Called to Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification
By David Meconi, S.J., and Carl E. Olson
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: David C. Paternostro, S.J.
To the extent that people today value religion, they often see it as something that helps them appreciate life and treat others well — a trend sometimes known as “moral therapeutic deism.” In light of this trend, it can be difficult to see why a given religion is anything more than a matter of opinion; so long as your choice motivates you throughout life and encourages you to be a decent person, one religion is as good as another. Called to Be the Children of God seeks to push back against this trend by recovering the concept of deification, whereby humans are made to share in the life and attributes of God. Here we see why religion is more than one’s preferred method of moral living, and how the Christian Gospel is uniquely transformative.
Salvation is not a reward for having done our Kantian moral duty as good boys and girls. As Fr. Meconi and Olson note in the introduction, “The new way of life in Christ is ultimately the essence of love,” in which the lover sees the beloved and “longs to be mutually transformed into the other.” Through this transformation, we are made children of God and so come to have a certain family resemblance to our heavenly Father. Over the course of 15 essays, Called to Be the Children of God shows how this transformation has been thought about over the centuries, and how grace, revelation, spirituality, and the sacramental life all play key roles in our becoming true children of God.
Generally speaking, talk of deification is more common among the Orthodox than Catholics, particularly Western Catholics. Fr. Meconi and Olson note this at the outset, and much of the book’s emphasis is on correcting this imbalance. Three chapters, for instance, deal with the Patristic era, with only one chapter (totaling 18 pages) on the Greek Fathers and two chapters (totaling 44 pages) on the Latin Fathers. Why? Because we know that the Greek Fathers wrote much on deification, but we hardly remember that the Latin Fathers also addressed the topic. This book takes seriously — and succeeds very well in — its mission to identify and correct the lacunae that exist in Western theology.
When Fr. Meconi begins his presentation of deification in Augustine, he notes right away a particular difficulty, which is that “eighteen appearances of the term deificare in a literary corpus of almost 5.5 million words seem economic at best.” Meconi is undeterred, however, and goes beyond “the few places where the term deificare appears, and instead [examines] the reality of the deified life as presented in his preaching and writings.” Other passages have a similar difficulty and so require a similar approach — identifying not just locations where the term is used but where the reality is presented in all but name. Filling in theological holes is not just a matter of unloading new material and saying “put it there,” but of showing the contours of the holes and how the material can fit in the holes.
One essay deals with the French school of spirituality, which emerged in the 19th century and “attends with remarkable care to the spiritual life of the laity.” Great writers of that school include SS Louis de Montfort and Thérèse of Lisieux. Another essay, on deification in neo-Thomism, focuses on Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., and presents him as a theologian with not only a sharp intellect but an incredible spiritual depth. Since Vatican II and the increased popularity of Nouvelle Theologie, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange has become a somewhat maligned figure; here he is given some rehabilitation.
In a chapter on Matthias Scheeben, a 19th-century German theologian, the themes of the book — grace, the sacraments, revelation, spirituality — all come together in a great synthesis. Final chapters show the continued working out of these themes in Vatican II and the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their presentation in the Catechism, and how the liturgy brings about divinization.
This reviewer would have liked to see a presentation of deification theology in the various spiritual traditions of Catholicism. The Franciscans, Dominicans, and the French school are the only ones to get a full chapter. Benedictines, Jesuits, and Carmelites, for example, are not explored in depth, nor are the spiritualties surrounding some modern lay movements. These are entirely reasonable omissions, however, as this is a book on systematic theology and not spirituality as such. But the present volume has opened an oft-neglected door, and perhaps a future work will take advantage of this opening.
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