On Helping God by Becoming God
By Andrew M. Davis
Ethical action is the means through which you become God and God becomes you.
“There is an eternal cry in the world: God is beseeching man. Some are startled; others remain deaf.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel
This chapter is about the necessity of your action in helping God to actually be God. This is no simple claim, and if you spend enough time with it, it will haunt your passivity. What is at stake in the question of your partnership with God, I maintain, is the very efficacious reality of God in the world. This is the base intuition of what I call inverse theology, and it manifests itself in the divine-human collaborative ethic I call ethical theosis; or, more commonly in the Christian tradition, incarnation. With the guidance of notable voices, I’d like to consider briefly these themes in the next few pages and suggest that theosis and incarnation are not the same, but rather indicate respective divine and human movements that become one through your action in an open and relational universe. Put differently, when you actualize the momentary divine aims given to you, it is as true to say that you have become God as that God has become you.
Try for a moment to conceive God not as an omnipotent “being” that exists somewhere—a popular conception to be sure—but much more as a challenge, possibility, or protesting cry from within the world and from within you. “The kingdom of God,” Christ states, is “within,” “among,” or “in your midst”—and it’s waiting to be actualized (Luke 17:21). Imagine that God can only be actualized in the world through your action, and that to do so is literally to bring God into existence for the world. Ethically speaking, this view presupposes that something is required of you, that God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “is waiting to be disclosed.”
Realizing that your ethical action is indispensable for the true actualization of divine aims has the ability to transform your religious and theological sensibilities. It was Etty Hillesum who spoke of human beings as the only ones who can “enable God to be God” through acts of radical love, hospitality, and justice. Hillesum died in Auschwitz in 1943. A profound entry in her diary offers a challenge: your life is about helping God rather than about God helping you.
. . . one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves . . . Alas, there does not seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstance, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place in us to the last.
These are the powerful and sobering words of a kind of “weak” theology, one which lives or dies by your action. Echoing Hillesum, Richard Kearney writes of “the God who may be,” saying that God can be God only if you “enable this to happen.” John Caputo makes a similar distinction between God’s “insistence” and God’s “existence.” While God insists, it is up to you whether or not God will exist. You can either resist or assist this insistence. The choice is yours.
That the actuality of God can only be mediated in and through you is the core conviction of what I call inverse theology. For my own Christian tradition, Christ is the exemplary model of this inversion. Far too often, however, my tradition has forgotten that to believe that “God is love” is also to believe that Godis a persuasive reality, one that relationally calls on the world, even depends upon the world to be brought into being in concrete ways. God is at risk then, for the actual existence of divine love requires its embodiment in you; it requires not simply divine calling, but also your human response.
Hillesum’s words echoed in my head when I walked through the silent fields of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2017. “Divine protest was one of suffering insistence,” I thought. “But to the extent that we allowed these events to take place, God did not exist. God remains silent if we do not speak. Atheism remains a reality if we do not act.” God is that suffering ethical insistence that protests until brought into existence by your own action. In this respect, Emmanuel Levinas is precise: “To [partner with] God is to know what must be done.”
Jesus’ famous parable of the good Samaritan offers an example of these inversive themes. This parable portrays someone who knew what must be done—and actually did it. When faced with a half-dead stranger on the side of the road, the priest and the Levite resisted divine calling. They ignored God’s insistence and, therefore, kept God out of existence. Imagine God’s aim in every moment is to come into being through your deeds. You often feel the weight of this call, but you don’t always connect it to the God who cries for help.
In contrast to the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan, by acting on behalf of the injured stranger, assisted God into being as an actually effective reality. Consider the words of John B. Cobb Jr.: “God could not pick up the stranger left beaten by the roadside. It took a Samaritan. Our task is to let God work in and through us. The question to ask should be, not whether God can help us, but whether we can help God.” Cobb’s comment speaks to the mutual nature of divine-human partnership, one that can be grasped from both human and divine perspectives.
I’ve suggested that this collaboration between the human and the divine is essentially a call and response relationship. Now I want to make a stronger claim of theological inversion. When you answer the divine call, when you fully actualize the divine aim, you are not merely assisting God, but becoming God as God acts to transform the world. This incarnational unification of divine and human action is what I call ethical theosis. It is the alignment of your own ethical activities such that they share a unified identity with those of the divine. Far from only being an “end times” notion, theosis (Gr. “making divine”) is a process that begins here and now when divine desires for the world are actualized by you in each moment.
Long ago, the Church Fathers repeated the claim: “God became man so that man could become God.” I believe this statement truly speaks, however, when understood not chronologically or eschatologically (first A then B), but reciprocally and momentarily (A requires B just as B requires A). Think of this statement in terms of moment-by-moment collaboration between God and yourself. God seeks to become you, and when you enable this to happen, you have become God. In this way, divine incarnation and human theosis are distinct perspectival movements that become one through collaborative action.
This view is at home in open and relational theology, and in those key figures that continue to inspire it. Speaking to the “divinization of our activities,” the words of Teilhard de Chardin, articulate this profoundly relational view:
. . . through the unceasing operation of the incarnation, the divine so thoroughly permeates all our created energies that, in order to meet it and lay hold of it, we could not find a more fitting setting than that of our action . . . in action I adhere to the creative power of God; I coincide with it; I become not only its instrument but its living extension.
Indeed, Teilhard’s vision is such that God “awaits us every instant in our action, in the work of the moment.” He’s not alone. Besides saying that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” Alfred North Whitehead insists that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or fainter impress of God,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world.” Martin Buber holds that God’s address to human beings penetrates “event upon event, situation upon situation” with “demands” for us. What are these divine demands? For Abraham Joshua Heschel, they are demands for divine disclosure. “God is waiting to be disclosed, to be admitted into our lives,” he states. “Our task is to open our souls to Him, to let Him again enter our deeds.” Each of these statements offers an inversive call to become avatars of divine activity for an open and relational God.
I feel at times that my Protestant Christian tradition has overemphasized the movement of God toward the world through incarnation while delaying or downplaying the movement of humans toward God through theosis. Yet I believe these find reconciliation when viewed relationally as two poles mutually satisfying the other through moments of ethical action. We can understand this of Christ paradigmatically and of ourselves momentarily. In my estimation, no one has communicated the divine-human collaboration of ethical theosis better than Paul Knitter.
God is always “God with”; and humans are always “humans with.” When these two realities are really with each other—God with humanity, and humanity with God—that is when they are really their fullest, truest selves. The unity between what I call God and myself is one in which God genuinely acts as God insofar as I act in a truly human fashion. If God is indeed acting through us, that means that God cannot be “in” unless God is “through.” So, it is not just the case of God acting in me, but me beingGod as God acts in the world.
Understanding that God depends on your action in efforts to transform the world can be both profound and petrifying; for the weight of this responsibility is always a call to act. It is far too often the case that we would prefer someone else to act instead of ourselves. Far be it from us, however, to be passive when God actively cries for help. It is this cry that awaits the deification of our deeds and the apotheosis of our actions.
Question: How would you live differently if your action actually brings God into existence?
Andrew M. Davis, Ph.D. is program director for The Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University in Salem, OR. He is the author and editor of several books including How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere: An Anthology of Spiritual Memoirs and Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy. Follow his work at andrewmdavis.info.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.