Thomas à Kempis and Imitating God
I’ve been working on an essay about what it might mean to imitate God. My argument will be that open and relational theology provides a helpful framework to make sense of this idea. The classical theism of Augustine and others does not help.
Here’s an excerpt of my argument for why Thomas à Kempis is also not helpful…
Imitate God…and Walk in Love
In what seems the summary of the Apostle Paul’s argument in Ephesians 4, he writes these words: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
What does this mean?
If humans are to heed Paul’s charge to imitate God by walking in love, they must have some idea about the one they try to imitate. It’s impossible to imitate intentionally that of which we have absolutely no understanding.
This raises a giant question: How should God be understood?
Thomas à Kempis and The Imitation of Christ
One might think Thomas à Kempis would help us get a sense of what it means to imitate God if we think Jesus points us to God. But, as I will argue, his classic work, The Imitation of Christ, is not helpful.
In their translation, Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton claim the book is, after the Bible, “the most widely read book in the world.”[i] While this may be an exaggeration, there is little doubt the work, written around 1420, has been widely influential.
Few passages in The Imitation of Christ speak of imitating Christ;[ii] the author gives few references to what biblical writers say Jesus said and did. I also found no explicit references to imitating God. Thomas à Kempis offers advice for personal piety, sacred practices, enhancing one’s interior life, communion, and the development of the soul.
Skewed View of Jesus
The few passages that speak of imitating Jesus, call upon readers to suffer by “bearing the cross, “denying ourselves,” and “despising the present life.”[iii] Readers are commanded to submit and obey; they should fear God. Just as Christ offered himself “a complete sacrifice to appease the divine wrath,” so readers ought to offer themselves wholly to Christ.[iv]
Contemporary readers like me will find unattractive the copious references to divine wrath and punishment. For instance, Thomas à Kempis says, “I deserve only to be scourged and punished because I have offended You often and grievously.”[v]
He says the fear of hell should motivate us to do what is right. For “even if love does not as yet restrain you from evil, at least the fear of hell does. The man who cast aside the fear of God cannot continue long in goodness…”[vi]
Reject the World and Self
Many contemporary readers will also find unappealing the persistent references to rejecting the world. One of the earliest passages in the book puts it this way: “This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish … It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come.”[vii]
Not only is healthy love for the world rarely, if ever, mentioned, but Thomas à Kempis also rejects healthy self-love. “If you wish to learn and appreciate something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing,” he says.[viii] For “what power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!”[ix] After all, “to find the Creator,” we must “forsake all creatures.”[x]
The last paragraphs of The Imitation of Christ ask readers to put aside their reasoning and rely instead on “sincere and unflinching faith.” For “whatever you cannot understand, commit to the security of the all-powerful God.”
“All reason and natural science ought to come after this faith, not go before it, nor oppose it.” After all, says Thomas à Kempis, God is “eternal, incomprehensible, and infinitely powerful.” God “does great and inscrutable things in heaven and on earth, and there is no searching into His marvelous works.”[xi]
In sum, Thomas à Kempis never talks about imitating God. His references to imitating Christ derive from an Augustinian theology that’s world-denying and punishment-oriented. (For my criticisms of Augustine’s theology, see other essays on this site.)
It’s difficult to make much sense of St. Paul’s command to imitate God and walk in love if we think Augustine and Thomas à Kempis portray God and love rightly.
[i] Kempis (2003: viii). The book was likely written by several members of the Brethren of Common Life in the Netherlands. Thomas Hemerken of Kempen (Thomas a Kempis) later compiled and translated the book into Latin. I’ll follow the common practice of referring to Thomas a Kempis as the author. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Translated by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Garden City, N.Y.: Dover, 2003).
[ii] For a scholarly book that focuses on what Jesus says and did as recorded in the Bible, see Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007). Burridge’s book, however, has very little to say on what it might mean to imitate God.
[iii] Thomas a Kempis (2003: 108).
[iv] Ibid., 126.
[v] Ibid., 102.
[vi] Ibid., 24-25.
[vii] Ibid., 2.
[viii] Ibid., 3.
[ix] Ibid., 40.
[x] Ibid., 78.
[xi] Ibid., 139.