Thursday, January 24, 2013

Man becoming God is an Old Idea

In an essay for the Springfield News-Leader (January 11, 2013) Pastor Mark Kiser blames all societal ills on the fact that people have tried to divorce themselves “from the influence and loving arms of a gracious God, Jesus Christ” (Mark Kiser article). Kiser is the President of “Reclaiming Missouri for Christ,” although I was unable to identify the church of which he is pastor.
       In early Christian texts Jesus is presented as a Jewish man to whom were attributed mighty works, wonders, and signs (Acts 2:22); he lived and died in Palestine in the early years of the first century A. D. His preferred term for himself was “son of man,” but his followers in the latter half of the first century described him as “God’s Anointed” and “Son of God,” a title given to other Greco-Roman “sons of God”—but his earliest followers did not make him God, nor did he claim to be God. Early Christian texts in the latter half of the first century, however, describe four different ways that the followers of Jesus thought he had become a “son of God”: at his birth (Matthew, Luke), at his baptism (Mark), at his resurrection (Paul). In John, however, Jesus was always the pre-existent son of God, and the only one of his kind.
       Kiser’s description of Jesus as God is not consistent with early Christian faith or even Christian orthodoxy. Not even the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Christ hymn of Philippians; and the Trinitarian Creeds of the 4th century (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed), which describe a very close relationship between God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit (i.e., three persons in One) go as far as Pastor Kiser and actually turn Jesus into God. Tertullian, a late 2nd century churchman and author, who was the most precise of early Christian writers in his description of the Trinity, insisted on a clear distinction between God and the son, something the later creeds obscure. The earliest Christians worshipped Yahweh the God of Hebrew faith, and regarded Jesus who, as God’s Anointed, was believed to have played a special role in the divine economy. Nevertheless, at the end of the first century there are clear indications that the role of Jesus was becoming far more important in Christian faith. For example, Pliny the Younger, a Roman special commissioner to Pontus-Bithynia, reported that Christians in Bithynia had admitted meeting on certain days at daybreak to chant a hymn “to Christ as to a God.” And the outburst of Thomas in John 20:28 seems to elevate the role of the resurrected Christ to a position assuming the role of deity.
       Pastor Kiser raises an interesting question. Can humans become divine, and receive worship as a God? The answer is yes they can—and they have done so. It was a common feature of Pagan antiquity to believe that human beings of great accomplishments had a God for a father and a human for a mother, and they as “sons of God” developed cult followings. For example, Theagenes was only a Greek athlete of legendary prowess, but according to the Greek Historian Pausanias, by the 2nd century cult centers existed across Greece where Theagenes received divine honors, and sacrifice was rendered to him as to a God.        
        In Greco-Roman antiquity anyone who knew Homer’s writings knew the Gods often came to earth in the disguise of humans. So for example, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Gods (Hermes and Zeus) at Lystra (Acts 14:8-18), and Paul was mistaken for a God at Malta when the viper bite him but did not kill him (Acts 28:1-6). The Roman Centurion, Cornelius, began to worship Peter as a God at Caesarea (Acts 10:23-26). Likely, the Christ Hymn of Philippians (2:5-11) should be understood in such a context (see particularly, Phil 2:5-8): Christ Jesus as a pre-existent divine figure does not become human but rather merely assumes the disguise of a human being.
       It is apparently an easy matter even for people even in the modern world to believe that humans can become divine. Until the end of World War II the Japanese emperor Hirohito was believed to be divine and worshipped as such—he did not renounce his divinity until 1946. There are other examples.
       Dethroning the traditional God of Jewish and Christian faith and replacing God with Jesus, as Pastor Kiser has done, is not unprecedented, however. In the ancient world Zeus was believed to have dethroned his father Cronus, thereby becoming the Lord of the Universe—just as Cronus himself at an earlier time had dethroned his father Uranus.
       Can humans become Gods? The evidence seems to suggest that whatever you are able to convince people to believe will become their reality.

A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on January 19, 2013: http://www.news-leader.com/article/20130119/OPINIONS02/301190018/-1/7daysarchives/Man-turning-into-god-ancient-idea

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

5 comments:

  1. "The dual substance of Christ--the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God or, more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him--has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. This nostalgia for God, at once so mysterious and so real, has opened in me large wounds and also large flowing springs... Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed: it is universal." -Nikos Kazantzakis
    Posted on 1/27/2013 at 12:06am

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  2. “Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally the supreme purpose of the struggle—union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks. This is the supreme duty of the man who struggles—to set out for the lofty peak which Christ, the first-born son of salvation attained.” Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (1960).

    Thanks Robert. Both quotes are from the prologue to the book.
    Charles W. Hedrick
    Posted on 1/27/2013 at 2:03pm

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  3. I realize that the two are not entirely the same but there is some similar sentiment between the temples for emperors and the monuments and memorials we raise to Washington, Jefferson, the childhood log cabin of Lincoln, the presidential libraries of Bush, Carter, Reagan and Clinton, all of which are attended by "priests" in the form of curators.
    Posted on 1/26/2013 at 9:12pm

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  4. Charles,
    In a way, this is a poetic conversation that cannot bear the scrutiny of close examination. To say that Jesus is the only son of God is akin to saying "My daughter is the most intelligent young woman in the world." If you hear me say that, you would not then say, "Have your surveyed all of the young women in the world? How do you define young? How do you measure intelligence?" Okay, maybe you would say those things, but most people would immediately accept that I am using affectionate and honorific terms.

    In the ancient world, the ascription of divine birth was honorific. Sure, some people no doubt took such things literally just like there are some people who believe that rubbing HeadOn on their foreheads will actually cure a headache (even though the product has been shown to have no active ingredients). But even in the ancient world, I suspect that writers knew when they were being fact literal and when they were being poetic.

    On close examination, it simply makes no sense to assert that the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent was contained in a skin sack that was "here" and not "there" that had to sleep, eat and "go by the path" etc. From the time of Friedrich Schleiermacher we have talked about "God consciousness" rather than incarnation. I think it is just embarrassing that people in churches still speak out of the age of flat earth thinking about these things. Jesus' divinity is not different in kind from your divinity or mine, though perhaps different in degree. Now that I think about it, mine may be different in degree from yours..... you aren't actually ordained are you?

    Roger Ray, D.Min
    Posted on 1/25/2013 at 3:43pm

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  5. Hi Roger,
    Thank you for your questions and comments. It is true that the Greeks distinguished between the canonical 12 Gods (or 13 with Dionysos) and heroes. Hence heroes (who began as human beings) were not one of the traditional Gods. Nevertheless heroes were believed to have divine parentage, received animal sacrifices as did the Gods, healed diseases, and answered prayers. Some heroes, however, did cross the divide and became Gods: Herakles, the Dioscuri (Zeus’ boys, Castor and Pollux) and Asklepios (who had a greater track record in healing than did Jesus). The difference between Gods and heroes appears to be more terminology than essence.

    The divine titles conferred on Roman emperors were surely honorific, and in the early empire emperors were not called Deus (God) but rather divus (divine). Nevertheless temples were built to emperors and serviced by a priesthood who officiated at regular sacrifices (just like the traditional Gods received). The divinized Caesar and Augustus had temples in the fashion of Gods at Rome. Domition, who insisted on the title “Lord and God” had a temple at Ephesus in Asia Minor and Claudius had a temple at Colchester in Britain. You are likely correct that in early antiquity perhaps a few “men of letters” knew the difference between Gods and human beings, but who knows what went on in the minds of the superstitious populace. See Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (1987), an impressive survey of “paganism” drawing on both the epigraphical and literary evidence.

    In answer to your last question: I was ordained in 1956 by the First Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi, served as pastor of churches in Mississippi, California, and New York City, and commissioned as an Army Chaplain in the Army Reserve in 1964, serving until retirement in 1994. And I am quite sure that none of that qualifies me as a theios aner (divine man).
    Cordially,
    Charlie
    Posted on 1/26/2013 at 1:40pm

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