The Soul as Mystery


Readers would not be surprised to know that I am particularly drawn to the writings of Dostoevsky and of Solzhenitsyn. What draws me is the Orthodoxy that underlies them – especially their treatment of the human soul. Both authors have a reverence for the human soul that allows their characters to be more than words on a page. There is a mystery that is unknown to the character and, more especially, unknown even to the author.

Many novelists have a tendency to write from an “omniscient” perspective, thus always yielding characters that are caricatures. The truth of a person is always more than the person himself knows and always more than anyone else knows. Created in the image of God, human beings have an inherent transcendence. This same transcendence, as I’ve already noted, is more than either we ourselves know or others around us know. The soul is a mystery.

In Scripture we have hints of this mystery:

For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11).

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:2-4).

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn see the heart of man as the battleground of good and evil and both allow their characters to enter into the battle. But the mechanisms of the outcome always remain hidden. The authors allow us to see what people generally can see. Salvation is a dynamic whose evidence is found in its result but whose workings are utterly hidden. It is thus that the Scriptures tell us that we can understand something by its fruit, but they do not suggest to us that we can understand the mystery that produces the fruit.

One of the weaknesses of much modern psychological theory is its drive to explain, even to simplify, what cannot be explained nor simplified. Freud’s theories (and those of many others) become trite when held up against the reality of any human soul. We are more than the sum of our neuroses.

Neither can we suggest that the writings of the Church Fathers provide us with roadmap by which we may explain what cannot be known. There is much that is made known to us in their writings – much that is indeed the result of revelation. But mastery of one of the Fathers such as St. Maximos the Confessor (perhaps the most complete treatment of the human soul in Orthodox theology) does not yield mastery of the subject of his writings. Indeed, the writings of the Fathers direct us particularly to the reality of mystery within the human. Their work, contrary to the philosophical writings which preceded them, does not reduce man to a theory, but expands him to the possibility of participation in the Divine nature (or the uncreated energies as described in later Patristic language). Human beings do not assume their proper description until the writings of the Church Fathers. Christian theology gives an account of our existence that had never been dared – nor has it been exceeded.

 To read in Scripture that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) is not a contemplation of the intricacies of DNA, but a statement which should surround our approach to every human being – and ourselves – with fear and wonder.

The current American television series, House, features a misanthropic doctor who declares his lack of interest in relationships by the simple statement, “People are boring.” Disease is interesting because it presents a puzzle – but people themselves hold little interest. Of course the attitude of this character is itself a mystery and not offered as a version of truth by the show’s writers. But as mystery it does not rise to the level of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn. That is too much to ask of television.

It is not too much to ask of ourselves, however. The acts of forgiveness that are commanded of us – the commandments to refrain from judgment – the promises of eternal life and the scope of that existence – are all themselves built on the foundation of the fearful and wonderful mystery that is man. They are not commandments or promises that follow from moral theory – but modes of existence that are offered to us – modes that correspond to the truth of our being. To refuse them is to reduce others to the level of boredom and ourselves to less than the fullness for which we were created.

I remember a song written by a friend – a college classmate – that began with the line, “My life wouldn’t make a movie.” His lament was that he seemed to himself to be less than interesting. I would counter that movies are too small. The wonder of him could not fit on the screen.

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.





21 responses to “The Soul as Mystery”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Picture: The Soul of the Russian People by Mikhail Nesterov (20th century)

  2. Moses Avatar

    Father do you know of any theological books other than (How our Departed Ones Live) that speaks of the relationships and bonds of souls between one another?

  3. David Avatar

    I have had the bad habit in my adult life of attempting to reduce myself to a resultant histogram of features. A sort of pile of Chi-square conclusions to assessments of my innermost parts (as I knew them).

    I have taken every SDI, Myers-Briggs, MMPI-2, which Star-Wars-character-are-you-ridiculous personality test available online. I’ve even struggled to examine the vagaries of socio-economic and political demographics. All in an effort to define myself clearly. In short, to know “who I was.”

    What a fools errand it was. Maybe that’s the only reductionist label that I can wear, “here lies a fool.”

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    Not off hand. I’ll think some.

    Our over psychologized culture teaches us this kind of reductionism. It fits the modern paradigm in which knowledge is power. Imagine what it would mean if our culture had to admit that it did not know how to diagnose and fix the human condition?

    By the same token, I think it is desperately important that we in the Church proclaim that Christ is the answer to the problem of the human condition, but at the same time proclaim that having said that is not the same as saying, “We have the answers.” Christ has the answer – and if we are blessed then it is because He has us and not that we have Him.

    I recall one of my children, at about age 4, saying, “I don’t what’s the matter with me. I know that something is wrong and still I do it.” Such wisdom in such youth.

  5. David Avatar

    What perplexes me is that the truth keeps getting out. The only way to ignore those revelations goes to what you seem to speak about in terms of our forgetfulness.

    Maybe I’m being overly literal here, but the coping mechanism that seems to work when all else fails for modern man, is “time will heal all wounds.” As demonstrably false as it is, I am fascinated at holiday gatherings, reunions and even something as temporally near by as weekly staff meetings, are filled with forgetting that no one has any idea what they are doing, did do, or will do.

    We are fixated on keeping the spinning plates spinning. If one falls off, best to just stick another one on and continue as soon as possible to not break our concentration. There’s no time to consider whether there’s any purpose in it or not.

    (Maybe this is why we disaffect the elderly and teenagers with time on their hands, poets, and even intellectuals, because regardless of the fact that they don’t have the answers because of their “time to think” they remind us that we don’t even take that time.)

    This brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s, In Praise of Idleness or Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I also think occasionally of Kafka’s strange worlds, or the absurdities described by writers such as Solzhenitsyn. There we see political absurdities – but there is an existential absurdity in the modern world which refuses to acknowledge what it doesn’t know – by which action it could actually begin to know.

  7. James Avatar

    I believe Dr. House has it backwards. Disease is boring; people are fascinating – perhaps not puzzles (though the mind enjoys puzzling about some of them!), but truly mysterious, full of wonders.

    I see many people who come to talk of their disorders, always thinking that’s the one distinctive thing they can say about themselves. Sometimes, when they manage to turn the volume down on the presenting problem, they hear astounding strains of creativity, sensitivity…love.

    And I second Moses’ request. I’d appreciate guidance on this. I’ve been intrigued by Charles Williams’ concept of co-inherence.

  8. luciasclay Avatar

    “Salvation is a dynamic whose evidence is found in its result but whose workings are utterly hidden. It is thus that the Scriptures tell us that we can understand something by its fruit, but they do not suggest to us that we can understand the mystery that produces the fruit.”

    While this will always be mystery, the how, will one ever be sure of ones salvation ? Will we strive in the knowledge we have obtained it or will it always be something we strive for in hopes of attaining but never being sure we’ve attained it. Speaking with the assumption that one is actually inside the orthodox church.

  9. Steve Avatar

    Mystery and revelation are inextricable linked to suit God’s divine purposes (It has always been this way):

    “And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying to me: Seal up the things which the seven thunders have spoken; and write them not.” Revelation 10:4

    And then a little later:

    “When the time approaches for the seventh angel to blow his trumpet, God’s secret plan will be fulfilled, as he had announced to his servants, the prophets.” Revelation 10:7

    The mystery is revealed in the unity of the faith.

  10. Steve Avatar

    Another masterpiece Fr. Stephen, thank you. 🙂

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    St. Paul sums it up well:

    Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those
    things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:8-14

    Christ is our salvation, of Him I am sure.

  12. zoe Avatar

    Each human person is indeed a mystery. I just listened to Father Kalistos Ware’s homilee on “The Jesus Prayer” and in it, he mentions that God never create anything twice, particularly when He created each “human person”.
    I think when one says about another person as “boring”, it is because one is so preoccupied with one’s own self (Lord forgive me, for I’m guilty of this) that he or she is not receptive of the other person. In my own experience, I know that I only listen intently when what is being said by the other person is of interest to me. Thank you Fr. Stephen for re- enforcing the same teaching discussed by Father Kalistos Ware in which he also said that we, as human persons, created by God is mysterious because we are created by a mysterious God. Having this insight– perhaps, I’ll remember to keep this in mind, the next time I encounter a person whose ideas or ways are foreign to me. Lord help me.

    Father, Bless.

  13. Lewis Avatar

    Father Stephen, I have read that communist Russia tried to eradicate (or smother or ignore) the word, “soul”. Is that true? What do you think is the understanding of “soul” in Russia today?

  14. Moses Avatar

    Many scientists are getting rid of the word “soul” metaphorically and not literally. They are reducing our nature to that of animals and studying us as they do animals and irrational creatures. Sometimes even glorifying the irrational creatures over the rational. So in a way, the understanding of “soul” is being dehumanized (by our society) if one can say that; at least this is my perception of things.

  15. Steve Avatar


    In a sense animals always act rationally although to be fair, it is a highly bounded rationality. Yet, it is a rationality nonetheless. Perhaps the best known example of this is Pavlov’s dogs.

    Modern man, in his delusion has embraced scientism as a viable alternative to the patristic faith handed down to us by the Church. They would like us to see mankind in much the same way as Pavlov saw his 6ogs, only, with less bounded rationality. Animals do not have souls with which to experience heaven or hell, though like humans they are able to temporarily experience both pleasure and pain.


    The Adoni, for a brief moment in time, put off the divine nature of the Elohim, so that all nations may embrace the God of Israel in their humanity.

    But the human soul is much more than just consciousness. Freewill plays an central role in salvation, and is the means by which the whole person chooses what is right in the sight of the ever living God.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Modernity cannot be expected to be anything but modernity. The life of the Church exists and continues despite our culture. The soul is indeed a mystery – we would be hard put to offer a simple definition without ourselves engaging in reductionism. I think that the Church’s case against our culture that it is reducing what it means to be human is both a valuable statement and one that carries the Gospel. We need to continue to bear witness to a fullness of what it means to be human – a fullness, I believe, which can only be maintained with the acceptance of God-become-Man, Christ Jesus.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    Today the word is not in the least suppressed. Orthodox Christianity enjoys much public support.

  18. Travis Avatar

    “Created in the image of God, human beings have an inherent transcendence. This same transcendence, as I’ve already noted, is more than either we ourselves know or others around us know. The soul is a mystery.”

    This is I think a profound truth. That we can never be reduced to the condition of our Heart at a particular time is I think a source of great hope and encouragement. To forget this is to lose hope and to deny Grace.

  19. Rdr. Timothy Avatar
    Rdr. Timothy

    Fr. Stephen,
    I also greatly love Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. I am wondering, have you read “Orthodox Psychotherapy” by Metropolitan Hierotheos and his treatment of the soul and its condition? Also, what about the works of Charles Williams and his treatment on how our souls are connected through subsitution, co-inherence…the bearing of one another’s burdens?
    Thank you so much for your writings.
    In Christ,
    Rdr. Timothy

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have read Met. Hierotheos – he is excellent. The only problem with his works (and it is not his fault) is that they are very straightforward and clear, which can make the reader think he understands something that is actually only known on a much deeper level. Those who read him, should take several years to chew on what he has said, then work on digesting it for a few more years. Then incorporate into their lives – then perhaps share it with others. I’m being extreme. It’s just that I run into people who are young in their spiritual life, who having read Met. Hierotheos’ writings and their clarity, want to quote him for the benefit of others, or as advice to others, when they have not yet truly digested him.

    I also have read Williams and like him. He’s slightly “un-Orthodox” if only because he was a stranger to Orthodox tradition as was striving to find words for something that he knew intuitively. My favorite work is his Descent into Hell.

  21. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have been unconsciously rejecting the concepts of non-existence and non-being for some time, thinking these were a little too Zen for me. I am fairly comfortable with rules and regulations you see.

    It was only when speaking with dear friends tonight, did I truly become aware of what Orthodoxy has to offer the non-Orthodox community.

    It can be summed up thus — “The prince of this world came: but he had nothing in us” John 14:30

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