A Person is a Person…
This semester I’ve spent a good deal of time reading Eastern Orthodox theologians. In particular I’ve been intrigued with the Orthodox understanding of personhood (both as it relates to God and humanity) and the implications that follow such views. The following is the beginning of a paper…so its not exactly light “bloggy” reading – and it doesn’t follow my recent 1200 words or less rule. But I wanted to post something today and this is what I’m working on.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky said, “The theologian does not search for God as a man seeks an object; he is seized by Him as one is seized by a person…The God of theology is a “Thou”; He is the living God of the Bible, The Absolute, certainly, but a personal Absolute whom one can address intimately in prayer” (Theology, 27**).
So how are we to understand “personhood” in God? In humanity? What is the nature and role of humanity in this world? These questions have been asked throughout history by people from many different philosophical and religious perspectives. Within the scope of Christian tradition there have been many and various attempts at answering these questions. Eastern Orthodoxy offers interesting insight into the relationship between these issues of personhood and the nature of humanity.
This concept of God as personal rather than a philosophical object for consideration is one that few believers would argue, whether they are Western or Eastern in their persuasion. Yet for the theologians and teachers of the Western Church like Augustine and Aquinas, the study of God often takes on a very impersonal tone. Augustine seems to form his idea of God by first considering the image of God in humanity. George Barrois says, “Augustine’s triadology leans heavily on his comparison of the divine essence and the divine persons with the human soul and its faculties…Thus, the biblical doctrine of the image of God in man is somehow reversed” (91).
In contrast, Eastern theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa begin with what revelation tells us about God and from that seek to determine what in humanity corresponds with God. This is seen in part by the emphasis among Eastern theologians on John 1 rather than Genesis 1 in understanding the nature of God. “The focus is on the incarnation of the Son, a historical reality experienced by faith and not to be deduced by reasoning” (Barrois, 97).
Because God is understood and experienced as personal rather than propositional, we not only believe in, but more fully we “participate” in God. We are not overwhelmed in this participation “by some vague and nameless power, but are brought face to face with a person” (Ware 209). According to John Meyendorff it is our participation in God that provides the proper view of humanity. We are not to be understood as completely autonomous beings. Our nature is “truly itself only inasmuch as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace’” (Meyendorff, 138). This is an essential component of the Eastern view of “theosis” or “deification” which is the view that (in the words of Athanasius) “God became human that we humans might become god” (Ware, 231). This kind of participation is not like other eastern religions which suggest our goal is to be swallowed up into some divine collective. “The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God’s essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church…rejects all forms of pantheism” (Ware 232).
To be sure the Orthodox Church is deeply mystical in ways that find expression in the West at various times through specific groups but seldom in mainstream thought. While the Eastern way of understanding faith is heavily dependant upon mystery and matters of faith, this view of humanity and God is incredibly grounding.
Theology has only one goal – salvation. And salvation is naturally understood in the classical Orthodox terms of deification (theosis), union with God. This is what makes theology concrete and useful…Christian theory should have an eminently practical significance; and that the more mystical it is, the more directly it aspires to the supreme end of union of God (Nicholas Lossky, 290-291).
Paradoxically it seems that the Eastern emphasis on mystery grounds their theology in “reality” whereas the Western love of logic, reason and knowledge, seen so eloquently particularly in the medieval Scholastic approach, often leads in practice to the esoteric rather than concrete; the abstract rather than the personal.
By focusing on philosophy and reason over relationship and mystery the West also develops certain doctrines, which while meant to elevate the sovereignty and righteousness of God, do much to destroy the beauty of God’s creation in those who are said to bear His image. The completeness of sin’s effect on humanity, our total depravity and the destruction of our created nature become essential for defending the saving grace of God. And this leads to the Western, and eventually in particular the Reformed, low view of humanity. To accomplish this argument, “Augustine sums up the condition of man as follows: without grace, he cannot not sin; with grace, he is able to eschew sin; when grace is transmuted into glory, sin is vanquished and it has become impossible for man to sin any more. The entire passage is rhetorical to excess” (Barrois, 93).
Theologians in the East do not reject the idea of original sin (per se) nor do they in any way reject the concept of man’s fallen state and predicament in sin prior to the new life in Christ Jesus. One of the great theologians, heralded by both West and East, Maximus the Confessor understood the nature of humanity to find “its fulfillment in their freely turning towards the God to whom they owe their being…But with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfillment.” (Louth, 60-61).
According to Augustine, “humans in Paradise were endowed from the start with all possible wisdom and knowledge: theirs was a realized, and in no sense potential, perfection” (Ware, 220). Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant mostly agree that the world as we currently experience it is in a fallen state where it is easier to do evil than good. But Orthodoxy, “holding as it does a less exalted idea of the human state before the fall, is also less severe than the West in its view of the consequences of the fall. Adam fell, not from a great height of knowledge and perfection, but from a state of undeveloped simplicity…The image of God is distorted by sin, but never destroyed” (Ware, 223-224).
Adam was created in the Image of God and placed in the garden in close relationship with God. Choosing to disobey God did not change man’s nature. “It was a misdirecting of man’s “normal” passions away from God. It should be noted that for Maximus the objects towards which man had directed his attention were not in themselves bad or evil; all things created by God are seen as essentially good” (Boojamra, 23). This creates, according to Maximus, the gnomic will – which is the frustrating and confusing business of making choices without fully being able to see the goal. For our nature to become “opaque” to us does not mean that the nature is destroyed essentially, but it does mean that our freedom to operate fully within that nature is diminished at best.
Self-determination is an essential component to humanity for Maximus. But self-determination and freedom are to be understood “not as the ability to choose among several options but as movement with regard to an end. In this sense man is truly free only when he acts in accordance with his nature” (Boojamra, 24). Movement towards God is the expression of true freedom among humanity, but with sin clouding our ability to understand our nature; our ability to know what will sustain and fulfill us, our freedom is damaged. From this perspective the ability to deliberate between options is an expression of a lack of freedom because it is evidence of the gnomic will which does not immediately discern movement toward its desired end. The gnomic will is “a will that is based in ignorance and consequently one that chooses and hesitates” (Boojamra, 25).
This concept of movement away from the fulfillment of our nature is captured in the notion of sin (Greek – hamartia: to miss the mark). To sin is an act of the will, choosing to move away from rather than toward God. “Sin is always a personal act, never an act of nature…there would be no place, then, in such an anthropology for the concept of inherited guilt, or for a ‘sin of nature,’ although it admits that human nature incurs the consequences of Adam’s sin” (Meyendorff, 143). The consequence of Adam’s sin is primarily death, which we’ve all certainly inherited. The guilt of sin, which Scripture testifies we all carry, is due to our own sin – which Scripture also testifies we all possess.
The consequence of death, and more specifically our fear of that coming consequence, brings with it greater urge to sin. Maximus noted our how our frantic movements in hope of finding satisfaction only serve to take us farther and farther from the source since our blind and ignorant movements are not able to take clear aim at the target. Theodore of Mopsuestia noted that for immortal beings the necessity to satisfy the needs of the body, or as Paul would say, “the desires of the flesh,” is absent. “There is indeed a consensus in Greek patristic and Byzantine traditions in identifying the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than of sinfulness, sinfulness being merely a consequence of mortality” (Myendorff, 145).
What then is the value of these discussions on personhood, humanity and original sin? In combing through the writings of these Eastern thinkers: the Great Cappadocians, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas, Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, Kalistos Ware and others, Christians coming from Western perspective encounter a world that is initially strange and foreign. And yet there is something incredibly rich and immediately vibrant in regards to our continued journey together in formation. The Eastern Church is not without its own esoteric infighting, it is not free from the same disconnect between theology and practice that we’ve encountered in the West.
For our own formation, as well as our communication with non-believers, it is essential that we remember we are discussing a personal God – not merely a set of propositions. While we are certainly sinners and are in need of God’s saving grace, we must also remember to see Christ in one another – because it is our existence in Christ that defines us as humans. Every person we encounter, from the most saintly widow to the most annoyingly arrogant young person is a beloved child of God, with great worth and beauty in the eyes of their Creator. Because of this, people are to be treated personally and with the utmost respect rather than viewed as a project or potential conquest.
Practice often, if not always, falls short of our theological and philosophical ideals. The Eastern Orthodox Church, throughout its history has professed a view of personhood that is at once quite mystical and also incredibly grounded. As I stated previously, I believe that as Christians in and residents of Western society there is much we can learn from the Orthodox perspective on this and other issues. Perhaps the best piece of counsel as to how to proceed with this information comes from Kallistos Ware in an interview for St. Nina Quarterly. In discussing issues of women’s involvement in Orthodox worship and leadership and specifically the nature of this publication which is focused on such issues, Ware said the following:
I hope that in all the questions that you discuss, you will try to relate them to the life of prayer—to the worshiping experience of the Church. Fr. Georges Florovsky said, “Christianity is a liturgical religion—worship comes first, doctrine and moral rules come later.” Whatever the subject you are discussing, bring it back to the life of prayer, and show how it grows out of our prayer and worship, and how it leads us back to prayer.
May our endeavors, be they historical, theological or some mixture thereof, always contain such a focus.
**Bibliography available if you actually read this far…