A Review of
Theosis: Patristic Remedy for Evangelical Yearning
at the Close of the Modern Age
Michael Paul Gama
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
When Dr. Michael Gama told me about his book beneath a patio umbrella one April day in Portland, I listened. I could relate.
Dissatisfied with the faith expression of my church heritage? Check.
Hungering for a faith that permitted more mystery, more God? Check.
Gama, whose pedigree includes the likes of Fuller Seminary (MDiv) and George Fox Evangelical (Doctorate of Ministry), keenly examines evangelicalism itself and his own journey beyond.
Early chapters explore the shifts in philosophical zeitgeist that became the soil, roots and structures for the blossoming of evangelicalism.
Plato’s assertion of an ordered cosmos—and human mind—became fodder for what philosopher Bertrand Russell dubbed the “Era of the Church.” But then, Gama says, premodern shifted into modern and birthed the evangelical system.
Three currents—the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment—wash away the foundation for pre-modern thought and carry in the modern. Through Descartes, Gama explores the swerve into “Enlightenment as religion”—in which I hear a touch of philosopher James K. A. Smith’s “consumerism as worship.”
Gama traces how Cartesian thought and doubt met Ockhamist nominalism to make “radical dualism of matter and mind.” One doesn’t have to ponder long how this may show up in evangelicalism, especially when Gama hints at Descartes’ notions in shading everything as a “machine…understood as mechanical in nature.”
“It’s against this backdrop and confluence of intellectual forces,” Gama says, “that the evangelical movement was born.”
This evangelicalism arrives packaged with four main characteristics: conversionism, spiritual conversion as method and value; activism, kingdom labor emphasized and expected; biblicist, the Bible above church doctrine or tradition, and crucicentric, Jesus and the cross as center.
An admittedly “quick survey” powers readers through the conservative and liberal split in early evangelicalism, the political rise in power of fundamentalism and finally, what Gama names as “the high-water mark,” the famous Christian apologists: Francis Schaeffer, John Warwick Montgomery, Richard Purtill, Paul Little and, of course, Josh McDowell.
But, he then ponders, if these were evangelical’s high-water mark, might there be an ebb?
Gama shows evidence of decline, using stats from Pew studies to the Barna Group, which track the denominational flight and the rise of “Nones.”
As someone who teaches at an evangelical college, I found his exploration of the “evangelical generational divide” helpful—and encouraging, actually, especially George Barna’s Revolution, which says the faith of the young people is vibrant. This younger generation, Barna says, “[has] no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.”
Again I’m encouraged as I understand, through Gama’s tutelage, how students who may differ quite a bit from me—an older evangelical, still want “to experience knowing God, not simply ‘knowing about’ God.”
Evident decline isn’t evangelical’s only problem. Gama explores what some—like Dallas Willard—say is the quality of evangelical spirituality: shallow. Quoted in Dave Tomlinson’s The Post Evangelical, Willard says, that though evangelicalism has been successful and that this movement has “achieved remarkable acceptance and prominence in recent decades….We haven’t figured out what the spiritual life is really like, inside and out.”
After exploring the forces that created evangelicalism and how we may be seeing its end, Gama offers a method to deepen spirituality through Theosis.
In what may be the needed panacea for church flight, the generational divide and our own hunger for more depth, Gama points to the ancient practice of union with God, a tenant of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a church older, he says, than “Aimee Semple McPherson, or even Luther and Calvin.”
Gama’s own journey out of the evangelical church lets him be a worthy guide. He found a church that didn’t focus on growth, excitement, or evangelicalism, but on the spiritual formation of its members. Interesting, I thought. And refreshing. This new old method allows for process and journey and mystery.
He deconstructs the current evangelical practice by quoting such notables as Scot McKnight who holds “promise for a way forward.” McKnight speaks against melting the gospel to the singular focus of salvation, what he dubs “salvation culture.”
Then the reader meets briefly church fathers like St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria and St. Basil the Great and hears an echoed phrase of “become [the] likeness” of God. Norman Russell articulates what these Fathers are saying: “From Irenaeus in the second century to Maximus in the seventh many of the Fathers see theosis as summarizing the very purpose of the Incarnation—the loving self-emptying of God evoking a fervent human response (theosis), the divinization of the human person mirroring the humanization of the divine Word.”
Gama moves the reader, then, through what theosis is and isn’t, and even lists verses that seem to support it.
This writer-scholar has found spiritual renewal—and a home—in the Maronite Catholic Church and now teaches at the Avila Institute.
Gama is clever. His phrases that seem simple illuminate powerfully. For example, he alludes to the “ancient/present faith.” This simple use of forward slash collects together a mind-boggling paradox. He is also artful. He uses personal anecdotes well to enliven the topic and creates effective image clusters.
“Americans know a different God then we know,” said Lian, a Myanmar theology professor, to my husband, Dave, while Dave sat at Lian’s table and ate surrounded by the noises and smells of Yangon.
Maybe Lian knows something that we, immersed in the American way, miss and need. That evangelicalism isn’t The Answer, but was an answer for a time.
Gama has discovered this and makes a case that offers why a detour into deeper may be now the way in which to go.
Cynthia Beach is a creative writing professor, writer, and coach who also is a certified spiritual director. Her articles, short stories, and contributions appear in newspapers, literary journals, and books like Hope in the Mourning Bible (Zondervan, 2013) and Horse of My Heart (Revell, 2015). She cofounded Breathe Christian Writers Conference and the upcoming retreat, Breathe Deeper. Creative Juices, her book on story craft, will be available early 2019. www.cynthiabeach.com