Becoming divine. It sounds like new age drivel one might hear from a spiritual guru on Oprah. But what if the Christian gospel really is about how humanity can become divine? It is so utterly different than the predominant message of the American Christian gospel: the good news that God wants to torture all of us forever unless we accept Jesus as Lord and savior which gets us a ticket to the great Disneyland in the sky. I’ve come to suspect that the afterlife insurance most American Christians understand as the totality of the gospel is largely a product of reading the Bible through the filter of capitalist middle-class anxiety, which is itself the product of centuries of unhealthy theology that also produced European colonialism and its American offspring, white supremacy. The more ancient Christian gospel preserved in the Eastern Orthodox tradition offers a very different framework for salvation in which entering heaven is the same thing as becoming heavenly, which is accomplished through a lifelong process of justification through Christ’s atonement and sanctification through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment.
I don’t think it’s a tragedy that postmoderns are having more and more difficulty imagining God as a retributive banker bureaucrat whose primary concern is getting paid back in blood for the world’s sin through one prescribed means. While I don’t think we should presume that everything about the world is improving over time, the increasing dissatisfaction with retributive justice in our cultural discourse is an evolution towards Christ, not away from him. If it’s harder today than it was in the eighties to bag decisions for Christ from strangers on the sidewalk with Four Spiritual Law tracts, that’s a sign that our culture has matured spiritually. There is certainly a substantial subset of our population that continues to cling to the hellfire and brimstone gospel, but why not engage the postmoderns with a different frame that remains faithful to scripture while acknowledging the validity of their resistance to tacky caricatures of salvation?
That’s why I would love it if 2 Peter 1:3-4 replaced John 3:16 on the cardboard signs at basketball games. What it says is incredibly good news to a world desperate for authentic belonging.
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
First we need to understand that whenever we say anything about divine matters, we’re always speaking in metaphors that approximate truth. I think the corruption Peter describes here works better than punishment as a metaphorical paradigm for the hell that God saves us from. What we read in Romans 1 is that God’s wrath describes the dehumanizing corruption innate to sin into which we are “handed over” more deeply every time we reject God’s love. God’s wrath is the violent contradiction between our sin and God’s harmonic will for creation, which doesn’t make God violent or punitive. Wrath is not a separate “punishment” that is inflicted upon us mechanistically in response whenever we violate a set of rules. It is the natural consequence of sin; an explosive allergic reaction inherent to creation. Every time there’s a riot in a poor neighborhood that’s being exploited by rich people who are flawlessly moralistic in their personal lives, it’s an expression of God’s wrath against sin even if people sin in the process of expressing it. Every shouting match I have with my wife is both sin and an expression of God’s wrath against our sin. To the degree that we persist in a state of sinful corruption, God’s wrath will cover us like a toxic, sticky, napalm goo constantly blowing up in our faces and keeping us from experiencing peace and joy.
What Paul teaches us in Galatians and Romans is that a legalistic understanding of holiness (being “justified by the law”) cannot save us from the wrath-covered life of being toxic, selfish people. Too many Christians think the point is simply to replace an old law (Hebrew Torah) with a new law (Paul’s teachings read legalistically). As long as our operative metaphor for salvation is avoiding punishment by satisfying some sort of legal requirement whether through correct behavior or belief, then we risk remaining un-liberated and persistently toxic in one critical, fundamental way. If I justify myself, whether it’s through my deeds or my catechisms, whether or not I believe that God is pulling my puppet strings, then I remain imprisoned in the hell of sinful corruption. I need to be justified unilaterally and unconditionally by Christ in order to escape the toxic need to be infallible in all things, which is the core defensiveness that makes me resist God’s love so that it becomes wrath to me.
Jesus puts our sin on his cross not because God needs to be pacified by his martyr’s blood, but because Jesus taking the blame for our sin allows us to be honest about it. When we trust Jesus’ sacrifice enough to be honest, we are opened to the incredible divine love that we otherwise experience as wrath. It is in the context of our unconditional acceptance that we gain the safe space to be sanctified. I don’t think we are “once saved, always saved” because it’s not about being spared punishment, but about maintaining a posture of trust in which spiritual transformation is possible. In the 12 step tradition, which is a spiritually neutral summary of Christian justification and sanctification, the first three steps of recognizing your powerlessness, trusting in a higher power, and surrendering your will are a never-ending cycle. You never graduate from the need to reenact your humility, trust, and surrender every day.
The more we grow past using our moral behavior to establish our legitimacy and justify ourselves, the more we can adopt the form of holiness that Paul teaches: following the prompting of the spirit rather than our flesh. The Christian life is not supposed to be about avoiding taboo behaviors in order to avoid getting punished, but about cultivating spiritual practices that liberate us from the “lust” that corrupts us. The more we succumb to the flesh, the more our bodies become mindless sites of addictive fulfillment. The more that we allow ourselves to be inspired by the Spirit, the more that we become divine. Now of course I mean this in a very specific sense. It’s a completely toxic heresy to believe that we are the source of our own divinity. That’s completely different. To become divine is to be infused by God.
Paul writes two things that speak to the divinity I’m talking about. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” This is why I would say that true atonement is participatory rather than merely substitutional. Jesus is crucified and resurrected so that we can be crucified and resurrected with him. Because American Christians have been so distracted by a celestial Disneyland vision of heaven, we don’t take enough time to ponder what an incredible gift it is that the Word of God would actually live inside of us. To have Christ inside of me so that my life is drawn into sync with the divinity in the universe — that’s heaven already. What happens after I die will be the full consummation of my incorporation into Christ’s body. But I’m already on the path to divinity if I have Christ inside of me.
Similarly, Paul asks the Corinthians an incredible question that has been horribly misused: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The tragedy is that this verse has been deployed almost exclusively to slut-shame Christian teenage girls for wearing booty shorts instead of being an appropriate “temple” for God. What a twisted application of this amazing news! You are a temple where God lives. What?!! That’s crazy. If a spiritual guru on Oprah said that, we would call it heresy. But Paul said it. The deepest human desire, especially in our socially fragmented age that is too hipster for old-fashioned dating or even normal friendships, is simply to belong. How could you possibly experience more belonging than for your body to be God’s home?
It does very little to memorize these verses and theorize about them. The point is to cultivate the ascetic spiritual disciplines that will provide me with a direct experience of being infused by God. I’ve had a few tastes of this experience, and they are more incredible than anything else I’ve ever tasted. Jesus tells a parable about the pearl of great price that the merchant sells everything else to have. It’s really true. That’s what becoming divine is like. It’s way better than going to a celestial Disneyland after you die.