Theanthropic Ethics and Secular Humanism: How ‘Theosis’ Can Deal With Modern Critiques of Christian Ethics

(This is a rough draft of a concept and defense I’ve been working on. I hope to turn this into a full article at some point. I post it here for feedback.)

Though modern humanists have attempted to cast doubt both on God’s goodness and whether or not His goodness begets an ethical ought, one can know via deductive reasoning that God is good and from His goodness derive a moral ought (found in the theological concept of theosis). The philosopher Stephen Law, as recently as 2009, issued what he called the “Evil-God Challenge,” stating that theists have no rational position to assume that God is good. Along the same lines, Kai Nielsen argues that Christians lack sufficient reasons to label God good; Nielsen takes the argument further to state that even if it were shown that God was good, such a statement would carry no moral ought with it. In contradiction to both claims, it is seen that one can know via deductive reasoning that God is good. Likewise, in knowing that God is good, Christianity points to theosis as the ought derived from the statement, “God is good.”

The Issue at Hand

From the view of the humanist, theistic ethics, specifically Christian ethics, seems to be without justification for both its belief that God is good and that one ought to follow the divine commands of God. The humanist argues that one must know God is good before accepting His commands, but in order to know that God is good, one must utilize a standard external to God – ‘God is good’ does not necessarily follow from ‘God is powerful’ or ‘God is perfect’.[1] In doing so, the theist concedes that the moral foundation of goodness is found in human reasoning and not in God, for God must be evaluated.

However, the Christian would be wise to argue that knowing God is good logically follows from a belief in God; if something finite exists then God is good as anything finite requires a creator. The claim is seemingly self-evident, meaning to question the claim borders on delusion. Just as it is self-evidently known to a person that he is conscious, so too should it self-evidently be known that if God exists and there is a creation, He is good.

Furthermore, since Christians believe that humans are made in the image of God, it follows that if God is good then humans are to be good as well. One can take this even further to read that not only should humans be good, but also they should be good as God is good (i.e. humans should be morally perfect). Christianity teaches that such moral perfection, or holiness or righteousness, is found in the act of theosis.


Before continuing, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by some terms that will be used to support the thesis. To understand the term theosis, one can use Donald Fairbairn’s definition that theosis is, “…[T]he process by which human beings are made, in some sense, divine.”[2] Of course, as Fairbairn points out later in the same paragraph, in the process of becoming divine there is still a clear distinction between humans and God; one becomes divine while still remaining human, or one becomes like God in all things except essence and being. Drawing from St. Maximus the Confessor, theosis is the idea that God becomes incarnate within the individual, allowing the person to be morally perfect as God is morally perfect.[3]

Theosis begins with virtue ethics, the idea that one’s inner disposition must be changed in order to change one’s outer actions. According to Peter Kreeft, “…[V]irtue means, the power of anything to accomplish its specific function…Presently, virtue also signifies moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the conformity of one’s life to the moral law; uprightness; rectitude.”[4] Thus, the idea of theosis rests upon the implied belief within virtue theory that there is a grand function to human life, or a telos, and the call of all humans is to live up to that telos. Virtue, however, is different from theosis in that while virtue makes humans better humans, theosis makes them divine.

Finally, one should understand that when the term “humanist” is used, it is meant to read “secular humanist.” For the sake of redundancy and space, however, it is safest to shorten the term and simply clarify it. While a Christian can be a humanist – and should be a humanist – Christian humanism, while loving humans, recognizes God as properly above humans. Secular humanism, however, seeks to bring man to great heights without acknowledging God; in short, secular humanism refers to anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, or finds God’s existence irrelevant to anthropic ethics.

Theanthropic Ethics

Before understanding the ought from theanthropic ethics, it is first important to understand that God is good. One must understand that God is wholly good and not imperfectly good, or good with a little bit of evil. God is a whole and must be perfect. To use the language of Robert Spitzer, since God is the unconditioned reality (nothing precedes Him), by logical necessity God must be simple (not composed) and perfect (lacking in nothing).[5] Since God is perfect, He must either be good or evil, and wholly so. He cannot be both (as this would violate the law of non-contradiction).

Therefore, if God were evil then He would be perfectly evil. Were one to treat evil as a substance (which is difficult to imagine), one would ask what is at the core of all evil acts. Through a simple use of deductions, one would easily arrive at the conclusion that pride is at the core of all evil acts.[6] Yet, pride can still be used in some good ways when it is used in moderation. In its extreme, however, pride is motivated by narcissism, or extreme love of the self. The more narcissistic a person is, the more apathetic he is to those around him. Narcissism requires the love of the self to the exclusion of all others. A narcissistic mother does not torture her baby; rather she neglects the baby if the baby interferes with the mother’s desires. Therefore, if God were evil He would be the ultimate narcissist.

If God were the ultimate narcissist, then nothing would exist; since something exists, it shows that God is not a narcissist and therefore God is not evil. If the root of evil is narcissism and narcissism is the focus on the self to the exclusion of others, and if God were wholly perfect in all things, then God would be too focused on Himself to have ever created anything to begin with. Yet, something exists. Therefore, God is not evil, which apophatically means God is good.

Since God is good and has created humans in His image, He has called humans to live a theanthropic life. The theanthropic life (or theanthropic ethics) is one where an individual human lives as God. It is the constant act of prayer, contemplation, action on that contemplation, and the petition of the soul to wholly trust in God.[7] Theanthropic ethics goes beyond natural ethics, teaching that the ultimate good, or moral perfection, can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. While those outside of Christ can accomplish the ‘good,’ they cannot accomplish the ‘Good,’ which is only obtained through theosis. Yet, the Good is recognized as more than an abstract concept, but rather as a Person.[8] Therefore, the theanthropic life is not one in search of conformity to an ideal, but instead conformity to a Person.

Since God, being good, created the world, it follows that He created man with a good telos. The entire point of virtue within the theanthropic life is to make humans better humans, to achieve their telos.[9] In order to be good as God is good, humans must first live up to being humans. Sadly, in Christian teachings, the Fall (the events of Genesis 3) inhibited the ability to always choose the good. Due to sin, humans are incapable of achieving their telos and moving beyond their telos, which in turn puts a divide between them and God.

Through Christ, however, God has made it possible for humans not only to be good, but also to become divine. As St. John Damascene writes,

“Now, the virtues are natural, and they are also naturally inherent in all men, even though all of us do not act naturally. For, because of the fall, we went from what is according to nature to what is against it. But the Lord brought us back from what is against nature to what is according to it – for this last is what is meant by ‘according to his image and likeness.’”[10]

Thus, while virtue is inherent to the nature of humanity, due to sin men abandon the natural and partake in the unnatural. Through the Incarnation, however, Christ assumed the entirety of what it means to be human and thus gave power to man to achieve his telos.[11]

It should be noted, however, that the theanthropic life does not end with virtue, but rather uses virtues as a means. It could be said that while virtue aids man in becoming man, theosis aids man in becoming God (or divine). As Lossky points out, “The virtues are not the end but the means, or, rather, the symptoms, the outward manifestations of the Christian life, the sole end of which is the acquisition of grace.”[12] Virtue is the changing of the intellect and the attitude, but in conjunction with theosis grace works within a person to allow him to act on the intellect and become good as God is good.[13]

Humanist Objections to Christian Ethics

Of course, to some the above explanation of the theanthropic ethic – that God is good, created humans to be good, and then calls humans to be good as He is good – fails to provide a satisfactory defense for Christian ethics. Turning again to the critiques of Christian ethics, one would question how one can know God is good and, further, how one can develop a moral oughtness from God being good. Turning to Stephen Law, one reads,

“Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. However, suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.”[14]

Thus, one could argue that even if God is supremely narcissistic, He created humans simply to gain pleasure from torturing them. Certainly, this would still be an act of narcissism. One could also theorize that being a narcissist God wanted other lesser beings to recognize how great He is and to serve Him fully, irrespective of how He treats them.

Nielsen points out the contradiction Christians end up in if they wish to show that God is good, they must rely on a non-theistic standard of good. Since the believer is left pointing to an “outside criteria” to prove God’s goodness, “…God cannot be the only criterion for moral belief, let alone the only fundamental or adequate moral criterion. We must look elsewhere for the foundations of morality.”[15] The argument is a type of Euthyphro dilemma where either God arbitrarily declares what is good or God is good by some standard external to Himself, negating that He is actually God.

The final objection is that even if God is good, there is no reason to believe there is a grand telos to human ethics. As Nielsen theorizes, humans have a ‘purpose’ in everyday life, but there is no grand purpose, or a metanarrative of purpose.[16] He states that one can pursue happiness and purpose, but only the happiness and purpose one creates. The ultimate end for Peter is different from the ultimate end of Paul. Even if God is good, it does not follow that humans are called to be good as God is good; one must still rely on a source external to God in order to know the moral ought.

Christianity Triumphant

Law’s objection to God’s goodness holds no weight when one considers narcissism as the root of all evil. In fact, the implications of his argument actually defeat the argument. First, if God created humans in order to torture them so He could gain pleasure, this would indicate that God had a need for something. Of course, a perfect being can have need of nothing, thus if God had need of something then he would not be God.

The traditional Christian narrative concerning creation is that God created out of love, not out of need; He created as a sacrifice, not as a gain. He gained nothing out of creation, thus no perceived need was met. If God needed humans in order to be more loving, then He would not (1) be loving (as He would be creating humans for personal gain) and (2) God would not be God, as He would need something. Likewise, if God created humans to torture them, He would not be God, as He would have need of something.

Secondly, and more importantly, we can imagine a God who would create humans in order to torture them. Yet, we can think of a God even more evil that would not create humans because He would be so concentrated on Himself He would never think of humans. Therefore, the original syllogism – that because something exists, God must be good – stands true.

In referring to Nielsen’s argument that in order to prove God’s goodness one must point to an outside standard, the argument is that God’s goodness should really be self-evident. One can think of a man who thinks he is dead. He continues to argue he is dead. In order to prove to the man he is alive, one will have to use circular reasoning; this is because the act of denying what is self-evident is inherently illogical, thus any defense will give the appearance of being illogical as well. Humans innately know by the mere fact they exist that God is good; this is not relying on an outside criterion, but simply recognizing the tautological fact, that God is God.

Likewise, there certainly is an oughtness derived from God’s goodness. As Vigen Guroian explains, humans are incapable of choosing the goodness (their telos) because of sin, thus God, in His goodness, came down in human form in order to deify humanity.[17] Being created in the image of God and called to the theanthropic life, to become like God, creates one of the strongest forms of oughtness provided among all systems of ethics.

Being created by God also implies a telos for all humans. As some Thomists have pointed out, the very fact that humans try to find everyday purpose in life shows that within human nature is a natural inclination to find an overall purpose.[18]

Ultimately, Christian ethics points beyond virtue ethics and requires man to work with God to become God in all things except essence and being.[19] One can trust that God is good as such knowledge is self-evident, but also recognize that God is not arbitrarily laying down laws for His followers to follow, but calling His followers to partake in His ontological goodness by living the theanthropic life.[20] Thus, God is good, not by some external standard but by His own nature and He calls humans, who are in His image, to fulfill their telos by virtue, but then to exceed their telos by partaking in His goodness.

[1] Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), 53, 56.

[2] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology With the Help of the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 7.

[3] St. Maximus the Confessor in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken, Popular Patristics Series, no. 25 (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 118.

[4] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 9.

[5] Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Section II.

[6] One might argue that pride is not involved in natural acts of evil. However, since God is a person, one must discuss evil solely on personal grounds. In such a case, no person ever commits evil via a natural act; there is always a willful choice in committing an evil act. At the core of that willful choice is the person’s pride, or self-love. Furthermore, willful acts of evil are seemingly worse than natural acts; a Tsunami killing 200,000 people in Indonesia is horrible, yet society is more aghast at a dictator that would willfully kill 50,000 of his own people on a whim.

[7] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 203, 207.

[8] St. Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 58. Here St. Maximus makes the argument, based on 1 Corinthians 1:30, that Christ is wisdom, that Christ is righteousness, that Christ is sanctification; certainly such language is justified in light of both 1 Corinthians 1:30 and John 14:6.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] St. John of Damascus An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 3.14.

[11] Ibid., 3.20.

[12] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 197

[13] Ibid., 199

[15] Nielsen, Ethics Without God, 91.

[16] Ibid., 105.

[17] Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics, 2nd Ed (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 15.

[18] Ralph McInerny, “Ethics,” The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 198.

[19] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 216.

[20] Guroian, Incarnate Love, 45.

2 thoughts on “Theanthropic Ethics and Secular Humanism: How ‘Theosis’ Can Deal With Modern Critiques of Christian Ethics

  1. You sure put a lot of time and thought into this Joel. Since it’s late I didn’t make it past the second paragraph, and my brains is fuzzy, but this is the feedback I thought of when you mentioned you’d like some. That talk of accepting “His commands” is pretty scary stuff. Who’s commands? I would be extremely suspicious of anyone telling you to do something because God told him it was His command. You keep mentioning that God is good. That kind of cracked me up because I recently saw this video. I’ll try and finish tomorrow. Enjoy!

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