Sometimes a book sits on my “to read” list for a while, and, when I finally get around to reading it, I’m disappointed. Fortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. When I finally made time to dig into Julie Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, I immediately wished I had done so earlier. Well-written and thoughtful, this is definitely a book worth reading.
According to Canlis, concepts like participation, fellowship, and communion, lie at the heart of the Christian faith. We are “in Christ,” “partakers of the divine nature,” and joined together in “one body.” These are key ideas, and how we understand them necessarily shapes how we view things like what it means to be human, how we approach spirituality, and what we think about God himself.
But we struggle to understand what this “participation” theme really means for at least two reasons. First, our modern, western culture is so individualized and atomized that we struggle to see ourselves as anything other than isolated selves. That makes it difficult for us to process the idea that the ground of our identity – indeed, our very being – may lie outside of us. And second, “participation” has been understood by theologians in two very different ways. Some see our participation in God as an ontological reality – to be “in Christ” is to share in the divine nature itself. Others suspect this ontological approach of bordering on pantheism (i.e. we are part of God) and prefer to view participation as simply referring to the fact that believers share in the benefits of being God’s people.