Can the Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis Aid in Grounding Organismic Teleology (and vice versa)?

Mikael Leidenhag
Tuesday 11 January 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

This theological puzzle investigates the possible convergence between the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Theosis and the recent resurgence in organismic thinking in the biological community. The doctrine of Theosis paints a rich and multifaceted teleological vision of both creation and humanity. The story of humanity is intrinsically linked up with God’s sovereign plan and purpose for this world. In emphasising humans as potential participators in the divine life, and in virtue of postulating a theocentric basis of human becoming, this theological doctrine brings together soteriology with eschatology. Human nature is not reducible to static properties or substances; indeed, it is only possible to make sense of our nature relationally and in terms of God’s redemptive purposes for humanity and cosmos. The logic of this theological framework stresses that what we are is intrinsically tied up with what we will become. A doctrine of deification emphasizes the ongoing transformation of humanity, and it is in union and communion with God that we heal our incomplete state and become fully human, thereby fulfilling divine intention for human existence.

However, since the arrival of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, teleological notions of purposes have been considered scientifically obsolete, vacuous, and bordering on the occult. The rise of mechanistic ontologies and explanations have produced significant challenges to those who seek to uphold teleological language. Hence, we can detect here a seeming tension between the anti-teleological views of some prominent biologists and the ways in which theosis posits a story about humanity in terms of human becoming. This theological puzzle challenges the view that contemporary evolutionary biology poses a challenge to the Eastern Orthodox thesis of theosis. Instead, I will argue that the resurgence of organismic thinking, especially within developmental biology, provides conceptual space for teleological categories and, hence, the doctrine of theosis as such. In fact, my argument is  that a theosis-based understanding of humanity is an especially well-suited metaphysic in which to welcome the return of organicism. As a last point of this theological puzzle, I will suggest that theosis, because it stresses the eschatological becoming of human nature, provides a helpful reminder regarding the epistemic limitations of the natural and physical sciences.

This theological puzzle proceeds in three steps. First, I will outline the conceptual content of theosis and the ways in which it entails a teleological picture of the world, drawing especially on Maximus the Confessor’s theological schema. In the second section, I will demonstrate how teleology is making a return within the biological community – specifically in regards to developmental biology. The discussion will then summarise some of the points of convergence between theosis and biological teleology, but also elaborate on the limits of the natural and physical sciences in light of a theosis-based theological anthropology.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis

Theosis, sometimes simply referred to as deification, intends a process whereby a person takes on God’s character (Finlan and Kharlamov 2006, 1). This process – and core theme – has been expressed in a number of ways throughout the history and development of Christian theology. From a distinctively Christological perspective, Origen suggested that deification was made possible by the Christ-event, that is, “God’s prior humanization in Christ” (Christensen 2006, 25). From another perspective, Clement of Alexandria understood theosis/deification as maximum possible assimilation to God: “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal” (Christensen 2006, 25). Others have put the definition of theosis in relation to the nature and power of the Eucharist and the ecclesiastical unity of the Church. According to Ignatius of Antioch, by participating in the eucharist, the believers are united with Jesus Christ through his blood. Vladimir Kharlamov summarises this process in this way: “The collective unity of believers as the body of Christ, through the unity of the Eucharist and obedience to the bishop, is combined with the personal unity of each individual with God through Christ” (Kharlamov 2006, 64). On this view, the unification of the Church is intertwined with the process of unification of each individual believer with God. Theosis has a central place in Eastern Orthodox theology. As Andrew Louth helpfully remarks, deification is not an optional add-on to the Orthodox theological system; it is not one part of a greater whole. Instead, deification forms the basic pattern of this theology (Louth 2006, 33).

Louth goes on to explain that since about the twelfth century, deification no longer forms a central part of Western theologies. Over time, the notion of deification became marginalized and confined to mystic circles, consequently deemed theologically suspicious and even heretical. However, the tides are turning, and much of recent scholarship pertaining to theosis focuses on retrieving the concept of deification and demonstrating its theological importance for Western Christendom. To name a few examples, scholars have explored the presence of theosis/deification in Luther’s Christology (Mannermaa 1998, 25-41), in Catholic theology (Williams 1999), in Calvin’s concept of “union” (Mosser 2002, 36-57), and in Reformed theology (Murphy 2008, 191-212).

This theological puzzle suggests that theosis entails a teleological vision of humanity and creation, and in order to unpack this claim we will turn to the theology of Maximus the Confessor; especially his distinction between tropos and logos, as discussed and exemplified in Ambiguum 7. While logos represents the “metaphysical principles defining each specific nature”, which owe their existence directly to the divine Logos, tropos indicates the mode of existence for individual beings (Blackwell and Miller 2015, 305). Deification, then, consists in tropos becoming aligned with logos. This is the “fulfilment of God’s creational intent” for human creatures (Blackwell and Miller 2015, 307). Although the telos of each creature is inclined towards participation in the divine being, human beings have “turned their contemplation away from God and placed it on the created, sensible world” (Blackwell and Miller 2015, 308).

According to Maximus’s theological vision, everything moves towards an end and the movement towards God is heralded as the ultimate end. Andreas Nordlander notes that “Logos is both the creative principle of all things and the telos toward which they move” (Nordlander 2020, 12). Hence, according to the theology of Maximus, God has established a distinctive teleology of each being, and such telos is to participate in God. According to Orthodox theology, participation in God is grounded in the incarnation, that is, God’s initiative to meet us in human flesh. It is, thus, in and through the incarnation that the final cause of humanity and the cosmos is revealed to us. Deification, accordingly, “has to do with human destiny that finds its fulfilment in a face-to-face encounter with God” (Louth 2006, 34). Gösta Hallonsten goes on to helpfully explain that the very structure of theosis is “determined by a teleology that implies that creation and human beings from the very beginning are endowed with an affinity and likeness that potentially draws them to God” (Hallonsten 2006, 285). Theosis is not simply a descriptive term regarding imitation of or increased closeness to God. Rather, it reveals normatively the anthropological telos of human existence, which is to experience salvation “in accordance with God’s creational purpose” (Blackwell and Miller 2006, 315). By divine grace, it is possible for humans to rise above nature. However, this does not entail that we become something other than human, but it means that we are restored to our true natural and creaturely telos (Jacobs 2009, 621). Participation in God cannot be reduced to a psychological thesis but involves a real change, “a reconstitution of our humanity, a reshaping, a straightening out of all the distortions and corruptions that we have brought upon … our human capacities (Louth 2006, 37). As mentioned earlier, the Orthodox doctrine of theosis brings together soteriology and eschatology in an intimate manner. The purpose of humanity is inseparable from and intertwined with the final goal of creation. From the perspective of the Orthodox schema, the “teleology of creatures is thus intimately related to the doctrine of creation” (Nordlander 2020, 14). Theosis expresses a cosmic and eschatological dimension that brings together the biblical narrative of creation with human redemption. Louth describes this as a greater arch “stretching from creation to deification, representing what is and remains God’s intention: the creation of the cosmos that, through humankind, is destined to share in the divine life, to be deified” (Louth 2006, 35). Humankind, as the “microcosm and bond of the cosmos”, has a key role in the full participation of creation in the divine structure (Louth 2006, 35). God’s eschatological plan is not limited to the deification of humanity. The doctrine of theosis sums up God’s purpose for creation as a whole, namely the transformation of creation into a new creation (Rom 8:14; 2 Pet 1:4). This eschatological reality entails God’s full indwelling presence in creation and full participation and incorporation of creation into the divine life. This powerful theological doctrine invites us to appreciate reality through a teleological framework that locates the end-goal of humanity and the wider cosmos within God’s providential plan.

Yet, it is often claimed that contemporary science, and evolutionary biology in particular, rules out a teleological understanding of the processes of nature. It is commonly asserted that Darwinism has replaced teleological categories with an investigable and scientifically respectable mechanism: that is, natural selection. If this reductionist story is true, then a core feature within Eastern Orthodox theology would be rendered at odds with the scientific community. In the next section, I will explore how teleological categories are making a return within an organism-centred biology.

2.2 The Biology of Organisms

According to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the destiny of both humanity and creation is to share in the divine life; becoming partakers of God’s being. Theosis is an articulation of God’s original intention for creation and humans, and it conceptualises powerfully a view of redemption as interconnected with union and participation. This entails a teleological view, which puts it in opposition to reductionism and the doctrine of mechanism. The aim of this theological puzzle, and this section in particular, is to call into question a mechanistic rejection of teleological categories in nature.

Teleological concepts and notions are, in fact, prevalent in everyday life. We typically state that X happens because of Y, that W exists for the sake of Z, or that the purpose of A is to produce B, and so on. Teleological categories, it seems, are indispensable and part and parcel of many human discourses, including the physical sciences, philosophy, ethics, and theology. Given the naturalness of teleology, it seems strange that modern science is “on the whole hostile to teleological explanations” (Woodfield 1976, 3). This shift in thinking can partly be explained through the ways that mechanistic thinking has expanded from physics into the realm of biological research.

Immanuel Kant famously stated, “There will never be a Newton for the blade of grass” (Schuster 2011, 5). Kant’s statements suggested that biology would never be able to explain living phenomena in terms of the non-living; that is, mindless and purposeless “stuff”. In physics, one cites the relevant causal properties of, for example, velocity and mass with regard to specific physical phenomena. However, it seemed that biology could escape such physical reduction; thus, teleology was considered safe and irreducible. Biology lacked a strategy “for turning statements about purposes, goals, ends, and the means to achieve them into causal relations between earlier events and later ones they bring about” (Rosenberg and McShea 2008, 15). This situation changed with Charles Darwin, who proposed the mechanism of natural selection. What natural selection allowed the biologist to do was to connect the emergence of different organisms—and their specific capacities and traits—with their causal histories. On this new mechanistic framework, biological phenomena became causally explicable, in a similar vein to other physical objects and properties. Darwin, as Ernest Haeckel concluded, became “the Newton of the grass blade” (Schuster 2011, 5).

Although many have expressed great confidence in Darwin’s framework for delivering a successful reduction of teleology, it seems that the biological world remains strangely resistant to such reductionist endeavours. Stuart Kauffman, a biochemist and complexity theorist, has in several impactful publications demonstrated how the biological levels of reality defies reduction to the level of physics.

In making this argument, Kauffman appeals to the ontological novelty of biological phenomena. Due to the enormous complexity of the living world, we cannot “prestate the configuration space of a biosphere and, therefore, cannot deduce that which will unfold” (Kauffman 2000, 113). Furthermore, in order to predict the emergence of novelty, one needs to pre-state all the possible selective environments; unfortunately, “we have not the faintest idea of what all possible selective environments might be” (Kauffman 2008, 132). This is not a matter of sheer epistemology – or lack of knowledge. What Kauffman is suggesting is that the emergence of novel entities in nature signifies something ontological about the irreducibility of biology. Indeed, given the emergent character of the biological world, “physics, in principle, cannot predict these unprestatable new functions” (Kauffman 2019, 15).

Physics is not able to capture the particularity, the novelty, of the biological strata of reality. Yet there are those who think that contemporary biology opens up for a higher-to-lower-level reductionism of a different sort, namely, genetic reductionism. Alexander Rosenberg has made the bold claim that genetic research can provide a sufficient explanatory framework for biological development (Rosenberg 1997, 445-470). Jason Scott Robert has responded to the reductionist optimism of Rosenberg. Although genes play an important role in biological development, they are not the driving force: “Genes play an important role, but as derived rather than driving factors” (Robert 2004, 74). This is because, “genes themselves do not pre-exist developmental processes” (Robert 2004, 74). On this model, epigenetic structures result from—and so do not pre-exist—interactions in ontogenetic space and time. And such interactions generate genes. Robert concludes that this thesis of genetic primacy is, despite some support in the scientific community, vacuous and incoherent.

An additional problem for the thesis of genetic primary is the fact that any one genome can be realized in indefinite ways. As John Duprè suggests, the biological world is characterised by a multitude of relational properties, and such properties cannot be easily accommodated within a causally linear framework. Duprè uses, here, a protein as an example. A protein can catalyze many different reactions, and many proteins have multiple functions: they bind and transport various molecules, inhibit different cellular processes, and form subunits of larger proteins. In a nutshell, the “number of possible functions of a protein molecule seems, in principle, quite indefinite” (Duprè 2012, 133).

Thus far in this theological puzzle, the argument takes us from a view of evolution as purely determined by genetic factors to a “postgenomic Darwinism”, and what might be considered an “organism-centred biology” (Robert 2004, 67; Duprè 2012, 143-160). Contrary to an often-told tale in the biological community, organisms are not mere resultants of lower-level configurations, but they are causally efficacious and explanatorily relevant with regard to the evolutionary directionality of nature. Denis Walsch explains that the role of organisms, which was considered important in the early days of the biological sciences, became marginalized because of the increased knowledge of DNA and genes (Walsch 2015). Such increased knowledge led to the emergence of a new framework, typically known as “mechanism”, which could explain the features of the living world in non-living categories. However, as suggested above, mechanistic reductionism is difficult to make sense of. This situation has led many biological thinkers to reconsider the viability of organicism (Walsch 2015; Corning 2014; Clayton 2013).

Walsch singles out three distinctive contributions of organisms to biological evolution. First, the production of novelties is made possible by the plasticity of organisms—meaning that they respond efficaciously to changing environmental conditions (Walsch 2015, 203). Furthermore, the organism’s ability to respond in survival-conducive manners helps us to explain “the origin and maintenance of novel phenotypic characters in evolution” (Walsch 2015, 203). As Walsch puts it, “Evolution is adaptive, because organisms are adaptive, goal-directed systems” (Walsch 2015, 203). Second, the high fidelity of phenotypic inheritances is due to the goal-directed capacities of organisms; in particular, the capacity to “detect, respond to and repair DNA lesions” and the developmental system’s general reliability to “produce inheritable phenotypes across an enormous range of genetic and environmental variations” (Walsch 2015, 204). Third, according to Walsch and others, we are now slowly abandoning the view of the gene as an individual unit in favour of a “conception of the genome as highly integrated, goal-directed”, capable of drawing on a variety of resources in order to advance an organism’s development (Walsch 2015, 205).

As we can see from the activities, contributions, and nature of organismic systems, goal-directedness is part and parcel of the biological world. Organisms cannot be reduced to the lower levels of chemistry and physics; they are teleological entities. It is within the structure and organizational behaviour of the organism that we see teleology most clearly. As Georg Toepfer has argued, the organism is intrinsically teleological in that the biological concept of the organism only makes sense from the standpoint of teleology. As he argues, the definition  of the organism “is based on teleological reasoning because identifying organisms as a special kind of natural system includes the attribution of functions or purposes to their parts” (Toepfer 2012, 115).  In this way, we are analysing the causal processes in terms of the end states of those processes. This means, then, that teleology plays an essential methodological role within biology by providing “a descriptive tool for analyzing systems in terms of their functional components and thereby enabling a proper conceptualization of them” (Toepfer 2012, 115). The possibility of ascribing purposes, functions, and end states to organized systems is vital for biology as a science—thus, teleology plays an essential role for the practice of the biological sciences. At the end of the day, it is teleology that “makes biology a special science” (Toepfer 2012, 114). Teleology remains an irreducible aspect of the biological world and the functioning of the biological sciences.

3. Discussion

Before outlining the possible levels of convergence between the orthodox doctrine of theosis and biological accounts of teleology, it is worth stressing some wider methodological implications of Eastern Orthodox theology upon the theology-science dialogue. The destiny of both humanity and creation is to share in the divine life; becoming partakers of the divine nature. Theosis is an articulation of God’s original intention for humanity and the cosmos, and it offers a view of redemption as interconnected with union and participation. Contrary to the reductionist spell of modern discourse, theosis situates the ontology of nature and humanity within a teleological schema. A main ambition of this theological puzzle has been to challenge a mechanistic dismissal of purpose within creation and an anti-teleological view of nature’s becoming. As reductionism is losing force, a cautious shift has occurred from mechanism to organicism within some parts of the biological community. An organism-centred biology conceives organisms as agential and teleological participators in the evolutionary process. Organisms are not passive resultants or by-products of physical configurations.

 We can see from this that teleology is crucial for making sense of the biological sciences. This picture coheres well with an Eastern Orthodox emphasis on purpose within and for creation. Teleology is expected within this theological system, and is not to be explained away in terms of efficient causation. Hence, “our existence is not due entirely to chance and randomness. Cosmic and biological evolution is not aimless” (Stenmark 2012). Theosis provides an expansive ontology and can, thus, more easily accommodate teleological phenomena and categories.

Before pointing to other implications of Eastern Orthodox metaphysics for the natural sciences, let me mention those issues that fall beyond the scope of this theological puzzle.

1) This discussion has not addressed the relationship between God as the one who enables deification and participation, and human beings participating in the divine life by free will. Orthodox theology emphasises that deification is ultimately a divine gift; a gift of grace that we cannot earn. Humanity possesses the desire to realize its true telos, but this process cannot be reduced to human agency or intentionality. It needs to be firmly grounded in the divine will. This is an issue that needs further exploration.

2) A theosis-based anthropology stresses an intimate relationship between human purposiveness and God as the metaphysical ground of that purpose. The Logos of each being signifies the reality of what might be called intrinsic teleology. God is, at the same time, the ultimate or extrinsic cause of the teleological nature of each human being, manifested in the desire to partake in the divine nature. Might intrinsic teleology, then, be bought at the expense of extrinsic teleology, or can we hold these two ontological assertions together? While this theological puzzle does not seek to fully answer this complex issue, it is worth outlining a couple of possible solutions. Andreas Nordlander argues, based on Maximus’s theosis that the opposition between these two understandings of teleology is a false one. God does not simply and crudely “impose” the “logos-structure” on individual creatures. Instead, and more accurately, “creatures exist and are properly themselves through their logoi, which pre-existed in the divine Logos before being” created (Nordlander 2020, 14). Human beings, then, possess intrinsic teleology because of such participation; it is not simply imposed.

Another solution is proposed by Simon Oliver. Taking his cue from autopoietic biology, Oliver calls into question the often-assumed dualism between intrinsic and extrinsic teleology on the basis that an organism’s self-making carries an extrinsic orientation or directedness toward a specific environment. To put it another way, in order to make sense of an organism’s teleological behaviour we must situate such a feature in particular environments and biological/physical contexts (Oliver 2013, 164). The boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic teleology is thus fluid, and we need to employ one to understand the other.

With the stated two qualifications in mind, let us now focus on the ways in which theosis, by situating humanity in relation to the eschatological activity of God, brings into the picture a well-needed realism regarding the epistemic reach of the natural sciences. Given an eschatological account of human nature, “the fulfilment of our created being is found in corresponding to the creator’s orientation toward us by our being unconditionally faithful to God and to others. We are created for communion with God and one another—and that communion defines our natures” (Torrance 2012, 908). At the same time, it should be strongly noted that theosis does not in any shape or form dismiss the value of science for understanding human nature, the evolutionary origins of it, or the structure of human capacities. Instead, it encourages a general expansion of the scientific image, its view of nature and what it is that makes us human. To state that science is limited when it comes to human nature is, in my regard, rather uncontroversial. Evolution is

essentially focused on the present and attempts to delineate laws according to which the present emerged from the past. Developmental theories are past orientated, trying to discern the causal relationship of organisms in the present world. They do not make any assertions about the end and goal of this world or about the laws and conditions in a future aeon. Therefore they do not contribute anything to our knowledge of the last things. (Schwarz 2000, 185-186).

Although evolutionary science can deliver valuable insights regarding human nature, it cannot, from a theological standpoint, offer a sufficient account of what it is that makes us human and how to understand our place in the grand scheme of things. This realisation lands us in the conclusion that “to conceive of the human being outside of its relation to God is not a neutral option” (Torrance 2012, 907). The Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis delivers us the valuable insight that what we are is intimately connected with what we will become.

4. Conclusion

This theological puzzle investigated the possible convergence between the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis and the return of teleological thinking in the biological community. From the perspective of an Orthodox theology, teleology is not an anomaly but is to be expected given the purposive activity of God and the ways in which humanity participates in that telos. Eastern Orthodox theology provides, therefore, a helpful reminder regarding the epistemic limitations of the natural sciences. Although I identified a significant convergence between a theosis-based theological anthropology and the growing body of research pertaining to organismic teleology, I also outlined a couple of issues that fall beyond the scope of this theological puzzle; that is, the relationship between the God as the one who enables deification and participation, and human beings participating in divine becoming by free will. I also discussed the seeming tension between thinking of God as the extrinsic ground of teleology while asserting intrinsic teleology as a feature of human beings: two possible solutions to this tension were briefly discussed.


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Leidenhag, Mikael. 2022. “Can the Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis Aid in Grounding Organismic Teleology (and vice versa)?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 5).

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Mikael Leidenhag
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