The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

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.