theosis and neurosis
I was excited to receive Michael Gorman’s new book in the mail – Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Theosis, and Justification in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. That’s a mouthful. But it’s another piece in a puzzle that impacts all of us. It takes a stab at the question: “I know God, but how do I experience Him?”
It’s also a relevant question for all of you who are looking at us (“Christians”) from the outside with the very real and accurate observation that we don’t live out the love that we preach about. The bumper sticker says that we need to put “Christ” back in “Christmas,” but I suspect we need to put “Christ” back in “Christian.” And perhaps that is why Gorman has written a book with a mouthful title. While we’re often fighting over who’s in and who’s out, we’re not becoming Christ, not inhabiting Christ, not being formed in Christ. That’s theosis, after all. It’s becoming, as one early church writer put it, “little Christ’s.” It’s about entering into the world and engaging it, rather than keeping it at bay and critiquing it.
We, Protestants, have done a fine job of alienating Catholics over the years, but it is the Catholics (and sometimes even more, the Orthodox church of the East) that get this better than anyone. The “way of the Cross” is at the heart of it – a journey through the dark wilderness night of suffering into the light of resurrection. It’s a dark night, as the 16th century Carmelite Reformer St. John put it, that strips us of false attachments – to money, power, pride, reputation, relevance, sophistication, ego, acceptance, and more. It’s “dark” precisely because it’s difficult, and even humiliating at times. Who wants to be stripped of all that has formed their identity? We’ve all done a pretty good job mastering the identity that we suspect is most appealing to the world around us…to our family or spouse, our employer or church. The way of the Cross sounds ludicrous.
However, my conviction over the past decade of doing counseling and teaching seminary courses and pastoring is that theosis is vital for the recovery of a Christianity that means something to us, and means something to a watching world that often laughs at us. It’s about participating in the life of Jesus, not just watching from the sidelines. When you watch from the sidelines, you’re more interested in analyzing what’s wrong with everyone on the field. When you watch from the sidelines, you’re more apt to throw theological grenades at those who are, perhaps, not as theologically sophisticated as you. When you watch from the sidelines, you’re less inclined to engage the messy realities of every day Christian living. You’ll critique every play, mock the inadequacies of the players, and question the strategy, all while getting fat and happy on the junk food of theological arrogance and pharasaical elitism. I know. I’ve failed at my junk food diet for years. I’ve been a benchwarmer for years.
But from the vantage point of the player on the field, theosis requires engaging in the messy, every-day realities of living and loving. In fact, it requires an even more risky self-engagement, as you recognize and then do battle with your own tendencies to disassociate, disengage, and disconnect from reality. This is why Jesus used an array of disconcerting images about living like Him. The images, in total, portray life as far more risky, dangerous, messy, unpredictable, and unselfish than we’d like. To become rich, we choose poverty. To experience happiness, we walk through the valley of lament. To receive mercy, we give it. To be satisfied, we empty ourselves. To find ourselves, we lose ourselves. It’s radical engagement with ourselves and with the world. The psychological equivalent of disengagement, on the other hand, is denial.
And we, counselors, often call that neurosis. Carl Jung once said, “Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic.” What he observed was not only individuals who escaped reality through a myriad of virtual realities, but saw a world mired in systemic disengagement, addiction, disassociation, and virtual reality – (all before the advent of video games and the internet!). Neurosis eats away at theosis. It tells the heart, “Don’t take that risk. You might get hurt.” In doing so, it erodes a sense of Christ-like vulnerability which leads us to more intimate relationship with our fellow humans. Neurosis, at its heart, is de-humanizing. Theosis, on the other hand, is radically humanizing in the sense that it invites to become who we were meant to be, found in the cruciform God – Jesus.
It also has many relevant applications for those of us who are “professional Christians.” Neurosis avoids theological engagement through theological conflict. Theosis requires theological engagement through self-giving love, dignity, and respect. Neurosis makes everyone an enemy. Theosis turns the other cheek. Neurosis leads to cynical detachment and fear-based alarmism. Theosis invites vulnerable (yet wise) incarnation into the dangerous and messy realities of life. Neurosis self-protects. Theosis self-empties.
Of course, there would be much to spell out as to what this looks like and how it manifests itself, particularly among those who have been abused (…because self-protection would not only be the wise thing, but the most godly thing to do). But this big-picture construct between theosis and neurosis puts words around a choice between “two roads that diverge in a wood.” Neurosis, of course, is a word that speaks of psychopathology and sin, but theosis marks out the path toward health, freedom, and full humanity. In the movie The Matrix, it was the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. And perhaps God, like Morpheus in the movie, says to us:
“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Theosis is the rabbit hole of Christ-habitation, to full humanness, to a life of risk, adventure, and joy. Take the red pill.