Theosis: Between Personal and Universal Utopia
It is often said that the first image a novice Orthodox iconographer will attempt to paint is that of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor.1 This event in Jesus’ life describes how James, Peter, and John followed Jesus to a mountain summit where his face and clothes started radiating light, how he then conversed with Moses and Elijah, and how God himself spoke to the disciples.2 In Western Christianity the episode has been regarded as ‘misplaced resurrection account’3 or anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection4 and has consequently played only a minor role in its theology, liturgical year and art. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, however, it is of unparalleled significance. To Orthodox believers this event speaks about the past, the present and the future of the notion, the way, and the fulfilment of theosis or deification, the Orthodox understanding of salvation and rendition on the Christian ‘principle of hope’. To them it confirms the truthfulness of the tantalising, but agonisingly vague verses of the Book of Genesis and the Psalms, in which, at the very beginning of the world, humans were created in the image and likeness of God and proclaimed to be Gods.5 It is also a pointer towards the dystopian present, revealing the means of overcoming its fragmented nature and alienation from God. Finally, it is also an indicator of the future, substantiating the hope about the establishment of the utopian kingdom of God.6 The message that is communicated to the believers is analogical: like Jesus, whose humanity
was divinised on the Mount, human ultimate destiny is also to become divine; like the disciples who were able to look at the divine light with their mortal eyes and communicate directly with God, heaven is also not a matter of afterlife, but of this life; like the ascent to the summit before Jesus’ transformation, the path towards the kingdom of God is also a challenging journey. Finally, like the fellowship that was established at the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration between humans (both living and dead), nature and God, the destiny of the whole world is to be transfigured in the light of the coming perfect and unending communion by overcoming various divisions and separations that in present reality exist between the divine, the human and the natural.