The Church as the way to personhood.
This leads us to the second principle regarding human personhood in Orthodoxy, and some of its implications. Achieving new birth in God is not a moral, psychological, or emotional act. As many Orthodox theologians in the twentieth century put it, rebirth is a matter of ontology, an ontological act, that is, something related to our being as a whole. And this rebirth, this newness of life, is given through the sacraments of the Church, primarily through Baptism, Chrismation, and then the Holy Eucharist. In other words, our rebirth as persons in Christ is an ecclesiological reality; it is bound up with the Church. Moreover, it is also an event of personal communion not only with Christ, but with His Body as a whole, the whole Church community. We cannot self-administer our baptism into Christ: we are baptized through His Church, His Body which is set upon the earth for the rebirth and renewal of all. Our rebirth is a great and holy gift given by God through His Church.
It is no accident that the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Mysteries, are also often called the Holy Gifts: the whole possibility of our becoming true persons depends from beginning to end on the gift of God. As Christ says to the Samaritan Woman, we must recognize that He Himself is the gift of God who freely gives living water (John 4:10) to all who turn to Him. Later in St John’s Gospel, we learn that this living water is the Holy Spirit, when St John says: this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy [Spirit] was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:39).
The next point is obvious, I know, to you, but I want to highlight it nevertheless: the giving of the Holy Spirit, and so our experience of the Holy Spirit, cannot be separated from the glorification of Christ through his Cross, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. I say this because there are trends among some philosophers and theologians who speak of becoming persons through experience of the Holy Spirit, but they separate this from the Christian Church; they de-historicize it and make it something that no longer depends upon Christ’s Body. This is especially the case in the thought of Nikolai Berdyaev, whom you have perhaps already come across. If we read Berdyaev, we often find moments of philosophical perception, even ingenuity, regarding the importance of the person and the personal nature of reality. We also hear much about being liberated through the Spirit and so finding our personhood. But tragically, he couples his ideas with an allergy, if not hatred, towards the Institutional Church. He often speaks of the Church as a shackling and inhibiting force, which chains the souls of men and prevents the true development of the person. He separates Christ and His Church, or we might say, He separates Christ from His Body.
But the Body of Christ is the source of all divine blessings and of every grace. By removing this focal point, the Body of Christ, from the idea of personhood, and trying to shift the emphasis to the activity of the Spirit in humanity, a nurturing as he puts it of the “Christology of man,” Berdyaev effectively detaches the Holy Spirit from the historical Christ. And this, as you will remember from St John’s Epistle, cannot mean that Berdyaev’s Spirit is truly the Spirit of God. As St John puts it: Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God; And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God and such a spirit is even, he tells us, the spirit of antichrist (I John 4:2–3). Thus Jesus Christ come in the flesh is the invariable content and summit of what is given in the Holy Spirit, and so finding our personhood through the Spirit is invariably connected to finding our place in His Body, the Church.
But allow me to add another note here, about the Church and freedom. Thinkers such as Berdyaev reject the Church partly because of the concept of obedience that the Church encourages among her members. They see this stress on obedience as completely opposed to the freedom and liberty that we are called to as persons. But this is to misunderstand the Christian concept of freedom, and as a consequence, the Christian concept of the person. To be true persons, we do indeed need freedom, but not the kind of freedom that Berdyaev and others propose. We do not achieve freedom through doing whatever we want to do or through not being hindered in doing what we do. Often, what passes as an expression of freedom is simply an expression of slavery: slavery to passion, to sin, to the evil one, to our own desires, our own whims, etc. Our natural will is not an end in itself: whether we like it or not, our natural will is directed somewhere. Our freedom does not consist in simply having a will. As Christ Himself teaches, if ye continue in my word then…you will know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:31–32). If we wish to become true persons after the pattern of Christ, then we must direct our will to Christ, to His will. We must assimilate His Word, His Commandments, aligning ourselves with Him with every movement and breath of our life. This is where freedom is found, a freedom which breathes the clear and inexpressible air of divine grace, dwelling in the depths of divine love.
The Gift of True Personhood
Now I mentioned at the beginning of this section that the gift of true personhood is not a psychological, moral, or emotional enterprise, but an ontological one, having to do with a rebirth of our innermost being in Christ. This also implies, I would like to add, that personhood is not to be understood on the level of mere self-consciousness. We mentioned this with regard to the Holy Trinity: the idea that a person is a center of consciousness and self-reflexivity is a distorted one. As Orthodox, we need to keep this firmly in our understanding, because so much moral bankruptcy exists in the world now because of this pernicious idea that the ability to self-reflect as individuals constitutes our personhood.
Adhering to such an idea has led countless psychologists, politicians, moral philosophers, scientists, and even theologians to propose that the killing of infants in the womb and even in the first years after birth, as well as the termination of the lives of the severely disabled and the extremely old, is a perfectly humane and just form of action. They argue that such beings are not persons, and so killing them amounts only to something like slaughtering a cow or an ox. Such demonic logic is perhaps more widespread than you would think. Just recently, a prominent journal of medical ethics published a detailed article arguing that post-birth abortion was a moral act in all circumstances. We can only pray that our laws do not follow up with such monstrosities. In any case, this is one reason why as Orthodox we cannot pin all of personhood on the idea of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity: it leads down a dangerous path.
Every man, from the moment of conception, by the very fact of his being loved and cared for by God and bearing His image in the hidden depths of the heart, is a true person in the making. I say “in the making”, because as we have been saying, our potential as persons is fulfilled only through Baptism and incorporation into Christ. Christ enlightens everyone who comes into the world, but He does not force the grace of rebirth on anyone: we are thus all true persons, true saints, by potential, and this in itself makes every human being worthy of all our attention, care, and love.