Here on Talk Gnosis we’ve been fortunate to have some of the world’s greatest scholars and wisest modern Gnostics on the show. But it’s a special pleasure to have Dr. M. David Litwa of Virginia Tech return to the program to discuss becoming divine. Not only is Dr. Litwa a brilliant and original thinker in his field—he’s a passionate and poetic speaker who portrays his academic discipline in a way that’ll grab your soul and mind. Now without any further ado, lets get into it!!!
I start off the show asking Dr. Litwa about the terms deification, divinization, and theosis—what they mean and how they differ. He explains that many people use them to all mean the same thing. While others differentiate—an example being theosis for specifically Christian ideas and forms of becoming divin—but Dr. Litwa prefers deification for the broadest possible term in his work. Deification in it’s simplest form means “becoming a god.”
Next is his new book, Desiring Divinity: Self-deification in Early Jewish and Christian Mythmaking, Dr. Litwa’s always found it fascinating that Jewish and Chrisitan texts you have figures claiming divinity for themselves and they’re written off as evil, blasphemous, and megalomaniac. But that’s not always the case, you have figures in these traditions—like Jesus—depicted as absolutely correct in their assertions of their divinity.
Although persecuted on Earth they later rise to the heavens and are justified. Why is that? Why do we have some people who are making divine claims who are punished and hated for being a self-deifying rebel and others who are acclaimed for being self-deifying heroes. Should we self-deify, is it so bad? Should humanity strive to become something greater than we are?! And that’s what the book examines!
We move onto asking about Jewish monotheism: in the ancient religions of Israel and Judah how can humans become gods if there’s only one God? But when we look to the Hebrew Bible and other texts time-and-time again there’s the primacy and supremacy of the main “one” God while other beings—from angels to the prophet Enoch—are depicted as divine beings, even referred to by the same Hebrew word meaning “god” or “gods”. GOD has other “gods” but He’s supreme to them all or to anything else in the universe.
Father Tony asks when it became blasphemous to hold this view of a family of gods with the one God as the central supreme deity. In the first few centuries of the Common Era rabbinic interpreters were making a strong response to Christians and Jewish sects that associated God with a “second power in heaven,” be that Jesus in the early Christian movement, or Sophia or the angel Metrotron in other Jewish sects. This was a way to differentiate and cohere what would become the mainstream of rabbinic Judaism from these other sects. But throughout antiquity there were still ideas about humans and figures joining in the power of God even if they started to avoid calling other beings “gods.”
I ask about an idea prevalent in pop-culture and spirituality that Jesus was just “a cool guy” with progressive and interesting ideas and philosophy and that he was only made into a god by later followers long, long, after his death, mostly due to influence from surrounding Greek, Hellenistic, and Pagan cultures.
First, Dr. Litwa states that Greek culture and Hellenism “doesn’t come in” from the outside as an influence on the myths that grew up about Jesus. It’s already the dominant culture of the Jews and all of the Mediterranean cultures for hundreds of years by the time of Christ. The mythology is already in place to think of Jesus as a divine figure, it doesn’t need to come later at a church council or be imported from another religion. And Jesus himself may have thought of himself as some kind of divine figure and the resurrection visions of the early apostles would have lead them to conclude Jesus was divine. And within 20 years of his death Paul is writing about Jesus as a god.
Father Tony asks about the Trinity, the diversity of early Christianity and the many different groups of Christians arguing and “competing” about exactly what ways was Jesus divine: fully God? Half-human/half divine? And so forth. Dr. Litwa is against the idea that Christianity started as a “horse race” with some ideas losing and some winning out. Today’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy, the ideas stay and change and transform and influence each other. The Trinity is a way of reconciling Greek philosophy, rationalism, and other ideas.
Part 2! I open it up with a question about the Roman Emperor—wasn’t he viewed as a god while still being alive? How could an earthly ruler of an empire be god and human at the same time? How did this impact religion and early Christianity? And wasn’t the kind of Israel also thought of as a god too?
Dr. Litwa likes to think of ancient religion as simply politics: but it’s the politics of heaven. Gods and kings are the analogues of each other. So, if you have divine kings here on Earth that make sense because God is a king! Not in a metaphorical sense but in a literal one.
Some scholars resist the idea that the ancient King of Israel was thought of as a divine figure. But the Psalms refer to the king as both a god and as the son of God and would have received veneration as such. Alexander the Great invaded much of the ancient world and Mediterranean and in his lifetime was thought of as the son of Zeus and was worshipped as a god. And when the Romans came along their rulers were gods who received sacrifices to them and the Jews of the time would have known this as there were temples to the Emperor around them. Due to these influences Jesus was thought of in a similar way, these ruler cult ideas having an impact on how early Christians thought about God and gods. He’s a divine king ruling the cosmos.
A divine human being and deification was the standard in these cultures even though these are radical concepts to the modern mind.
Father Tony is wondering if thinking of Jesus as Emperor is anti-Rome, if Jesus is the true ruler then isn’t the Emperor a fraud? Isn’t this an ant-imperial philosophy? But the Christians are using the same tropes and the same way of thinking about the world. It’s not anti-imperial as such as it’s a change in who’s king. The gospel writers are adapting the imperial cult for Jesus, applying Roman politics to him.
It’s GNOSTIC TIME. I ask if all ancient religion is politics did the Sethians and ancient Gnostics perceive the Demiurge and Archons as evil world rulers because they were experiencing literal evil world rulers. As above so below…right? He does see political criticism in the Gnostic writings, but there’s a level of literalism moderns might miss. For the ancient Gnostics, the empire and human rulers are just puppets and cronies of the supernatural Demiurge and Archons.
Trucking on to two competing narratives about what the Christian Bible says about Jesus. There’s a more traditional view that every book in the New Testament says Jesus is divine—fully human and fully God at the same time—and another view that says some do and some (maybe Gospel of Mark) don’t or qualify his divinity in radical ways. Are either of these views correct?
First we have to throw out half-God/half-man as it comes hundreds of years after these texts are written. Mark is more ambiguous, but at Jesus’ transfiguration and his divine claims at his trial indicate Jesus is being portrayed as a “hidden god figure.” Throughout Greco-Roman mythology there’s stories of gods coming rambling around the Earth and hiding their divinity—pretending to be humans—through out most of the story. And Jesus hides his godhood till the end of the gook. The other gospels all show Jesus as divine, Matthew may have him born of a human woman, but then so was Hercules. And you can become divine from a human starting point.
Part 3 coming at ya!
We’ve been talking a lot about kings, emperors, and prophets becoming divine but what about “ordinary Joes?” Doesn’t Paul in the Bible say “normal” people can experience theosis? Well…a god has two attributes. Immortality and supernatural power. Combine both of those and you have a divine being. So, in the Garden of Eden story Adam gets a supernatural power from eating of the Tree of Good and Evil—the power of knowledge—but God removes him from the garden before he can eat of the Tree of Life granting him immortality and full godhood.
Paul gives believers both gifts. Those who follow Jesus experience a transformation through the spirit within giving us power. But the second element, immortality, comes later at the end of days where our bodies are transformed into immortal ones. We become a democracy of gods with God as it’s head.
Gnostic time again! I ask about Simon of Samaria, Simon Magus, and why Dr. Litwa wrote about him as a self-deifying hero. Dr. Litwa says he’s a highly mythologised figure but there’s a possible historical core where he’s a Christian preaching and working in Samaria who through his own reflections and experiences realizes that the divine fire is not boxed up in some fourth dimension away from humanity and the world, but exists throughout the universe and in the human heart in seed form.
For Simon the divine in humans exist as a trinity, the god in us in seed form, the god who’s developing and evolving from human to deity, and then the full perfect god. And Simon sees this process in himself. Later he becomes known as the arch-heretic and father of the Gnostics but actually he and Jesus are radically parallel figures.
Then we talk about Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge, as a self-deifying rebel and Dr Litwa says
Okay, this is where I tell you to watch or listen and that’s not just because I’m at 1669 words already. Here Dr Litwa spits out pure poetry and I can’t do it justice.
Listen to it.
You’ll be glad you did!!!
We continue talking Demiurge with Father Tony asking if there’s hope for Yaldaboath to be redeemed. The ancient texts don’t seem to think so BUT there are Gnostic texts where the Demiurge’s son, a lower Archon, repents and is raised to true godhood.
An obvious place to go next is the most famous of self-deifying rebels, Lucifer himself. The angel who dreams of taking God’s throne and ruling in his place but is thrown down. And this is spiritually reflective of the great Hebrew fear of the unjust worldly tyrant. This is the dark side of self-deification, the ultimate power grab, the dictator who claims to be God and who is destined to fall due to their hubris.
Another of our fave topics, The Gospel of Thomas, comes up and Dr. Litwa refers to as the “gospel of deification.” And it’s the gospel for the everyday person who wants to be divine—here Jesus invites everyone to participate and share in his divinity. Jesus is the model for us to reconize our own godhood.
We jump ahead a thousand years or so to Gregory Palamas the great Greek monk and saint famous for teaching Christian meditation techniques and for teachings on theosis and deification by grace. First Dr. Litwa clarifies that deification by grace isn’t some present handed to us by God. It takes experience and work and one’s whole body and soul.
Then we end talking about if self-deification is an idea that matters to the modern world and folks…I don’t want do this to you again, but I’m doing you a great disservice if I type out or try to paraphrase his response. I guarantee that if you aren’t moved by Dr. Litwa’s closing then I’ll give you your money back (well Talk Gnosis is a free show, but it takes money, time, and resources to make—so support us for as little as a dollar on Patreon, and THEN if you don’t like what you hear I’ll refund you).