Apotheosis is one of those big theological words that you don’t hear regular people speaking about that often. In fact, to many in our society, I think the idea of apotheosis seems ridiculous. To put it simply, apotheosis is the elevation of a human to divine status. It’s what Elder Price is singing about in the clip above when he says, “I believe… that [God’s] plan involves me getting my own planet.” He’s singing about the Mormon idea that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” The Book of Mormon is, of course, a spoof. It’s an exaggeration of what Mormons believe. But still, people laugh when Elder Price talks about getting his own planet because on some level, many people think the idea of a human becoming a god is ridiculous at worst, and weird at best.
This disdain for apotheosis was something I was very familiar with when I was a conservative Christian. In the garden of Eden the serpent tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit and said “’You will not certainly die… For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'” (Genesis 3:4-5) As a conservative Christian I had it drummed into me that the Great Lie that led Adam and Eve into their fall from grace was the desire to be like God. In the Christianity that I followed, God was wholly other. Humanity was wholly sinful. Our basic nature is seen as evil and opposed to God. It’s only through the death of Jesus on the cross that we are made acceptable to God, and through our life as a Christian we are made more like Jesus. But even these ideas of justification and sanctification are states of being that come from outside of us. When I was in college training to be a minister I was taught that God chose to view us a certain way because of Jesus. The New Testament texts paints it as an adoption, or putting on clothes so that our outward appearance is holy. However, our basic nature is still very much NOT divine. The idea that humanity is in any way divine or can become divine is seen as close to blasphemous.
It’s one of the reasons that the Mormons were always portrayed as a cult. I can remember being shown the “documentary” The God Makers and ridiculing the idea that these people actually believed they would become a god and get their own planet. How stupid could they be? But there’s a wide gulf between when I was a conservative Evangelical Christian and the spiritual slut that I am today, and that gulf doesn’t consist of just clown makeup and glitter. Now that I follow a more progressive spiritual path, apotheosis doesn’t seem so strange to me.
To be fair, I don’t think that portraying Mormons as believing that they will get their own planet is totally accurate. (I’m not a huge fan of Mormonism, and disagree with them on MANY issues, but I like to represent people’s views fairly and accurately). Joanna Brooks, a Mormon blogger, responds to this conception in a blog post from January of 2012. She says that she has never heard anyone seriously discuss the idea that Mormons will one day get their own planet, but she points out on any given Sunday you might hear that “we are the children of Heavenly Parents, that our spirits lived with our Heavenly Parents before our mortal lives, and that we came to earth on the plan that we should gain experience through mortality and prepare to return to our Heavenly Parents… And it is a Mormon teaching that souls continue to grow, progress, and experience throughout the eternities, and that part of that expansive experience is to become like our Heavenly Parents.” Joseph Smith in his 1844 sermon called the King Follett Discourse says this:
“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! … It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did.” … “Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.”
While I have many areas of faith that I strongly disagree with the Mormon church on, as a Gnostic Neopagan, I can accept the way that apotheosis is portrayed here.
Apotheosis wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world. A quick review using that ancient tome of knowledge, Wikipedia, shows that imperial cults were known in both Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Egypt, deceased pharaohs were deified as Osiris. In the Greek world, the first leader who accorded himself divine honors was Philip II of Macedon, and his son, Alexander the Great, not only claimed descent from the gods of Egypt, but decreed that he should be worshiped in the cities of Greece. After his death, the custom of apotheosis became very prevalent among the Greeks. In ancient Rome, apotheosis was a process where a deceased ruler was recognized as having been divine by his successor, usually also by a decree of the Senate and popular consent. At the height of the imperial cult during the Roman Empire, sometimes the emperor’s deceased loved ones were deified as well.
Apotheosis is a key element in devotion to Antinous. I talked about Antinous, and my devotion to him, in my last post. I won’t regurgitate that here, but the basics are this: Antinous was the young companion and lover to the Roman Emperor Hadrian. While in Egypt Antinous drowned in the Nile. Because of the sacred status of the river, anyone who drowned in the Nile was deified and syncretised to Osiris. Antinous became a god. And so, one of the gods I am devoted to, was once a human being just like I am.
I’ve spoken a little bit about how, for some people, the idea that Antinous was once a very human boytoy of the Emperor but is now a god is difficult for them. I believe some of this has to do with what I spoke about above. Much of traditional Christianity finds the concept of apotheosis distasteful and ridiculous. Ironically, I don’t think this was always so. I believe that the story of Jesus is actually a story of apotheosis. The idea of Jesus as divine is one that evolved in the early Jesus community. You can see the development in the Gospels themselves. One of the big questions the Gospel writers wrestled with was when did Jesus become divine? On the cross? At his baptism? At his birth? By the time we get to when John’s Gospel was written, his answer was that Jesus was always divine. Jesus had always been God. In this way, apotheosis was thrown out because Jesus had never been not-God to become God. That view won out, and other views that Jesus had been human and become God (including views we now label as Gnostic) at some point were painted as heretical, and that view has carried on into much of modern Christianity. While not everyone identifies as a Christian, I don’t believe that one can fully disassociate the impact of Christianity on the wider culture. I believe this distaste for apotheosis and view of it as heretical has seeped over into the general culture.
For me, however, the apotheosis of Antinous, and the idea that a human being can become god is one that I resonate with. It points to my own death and rebirth, whether that death is a crucifixion or a drowning. The story of a young man that drowned in a river and was risen as a god is not just a story about something that happened. It’s a story of something that happens. It’s my story. Just like the story of a man who died on a cross and came back to life if not just a story of something that happened in the past. It’s a story about what is happening right now, and will happen. It’s the story of my divine spark being incarnate in the physical world. It’s a story about the death, both physical and spiritual, that we all face, as well as the triumph of our Divine soul. I’ve called that Divine soul the Buddha nature before. I’ve also referred to it as the Christ nature. I’ve never called it the Antinous nature, but why not? In my opinion, the story of Antinous points to our eternal nature as much as these other stories do.
The idea of apotheosis also plays in to the name of this blog. Whereto We Speed is taken from a line in the Excerpta Ex Theodoto, a collection of notes made by Clement of Alexandria dealing mainly with (and quoting) the teachings of the Theodotus:
“What makes us free is the gnosis
of who we were,
of what we have become;
of where we were,
of wherein we have been cast;
of whereto we speed,
of wherefrom we are redeemed;
of what birth truly is,
and of what rebirth truly is.”
Indeed. Whereto we speed is the same path that Antinous trod. May Wepwawet clear the way before me, and Antinous walk alongside me in the path to apotheosis!