Icon of the Nativity of Christ

The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

Since we are speak­ing of this idea of con­scious­ness and the per­son, and the dan­gers of empha­siz­ing con­scious­ness as con­sti­tu­tive of per­son­hood, I would like to cite a long but pro­found quo­ta­tion from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Antho­ny (Khrapovit­sky), of blessed mem­o­ry, regard­ing this. He writes: 

Our per­son­al­i­ty, in our imme­di­ate con­scious­ness [or self-aware­ness], seems absolute­ly sep­a­rate from every oth­er per­son­al­i­ty. We gen­er­al­ly draw a con­trast in our spir­it, through our imme­di­ate con­scious­ness, between our “I” and anoth­er man or anoth­er thing, between the “I” and the “not I,” the idea itself of oppo­si­tion, of the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of things. It is not dif­fi­cult for me to present myself as a mem­ber of a col­lec­tive con­cept: crowd, soci­ety, monastery, acad­e­my. But the alleged sim­i­lar­i­ties will help me lit­tle towards allow­ing my per­son­al­i­ty, con­scious of itself, to con­ceive itself at the same time as con­sti­tut­ing with sev­er­al oth­ers a being so per­fect­ly sin­gu­lar that it would be impos­si­ble to say of it, “sev­er­al beings,” but rather we would have to define it as “one sin­gle being.” But this is pre­cise­ly what the faith teach­es regard­ing the supreme being of God: the Three Divine Per­sons are but One Sin­gle Being. And it is accord­ing to this mod­el that Chris­t­ian uni­ty [the Church’s life] needs to be accom­plished” (see the Gospel of St John, Ch. 17). 

The chief obsta­cle to the per­me­ation of the dog­ma of the Trin­i­ty rests in the per­son­al and spon­ta­neous con­scious­ness of the nat­ur­al man, divid­ing per­son­al­i­ty from per­son­al­i­ty to the point of an absolute vis­i­ble oppo­si­tion. If the com­pa­ny of Chris­tians born again by grace, real­iz­ing the prayer of Christ, become “One as We are One”, it would be impos­si­ble, with­out caus­ing a new rup­ture to uni­ty, to admit among mem­bers [of the Church] a per­son­al con­scious­ness so com­plete­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic as what we see in the man who is nei­ther born again nor even touched by the grace of rebirth. The Chris­t­ian, accord­ing to the mea­sure of his spir­i­tu­al per­fec­tion, must lib­er­ate him­self from the spon­ta­neous oppo­si­tion between the I and the not‑I, receiv­ing the sense of his inner uni­ty with Christ, with the Father, and with his broth­ers in the faith. But to attain this, he must essen­tial­ly mod­i­fy the fun­da­men­tal attrib­ut­es of indi­vid­ual human consciousness…Perhaps this con­di­tion [for lib­er­at­ing one­self] might appear strange, pre­sent­ing itself to the spir­it as an abdi­ca­tion of rea­son and a sacred insan­i­ty. But if we exam­ine the sub­ject close­ly, we will see, on the con­trary, true human rea­son appear­ing, until then dark­ened by the state of sin of our fall­en nature…It fol­lows from this that the law of our indi­vid­u­a­tion, dis­cussed above, is not an absolute law, a pri­mor­dial one, but a law of fall­en con­scious­ness. It is, so to say, graft­ed on, acquired, and is then abro­gat­ed by rebirth in Chris­t­ian love. 

We have seen, then, that our true self, our true per­son­hood, is not some­thing we pos­sess auto­mat­i­cal­ly, but is giv­en to us through the grace of rebirth, i.e., through the Church of Christ. We have in our depths, by virtue of bear­ing the image of God, a hunger and an inner sense of need­ing to “find our life” in God, even before bap­tism and out­side the Church. But we find our life, as Christ tells us repeat­ed­ly, only by dying to our self for his sake, thus tru­ly find­ing our life in Him. With­out this, we remain only per­sons by poten­tial, trapped in our own striv­ings that, detached from “the gift of God”, lead us nowhere or worse, lead us to a demon­ic log­ic that does all it can to destroy the pos­si­bil­i­ty of that gift among men.

The ascetic side of the person. 

You may have noticed that ulti­mate­ly, when I have been speak­ing of the con­cept of the per­son and becom­ing per­sons through the Church, I have essen­tial­ly been speak­ing of the con­cept of the saint. We are called, as human beings, to the holi­ness of God. In mod­ern Ortho­doxy, the patris­tic term theo­sis or diviniza­tion is often used to describe this. We have dealt in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion with one side of this process of sanc­ti­ty or becom­ing true per­sons, and this is the more impor­tant one, name­ly, God freely allow­ing us to par­take of His holi­ness through the Church. I say more impor­tant, because with­out the Church, our own ascetic striv­ings would have no way of lead­ing us to holi­ness. But in anoth­er way, ascetic prac­tice is also most impor­tant, since although God is always faith­ful and will nev­er fail to offer us the gift of like­ness to Him, we on our end are con­stant­ly waver­ing, deny­ing His gift, seek­ing it again, deny­ing it, seek­ing it, and so on. The ascetic life is thus cru­cial to the under­stand­ing of the human per­son in Ortho­doxy. With­out it, the trea­sure freely giv­en to us in bap­tism and through the Holy Gifts is total­ly buried: as in the para­ble of the tal­ents, it is “hid in the earth” until the Lord’s com­ing, at which point the ser­vant is utter­ly cast out of His Master’s pres­ence. The life in Christ must bear fruit, what is giv­en must be mul­ti­plied. This is where asceti­cism comes in.