"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, May 13, 2016

An Interview with Carl Olson on Theosis/Deificiation/Divinization

Though it's been almost a decade since Daniel Keating's book Deification and Grace appeared from Catholic University of America Press, lingering suspicion of divinization or deification in Catholic circles is still to be found, which is staggering and stupid in equal measure. Happily, however, we now have what I hope will be the definitive answer to that nonsense: a new, and wholly welcome, collection of articles co-edited by Carl Olson (my editor, in fact, at Catholic World Report) and the Jesuit priest David Meconi, a patrologist who teaches at Saint Louis University. That collection, Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, really, really deserves a place in every Catholic library large and small so that, among other things, it can finally drive a fatal stake through the heart of the foolish notion one still finds in some Catholic circles (including as late last year at a major Catholic university in Europe) that theosis (deification or divinization) is (a) some esoteric and suspect "Eastern" notion held by those "schismatic" Orthodox; (b) something quasi-pagan and therefore suspect; or (c) both of the above.

And what a thoroughly catholic collection it is, too! It really does show the universal breadth of the Church, and some of her many diverse traditions, communities, and expressions. Thus we have, inter alia, chapters on deification in the Latin and Greek patristic traditions; in the Dominican and Franciscan traditions; deification in the French Catholic spiritual tradition; in the neo-Thomistic tradition; in the thought of Cardinal Newman (who was, of course, so deeply immersed in the Fathers, especially the Greeks); in the teaching of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II; in the thought of Pope John Paul II; and in the liturgy (a chapter most aptly written by David Fagerberg, author of such works as On Liturgical Asceticism, which, like his break-out book Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology? shows deep immersion in the Christian East).

All this and more is to be found in a handsome book (bearing on the front cover what is my favourite Byzantine icon of all time, Theophanes the Greek's rendition of the Transfiguration) that is both affordable and accessible to your average "lay" reader. This book really does belong in personal and parish libraries as well as those of every Catholic academic institution.

I asked the editors for their thoughts on this book, and Carl was able to respond. Fr. David is engaged in an extended period of travel just now, so I hope to have a chance to hear from him later.

AD: Tell us about your background.

Olson: I was raised in a Fundamentalist Protestant home, and my father was the co-founder of a small Bible chapel in western Montana that is still going strong. One of the great things about my upbringing was the immersion in Scripture, which would later play a key role in my decision to become Catholic and, more specifically, my recognition of the incredible truth of theosis, or deification. After a couple years of art school, I attended Briercrest Bible College in Saskatchewan, Canada, which proved to be a pivotal time for me, as I was (rather surprisingly) exposed to a wide range of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theology and writing. Not only did I learn a great deal, I also learned how much I didn't know (a lot!), which spurred me on to studying a lot of Church history and theology on my own.

That led, eventually, to the realization that I was reading a lot of Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) writers--Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Russell Kirk, and T.S. Eliot stand out--which led to my reading of the early Church Fathers, Newman, Aquinas, and John Paul II. More to the point, I wound up listening to a Scott Hahn tape series "The Catholic Gospel," which was actually a class he taught at the time at Steubenville, His focus was on "divine sonship," and he delved into a wide range of theologians, including Matthias Scheeben (the subject of a chapter in the book), whose Mysteries of Christianity was an eye-opening read. I also read Fr. Emile Mersch's Theology of the Mystical Body, which further impressed upon me the essential truth of deification. I was very happy and honored that Scott graciously wrote the Foreword to the book, because his influence on my own study and thought was substantial.

My wife and I entered the Catholic Church in 1997, and that same year I began working on a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas, via that school's Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies. Those three years of theological formation were invaluable for many reasons, not least a firm and deep grounding in the teachings and practices of the Church. This topic continued to be an important one for me, and I ended up writing a paper on the theme of deification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has been revised and included as a chapter in this book.

Finally, I must note that our family has attended Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, Oregon, since 2000, and my understanding and appreciation of theosis has deepened even further through the Divine Liturgy, the friendship and teaching of Fr. Richard Janowicz, and the weekly Bible study I've taught there for over fifteen years.

AD: What led you to collaborate on Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification?

Olson: Sometime in 2010 I found out, through e-mail correspondence, that Fr. David Meconi, S.J., the new editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, had written his doctoral dissertation on the theme of deification of Saint Augustine. I asked him about it in an interview for Ignatius Insight, and then we communicated about it further. One of us floated the idea of a book on the topic; we agreed that a book of this sort was important, as the topic is either often misunderstood or completely ignored. We started brainstorming and came up with a list of possible contributors. It took a while to put together the final line-up, but it was clear to me that we had some providential aid. For example, one day after Divine Liturgy I was introduced to some visitors. It turned out that Daniel Lattier was, at that time, finishing up his doctoral dissertation the theme of deification in the writings of John Henry Newman. I, of course, told him of the project and invited him to contribute; I think his chapter is one of the more surprising sections of the book, which has plenty of surprises.

AD: Have you had the experience I have had more than once (including as recently as late last year), whereby some Catholics react with disbelief or even scorn that divinization/deification/theosis is a Catholic, or even a Christian, notion? Some recoil from it as though it were at best quasi-pagan. Why do you think that is?

Olson: Yes, on several occasions. Sometimes it is just puzzlement; on occasion it is complete disbelief and even denial. One acquaintance, a very learned and serious Catholic, told me that he thought deification was very "Mormon-like"; he had a very strong negative reaction to it. I sent him a PDF of the book manuscript, and a couple of weeks later he e-mailed me back and said: "That was mind-blowing. I've never heard this before." I've given talks on this topic at various parishes, and the initial response overall is puzzlement. But as I get into the topic and start referencing Scripture, Church Fathers, and the Catechism, people begin to nod and indicate recognition.

Terminology is sometimes a problem or barrier, which is discussed in the book. But, unfortunately, I think there are other problems as well. First, I think some Catholics are taught a soteriology that is deficient in both depth and richness. There is sometimes an emphasis mostly or even solely on being saved from something (sin, hell, damnation) and little or no mention of being saved for something, or Someone. Or there is talk of heaven and even the beatific vision, but little sense of what that means, especially for the here and now. While it is commonly understood that baptism involves the remission of sins, there seems to be little recognition that we are not only freed from sin, as the Catechism states, but also "reborn as sons of God" (par 1213). I'm convinced that much of this language of divine sonship and deification has become part of the wallpaper, so to speak, for far too many Catholics, as if it is merely poetic language without any real, concrete meaning. Finally, I also believe there is often a lacking understanding of grace as "a participation in the life of God" that "introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life" (CCC, par 1997).

So, when some people hear the straightforward and stunning language of deification (see CCC, par. 460!), they are often stunned or upset. Some folks equate it with Mormonism, or some form of polytheism, or a variation of the New Age movement. As I sometimes explain, this shouldn't surprise us, because the serpent promised a false form of deification to Adam and Eve; in fact, man is either trying to deify himself through some false path to godhead, or he is humbly filled with the Trinitarian life, having been made "a partaker of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). What I try to emphasize, when I give talks, is that Catholicism is not a moral system, or a way to just avoid hell, but a call to be a true child of God (1 Jn 5:1-5).

AD: Do you think some of the dis-ease or controversy around this idea comes, as your introduction states, from people equating "partakers of the divine nature" with "possessors" having "an autonomous sovereignty"?

Olson: Yes, that's likely the case for many people, who are understandably concerned about making a claim that apparently impinges on the complete Otherness and uniqueness of God. There is a fear, I suspect, of collapsing the chasm between Creator and creature, between God and man. Which is why they need to understand that the chasm has been spanned and closed in the most radical way, by God becoming man and dwelling among us (Jn 1:14). The Incarnation does not mean that we are no longer creatures; rather, it means that we are no longer slaves. We are sons, by grace, because the Son by nature became man, offering us supernatural life. Interestingly enough, I've never met a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox who understood this teaching and who then claimed they were somehow autonomous from God, or no longer needed the sacraments, or some such thing. On the contrary, the more deeply this is understood, the more humbling it is, precisely because the humility of God (see Phil 2:5-11) is part and parcel of the revelation of God as love (1 Jn 4:8-9).

AD: In discussing deification, the central (and often only!) text everyone references is of course II Peter 1: 2-4. But your first chapter shows much wider and deeper biblical roots to deification throughout both testaments. Were you surprised by this abundance of scriptural reflection?

Olson: I mentioned my upbringing in a small Fundamentalist Bible chapel. Growing up, our group had 3 or 4 men, or elders, who would take turns preaching each Sunday. One of those elders often spoke of being adopted by God, of being a son or daughter of God, drawing on passages written by Paul and John. He emphasized, of course, that we are just adopted children, but also noted that adopted children are still real children. That stuck with me: I reflected on that and read those passages, wondering what it all meant. One key for me, in the process of journeying into the Church, was recognizing how incomplete was my understanding of grace, and thus of the sacraments; all of it was perfectly woven together, and the foundations were the reality, first, of the Trinity, and then of the Incarnation. Early on, then, in studying Catholic theology and reading Scheeben, Mersch, and others, I was continually surprised by what was right there in the Bible, a book I had been memorizing and reading since I was three years old. I am convinced that understanding the perennial teaching about deification will forever change how a person understands and interprets Scripture, which is filled with numerous references and inferences about this amazing truth.

AD: In the last decade or so, there have been a half-dozen or more books in English that I can think of straightaway treating deification in Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. I'm wondering if such a renewed understanding of deification would have been possible absent both the ecumenical movement and in particular the Ressourcement movement of the 20th century, in which Jesuits like de Lubac and Danielou, and Dominicans like Congar and Chenu, were so active. What are your thoughts on the reasons for this renewed interest in deification?

Olson: It's a great question, and I think Dr Adam Cooper's chapter in the book touches on this in many ways. I am confident the book demonstrates, very clearly, that this teaching and belief has always been essential, even when it has been either pushed below the surface or not fully plumbed. That said, the Ressourcement movements emphasis on both Scripture and patristics undoubtedly had a tremendous impact and influence.

For example, consider these two lines from the opening paragraphs of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: "The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life..." (par 2), and, "The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons..." (par 3). That sort of approach was due to the Ressourcement theologians and those close to them, including Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla. There are many other examples from the Vatican II texts, and they speak to a renewed emphasis on the sources, especially Scripture.

AD: With references aplenty to the Greek fathers, as well as to Palamas and then modern Orthodox theologians like Alexander Schmemann, Vladimir Lossky, Andrew Louth, and John McGuckin, this book seems to me to be, however indirectly, a contribution to the great ecumenical task of helping East and West discover that they are neither so dissimilar nor therefore so divided as many have thought. Was that part of your aim?


Olson: Yes, absolutely. Our family has been attending a Byzantine Catholic parish for many years, and I have several friends who are Eastern Orthodox. On one hand, to be perfectly honest, I've long found it annoying when certain (not all!) Eastern Orthodox writers claim that theosis was an Eastern belief that the West has either ignored or even rejected (Augustine and Aquinas are the usual suspects here, but without legitimate reason, as the book demonstrates). On the other hand, I want both Catholics and Orthodox alike to realize how similar, even united, we are in this essential belief, even if sometimes the language or approach in spiritual practice can vary or differ.

Years ago, I wrote an article titled "The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals", and I have long marveled at how Saint John Paul II incorporated so much Eastern spirituality into his thought--something that many Catholics seem unaware of. I think it is fair and accurate to say that John Paul II's vision of Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism was focused around a robust and dynamic vision of theosis and deification, one that involves not just soteriology, but also ecclesiology and sacramental theology.

AD: Each chapter is written in a concise, accessible style, with brief bibliographies at the end, making this a good book for parish study I would assume? Or did you have other audiences in mind?

Olson: We had several goals, and I think they are all compatible. We wanted a book that was comprehensive, and so it made sense to take a chronological approach that accentuates the development and continuity of this teaching. We wanted the book to be rigorous and learned, and so the contributors are specialists who have studied deeply the persons, texts, and schools they write about. We also wanted the book to be accessible to a wide range of readers; while the book is not light reading, I think it is very enjoyable reading. The contributors have done a wonderful job of avoiding needless academic jargon; after all, there is already a lot of challenging material involved! We envision the book being ideal for undergraduate courses in theology and spirituality, for advanced RCIA classes and Bible studies, and for any and all readers who want to learn more about this fascinating and important subject.

AD: Having finished this collection, Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification, are you collaborating on any other projects at the moment? Or what forthcoming publications are you each working on individually?

Olson: I have several book projects in various stages of completion and non-completion. Fr. Meconi asked me to contribute a volume on ecclesiology for a series of books he is editing for Emmaus Road, and I should have that finished this summer. I am also putting together a collection of Scripture columns that cover the three-year cycle (in the West); that is drawn from the weekly column I wrote for nine years for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and is in the final stages of editing. I am working with two good friends (who both teach Asian history) on a book about Catholicism and Buddhism, and Sandra Miesel (with whom I co-authored The Da Vinci Hoax) and I are starting to work on a book about "counterfeit Christs," which will be a companion of sorts to my recently published book Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute).

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