At the heart of the Christian message is an invitation to share in the life of the Trinity. “God became man,” said St. Athanasius of Alexandria, “so that man might become God.” All of Christian life is meant to lead us to this goal. The Greek Fathers called it theosis or deification. It means overcoming the brokenness of our human nature so that the divine image we bear within ourselves can reflect as fully as possible God’s likeness.
“God is love,” says St. John, “and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.” The apostle isn’t describing something God does. His words are direct and very simple: God is love. To become like God, we too must become love.
Human society, throughout history, has reflected the brokenness of our nature. As individuals we tend to be selfish. The societies we form are marked by selfishness. Like other animals, we focus on what we need to survive. Each of us becomes a center of the universe, placing our needs and the needs of our family or “tribe” before those of anyone or anything else. “Survival of the fittest” is our leitmotif.
Though Christianity has now become a religion very much like other religions, in the beginning it meant simply living the way Jesus had lived. “He emptied himself,” says St. Paul, “and took the form of a slave.” To live like Jesus, for the early Christians, meant moving away from their natural self-centeredness. It meant looking outwards and respecting God’s image in others.
Theosis is God’s plan for all of creation, not a pious accomplishment we gain for ourselves. The selfishness of our societies breeds injustice and oppression. Injustice and oppression rob human beings of the dignity that belongs to them as icons of God. The struggle for justice can take many forms. At its best it is an effort to restore dignity to the oppressed. That dignity is the basis for any other growth. Without that dignity, theosis is an empty word.
Cesar Chavez spent his life struggling to restore dignity to oppressed agricultural laborers and their families. He used non-violent means. He worked within the framework of the United States Constitution and found his strength in the deep spirituality of his Catholic Mexican roots. He was a simple man who may never have heard the word theosis. His non-violent struggle was only possible, however, because he saw in all those around him brothers and sisters worthy of respect. Like the early Christians, he lived like Jesus, and his life was an inspiration to countless other Americans. An estimated 35 thousand people formed his three-mile funeral procession, as his body was carried to his grave in a simple pine box.