The False and True Self

Part of the experience of being involved in religious activities in the late 60’s and early 70’s was the not infrequent encounters with members of cults (they seemed to be everywhere). I’m not certain how I would define a cult (not purely by doctrine but certainly by its destruction and control of its members as whole persons). I worked in a “coffee house” (which in that particular time period, oddly enough, was not associated with coffee) for a couple of years – playing music and being involved in the adhoc ministry that was part of that world. We encountered young people from across the country (there was hardly anywhere else to go on the weekends, unless you drank or did drugs – the coffee house had neither). But a common thread in my encounters with cult members was an absence – it was as though nobody was home.

Conversations could be attempted – but the answers came back as selected quotes. Doubt, questioning, many of the things that you would expect from most people in conversations regarding God, were part of the absence. It is little wonder that people involved in cults were often treated as though they had been “brain-washed.” Something like that seemed to be the case.

Since then I have occasionally (though not often) encountered the same phenomenon in people who were not members of what anyone would think of as a cult. However, the same sense of absence, of a rigidity replacing freedom, marked the encounter.

I read a small book earlier this year (purchased at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary’s bookstore) that offered interesting insight into all of this: In Search of the Person: “True and False Self” according to Donald Winnicott and St. Gregory Palamas (Alexander Press, 2002). With a title like that, how could I resist? I was not familiar with Winnicott, though from what I read his work is pretty standard psychological fare. The author is Fr. Vasileos Thermos, who is both a practicing Psychotherapist and an Orthodox priest, living and working in Greece.

I was struck by a quote in the book from Fr. Dimitri Staniloae: “To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.”

To summarize (hopefully without doing injustice) – our freedom, an essential part of what it means to be a person, is frequently suppressed in the name of religion. Fearing immorality (or something similar), or seeking conformity at any cost, it is easy to reduce a person’s freedom, substituting a false obedience, that results in the creation of a “false self.” This “false self” is the “absence” I encountered in some cult members and others.

Freedom is a paradox. It is an utterly inherent part of our existence – a critical part of our salvation – and yet threatening in its power. Freedom of the self can seem a threat to every kind of order (religious, political, social, etc.). Nevertheless we are told in Scripture that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (freedom)” (2 Corinthians 3:17). St. Paul will also warn in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) that our liberty should not be used as an excuse to sin. And thus the paradox is set. Without freedom, we will not become the whole person we were created to be and which is the proper end of our salvation. But freedom can also be directed incorrectly, leading to yet another bondage (to sin). But substituting a religious bondage for a sinful bondage is not the answer.

Of course, Scripture also speaks of our being the “slaves of Christ,” a true statement when rightly understood, but also capable of misunderstanding and misuse.

This is, for me, part of the paradox of Orthodoxy. When I converted, a number of acquaintances in my former Church, made explanations to themselves that my conversion was an effort to hide from and avoid the discomfort of freedom. There was an assumption on their part that because the Orthodox Church’s teachings are clear and “conservative” on certain points (certainly in comparison to liberal Anglicanism), that the Church must therefore be rigid and controlling. This is simply not the case.

It is easy to assume that canon law, because it is canon “law,” suppresses our freedom and makes us slaves. And yet this is not at all the case. The canons and Tradition (like Scripture) point us in the proper direction and enlighten us in the path of salvation. But the Orthodox application of the canons is guided by something other than a rigid literalism. We fast, but not as though the fast were a law. Every Bishop and Priest who serves as a custodian of the canons, has to apply them with salvation in mind (this is the proper use of what is termed “economia”). Different persons, different situations, require different applications of the canons. One rule does not fit all.

This mystery extends throughout the Church. This is not a reduction of canons into mere “guidelines” but the requirement of wisdom in their application as we seek to direct souls towards a proper relationship with God. The freedom of the person has to be respected in a manner such that what is nurtured is the “true self” and not a humanly created automaton (the “false self”).

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” The paradox of our relationship to God is that obedience in our relationship to Him does not enslave us – but sets us free. It is the same as the paradox of the Cross. Christ said of the Cross, “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own self” (John 10:18). Our own salvation can be no different. No one can take our life from us – we must lay it down of our own self.

We lose our life in order to find it. We lose a false self in order to find the true. The saint is the most free of all human beings. What a strange wonder.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


18 responses to “The False and True Self”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Another similar treatment can be found in Yannaras’ Freedom of Morality (SVS Press).

  2. […] la cifra apreciabilă de 200.000 de vizitatori pe blogul său, după care a scris un articol despre adevăratul şi falsul nostru sine. Articolul său m-a inspirat să abordez această problemă […]

  3. […] Stephen has posted a book review and thoughts that are flowing through the rivulets in my brain this morning, into the grooves of worn thought […]

  4. kevinburt Avatar


    This reminds me of a line from Psalm 119 my mother taught me as a child:

    “44: I will keep thy law continually, for ever and ever;
    45: and I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought thy precepts.” (RSV)


    52: When I think of thy ordinances from of old, I take comfort, O LORD.”

    The “ordinances of old” in Orthodoxy have provided my family and I with not only great comfort, but also with great liberty.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Orthodox Christianity is antinomical in nature starting with the greatest antinomy, the Theanthropos. My journey to Christ started in high school. The first step was singing portions of the Messiah in concert at the school (I’m sure that can’t be done anymore). The second was playing a role in George Bernard Shaw’s “Ceasar and Cleopatra”. The character I play was a Briton, a slave of Ceasar. At the end of the play Ceasar set my character free. My character rejected the offer by saying “Only as Ceasar’s slave have I known true freedom”

    To act the part I had to try to figure out what such a statement could possibly mean. What I came to was that some how obedience and freedom were intertwined. Over the years that ripened into an understanding that the obedience had to be to God and Jesus Christ to really set me free.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a book I just finished and still processing by Jeffrey Smith: Where the Roots Reach for Water, a Personal and Natural History of Meloncholia There is much material there on the difference between the false and the real self, atonement and obedience to love and the necessity of the descent into darkness in order to see the light.

  7. rdreusebios1 Avatar

    The law of life in Christ has indeed set us free from the law of sin and death.
    .It is within the Holy Orthodox Church that I have personally come to live in the freedom intended under the law of “ife in Christ”. It is one of the things that I tell people who ask about my conversion all the time. I am as free as I have ever been in my life. Th e delicate balance between liberty and license is difficult at times to be sure, but the freedom of being the “Real Person” is worth the small struggle.

  8. Steve Avatar

    I’m currently reading Freedom of Morality again. It’s so good.

  9. Visibilium Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is another great post, and I think you may have surpassed your already-established standard of excellence. Fr. Dumitru is correct about freedom, of course, and that’s why I wonder about a couple of Orthodox paradoxes.

    One is the commonly-held view among Orthodox that an Emperor, Tsar, or other absolute monarch is an appropriate secular ruler of an Orthodox society.

    The other is the tendency among Orthodox to view favorably the aggressive authoritarianism of the Latin church in seeking to stamp out the embrace of the Enlightenment ideal of political and religious toleration.

    If you’re so inclined, I would be interested in your thoughts on the application of Fr. Dumitru’s quotation to the Orthodox concept of synallelia in Church and state relations.

  10. Steven CC Avatar
    Steven CC

    Lewis (or was it Chesterton? I forget) once said that the exercise of liberty is in fact the most constraining thing of all. To say “yes” to something and make a choice is necessarily to say “no” to every other option. The freest man would say nothing, and who wants that? Some degree of slavery, or at least constraing, is inherently bound up with freedom.

    True freedom, for its own sake, would, I suppose, be like floating in the furthest reaches of space, beyond gravity, simply adrift and alone.

    I’ve never felt freer than when I visited some monasteries. At home I can (my school schedule aside) eat when I want, watch TV when I want, etc. Though everything is permitted it’s not all good, and some exercises of liberty can lead us to captivity. But there’s so much freedom and joy in not being alone.

    To my feeble mind, this conversation is related to the image of Christ as the Vine. What’s freer, the branch attached to the vine, growing and full of life, or a withered stick, cold and lifeless?

  11. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not at all an expert in the history of Orthodox thought on Church-state relations. For what little I know I owe some people with whom I’ve conversed on symphonia (synallelia). Generally it is not a submission of the Church to the State but a recognition that both have a reponsibility for the well being of the souls for which they have charge.

    My Archbishop has well said that “on the whole the role of being a state church has never been a winning proposition for the church.”

    To that I agree.

  12. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    “There was an assumption on their part that because the Orthodox Church’s teachings are clear and “conservative” on certain points (certainly in comparison to liberal Anglicanism), that the Church must therefore be rigid and controlling. This is simply not the case.”

    The difference is that the Orthodox Church is MINE. You cannot say such a thing in any other church. You won’t find individual ownership of the faith outside Orthodoxy, where the Ecumenical Patriarch and the laity are equals. We own our faith.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Don, I’m not certain I follow the point. The point is true, no argument there – we each bear responsibility for the faith, though that ecclesiological insight is held by others than the Orthodox.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Further thoughts, Don. All of the Baptists and their sort consider their church and their faith to be under the ownership of each individual, in that the each individual has his own relationship to Christ.

    We would say, as Orthodox, that each member of Christ’s Holy Orthodox Church bears responsibiltiy for the Church. The Church, however, is the Lord’s, and not subject to any man’s ownership. There have been very important moments in Orthodox history where the laity stood and refused false doctrine from hierarchs (I think of the Council of Florence). These are great moments, as painfully necessary as they were.

    But each of us has our role (ministry) within the One Church, and I understand that I cannot exercise the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, though with others, I could have a responsibilty under the right circumstances to oppose him on something.

    Mostly I wouldn’t want anyone to misinterpret this aspect of Orthodoxy into meaning that each individual has an individual faith (that would be like the Baptists). Rather, each individual has responsibility before God for the stewardship of the whole Church. Thus we pray for one another, struggle together, and reach for the same truth.

    What keeps this from becoming a war between every inidividual is that the Church is the One Church and it is Christ’s and we are His. But this does not mean that we do not exercise our ministry in that responsibility.

    This is not nearly so clear in some other places, and in no place is it quite the same as it is for the Orthodox. I could say that of many things in Orthodoxy – there’s no place like home!

  15. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    OK, then let me elaborate.

    Let’s examine Rome. The Pope and the Magesterium own the faith, and can change what they want without reference to the laity. You have no say as a Roman Catholic.

    Example #2: Look at the fundamentalist church across the street from St. Anne’s. It would be referred to by the locals as “Pastor Joe’s church” or whatever the pastor’s name happens to be. That pastor can change whatever he wants, and the laity simply vote with their feet, only to be subject to “Pastor Bob” at the fundamentalist church across town.

    Example #3: Look at the role wealthy patrons had in the destruction of the Episcopal church. Spong and co. had big money donors backing their slouching towards Gomorrah. For enough money I could make whatever faith I wanted to in the Protestant world. *I* would own it, but without connection to any other person, past or present. A facade.

    The Baptists you cite above provide a great example. The Pastor owns the church in a Baptist setting: he determines doctrine, expenditures, etc. A Baptist church is no different than Rome in these respects.

    You reference the Ecumenical Patriarch. Let’s say the EP decides to visit St. Anne’s. First, he would need permission from Archbishop DMITRI. He would be subject to staying within the criteria of Orthodox liturgical tradition, and his preaching would be constrained to staying in the bounds of Holy Tradition. He couldn’t change any aspect of the faith, or even tell us what color to paint the bathrooms. He’s a man who puts his pants on just like the rest of us, and he’d have to fight for seconds at the common meal like we all do:) I would consider it an honor if he visited, but frankly he wouldn’t make my top 10 on the list of Orthodox Bishops I would want to visit us.

    Since every clergyman and layperson is subject to Holy Tradition, we all have an equal share of preserving what has been given to us. I asked you a very probing question last week, which you not only answered but felt obliged to answer. You intuitively knew it related to preserving Tradition, and was careful to show how you indeed were acting within that Tradition. I, as a layman, not only have the responsibility of preserving what has been given to me, but I am also to act responsibly and know when to defer when the issue is of minor importance, even if you think somebody is in error on that minor point.

    I was in the Marines. We had to know what was a lawful order and what was not, which is a good corollary to Holy Tradition. If an officer gives me an order, I have to do it. But if he asks me to break military law, I am obliged to refuse the order. Same with Tradition. You as my protopresbyter could tell me to do something, and I would do it. But if you gave me an unlawful order violating Tradition; not a chance. Each individual owns that Tradition, and no Pope, “Pastor Joe”, wealthy patron, or EP can take it away.

    Look at what happened when the Orthodox Emporor and Orthodox Bishops tried to sell out Orthodoxy at the Council of Florence in 1439. The laity refused, and tossed a few Bishops in the bay just to emphasize their point. Archbishop SPYRIDON was shown the door back in 1999, not because he was wrong, but because he tried to strongarm the Greek Archdiocese. The individual has worth in Orthodoxy like nowhere else, because all of us own our faith. You are the first amongst equals at St. Anne’s; +DMITRI is the first amongst equals in the diocese; +HERMAN is first amongst equals in the OCA; +BARTHOLOMEW is first amongst equals amongst all Bishops. The first doesn’t negate the equals…….. because all of us own the faith. You will not find this concept outside of Orthodoxy. We do not have tyrrany like Rome or Baptists, or a social organization like most Protestants wherein I maintain my own faith and merely socialize, I am fitted into a 2000 year old structure of living and deceased saints with the duty to pass on what I have been given to the next generation. I am in that structure, which makes it mine.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    That really helps. You hit one out of the park. Thanks. This is what I needed – indeed I think it makes my day. Many blessings! Archbishop Dmitri himself makes a point that a Metropolitan is still just first among equals in OCA, not otherwise. The life and health of the Church depend on us all remembering this important point. You’ve stated this in a full way that really helps “flesh out” the statement, It is MY church. Amen. Thanks again.

  17. Death Bredon Avatar

    Amen, Don. It is precisely the responsibility of “ownership” that, relatively speaking, has allowed Orthodoxy to remain dogmatically faithful without a fixed, institutional magesterium, whether that be Pope in Council or Crown in Parlaiment.

  18. Roland Avatar

    St. Paul will also warn in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) that our liberty should not be used as an excuse to sin. And thus the paradox is set. Without freedom, we will not become the whole person we were created to be and which is the proper end of our salvation. But freedom can also be directed incorrectly, leading to yet another bondage (to sin). But substituting a religious bondage for a sinful bondage is not the answer.

    I couldn’t help reading this in terms of what happened in the Garden of Eden. God created man with freedom, despite the great risks this involved, so that we could be whole persons.

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