Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University associate professor J.B. Haws is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The author’s views are his own.
I sometimes show my classes at Brigham Young University this quote, and then ask my students to guess who said it: “We are each destined to become a god, to be like God himself … to become just like God, a true God.” Students often guess Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow or another leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The quote, however, is from Cristoforos Stavropoulos, a 20th-century Greek Orthodox theologian.
Or take this example: A couple of years ago, a very articulate Antiochian Orthodox priest who had relatively little exposure to Latter-day Saint faith and practice, lectured to Brigham Young University's religion faculty on Eastern Orthodox beliefs about humans and their potential. In the audience that day was an evangelical Christian pastor who had participated in a number of interfaith dialogues with Latter-day Saints. When the Orthodox priest finished his lecture, the first comment came from the evangelical pastor. He said, “You sound like my Mormon friends.” The look on the faces of both the pastor and the priest spoke volumes — neither quite expected that.
Latter-day Saints believe in deification or “theosis,” the idea that humans can become like God — and so do Eastern Orthodox Christians. Recently, in theological circles, there has been an uptick in general Christian interest in theosis. (See recent work on this by David Paulsen and Hal Boyd.) This was the point of a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion meetings. Four of us spoke about the place of theosis in the doctrinal life of our respective faith perspectives — Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and the Latter-day Saint tradition.
The whole discussion was really fascinating, but the last question someone asked stuck with me: “How does theosis affect your politics?”
Here are two possible answers:
First, theosis has political implications for how we treat each other, because it grows out of an understanding that all humans are sons and daughters of God. It almost goes without saying that a topic like deification — in Eastern Orthodoxy or in the Latter-day Saint tradition — is so rich that a brief article like this can’t do it justice. But if an article like this can start conversations and clear up misperceptions, that’s a start. Like Orthodox Christians, Latter-day Saints see the Bible’s opening pages as pointing toward theosis — humans have been created in God’s image and can therefore grow into a likeness of God.
Latter-day Saints, for example, take very literally the words of Jesus, when he told Mary that God was “(his) Father, and your Father”; or of Paul, who called God the “Father of all.” Admittedly, Latter-day Saint views of that literal parent-child relationship might differ from classical Creator-creature formulations — and those differences should not be downplayed. But for Latter-day Saints, this parent-child relationship is the very reason that each person has the potential for deification.
In this worldview, every stranger, then, really is a brother or a sister with immense potential, a fellow child of a divine and universal Father. This means (or at least should mean) that Latter-day Saints cannot dismiss lightly anything that denies or disregards or seeks to diminish the infinite worth of that spark of divinity in each person around the globe.
Of course, deeply felt principles often motivate people on both sides of opposing public policy positions; this is not a partisan doctrine, so we should be wary of any quick or easy conclusion to say that it supports one party or another.
But it is also worth saying that theosis should serve as a reminder to approach voting booths, town hall meetings and social media comment boxes with an eye to something that C.S. Lewis (another Christian thinker who was influenced by theosis) articulated so memorably: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. ... It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities ... that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.”
Such sentiments can’t help but influence how we think about pressing issues surrounding education, health care access, immigration legislation, criminal justice reform, non-discrimination ordinances, refugee care and a host of other current political questions.
Good people can and will disagree as to which policy approaches best support human flourishing and the full realization of human potential. But what a belief in theosis means is that Latter-day Saints should largely agree on the significant place that human potential must command in public policy debates — and on the way that it must govern how we treat one another when we are having such debates.
Second, theosis has political implications because it can — and should — prompt profound humility.
That’s a paradox that calls for more explanation. Theosis could be taken as the most blatant form of arrogance and audacity there could be. What must not be missed, though, is that Latter-day Saints, like Orthodox Christians, believe that theosis comes by grace — and only by grace. There is an emphasis in both Latter-day Saint scripture and in the teachings of prophetic leaders that there will always be a uniqueness about God, even when humans are deified. To quote church President Gordon B. Hinckley, “God the Eternal Father … is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so.”
Importantly, it is by “having received of his (God’s) fulness and of his grace,” Latter-day Saint scripture reads, that “he makes them equal in power, and in might, and in dominion.” It is when the “saints shall be filled with his (Almighty God’s) glory” that they will “be made equal with him.” God and His son, Jesus Christ, are doing the “making equal” — God is the deifier.
There is something profoundly humbling as we recognize how much — how entirely — we depend on the grace of another to become what we might become. This can work against a sense of entitlement, or of any conceit that we are self-made, and hence justified in our disdain — or our policy-based disregard — for those whom we deem less successful, less deserving.41 comments on this story
So much of the political discord we see and hear seems to have self-centeredness at its root. Deification, this most ennobling doctrine, can also paradoxically be the most abasing. “Are we not all beggars?” we find ourselves asking with King Benjamin, one of the Book of Mormon prophet-leaders. Latter-day Saint thinker Terryl Givens has put it beautifully: “Theosis teaches us that divine nature is more about infinite compassion than infinite power.”
Theosis thus must affect my politics. There might not always be an easy one-to-one correspondence between this religious doctrine and public policy, but as I’ve thought about this more and more, this religious doctrine offers a counterweight against which my public policy positions should be measured.
I’m looking to see more clearly which positions and platforms, when weighed in the balances, are found wanting.