21) is to deepen with the resulting increasing life and love giving presence of the Holy Spirit. But as Jesus said we can be “foolish and slow of heart to believe’ Luke 20:25. I know I can be!

    By the way Carl I’ve made my peace with how you approach things and have understood what I think you are trying to do, even though I still have some very basic disagreements. May your personal knowledge of and devotion to Jesus the Savior increase and overflow and become even more tenderly alive and real and bring tears of gratitude and love to your eyes. Please pray that the same continue for me also!

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate your respectful and charitable tone. I’m sure I have plenty to learn from you, and I hope that my writing might be of some small use to you as well. Thank you for your kind (and beautifully stated) blessing, and please rest assured that you, along with all the readers of this blog, remain in my prayers as well.

  • http://na Michael Kennedy

    Great suff.
    Attempting to verbalise what it means to be partakers of Christ’s divinity is very helpful and while it will remain a mystery it is a great challenge to face.
    thank you.
    we have such riches

  • Tomasis Marie

    Carl, while my “sad face” was the reaction of what appeared to be an “attacking or dismissing other traditions” it was more complicated than that and why I left it at that. You seemed to be in contradiction of yourself in a couple of ways. Your journey would lead one to think you were more sensitive to such a statement, a few days ago you seemed to dance at the edge of an accepting Catholic of various forms of Christianity (one might note: especially when the Irish Celtic Church is currently flirting with schism); but most importantly your explanation for your statement after my disheartened response seems to suggest a man who is becoming something far right of the mystic and contemplative and accepts the Church’s dogma as fact, without personal investigation or even getting to know us Mystic, Gnostic and Hermetic Christians. If the end all in your journey in regards to Gnosticism is reading and believing with blind faith in the heresiologists, then I may have mistook you for a man of different character, humility aside. Ironically, I believe I haven’t mistook you not only because of the few months I have been following your blog, but also because of acquaintances of some of your blog followers who do you know you personally as well and in this I am inclined to take their word, tho with an open end as I watch you to continue to peer into unknowing.

    There will always be differences between faiths, the whole being as much about diversity as it is unity, but as mystics and contemplatives we know the intimate and personal relationship God extends to each of us. God being the one common and ancient deep pool that branches out infinitely to touch each seeker (creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel) who humbly empties himself. This mystic touch leading to listening which doesn’t always immediately hear what it hears.

    Yet “…Mysticism which has not given birth to gnosis, magic and Hermetic philosophy — such a mysticism must, sooner or later, necessarily degenerate into “spiritual enjoyment” or “intoxication”.” — Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 43 Tarcher/Putnam Unknown (Roman Catholic) Author

    Possibly, emptying ourselves is the path to knowing ourselves and that we are the children of God? Possibly, knowing ourselves isn’t as awful as the heresiologists would have us believe? It only being a manner of does it create humility, awe and love or does it blow us up with false pride and false humility?

  • Carl McColman

    Tomasis, thanks for giving me much to chew on. My lengthy reply to this most recent comment of yours may be found here:

  • Steven Waldman

    Dear Infinite Warrior,
    Excuse me for coming in uninvited to comment on what you wrote, but it seems clear to me that you and Carl McColman are not disagreeing at all. I have been brought up – and have remained – in the tradition of orthodox Judaism, and certainly my knowledge is more of Hassidic and kabbalistic mystical texts than of Christian writings – and thus will express myself in that language – but I dare say that the issues are beautifully similar.
    The sages of the Talmud and the Hassidic/kabbalistic tradition have always stressed that that “partaking of Divine Nature,” or union, (in Hebrew – “dveykus”) with God is effected not in transcendence, but in immanence, in manifestation. The classic question , in almost koan style, was stated thus: “God is a consuming fire, how can one unite with Him?” And the answer( if one must be given) does not remain at the level of intellectual discourse : “As He is merciful, you be merciful; as He is compassionate, you be compassionate.” Those moments of “transcendence” reached in meditation or ecstatic practices were to be briefly touched in “rtso v’shov” as in a flash of lightening “running and returning” as hinted at in Ezekial. The most ancient kabbalistic work -sefer Yetzira -the Book of Formation, refers to that verse and adds: “if your heart runs, return to the One”, or alternatively “return back.” A transcendence which is a “distancing” from what Is, is a lower level appreciation of the full meaning of that concept, and though at times necessary, it should be a short lived experience. (This is related in fact to the reason that the Nazirite, the one who chooses to not partake in parts of manifest life, is considered a type of sinner and must bring a sacrifice at the end of his term of abstinence, and also to the Jewish stress that the highest expression of a Godly life can only be found through family relationships as opposed to a monastic life). The higher transcendence is a “not otherness,” wherein there is a transcendence of the boundaries that divide, and thus it is in fact a radical presence, a total immanence.
    That radical immanence can only be effected by a total emptying, which my tradition calls “bitul,” and yours – I think – kenosis. It is not a “relinquishing of the claim of our divine nature,” but in fact the very manifestation of it. The Hassidic tradition stresses that the innermost desire of God is to have an abode in the “lower” worlds. Emptying, then, is His very activity in creation, and is termed in kabbalah tsimtsum, or contraction. “Emptying” is thus not a technique to reach Him, to prepare ourselves to be filled with Him, to grasp Him, but a way to be Him, or as you state it “to partake of His nature.” In that sense, in the way kabbalistic Judaism perceives it, this entire existence is the very manifestation, the very “son,” of His being. Kenosis is certainly not a surrendering of “all claim to our own divinity.” There is a fine but important distinction between awareness and self consciousness. There is something too “self conscious” about that word “claim,” and i am confident that that is what Carl was referring to. If we are claiming that divinity, then we have lost it. Kenosis or “bitul” is not ignorance or forgetting, but it is certainly a move from “self” consciousness to awareness.
    Jerusalem, Israel

  • Steven Waldman

    An aside to Carl –
    the wording of the question ” God is a consuming fire, how can one unite with Him?” refers exactly to what you wrote in your initial post: it is not all “sweet and good.” The name of God chosen for this question is the ineffable YHVH, which is referred to in the Torah “this is my name “l’olam” (forever), this is my remembrance from generation to generation.” The word l’olam is spelled empty of vowels, and thus can be read “l’alem” which means hiddenness. It is a word whose proper vocalization has been lost to time and that orthodox Jews even today refuse to attempt to pronounce in respect of the Absolute, thus reminding ourselves of its inability as simply a word, a name, to encompass the infinite. It is composed of letters that spell in Hebrew past/haya, present/hoveh, and future/yhyeh, recognizing the intimate connection between being and time, and is thus referred to in Jewish teachings as the Name of Havayah = Being.
    So it is not all sweet and good. It is fire. It is searing heat and cozy warmth, it is light – and destruction. Paradox. So their question is how to attain union with paradox, how to unite when uniting is in a real sense dissolution of the very self that wants to unite, how to be fully available to all that will present itself in every moment. They are asking what is left when the dichotomy between the subject of that passion to unite and its Object is burned away, when what is left is not two, but one hand clapping. And their answer, like the answer to every question that touches paradox, must come from a level beyond the level of the question. They seem to be sidestepping the question to give a “lower” level answer, a mundane practical directive, but therein exactly is the mistaken appreciation of the “hierarchy” of transcendence/immanence that I touched upon in the previous post .

  • InfiniteWarrior

    It is not a “relinquishing of the claim of our divine nature,” but in fact the very manifestation of it.

    Precisely my point. Thank you for stating it far better than I. Just as “there is no path to peace; peace is the path” (Gandhi, TN Hanh), there is no path to divinity; divinity is the path. There is no path to love; love is the path. There is no path to truth; truth is the path. There is no path to “the Way”; the Way is the path.

    I agree that “claim” is not the word we are collectively seeking to describe the very thread of interconnection “divinity” represents as it is not a question of claiming or relinquishing it, but of realizing we are manifestations of aware(ness) and identifying with “that” rather than our own stray thoughts and emotions. The “manifestation of it” is the essence of our true nature in perfect, unbroken, harmonious relationship, which we have largely forgotten as a species and are apparently in the process of remembering regardless of the spiritual path we walk.

    The higher transcendence is a “not otherness,” wherein there is a transcendence of the boundaries that divide, and thus it is in fact a radical presence

    Again, beautifully stated. I am somewhat uninformed of the Hassidic/Kabbalistic tradition in comparison with a few others and so it is certainly no “uninvited” intrusion to hear your comments. In fact, such spontaneity is, I think, the hallmark of true expressions of divine creativity.

    The “boundaries that divide” are all illusion born of our own perspectival egos according to the sages of all our spiritual traditions. How odd, then, we should find the unreal so difficult to “transcend” (i.e. traverse, cross over). Indeed, it is not a hierarchy.

    It was not long ago that I found myself musing on the name of God as expressed in the original Hebrew so I appreciate the opportunity to eavesdrop on your aside to Carl. It is quite informative as well. The “proper vocalization” (and understanding) of ‘God’s Presence’ “has been lost to time” as you say. It is itself “Eternal” — another understanding nearly lost to us. Tolle’s book, Power of Now, and Almaas’ The Unfolding Now, et al perhaps are signs that we are recovering our memory.