Only a New Age heretic would attempt to pervert Christianity with such a question, right? After all, was not the sin of Adam and Eve that they wanted to become God or gods? For Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the question is the title of the second chapter of his book, From Death to Life. He believes the question to be of the utmost importance. He goes so far as to question whether those who attack the use of the phrase might not be attacking "something that belongs to the essence of the Christian Faith" (p.43).
Schonborn is not unaware of the criticisms that: "expressions like ‘deification' or ‘becoming God' remain ambiguous, are unbiblical, cause only confusion, etc…Under such circumstances, should one continue to speak at all of deification? Would it not be better to avoid such disputed expressions, so open to attack?" An expert in Patristics, Schonborn thinks otherwise and according to his book seems convinced that the way forward for the New Evangelization begins with a recovery of Saint Athanasius' thought.
On Saint Athanasius' feast day (May 2) it seems the least we could do is remember his place in history and place his thought in context. He is after all considered one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church by both the East and West.
Connecting Santa Claus to Sanctus Athanasius
It is disputed whether he slapped him on the mouth, fed him a knuckle-sandwich, or boxed him on the ear, but one thing seems clear: Santa Claus most likely hit the heretic, Arius of Alexandria, during the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. It is not as odd as it at first sounds. Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Clause, was even temporarily censored for it. Yes, Saint Nicholas, full of zeal for the God-man and having spent years in a dungeon during the Diocletian persecution for his faith in Christ, was not about to tolerate blasphemy from an arrogant presbyter. He was not about to standby while Arius denied the full divinity of Christ and forced his false interpretation of Scripture upon a Church newly freed from Roman Imperial persecution. Arius attacked the ancient and Apostolic tradition that the Logos (translated "Word" in John 1:1) was eternal and naturally equal with the Father who eternally begot him; that the Word was one in being with the Father. Arius denied that the baby in the manger was God in the flesh, that the Word (Logos) was equally God from all eternity. Saint Nicholas' zeal for the baby Jesus was indeed felt by Arius.
There was another figure present at Nicaea who became all the more important in the fight to maintain Catholic orthodoxy, Saint Athanasius; then only a deacon and theological advisor. Saint Nicholas' temporary censure for striking Arius foretold what would happen to those who continued to fight this heresy of the devil which sought to hide God's love from man by denying Christ's full divinity; by denying that God could become man. External persecution of Christians had ended under Constantine's rule, thus the devil launched internal persecutions. Heretics inside the Church would not feel constrained by charity. They would now slander and lie to accomplish their theological objectives. Saint Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria five months after the great Council. Due to heretics abusing imperial favor, Saint Athanasius would spend almost all of his episcopacy (over 40 years) persecuted and in exile, constantly run out of his own diocese as he continued to defend the orthodox Faith against the Arians. He did not cling to power but rather emptied himself for the sake of the Kingdom and his suffering bore much fruit in Christ.
Saint Athanasius stood with the Apostles, that it was God the Word (the eternal Son) who became a man and was born of the Virgin Mary. Not only did he defend this because it was true, he also understood clearly the corollary that would occur if people lost this truth. They would lose the heart of the Christian mystery and the meaning of salvation. They would lose the essence of the Christian mystery. Because God had become man, man could now become God (by grace). In the tradition of the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers before the Council of Nicaea, Saint Athanasius had already written: "The Son of God became man so that man might become God" (CCC #460). In the same tradition Saint Gregory of Nyssa would remind Christians: "Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none" (CCC #2028).
Oddly, many Christians today still rush to defend what Saint Athanasius saved the Church from losing (that Jesus was truly God from God, as light comes from light, true God from true God, one in being with the Father, begotten not made) but are frightened or confused by the radical love found in the corollary. Perhaps Enlightenment rationalism has confused things? Some Christians view themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy yet want people to tone down the corollary: the corollary that we were made to become God by grace because God is love. Over a thousand years after Athansius, Saint John of the Cross wrote of Athanasius' corollary when he simply penned: "If anything pleases God it is the exaltation of the soul. Since there is no way by which He can exalt her more than by making her equal to Himself, He is pleased only with her love. For the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved" (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 28).
Saint Thomas understood Saint Athanasius
In his Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas does teach that the sin of the devil was that the devil desired to become God (STh I,63,3). However, Aquinas makes clear in this same section (Question 63, Article 3) that this is a sin according to one fashion, but not according to another. Aquinas makes very clear there is no sin in desiring to be God "provided that [one] desires such likeness in proper order, that is to say, that [one] may obtain it of God. But [one] would sin were [one] to desire to be like God even in the right way, but of [one's] own power, and not of God's."
The sin of the devil was according to this second fashion. "He desired as the last end of his beatitude something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his appetite away from the supernatural beatitude which is attained by God's grace. Or, if he desired as his last end that likeness to God which is bestowed by grace, he sought to have it by the power of his own nature, and not from divine assistance according to God's ordering." Aquinas ends by summarizing Saint Anselm, "who says that [the devil] sought that to which he would have come had he stood fast." In other words, according to Saint Anslem, Lucifer could have "become God" by participation in the divine nature if the Lucifer had done it God's way instead of trying to take the gift by his own power; instead of trying to take it by force. God is love, not raw power and force. Love is received, not taken. Love is given, not taken. One does not use force to become love.
In short, on this issue of the sin of the devil, Aquinas is laying the ground work for later chapters to explain how it is that man "becomes God" in Christ according to grace. In fact, he quotes Saint Augustine quoting Saint Athanasius that man is to "become God" in Book III of the Summa (III,1,2). On this issue of the devil's sin, Aquinas was making a distinction between grace (God's working in us through the power that belongs only to God) and nature (our power to work and will which comes to us by being born of human parents or created). It is not in our power to make God's power enter us so that we can live according to God's power instead of our own. No man can save himself without God's help. Growing into the true likeness of God and beginning to share in God's own power (eternal life) comes from God as a gift. It is not something that we can take or earn, but it is attainable and it is a real ontological change in us when God gives us this share in Him.
The Great Saint and Doctor, Athanasius, Sums it Up
It is all actually very simple. God always wanted to share all that he is with us. Take the following quotations of Sacred Scripture: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us" (John 1:1&14); "To those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12); "That you may come to share in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Saint Athanasius summed them up thus: "The Son of God became man so that man might become God" (CCC #460).