What Is My Life?

Mikhail_Nesterov-Holy_RusI have written often on the subject of “personhood,” drawing to a large extent on the writings of the Elder Sophrony, and to a lesser extent on the theology of Met. John Zizioulas. The heart of their thought is to direct us to the reality that to exist as “persons” is precisely the same thing (or similar) when we speak of the “persons” of the Holy Trinity. And further, that this is true existence for human beings.

In our popular speech, we use the word person in a manner that is interchangeable with individual. This is to equate personhood with a word that stand for its near opposite.

We are used to thinking of ourselves in individual terms – terms which emphasize our role as active, choosing agents. A collection of individuals is especially a collection of unique and competing wills. Thus it is always possible that the competing wills with whom I associate will be in direct competition with myself. Their good and my good may not be at all the same thing.

Thus we wind up with various versions of the social contract, in which we agree by various means, to give as much room to other competing wills as possible, while allowing sufficient attention to our own. It is like belonging to a merchant’s organization.

These social contracts exist primarily to keep us from killing each other and to help maximize one another’s profits, whether they be profits of the material kind or otherwise. It is so strong a force in our culture that even Christians, within the “mega church” movement, speak of their “target” congregation as a “market.” We are defined by the market to which we belong. We are the consumers of religious product. This has a way of working and even of prospering, in that a market approach tends to separate Christians from one another before they become “competing agents.” A congregation that is a statistical slice of our culture would argue over music, sermon, reason for existence, etc. 

Of course, regardless of the rhetoric used to support a marketing approach to human beings for religious ends is simply sinful. It is disrespectful of the purpose of Christ’s body and erects monuments to human sin (as manifest in our marketing choices). Such efforts, regardless of intention, are simply not the Church. They are anti-Church.

Among many things for which Christ gave us His body, our growth and fulfillment of our lives as true human persons is among the greatest. To exist as person is to exist as free, as loving, as sacrificing of self, as having an existence which can only be defined by its relational existence to others. So St. Paul uses the metaphor of body parts. We are like hands and feet, ears and eyes. We have a true existence, and yet that existence only makes sense because it is part of something else. An eye by itself does not “see.” An ear by itself does not hear. We are members of the Body of Christ and we only have true existence inasmuch as we are functioning members of that Body. It is in this manner that we are persons.

Personhood is not a moral goal – it is not a description of how we “ought to behave.” We do not live “as if” the existence of others were an inherent and necessary part of our proper existence. Personhood is a description of what it is to truly exist. To live in a manner that is not properly personal is not an “immoral” existence, it is a falling away from existence itself.

It seems to me that this distinction is important. I have written elsewhere that Christ did not die to make bad men good but to make dead men live. Our living in communion and participation with others is not a metaphorical act of moral behavior but a description of the manner in which we truly existence. Forgiveness of my enemy is more than an act of kindness – it is a recognition of the proper mode of my existence. 

I love my enemy for he, too, is my life. These are not choices we make – or rather they are not things that are true because I choose them to be true. They are simply true. My choice is whether to accept them or reject them. This is our salvation by grace. By grace we have been given an existence that is greater than we might ever have morally wanted (apart from this grace). It is the feast God has set before us. It is the richness of life in His image. It is what salvation looks like.

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.


10 responses to “What Is My Life?”

  1. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Another thought-provoking post. It seems to me that often what our idea of moral rectitude requires and what our true personhood needs are actually in competition with each other. Moral rectitude would be satisfied if each just got a slice of the pie in “fair” proportion to their merit. It actually seems to have a mercenary aspect. Personhood is a very sharing in the life of Christ and a forgiveness and self-giving that throws away all idea of merit (other than that found in Christ and in His image alone) and brings healing and wholeness–restoration of Communion.

    “I love my enemy for he, too is my life.” When we know this, we no longer have enemies. 🙂

  2. JDJ Avatar

    I wonder if this participation in the life of others is the human-to-human counterpart to the human-to-divine, theosis. That is, just as to truly exist is to be ontologically united to other persons, so too it is to be ontologically united to God (in His energies). Does that sound right to you?

    (As an aside, this view of the true nature of humanity helps me make sense of what the Capadocians said about the Trinity: just as there is one humanity, but three persons, say, Peter, Paul and Timothy, so too there is one God, but three divine Persons. If we start from our modern conception of persons as individuals, this sounds like tritheism. But from the current perspective, it sounds a lot less strange. Is that right?)

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes, that is right.

  4. Wesley J. Smith Avatar

    Fr. bless: Here’s another problem: Many in the modern bioethics movement have reduced personhood to “capacities,” such as the abiity to enjoy life or to be self aware over time. This reductionism seeks to exclude the most weak and vulnerable among us from the moral community. The threat to human rights is obvous, as is the subversion of all this blog stands for.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed. The modern direction is a reduction of what it means to be human. The classical Orthodox Christian understanding is an expansion of what it means to be human – affecting even creation that surrounds us.

    There is a prayer in Vespers that prays that we not be delivered into the hands of man. It is becoming a vitally important prayer.

  6. Visibilium Avatar

    Social contracts keep individuals from killing each other? Sure, and they keep individuals from being oppressed by a State sanctioned by hierarchs who profess to recognize a Trinity of Persons. Apparently, those hierarchs didn’t see a practical connection between the respect of persons and and the respect of Persons. Interestingly, various heterodox made the connection, and the connection became known as “individual rights”. We Orthodox have had to somehow explain our poor record in respecting political personhood.

    Successful marketing is dependent on satisfying consumers’ needs. Successful salesmen get people to recognize how their needs are satisfied by the consuming of particular products and services. Perhaps the sin is not that religions market themselves too much, but that they market themselves too little. How many Orthodox are comfortable with explaining why anyone should be Orthodox?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    At the very least because consumers (of religion) do not know what they need. Solzhenitsyn has some thoughts about political entities within Russia that had a different direction than the Tsar – though I’m sure those groups had their flaws as well.

    I would well agree that abuses make people move into defensive positions – but a defensive position may not be the positive answer that is needed to address the root problem. Individual rights protects certain things, but is falling very far short in other areas – including the difficulty that those who cannot speak for themselves have in protecting their rights (the unborn, those who are dying, etc.).

    The insights or Orthodoxy are not a historical argument. Nowhere does the faith say that the hierarchs of the Church taught perfectly, or led a state to rightly embody the Truth. Most often the state has given Orthodoxy great problems – including many periods in Russian history. During those same periods, however, you will find profound examples of the embodiment of the Truth – frequently in the saints and the monastic witness. The teaching on Personhood is not an argument to be made in a civics class. It is a narrow way and there will be few who find it.

    As for consumerism – the disaster of the human passions has left its evidence all around us, regardless of the economic system. No system of economics justifies a passion-based life. I have said nothing about what the state should do in its economics. What belongs to Caesar is Caesar’s. What is that between me and Christ? But the passions destroy a man regardless of how Caesar prospers.

  8. Visibilium Avatar

    Individual rights is hardly a defensive position. As a response, it replaced that which didn’t work–the customary Orthodox acceptance of viewing a person as merely an appendage of some tyrant’s collective.

    Replacing something that doesn’t work is an outcome of trial and error. I’d argue that, perhaps, Christ left Caesar to himself because Christ already gave us the tools to discover what works in the political realm. He gave us logical tools, empirical tools, and the revealed Truth of loving one’s neighbor.

    Frankly, I’m astounded that you’d find that political liberty contradicts personhood.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I did not offer a defense of the Tsar or of the state in Orthodox countries throughout history. You are reading something into my statements that I have not said nor do I think. My comment was that the state has rarely been “Orthodox” in a proper practicing manner, often exercising control over certain aspects of the Church. In such cases Orthodoxy has been maintained in other manners, frequently by monastics, or even in foreign lands, free from such “inside” interference – here I think especially of St. John of Damascus.

    Individual rights has been a “defensive” position in the sense of an effort to defend human beings against the tyranny of the state. When this is successful, it is truly helpful. But individual rights as a philosophy has its weaknesses as well (not that I would argue in favor of a state that tyrannizes its citizens.

    But, as I said, Orthodoxy is not a question of comparative civics. The Orthodox faith should not be identified with one culture or one state – indeed I do not think any state has been particularly Orthodox in a successful manner. However the Kingdom of God doesn’t exist in order to give us a better civil state or theory of government. It’s eschatological character is something quite different.

    Political liberty does not contradict personhood – neither does it confer it. It is from God and God alone. I do not think that the Kingdom is particularly about rational tools or political theory, empirical tools, etc. Loving one’s neighbor is not a revealed truth as in a correct proposition. It is either the Life of God dwelling within us, or it is nothing. It is not about giving us better ideas about anything and us then trying to live up to or live out those ideas. He could have sent us book instead of his Son if that was what Christ was about.

  10. John - Romania Avatar

    Father bless.

    This article answers one of my questions… I really don’t feel safe at all with the idea that we all are permanently competing. There’s something cruel, or at least sad, in this way of thinking… The competitions in our day to day lives are rarely started from equal positions.

    May God bless us all.

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