Hello all! I recently wrote this paper for an History/Literature/Theology (Omnibus) class and want to share it! Please remember, the terms--especially the Eastern Orthodox ones--are being used vaguely and broadly for the purpose of the assignment (which was to discuss sanctification from a biblical, historical, and literary perspective, with a special focus on the current book we were reading: The Divine Comedy--all under a 2,000 word limit). To gain a fitting and respectful understanding of Praxis, Theoria, Theosis and the Nous requires more in-depth study, explanation and application--a lifetime, really. So, I highly recommend reading some of the links in my bibliography for further pursuit of the terms, as I was not able to expand on them in this paper.
(Icon of The Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush, "Dante Following Virgil Up the Mountain" Gustave Dore, Superman Emblem, Illustration from Pilgrim's Progress)
Theosis: A Path of Purging, Praxis, and Pondering
It is said that you become most like the five people with whom you spend a majority of your time. Why is this? Humans were never created to be alone. They only know themselves in the eyes of another—shaped by the people with whom they commune. In the same way, Christianity is not a religion of individuals. Instead, Christians understand themselves as incomplete if they do not know themselves in the eyes of their Savior and the Church (His Body). To become Christ-like is to keep company with Him and His Church--it is to gain a knowledge ofwho He is (theoria) and dedicate time and energy towards Him (praxis) in order to achieve union with Him (theosis). The possibility of achieving theosis is distinctly possible for anyone since God’s Grace and Mercy pours in abundance over the world (John 12:32). History and literature swell with stories of people moving towards perfection (wholeness) by achieving a personal knowledge of Christ through practice and work. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus, is an example of one of these stories as it explores the concept of unification with the Lord through faithful practice and divine contemplation. Praxis, for example, is union with God through not only faith, but the correct practice of faith, since as St. Maximus the Confessor once said, “Theology without action is the theology of demons." Theoria, on the other hand, is a spiritual contemplation and knowledge of the divine which is not limited to merely the mind (gnosis), but extends throughout the entire person. Dante indirectly examines these two terms and their relationship to becoming more Christ-like throughout his cantos. His work, along with illustrations from the Bible, history and culture, show that unification with God (theosis), through the purging of sin utilizing praxis and theoria, is the natural purpose of man.
The Purge and the Dance--
Dante succinctly opens the second book of his Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, by saying, “I shall sing about that second realm where man’s soul goes to purify itself and become worthy to ascend to Heaven” (Dante 1). Here, he sets the theme for the rest of the book—the theme of struggling and wrestling with one’s sins in the process of drawing closer to God. Throughout the entirety of purgatory, the souls within work towards the purging of their sins through not only faithful action (praxis), but divine contemplation (theoria). The top seven terraces especially demonstrate this as their occupants experience a physical catharsis through the presence of a whip of virtue (the Holy Virgin as chastity in the 7th terrace) and a bridle of sin (Pasipahe and the bull as lust in the same terrace). However, they also experience something which is somewhat equivalent to theoria through their benedictions and prayers (such as “Blessed are the pure in heart”). Although each canto and terrace within Purgatorio can serve as an example of sanctification through praxis and theoria, the 7th terrace is especially applicable. In it, the spirits walk in flames. They “must burn within the fire: the cure of flames, the diet of the hymns—with these the last of all their wounds is healed” (273, Canto V).
Like the rest of the souls in purgatory, these souls must exert diligence in order to progress. 2 Peter 1:5-8 expands on this image of “diligence” in the midst of struggle and praxis towards unification with God.
“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This passage is often associated with dancing—a step by step flow of movement to create a work of art. In the same way, Christians, struggle by struggle, action by action, work towards theosis--the completed work of human potential and purpose. Achieving the qualities Peter mentions, ushers in a theoria—a true knowledge—of Christ. Similarly, the souls in purgatory climb a ladder, virtue by virtue, quality by quality, to attain that knowledge and union in Paradisio.
John Bunyan, a 15th century version of Dante, composed his own Christian “comedy” about a pilgrim as well: Pilgrim’s Progress. The very title gives evidence of its purpose—that is, to demonstrate the Christian life as a path of purification and unification with the Lord. One passage from the work is particularly relevant to 2 Peter 1:5-8 as well as the seventh terrace:
“. . .The Interpreter took Christian by the hand and led him into a place where was a fire burning against a wall, and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it, to quench it; yet did the fire burn higher and hotter” (Bunyan 128-9)
Christian, after seeing this, queries what the vision means. The interpreter explains to him that another man stands opposite the wall he sees pouring oil into the fire to nourish it. This portrays the attacks of the devil on the fire of faith and Christ’s abundance of Grace to strengthen and nurture the struggling Christian in his path. However, the fire represents not only zeal of faith, but a purging of the soul. As fire removes dross from the silver to purify it (Isaiah 1:25), so is the human soul purged through praxis, theoria and Grace. From here, a parallel can be drawn to the Theotokos, who is considered an icon of the burning bush from Exodus. She contained “Fire” (Heb. 12:29) and yet she was not consumed, since she was pure. Given this, it is of no surprise that the Virgin Mary is the “whip” of terrace seven—the terrace of fire. In the same way, praxis and theoria are the fires which burn away the dross of our hearts, purging us so that we, too, can be pure and attain unification with God.
Simulacra and Divine Contemplation--
Canto XXX in the Divine Comedy is especially important to understanding theoria. In it, the pilgrim Dante is reunited with Beatrice only to receive a stern reproof from her concerning howhe has spent his life and what he has contemplated in that life. He “wandered from the path that leads to truth, pursuing simulacra of the good, which promise more than they can ever give” (325). “Simulacra” is a key term in this excerpt. Coming from the singular Latin word “simulacrum,” simulacra can be simply translated as “likenesses,” “similarities,” or even “simulations.” However, throughout the centuries it has gained a much darker connotation. A simulacrum of something is a faulty portrayal or misrepresentation of that thing. In essence, a simulacrum is the opposite of an “icon.” It is the clouding of clear vision and the distortion of the truth. In many ways, it is detrimental to attaining theoria, which requires clear vision of truth for divine contemplation.
In this case, it is important to recognize simulacra in the world and to detach from it, to block it, to avoid it at all costs. To be “in the world,” but not “of the world” is to move away from the simulacra—the faulty portrayals—of truth. Romans 12:1-2 is a call to renewing the mind towards its proper focus, away from the distortions of the world:
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . .”
Through this verse, St. Paul implores the Christians in Rome to attain theoria by presenting themselves as sacrifices for spiritual service (praxis) and to transform their minds (theoria)—looking outside of this world, yet remaining in it. However, the word for “mind” in this verse does not mean the pithy organ that resides in the human skull. Instead, it comes from the word “nous,” a word that cannot be translated into simply one English expression. When St. Paul says, “I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor. 14:19), the word for “mind” is “nous.” In other words, it is the core of man’s existence. It is the “energy of the soul” and when it “enters the heart and acts within it, there exists a unity” within the soul (Metr. Nafpaktos 35). This is the part of the man in which theoria must be attained. Grasping theoria within the nous affects the rest of the man, giving life and revealing truth through divine contemplation. Beatrice criticizes Dante for not focusing on his “nous” and thus being distracted by the simulacra of the world--being in the worldand of it.
A modern example of learning to block simulacra can be found in the recent movie “Man of Steel.” Cal-al or “Clark,” as he is known on earth, is aware from a very young age that he is notof the planet Earth, but that he certainly resides in it. From a young age, his human parents instruct him to learn to focus his great powers and abilities, since someday they must be used for a greater good. Through mistakes and successes (praxis), Clark learns to focus (theoria) his power in such a way that gives him greater strength and understanding, as well as a deep sense of communion with humanity and his own world. Of course, this movie was not didactic storytelling, but it stands as one of the many examples of people learning to “block” the distractions around them and focusing on a more important task. In this case, the task was to focus his energies and thoughts on a greater purpose. Christians, too, must focus their energies and thoughts towards a greater purpose: theosis—unification with the Lord.
The implications Dante makes about the purging sin reverberate throughout time and literature, constantly echoing the same words: praxis and theoria; diligent work and personal knowledge. From the fiery seventh terrace of purgatory to the fictional world of Superman, man’s redemption is painted in the combination of both action and thought for success and redemption. The path to Salvation is difficult. It is tedious. It takes patience in labor and humility in contemplation, but in the end, the fruits are sweet. The work of becoming Christ-like—theosis—is best expressed by C.S. Lewis when he says, “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. . . The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.” (Macmillan, 1952, p. 174, Mere Christianity).
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Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Volume #2: Purgatory. London, England: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.
The New Inductive Study Bible - NASB. Eugene, OR: Precept Ministries International, 2000. Print.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. United States: Answers in Genesis, 2006. Print.
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