Truth and Existence

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

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.


15 responses to “Truth and Existence”

  1. Edward Hunter Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stehpen,

    I have a request. My mother and I were talking about Armenians and Copts tonight, and that brought up the topic of the two natures of Christ. Now, that in turn brought up the issue of divine impassibility. So we were wondering if you could either answer our questions about it in a blog post or point us to a book/website that could help answer them for us.

    1) Is divine impassibility an Orthodox doctrine?
    2) If so, why does the Bible describe God as “angry,” “grieved,” “loving,” “jealous,” etc.?
    3) Does Jesus suffer in his human nature alone or does he suffer in both his human and divine natures during his passion?
    4) What is the Orthodox critique of Nestorianism?

    Oh yes, and then there was another thing we were wondering about and hoped you might know the answer to. Do the Orthodox regard pre-Christian theophanies such as God “walking in the garden” looking for Adam and Eve as being the pre-incarnate (but obviously somewhat fleshy anyhow) Christ?

    Thanks a Lot,

  2. Reid Avatar

    This summer I was reading — I think it was St. Irenaeus, “Against Heretics.” He understood the Creation as existing for the sake of revealing God to man. I think the line of his arguments was something like this: God undertook to make man in His own image, but man, being immature, would be unable to apprehend God in His fullness. So God made the Creation as, in effect, a nursery, a teaching tool, to begin training man up into the maturity of knowing God and growing into His likeness.

    This helped your notion of the one/two-storey universe finally click with me. Creation exists to reveal God to man so that man might enter into communion with God. Such communion (also according to Irenaeus, I think) is the substance, the meaning, the definition of life for man. To see Creation in any other terms, especially secular terms that give the Creation a sustained existence for its own sake, is to misunderstand Creation, to make it an idol instead of an icon. Idols pretend to be reality. Icons are windows to reality.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    To the 5th question – yes, the pre-incarnate but obviously somewhat fleshy anyhow Christ. All the manifestations of God to man are Christ, through Whom we know the Father and know man knows the Father except the Son.

    I work on the other questions to be accurate and clear.

  4. William Avatar

    I hope not to take the discussion away from the point of the post, but I have been taught and read (Fr. Behr in particular) that the pre-incarnate Christ is not so much to be seen as God the Son and Logos who was not yet the man Jesus and was going to become Jesus at a later time, as though he were temporal, but is to be identified precisely as the crucified, risen and glorified Jesus Christ who belongs to eternity and who is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Please correct any misstatements I might have made here.

  5. Eric Pettersson Avatar

    I always feels so spiritually awakened after reading your posts, as if my heart were suddenly opened by these few words.

    I thank you for the constant source of growth and strength. Your writings draw me closer to God and helps me to become more alive spiritually. In every post I find something new that I want to quote in one of my own, though I usually resist for the sake of not just being a simplified, less mature version of this blog.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand Fr. John’s point, and would easily grant that there is no Christ other than that which he identifies as the crucified, risen and glorified Christ and that it would be wrong to place Him in a historical mode in which we see first the pre-incarnate, then the incarnate, etc. Fr. John is far more precise and I agree.

  7. Lucias Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Our existence is totally from God, as you state in your post. Yet the degree to which we know God and commune with him varies.

    So does that mean that those who are ultimately are consigned to hell still derive their existence continually from God yet are eternally not in any level of awareness of him or his presence ?

    Just a random thought while I have been thinking about your post.


  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Essentially, yes. They are not consigned to hell by God, but by their own hatred of God, or hardness of heart, or fear of the light, however you want to term it – Scripture uses several images. But God is a good God and does not begrudge us our existence and wills only our well-being. Our refusal is the diminishment of ourselves into increasingly less than is given us by God, whereas salvation continually expands in its embrace of God and all life – even of enemies. Nothing diminishes us in salvation.

  9. isaac8 Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    If those “in” hell can be thought of as stalled out or stunted in terms of growth towards theosis, would that make sense of verses that describe Jesus as the savior of all? In other words, they might forever be in a state where they could grow through a process that would require first of all repentance and humility, and they would in some respect have been granted the immortality initially denied Adam and Eve after the fall, but because they refuse to grow into adopted children of God, they are forever ill suited to live in his reality. I am just speculating, but that would seem to be the kind of thing that could be described as the “second death” in the same sense that the “first death” meant ceasing to be capable of seeking God because one was effectively chained in Sheol.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    On the side panel of my blog, there are some articles listed that are for reference. The article by Bishop Alfeyev on Christ and Hades is probably a must read for such questions. I recommend it.

  11. Joseph Schmitt Avatar
    Joseph Schmitt

    Edward Hunter,

    I found that this book answers all of your questions. It is a bit pricey, but well worth the investment:

  12. david p Avatar

    Couple months back I finished a course on philosophy and its impact on civilization. Most of these philosophers tried to figure things out and what is behind everything. From Plato, to Aristotle, also mentioning Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Darwin and Freud…plus Marx. The sad thing is the more they tried to figure things out the more distant they got from God and religion…the kinda mess we are in today. Blessings, davidp.

  13. Steve Avatar

    I have a question regarding teaching children honesty. What is the best way? Use Bible verses? When I was young I heard the morality of it all, don’t tell lies, even a little white lie is bad, but I never understood how dishonesty as a habit can really wreak havoc on one’s adult life.


  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Teach it by example and explicitly. Every child is different and learns differently, but we should be careful not to teach that dishonesty is ok. I don’t know that Bible verses per se is the best approach – but the gist of them certainly is as well as making it family policy to tell the truth. It doesn’t mean that we tell children everything. Sometimes the answer is, “I cannot discuss that with you now.” That’s a world better than lying.

  15. Barry Lauterwasser Avatar

    Trust is earned by being truthful and reliable… Think about the life of Jesus. I think his whole life example is what Christians look to for guidance, right? You children look to you in the same way. Jesus is not nearly as important to them at this stage, nor do they have the comprehension to understand the magnitude of Jesus’ life on Earth. So if you want to open the kids Bible and talk about honesty that’s fine, but your kids are going to be looking at you and everything you do…

    Today we were at the Grocery store and I bought a Starbucks so I’d have a chance to make it through alive. And I handed the woman $3 and she said the cash register was broke and wouldn’t open so she couldn’t make change so it was free. I told her that wasn’t right so I handed her the three dollars and told her to keep the change as a tip. She rewarded me with a free cup of coffee coupon… Then my son says “why’d you do that dad, she said there was no charge” I told him that it’s simply the right thing to do. And it paid off in the end… I told him you don’t do the right things for reward but simply because it’s the right thing to do… So keep these little things in mind… when you think they’re not watching and learning…they are!

    And good luck!!

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