It’s Not Just the Details, It’s Not Just the Particulars, It’s Something Personal


I have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am responsible for the sins of the whole world. I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.

At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.

Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal, however, is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem was with God, who gave him “that woman.”

It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (“inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).

Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But it you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.

Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not seperate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.

But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsibility for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





11 responses to “It’s Not Just the Details, It’s Not Just the Particulars, It’s Something Personal”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Painting of Dostoevsky in Prison.

  2. Fr. Gregory Hogg Avatar
    Fr. Gregory Hogg

    Fr. Stephen,

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog–it’s truly a blessing. On this issue, I wonder how the words of Maximos the Confessor relate:

    “Perfect love does not split up the single human nature, common to all, according to the diverse characteristics of individuals; but, fixing attention always on this single nature, it loves all men equally. It loves the good as friends and the bad as enemies, helping them, exercising forbearance, patiently accepting whatever they do, not taking the evil into account at all but even suffering on their be-half if the opportunity offers, so that, if possible, they too become friends. If it cannot achieve this, it does not change its own attitude; it continues to show the fruits of love to all men alike. It was on account of this that our Lord and God Jesus Christ, showing His love for us, suffered for the whole of mankind and gave to all men an equal hope of resurrection, although each man determines his own fitness for glory or punishment.” Four Centuries on Love, I.71

    Perhaps both nature and persons help us in reflecting on love. Is it that when we love, we seek the common nature–a nature homoousios with God the Son incarnate–within the uniqueness of each person?

    The unworthy priest,

    Fr. Gregory Hogg

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Gregory,

    I will confess to being boggled by the great Confessor. I’m not always certain how to describe nature and person in our modern terms. I know that St. Silouan (not a trained theologian) and Fr. Sophrony had much to say on person, including pushing the category of Person to new places theologically.

    I’ll admit that I understand them a lot more than I understand St. Maximus, indeed I rarely find anyone who seems to understand St. Maximus. I wish I did.

    There is obviously a reality of our common nature – but I still think it’s hard to love a nature without abstracting everything. I have only encountered Persons, or the nature as manifested in a Person. Thus my emphasis and reliance on the language and reality of person – if that helps. Thanks for the quote.

  4. saintsophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I really appreciated this post as I am currently in the middle of reading The Brothers Karamozov. I have been reading your blog for some time now and find it to be a blessing in my life and in my husband’s.

    We are catechumens at St. Athanasius OCA in Nicholasville, KY. We are to be chrismated on Holy Saturday.

    Thank you for your thoughtful words.

  5. Michelle Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, the previous comment was actually made me: Michelle at

    A friend had been using my computer and had not logged out; although, this is a blessing in disguise because she also writes a wonderful Orthodox blog. Enjoy!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God bless you in your journey, Michelle. My delight is increased by my love for your community of St. Athanasius, and my friendship with both the present priest as well as the previous. You are in very good hands. What a wonderful way to mark Pascha!

  7. Jack Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I completely agree with your comments about particularity. However, I have to admit to being a fan of Maximus. Philosopher Eric Perl has written some interesting articles on him that I’ve found helpful. Try his essay on Maximus and Eriguena if you can get your hand on it.

    As Father Behr notes in his history as well as his essay on the “trinitarian nature of the church,” the communion of the Trinity, classically understood, is essential. “One in essence.” Our human communion with each other, in Christ or nature as it is intended by the Word of God, is also essential. We are each members of the one Body that is the human nature of the divine Word. We partake of the one loaf. Or, to put it even more boldly, as Paul does, we are each “members of each other.” The commandment to love each other is the ontology of the Cosmos. Can the eye say it doesn’t need to pray for the foot? Could “I” be saved and not you? God forbid! If it were so, then “I” wouldn’t really be saved because you are a member of me and me of you. The I that Christ has made is not severable from the “you” that Christ has made. This is why I like Maximus.


    P.S. This is not an argument for universal restoration. The only thing that is created-saved is Christ.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, Jack, I follow the logic. And of course, One in Essence is crucial. I’ll follow up on your suggestions for reading as well. I don’t dislike Maximus. He’s just hard to read, and there is very little good material out there, particularly in the commentary realm. I’ve read Maximus for nearly 30 years.

    I have found the Cappadocians, and particularly St. Basil’s approach, in which the person has a certain priorty (rightly understood) that is, indeed, inherent in Orthodox theology. At least as I would compare it to Augustinian Trinitarianism where you begin with the One Essence and try to go to the three persons from there.

    I only know the Father as He has made Himself known in His Son. This seems clear to me from Scripture. I of course accept the dogma of One in Essence, but I cannot know God’s essence.

    By working largely in hypostatic terms I don’t mean to deny ousia, but to work with what I can know. Or does that seem incorrect?

  9. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    I read “Who’s to blame?” in Los Angelas, and had the drive to Kansas City and Laredo to think about it. I’m not trying to be flattering when I say it has consumed my thoughts and prayers since. My mind leaped to the particular and personal, and I would have asked the questions I had but you have answered them already in the last few posts.

    Now I have to ask what may appear to be a crass question: How does one person unite themselves with another person to pray for them? How do I unite heart, soul, mind with another person to pray for them in particular? Like what is the “method”? I know I’m phrasing this poorly, but I hope you get the gist of my question. I hate to reduce what you’ve stated to a “formula”, but is there a “nuts and bolts” aspect?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    When I was in England this summer, at St. John the Baptist Monastery, there was extensive use of the Jesus Prayer two and a half hours in morning and again in the evening. One person would do the prayer (100 repetitions) while the rest remained quiet. Quite commonly, towards the end of the hundred, the prayer would change to, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and on Thy whole world.”

    By the same token we can pray for others within the context of the Jesus prayers or all of our prayers, but praying for them in the sense that I am not somehow separate from them. I think grace gives this to us slowly as we make an effort in that direction. I open myself to others (not judging or condemning them) and pray for my neighbor as I would for myself.

    I hope that’s a helpful thought.

  11. saintsophia Avatar

    Hi: this is the actual “saintsophia”. I am a member of St. Athanasius as well and was wondering if I might have permission to add you to my blogroll? Thank you.

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