Superstition and the Material God

People gather at the end of Church for a “travel blessing.” A priest chants a prayer and sprinkles water over them with a brush. They cross themselves and have some sense that their travels will now be better.

Many modern people watching this procedure would describe the process as “superstitious.” It appears to them that physical actions (sprinkling water) are expected to have some remote effect on later events (travel safety, etc.). This, in modern thought, is the essence of superstition. An action, completely isolated from a later event, is believed to have a causal relation. Others would go so far as to call this “magical.” And would further think of it as absurd and useless.

Another person, a dedicated Protestant, has a dangerous trip coming up. They go on Facebook and post their concerns. They are flooded with comments: “Prayers!” “Sending good thoughts your way!” etc. Even an unbelieving friend or two post, “Well wishes!”

This is not considered superstitious or magical. Of course, a hard-bitten materialist would dismiss even these sentiments as nothing more than a polite expression of emotional concern. Well wishes and good thoughts do not make airplanes fly safely.

Of course, noting such things raises questions about the whole practice of religion. Do prayers help airplanes when they fly? Do planes crash for lack of sufficient prayer?

There are two fundamental considerations in all of this. The first is whether thoughts, speech, words and ideas are inherently superior and more “spiritual” than sprinkling holy water, anointing with oil, and other other physical expressions of religious belief. The second is whether our thoughts and actions have a causal effect on outcomes. Do we pray in order to make the world a better place?

The first issue is fairly straight-forward. There is no essential difference between “thoughts” and “actions.” Speaking words of blessing or prayer over a group of travelers differs in no fundamental way from sprinkling water over them. Words and thoughts are as “physical” as water. Our ideas and thoughts are composed of electrical and chemical events in a very physical brain. Words are sound waves making molecules of air vibrate. The notion that words and thoughts are somehow “spiritual,” while ritual actions and substances are somehow merely “physical,” is simply bad physics and religious prejudice. Indeed, the notion of the spiritual superiority of thought creates a false and misleading superstition of its own.

What is true in this is that human beings are simply and inescapably material beings. We imagine that thought is somehow immaterial. That is, we have an image of thought being somehow immaterial, for we cannot seem to imagine that electricity and chemicals interacting with biological neurons could be experienced as ideas. And yet they are. Our dichotomy between the material and the spiritual is, to a large extent, a failure of the imagination. Our concept of thought is too ethereal while our concept of the material is too gross and inert. We fail to see the wonder that is our physical existence.

This failure is also the “scandal” of the Incarnation. The Greco-Roman world found it difficult to accept the proposition that the immaterial God would become a material being. It ran counter to the philosophical assumptions of the day. They believed that materiality was doomed and that everything was reaching upwards towards a less material existence. For God to move in the opposite direction was unthinkable. It’s in the face of those false assumptions that St. John proclaimed, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

His statement may be the most radical thing ever written. It belongs with all of the paradoxical expressions of the Christian faith: weakness is strength; die in order to live; love your enemy; give in order to receive; give thanks for all things, etc. But the Word becoming flesh not only contradicts the expectations of the Greco-Roman world, it also reveals the truth of material existence.

A troubling aspect of our materiality is that it is so obviously impermanent. We are not only prone to injury and illness, but when all is said and done, we die. And we not only die, our materiality dissolves. Every thought, feeling, memory, the whole wonder of our physical and neural existence simply stops and turns to dust. We ache for some assurance that death and decay are not the end of who we are. Is the person I loved gone and lost forever?

Our faith tells us of the soul (psyche). It is sometimes correctly translated “life.” There is a rush to speak of the soul as immaterial and not subject to the same death and decay as the body, and further, to make it the repository of the hopes and memories – our personhood. And thus the death of the body is seen by some to be inconsequential. The soul is everything.

But this dishonors the material nature of our existence and places everything that is real and true and worth preserving into a non-materiality that is somehow safe. Frankly, this quickly begins to change the very nature of the Christian faith and morphs into an ersatz faith of false comfort.

The body, our materiality, reveals in a very graphic manner the truth of our existence. It is temporary, flimsy, subject to death and decay. In theological terms we say that it is “contingent.” There is nothing about who or what we are that is inherently eternal or immortal. Instead we are told, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.” We sing, “Thou only art immortal.” Whatever we are apart from the dissolved materiality of dust, what we call the soul, is in the hands of God. It is utterly contingent upon His gratuitous kindness. The soul can make no claims on a non-contingent existence. It is as flimsy and impermanent as our flesh. We are inescapably contingent.

But this was and is already true of our material life at the present moment. It is a fool’s imagining that creates a safety and a guarantee in an indestructible “spiritual” existence. Our materiality reveals the truth of our contingent existence.

And it is into this contingent materiality that the Word enters. The non-contingent God becomes a contingent man. And with that, He reveals the wonder of our materiality. It has value and worth. Our materiality is not the mere vehicle of our value and worth. It is not simply that which carries our person. We are not “ghosts in the machine.” However, our habits of thought have created false dichotomies. We imagine our thinking existence to be “spiritual,” to belong to that realm of an indestructible soul and to therefore be immune to the dissolution and fragility of the material world. This dishonors the Incarnation of Christ.

The truth is that I have more in common with a loaf of bread than with some imaginary ethereal existence. My life, as wondrous as it is, need hardly go further than its materiality for an explanation. There is, of course the matter of consciousness, something for which no material explanation can be given. But consciousness should be seen as a miracle of our materiality rather than an argument against it. The God who became man, became a material man. He lived a material life and died a material death. The eternal, everlasting commandment He gave on the night before He died was a material event. He took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it saying, “Take, eat.” He did not say, “Take think.” He indeed said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But He said, “Do this!” Not “Think this.” The eating is the remembering!

Bread, water, wine, oil, wax, incense, paint, wood, touch, smell, bowing, crossing, breathing are examples of the kind of existence we have. They belong to the proper world of our existence and the one with which the Word united Himself. Those who imagine that ideas and words are somehow exempt from materiality are working from a model other than the Christian one. An idea is no less material than bread and bread is no less spiritual than an idea. And it tastes better.

The second issue, do prayers help planes fly, is fairly straightforward. They do not. We do not pray, bless, etc., in order to cause things to happen. We do these things in order to unite ourselves with Christ and to unite our world, our trip, our child, our whole material existence with the will of the good God who alone sustains all things in their being.

It will be asked, “Then why pray or bless?” We pray and bless because the good God sustains all things in their being. Prayers and blessings are the sounds and actions of a material world giving itself over to the hand of the good God who alone sustains all things in their being.

I am deeply fond of George Herberts poetry. The Agony comes to mind:

        Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
        But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
        Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
        His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
        Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
        If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

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.



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79 responses to “Superstition and the Material God”

  1. Greg Avatar

    well I always like to say I am a materialist and a humanist because that is Christianity….

    Looking forward to your retreat in SF this weekend Father.

  2. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    The second issue is mystifying to me, in particular in light of the freedom/human agency we are provided – how does God’s work not violate this agency?

    I suppose the synergy of the divine/human participation is the key to this. This would then explain the need of and reason for our prayers.

    It would seem to me this is likely the stumbling block for the modern mind – God’s answers are seen an interference, a violation of freedom, a bending of the rules, etc. Nature is understood as a “machine” like process, and God as remote to all this.

  3. Byron Avatar

    Too much to digest! Wonderful insights, Father. I’ll chew on this a while (pun intended).

  4. Nicklas Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    Your psychology is refreshingly Ancient Near Eastern. Yet I have two questions.

    You said: “What is true in this is that human beings are simply and inescapably material beings. We imagine that thought is somehow immaterial. That is, we have an image of thought being somehow immaterial, for we cannot seem to imagine that electricity and chemicals interacting with biological neurons could be experienced as ideas. And yet they are.”

    You say that human thought is material, being identical with a state of the brain (electricity and chemicals interacting with biological neurons). Then you talk about experience; but is experience identical with thought? If not, is human experience material, as well?


  5. deacon john Avatar
    deacon john

    Matter Matters! Not only does Our Lord say and command us to “Take Eat,” in addition this is why His baptism is so important. This is why He tells John the Baptist, in effect – you have to baptize me. When Our Lord steps into the waters of the Jordan He blesses and sanctifies the water and through the Water Cycle blesses the whole material world. Matter Matters!

  6. David Avatar

    Wonderful. I think here, too, is where Orthodox Christianity is revealed to be deeply and unabashedly Judaism, in that sense that Christianity began as a sect within and, to the minds of its practitioners, the true, Judaism: we are believers in a God who created and loves the material cosmos and is intent on restoring it and renovating it into new and ever increasing glory. The end of the story is here, not somewhere else: that’s why all true faith in the true God, in Israel’s God made flesh in Jesus and present with us in the Spirit, is really Resurrection faith, faith that God will not simply let us dissipate into the nothing from which we were composed but will reconstitute us and give us the permanence our very being aches for.

    Fr. Stephen, as I read your article I’m writing a paper on Paul’s use of Stoicism, and I think it complements what you say here well. The central tenet of Stoicism–that there is a divine pneuma interwoven through all creation that endows the universe with rationality and invites humans especially to contemplate the universe and live a higher existence than the animals–made itself very amenable to Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period, who were trying to communicate the essence of their faith in the Creator God of Israel to a Greek speaking world. Wisdom of Solomon–part of our canon–is itself the best example of how Jews adopted and modified Stoicism to communicate Jewish theology: there is only one God, the Creator and Israel’s Lord; his pneuma which pervades the cosmos is his divine sophia, Wisdom; the pneuma’s activity in the world is not merely producing abstractly virtuous men, but specifically in forming the people of Israel, giving them God’s commandments and enabling them to follow them, and instituting Israel’s monarchy over the world, bringing about the cosmic harmony the Stoics thought the pneuma was responsible for. Pneuma was also thought to be a physical category–a special type of matter, not something above or beyond matter. Paul stands within this tradition of Jewish appropriation of Stoicism, and it is evident especially in 1 Corinthians: the divine sophia is Christ himself, who is only understood by the divine pneuma and those who have that pneuma (1.18-3.1); the cosmic harmony that the pneuma is effecting in the world, which Paul certainly would have agreed was centered around the development of Israel as God’s people, is now focused around God’s renewed people, the ekklesia, whom he feeds with pneumatikos (“spiritual,” i.e., pneuma-composed and pneuma-conveying) food and drink in the Eucharist just like he fed Israel with in the desert (10.1-22), and among whose members the pneuma develops sympathy (suffering together; 12.1-31); that this pneuma is the substance of Christ’s resurrected body and will be that of the future believers’ as well (15.35-57).

    I bring all of this up to say: the roots of our tradition, from Genesis to Paul and beyond, all emphasize the goodness and centrality of the material creation as God’s concern. Indeed, God made the material world with the intention of uniting himself with it in the Incarnation. Our spirituality needs to be more Jewish, more Stoic, and more Incarnational, because these are the building blocks of Orthodox spirituality.

  7. Seraphim Avatar

    The idea that things like consciousness, ideas, and thoughts are material is very problematic. Even many secular philosophers of mind have recognized the incoherence of seeing these things in a firm-footed materialist manner. Metaphysics isn’t dead, regardless of how many people think it is.

  8. Robert Avatar


    I don’t think that Fr Stephen meant that thoughts are material in a literal sense, but rather that thoughts have their basis in and are dependent upon material – i.e. without material (our brains) thoughts would not be possible.

  9. Nicklas Avatar

    “Metaphysics isn’t dead, regardless of how many people think it is.”

    Materialism wouldn’t kill metaphysics; it’s a metaphysical stance, itself.

  10. Helen Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I am now confused. Does the church teach that the soul is immortal?

    From the service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy:”To those who reject the immortality of the soul, the end of time, the future judgment, and eternal reward for virtue and condemnation for sin, Anathema!”

    Or, are we to see the soul as impermanent?

    “A troubling aspect of our materiality is that it is so obviously impermanent. We are not only prone to injury and illness, but when all is said and done, we die. And we not only die, our materiality dissolves. Every thought, feeling, memory, the whole wonder of our physical and neural existence simply stops and turns to dust. We ache for some assurance that death and decay are not the end of who we are. Is the person I loved gone and lost forever?

    Our faith tells us of the soul (psyche). It is sometimes correctly translated “life.” There is a rush to speak of the soul as immaterial and not subject to the same death and decay as the body, and further, to make it the repository of the hopes and memories – our personhood. And thus the death of the body is seen by some to be inconsequential. The soul is everything.”

    I tend to to “rush” in the direction that the “soul is everything.” After 40 years as a convert, I always thought that we were only granted immortality through the miracle of the resurrection, and that other wise we had no life after this one. Which is it?

    Is it the “rushing” which is problematic, or the direction we are going? I am a child, only in my early 60’s so I have a hard time with understanding words sometimes. Thank you for you blog.

  11. Seraphim Avatar


    Sorry. What I said was directed more at materialists than Fr. Freeman.

  12. Grant Avatar

    This is pure genius, pure holiness. This uproots and changes much thinking and will bear many readings. Blessed are you in Christ, Father.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Helen, Seraphim, et al.
    Yes, the Church teaches the immortality of the soul. But this is not because of the nature of the soul but because of the will of God. The soul is immortal, only because God’s sustains it in its existence. But only God is immortal by nature. Frankly, the way it is spoken of often leads to confusion.

    St. Anastasios of Sinai says this:

    “That the human nature is created and so, is unavoidably mortal; with death man’s entire psychosomatic being comes to an end. All of his psychological and mental functions cease to function : his self-conscience, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, and desire. Man is no longer able to function through the parts of the body in order to speak, to call to memory, to distinguish, to desire, to reason, to be impassioned, and to see” (Odigos, Migne P.G. 89, 36).

    I remember being staggered almost to the point of despair when I first read this. Understanding it took time and produces things like the present article.

    But, to metaphysics. I do not think metaphysics is dead. But they extreme material versus non-material is simply bad thinking as far as I can see. Somehow, we cannot bear the idea than an idea is electrical/chemical/biological. But what I am suggesting is that “idea” is how we experience something that is electrical/chemical/biological.

    And this is, frankly, witnessed to by the Church’s sacramental life. We do not think that the Bread of the Eucharist contains, or merely bears Christ’s Body (a spiritual reality, surely). It becomes Christ’s Body. We eat Christ’s Body.

    Holy Water is a blessing – as literally, truly, really, etc. – as the words of a blessing. And the words of a blessing are just as physical as the water as well.

    It’s the material/spiritual split that is somewhat problematic and false.

    God is Spirit. Yes. So what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything that we can put into other words. Maybe we can say it means He is “not material.” Yes. Existence is more than materiality – but the only existence we ourselves know is quite material. And it’s supposed to be that way. We know God because He made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ (materially). We didn’t first know God and then recognize Him in Christ. It’s the other way around.

    I suppose I would want to say that our materiality is not contrary to a spiritual existence, but that it is a spiritual existence. And that this would be the basis for a metaphysics of sort.

    But the other is the stuff of the two-storey universe and silly attacks on the sacramentality of the world. It creates a false secularism as well as many other errors. I’m only saying something true in a way that makes you think about it more carefully. At least that’s my hope.

  14. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    What do you think the Stoic influence on early Christianity does to this, particularly in its conception of pneuma, spirit, as a physical substance? Could we say that the name Holy Spirit for the Third Person of the Holy Trinity is divine condescension–that what makes him Holy Spirit, and not merely Spirit, is that he is immaterial, while all other pneuma is created substance? Or would it be proper to refer to pneuma as a material substance, even in reference to the third person of the Holy Trinity?

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It would not be proper to describe the Holy Spirit as in any way material. He is not like us.

    I prefer thinking in terms of created/uncreated rather than material/spiritual. The former is Patristic, the latter is problematic. And it is created/uncreated that comes to hold a dogmatic place in the Church’s language.

    But, I suppose part of what I’m intending to do in this article is force our reflection on the createdness even of the soul. The soul, I suppose, may be described as immaterial, but it is only known and expressed materially. Hence, we await the resurrection of the body.

  16. CoffeeZombie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I’m curious about the St. Anastasios quote. What he says would seem to make the intercessions of the Saints impossible, for if the Saints cannot reason or hear or remember and so on…in what way can they be aware of our prayers, and in what way can they respond to them (i.e., by praying for us)?

    Of course, it’s possible this is simply a mystery too deep for me. 😉

  17. Greg Davis Avatar
    Greg Davis

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for taking the time to keep up your blog for the benefit of your readers.

    On this topic, I admit to being confused. My understanding of man is that he is uniquely both a spiritual and a material being, soul and body. Unlike gnostic and other heresies, we affirm the integrity of the whole spiritual-material person, which is why prayer, as you discuss, possesses a material extension (also why we do not cremate, we commune the physical Holy Mysteries, we venerate physical icons, etc.).

    When the Word of God became Man, he took on our entire spiritual-material existence (having been hitherto pure Spirit ). Upon His death on the Cross, His material body was buried while His human soul descended to Hades and freed its captive souls. At the end of time, He will restore material creation, at present subject to death and decay, and man will live restored, body and soul, in Heaven the New Jerusalem.

    I get the sense in your post that you are going too far in the opposite direction to refute those who wrongly believe that the spiritual life is entirely disconnected from our material existence.

    It also seems to me that prayers can help planes to fly, just as they can help cleanse the soul, bring rain, or heal infirmity. The fruit of prayer is always contingent on the Will of God. But because we are material, it seems to me that travel prayers (among others) are intended for material as well as spiritual well-being, which could well include keeping one’s plane in the air.

    I hope that you will be able to address my questions.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that we are not left in such a state…”the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.” And they live to make intercession, etc. But we blithely go along assuming all of this is, more or less, natural, instead of seeing the completely gratuitous and contingent nature of our existence. The soul is as fragile as the body. They are both created.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I think all that you say is true (including going to far in correction). My intention is to push the material characteristic of our existence – even our so-called spiritual aspect. Our spiritual life has a material expression, necessarily.

    I would go so far on prayer as to say that the world holds together by the prayers of a few elders, known only to God. But it is not because of the inherent nature of prayer, but the good God who so invites us into the communion of His life that He allows even such an astounding participation in His good will.

    But frequently, people treat prayer in an almost New Age manner, as if it were some kind of spiritual physics or something. And it’s not. I bless travelers every Sunday. I’m flying this weekend, and pray that the plane stays in the air, through your prayers!

  20. Seraphim Avatar

    “Existence is more than materiality – but the only existence we ourselves know is quite material. ”

    I disagree with you here. Much of what we experience is material and caused by material processes, but things like consciousness, concepts, ideas, conveyance of language, etc. cannot be explained solely by material explanations.

    When one really delves into human cognition, how we think, experience, and comprehend complex concepts and images it becomes clear that there is more than just bio-electric firings going on.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I granted the question of consciousness – but – again you are suggesting that we understand and comprehend bio-electric-chemical goings on. It does not denigrate thought to describe it as generally material. It is, however, incorrect to describe material with the word “just” or “merely.”

    What am I pondering a thought, concept or image with that does not involve my brain? The dividing asunder of soul and body is such a subtle thing that only the sword of the word of God can do it – and yet we speak about it as if were somehow obvious.

    What I think is that Christians are far too little materialist. Two-storey types are almost Manichean in their denigration of the flesh (and they’re anti-sacramental to boot).

    I’m by no means saying that materiality encompasses the whole of our existence, but that whatever goes beyond that is certainly beyond comprehension. And that our materiality is far too devalued by those who have over-played a virtually pagan dichotomy.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Would it be proper to understand our heart as the God-given sense of our immortal existence that is not solely material and why the saints talk about placing our mind in our heart in s grace filled recapitulation of the Incarnation?

    ….but what of the energy that enables our material function. It cannot just disappear especially if its existence is God given can it?

  23. Seraphim Avatar

    Thanks for the clarification, Father. We have to be careful when discussing these issues or we can fall into false dichotomies, completely disregarding the metaphysical or denigrating the material.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are a lot of imponderables here. It has become both precious and important to me to consider the utter ephemeral state of our existence – I suppose it could classically be called “mindfulness of death.” It is as St. Philaret said that”Creatures are poised as on a diamond bridge beneath the abyss of divine infinity and above the abyss of their own nothingness.”

    The atheist makes the mistake of considering the abyss of nothingness and concluding that there is, after all, only nothing. But Christians too often fail to consider the abyss of nothingness. We make a casual leap using things like “spiritual reality” to get around the nothingness that is obvious in materiality.

    So I’m pushing myself (and us all) a bit in that direction. Letting a stronger materiality carry us to the edge of the abyss.

    But I’m pushing in the other direction (and against the atheist). Not forcing him to posit some spiritual reality he doesn’t see, but to see the spiritual nature of the material reality he does see. It is, for me, a more direct confrontation with the forces of the secular mind (which infects so many Christians). I am refusing to give the material world over to the secularists. And thought that I would push back in the manner of today’s article.

    It’s a little edgy – but when Christian speech has lost its edge – then something needs to be recovered. I think the approach in this article goes a little in that direction. I’m not offering any challenge to the dogma of the faith (God forbid!). But I think people become complacent in some aspects of dogmatic language – and fail to hear it.

    For example, I think some are uncomfortable with language about materiality as strong as this article, because materiality has become the realm of unbelief for them. So, how do we recover the material world as a realm of true believing. Not by hedging our bets! So this was an exercise in plunging directly into it and allowing materiality to speak its mature voice.

    As to the heart – it’s fascinating to me how embarrassingly literal some of the Fathers can be about this. The heart, on our modern lips is comfortably vague and non-material. Then you run across something in the Fathers that just plain identifies it with that pumping thing in the chest!

    But there is certainly something that is transcendent – that we call the heart. It is interesting when we consider the Resurrection that materiality and the Spirit cannot be separated.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    You are right Father that the Incarnation demands union of the created with the Creator. He took His human body with Him.

    The darkness of the abyss is the uncreated light. Just most of us can’t see it.

    Transcendence is not escape but transformation a new heaven and a new earth.

    We need to embrace the totality of our existence and not continue to live a false dichotomy.

    It is amazingly tough.

  26. Nicklas Avatar


    “What am I pondering a thought, concept or image with that does not involve my brain?”

    Involvement, yes; but identity?

    Is a human experience identical with a material brain state, or is it, rather, causally bound up with such brain state?

  27. Dino Avatar

    I think that the ‘transcendence’ of materiality is shown aptly, effectively and simply by Saint Silouan’s description of the highest state of grace:

    “Love of God takes various forms. The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents, he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome. But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics”

  28. Maria Chisnall Avatar

    What hope is there for those of us who just cannot wrap our brain around all of this?

  29. Dino Avatar

    It is also an invaluable blessing that, fallen though we are, we have this dual aspect that always includes our grounding in materiality. To use an example: there are many, (most, perhaps even close to all[?]), who die slowly of cancer and are “forced without being forced” to be saved thanks to their materiality, something that would not be applicable to the far far less material angels. The physical, psychological and spiritual humbling of such an extended time is one of the greatest blessings in disguise of this disease.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The hope is that I’ll write something more comprehensible soon!

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a very good question. My question would be to wonder why we assume thought to have this quality of immateriality. Though we may certainly have an immaterial aspect, call it the soul, why should we assume that the soul is experienced as thought?

    Especially since most of what we experience as thought is rather something like passion, memory, anxiety, etc.? When the Hesychast enters the heart, he doesn’t entertain thoughts (that would take him out of the heart). But he is present with God. That is the point where transcendence is experienced. That is the point of possible non-materiality.

    What I think is the case is that we have confused thinking, etc., with the soul. It is actually just bad theology, popular imagery creeping uncritically into dogma.

    I absolutely grant that there is an immaterial aspect of our existence. I’m pushing back, however, on the confusion of that aspect with “thinking.” People have watched too much Star Trek.

  32. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Father, forgive the interruption. Will your event this weekend in California be open to the public? If so, how can we find particulars?

  33. Yannis Avatar


    “The physical, psychological and spiritual humbling of such an extended time is one of the greatest blessings in disguise of this disease.”
    I think I know the sort of thing you mean. As I live through what is called “middle age”, I experience various aches and pains, a small but growing infirmity of body, which I often feel thankful for. I remember all the hopes and ambitions I used to entertain in my youth, and the “possibilities” of life, but the loss of all these things I have often experienced as freedom. I even feel grateful, sometimes, about the poor state of my professional career. It is almost as if there is a sweetness to worldly failure.

  34. AJ Avatar

    You have opened a big can of worms with this one!
    I wonder how I approach my adult daughter with the ideas presented here… She is a materialist ( thanks public education!) She believes in science, that what can be explained is “real” and God is not because He can’t be measured etc, that love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, so even talking about Him in terms of love is thrown out etc. ( I think she secretly hopes this isn’t true.)
    You have written that thoughts are chemical reactions in the brain… She would agree. But are they more?
    Are you pushing the envelope for those who are so into thoughts (and prayers in the mind) as having more value than the physical actions of prayer? But that the Orthodox use of material objects does indeed unite unite us to the immaterial? That there is no divide between the two?
    I don’t push any of this on her, but like to have an answer if it ever comes up.
    Coming from a Protestant background where the ALL of the Bible had to be figured out, the wonder of the creation story couldn’t involve myth and mystery, the “mistakes” in the passion stories of the gospels were corrected into a perfect time line etc, I was glad to know that in Orthodoxy we are filled with Wonder. I don’t like to think I have to figure out how it all happens.
    Okay that’s not totally true…I would love to know how if I pray, God hears me , the saints hear me ..and they respond. I’d love a sign that something in the immaterial world is interacting with the material world… That the plane flew safely because God responded to a prayer.
    I have heard that God is motivated by when I pray and it is motivated by love ( not mere physical neurons firing but something more) that He responds to that.
    Forgive the rambling if I am not clear, but this blog entry has touched close to home.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael Patrick,
    Yes. Click on the link in the newly posted article on the retreat.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, Yannis,
    Of course, none of us would ever wish suffering on another human being. But I have observed many times the redemptive character of such suffering. St. Basil wrote especially on the topic. When I worked as a hospice chaplain, one of the quiet ministries was to help people bear their suffering and make use of it. I saw it many times and was awe-struck.

  37. David Avatar

    Hello fr. Stephen,

    I appreciate your thoughts and reflections a great deal. I have a question about the current topic.

    Do the thoughts, memory, personality, characteristics of a human being, i.e. the personhood of the individual, rely upon the physical, material body to exist and/or function?

    This to me is the real question to ask. You stated earlier:

    “What am I pondering a thought, concept or image with that does not involve my brain?”

    Did you mean to say that a brain, i.e. a physical medium, is necessary in order for a human being to have a thought, concept or image? You quoted St. Anastasios earlier:

    “That the human nature is created and so, is unavoidably mortal; with death man’s entire psychosomatic being comes to an end. All of his psychological and mental functions cease to function : his self-conscience, reasoning, judgment, memory, imagination, and desire. Man is no longer able to function through the parts of the body in order to speak, to call to memory, to distinguish, to desire, to reason, to be impassioned, and to see.”

    This would appear to indicate that everything we would tend to think of as the “real” essence of a human being, i.e. that which makes a person a “person”, is inextricably contingent upon the physical body and its many functions. When the physical body ceases to operate with its functions, then the “person” no longer exists. I guess it could be similar to a computer system. While the power is on, i.e. the eletrical current is being supplied, the computer system functions and the software, that which is distinct from hardware yet is itself inextricably linked to hardware, also functions. But remove the electrical current and the computer system is inert, and any software that was running while the power was on is now, for all intents and purposes, gone. At least, it is gone in the sense that you can still handle the processor or RAM or hard drive, but you cannot handle or manipulate the OS or Office or a video game. If the human “person” is contingent upon the physical, thus testifying to the truth of our existence as contingent beings, then how can we possibly hold the belief, whether dogma or not, that the human “person” continues to function after the death or cessation of the physical medium, the hardware if you will, which is the body? Would this belief not go against the central truth of human existence that we are contingent beings?

    Also, what purpose would a physical bodily resurrection serve if the human “person” continues to operate perfectly fine, perhaps even superiorly, than they did in a physical body? After all, is it believed by the Church that the dead saints are now limited by time or space as they were when they were alive? I don’t think that is the case. So if the saints have been “freed” from the restraints of time and space that once shackled their existence on earth, why then would they again be thrust into those restraints by God via the resurrection?

    It seems to me that the more consistent view perhaps would be that our personhood is indeed contingent upon our physical/material existence, and that when our physical/material existence ends, our personhood ends as well, but that God somehow “saves” our personhood, kind of like a software program is saved, in order to “reboot” us at a later time in the resurrection. Of course, this would necessarily go against the Church’s teaching on the communion of the saints unless the “saving” God does allows for the Church’s teaching. After all, scripture does say, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7 If our “spirit” is our personhood, then this would seem to indicate a saving of sorts. And who knows what the phrase “and the spirit will return to God” really means?

    Your thoughts on this are appreciated!

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your daughter’s materialism is, in fact, a very Modern, Protestant materialism. That is, the spiritual is considered non-material, and since she can’t see it, it’s not real, ergo, no spiritual. But, if she rightly understood spiritual, and that it’s not the opposite of material, then she could begin to understand that she lives in an utterly spiritual world.

    God is not just “immaterial” but “uncreated.” In a way, “immaterial” is almost as interesting as saying that God is not a frog. It says what He is not, but not what He is. But we speak about immaterial and spiritual as if we actually knew what we were talking about. We “believe” in it – but fail to grasp that we are pretty much clueless when it comes to anything regarding positive content for the word “immaterial.”

    The can of worms I’ve opened is the suggestion that Christians have, in fact, moved their theology away from the material world, shifted into some mode called “immaterial” where they can conveniently discuss it without the bother of needing any clues as to what they are discussing. It’s just one more version of the 2-storey universe.

    To live a one-storey existence necessarily means having a much more profound understanding and appreciation for the materiality of our existence. Fortunately for Christians, Jesus became a material man, forcing us to keep coming back to the materiality of our existence.

    Your daughter’s problems aren’t just the creation of the school system. We Christians first taught the world how to wrongly think about materiality. In my book, I wrote carefully about how the 2-storey universe is the breeding ground of atheism.

    This latest little foray (would that it occurred to me several years ago, in which case it would have been in the book) is just another example of our strange bifurcation of reality.

    For Orthodoxy, where the 2-storey world is not appropriate, its continuing presence is mostly due to sloppy theology and bad thinking. People have got into such a habit of thinking that the faith depends on proving the existence of the non-material, that they cede materiality over to unbelievers, neglecting the most obvious thing there is.

    The real categories for Orthodoxy are not material and immaterial, but created and uncreated. We say in the Creed that God created all things, “visible and invisible.” But both visible and invisible belong to the created order, and are therefore not inherent eternal, but contingent and completely dependent upon God for their remaining in existence.

    To a large extent, immaterial and material, invisible and visible, when applied to created things, make little difference. None of it is the “uncreated.” Thus whatever there is about us that is “immaterial” is still created and thus, not belonging to some category that includes God. There is no category that includes God. God alone is God.

    But that God entered into our category and became a man. St. Theodore the Studite emphasized “a” man. The uncreated became created (His humanity had a beginning). I eat Him. I drink Him. He still gives Himself materially. That, I think, is the place to have a conversation with your daughter. Whatever she thinks about materiality – Jesus became that.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ah, personhood. Now we have stepped onto something different. You wrote about the “thoughts, memory, personality, characteristics of a human being” and equated them with Personhood. That is not quite the case – though it is very commonly assumed by people. Personhood (hypostasis) is something else, more or less. Christ is the one and same hypostasis before during and after the Incarnation. The Person of the Logos, becomes human. All that it is to be human is proper to Him. Memory, etc. Though we understand that they were not the experience of a fallen man. For example, St. Maximus says there is not “gnome” in Christ – no gnomic will – since this is a product of sin.

    And, it is also the case, particularly illustrated in the writings of the Elder Sophronius, that Personhood, already in this life, could be quite ubiquitous (everywhere present). When St. Silouan’s “mind is in hell” it is a function of Personhood that is being described.

    And these things are not as easily understood as people think. When someone has Alzheimer’s, for example, I’ve heard people say that the “Person” is lost. It is not only not lost it is not even diminished.

    I have sat and pondered these things for many years now. It doesn’t produce a lot of answers (they’re pretty unspeakable), but it does produce a lot of corrective observations. If people come away from this realizing that they understand a lot less than they thought they did, it will be a very good thing.

    Fr. Hopko once said to me, “Someday you’ll know nothing! Then you’ll be holy!”

  40. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t understand. What then is a “person”, as in “me, myself and I” if it is not “thoughts, memory, personality, characteristics of a human being”? What is it that makes me, you, or anyone else a “person”? And is that “person” contingent/dependant upon the physical/material existence via the human body? And if it is not contingent/dependant upon the physical/material existence via the human body, then what need is there for a bodily resurrection? After all, if the “person” exists quite fine apart from a physical/material medium, then why go back to one?

    I appreciate your thoughts and help!

  41. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Please forgive my multiple postings. I just thought of this after I hit the reply button. Perhaps “person” equates to identity? Merriam-Webster defines identity as: “who someone is, the name of a person”. If we take “person” as meaning identity, would that mean that a “person” is who someone really is, i.e. their essence or “real self” so to speak? Though I still don’t have a clue what that really means. Also would this be why in scripture God’s “name” seems to hardly do with a name as in a title like David or Stephen? It seems to be used to refer to something deeper than just a tag or title to call someone. I’m just thinking out loud here. Sorry to ramble on.

    Thanks for any help you can offer!

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is with Christ that we should begin. The 2nd Person (Hypostasis) of the Holy Trinity, became a man. The Person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the same Person as the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity. That Person took flesh, a soul, all that it is to be human, but did not become a new Person. One easy conclusion is that Body and Soul are not synonymous with Personhood. A Person has a body and has a soul, but the Person is not the same thing as the body or the soul.

    And that should leave us scratching our heads. But that is correct theology, not popular imagination. And it’s hard.

    So what does the Church mean by Person (Hypostasis). That’s really not at all easy to answer. It carries the meaning of the “actual existence” (which really doesn’t help much).

    So, I can say that I am a Person (though the Church would say we are also growing towards the fullness of Personhood), and that Person has/is a body, and has/is a soul. Many/most of the experiences of the body/soul are ephemeral. For example, we in now way remember everything. We only remember some things, and those things are often changing, being rearranged, etc. And if I lose them (in dementia) I am no less a Person.

    Person and personhood are proper objects of theoria, theological contemplation. Much more so than objects of rational understanding. Our personhood is certainly related to and thus somehow contingent to our body/soul – they share an identity and the identity is the Person. Apparently, the fullness of Personhood is manifest perfectly in the resurrection. And there the Body takes on some very interesting qualities (at least based on the NT). It’s not exactly “objective.” Mary Magdalen doesn’t recognize Jesus until He speaks her name. Others actually eat with Him only to recognize Him when He is gone. That is not like the objectified body we know now. And how would that apply to the soul? (If we could say what the soul is).

    These are not thoughts to cause confusion. These are thoughts to cause consideration, pondering, prayer and theoria, of which people should do much more!

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Another quick thought about “what makes me me? Read this article and some of those following. They look at the distinction between the true and false self. It might make for richer thoughts.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, that’s much closer to it. I am the same person as I was when I was two years old, for example.

  45. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for spending your time with me and my questions. While I can’t say that I really understand what “personhood” is, I can say that your response has provoked a deeper contemplation of the subject for me. It does seem to me that “personhood” would equate with identity. Identity would be who we are, not necessarily what we are. Jesus was/is a man/human being. But his identity is not a man/human being, but rather the Christ, the Son of the living God. Whether the Word has a human body/soul or not would not change his identity. But what is the mortal, frail, created, human being identity that we all share? What is my identity? As a Vorlon would ask, “Who are you?” (sorry for the nerdism) I don’t have a good answer to that question.

  46. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for the link. I’ll certainly check it out. And thank you again for your time! ☺

  47. AJ Avatar

    Father thanks for your response.
    I see that I set up two story universe in a way by writing about material and immaterial.
    Can you clarify this in case I am getting it wrong.
    God is uncreated, we are created…so anything that we see or don’t see, can measure or not measure, such as our thoughts, are ALL created. So whether our thoughts and feelings are only neurons firing doesn’t really matter since all of it is created by God.
    I don’t say doesn’t matter as not being important but as an argument to say ” so what” to a materialist who says that we are nothing more than chemistry. We are created… Our visible body and our invisible “me” .
    Am I on the right track here?

  48. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Sorry to keep posting, but this topic has really provoked my thoughts. I think I might have come to an answer to the question of my identity, and I think it fits into your article here well. Who am I? What is my identity? When all is said and done, I can only say that I am created, I am nothing. I came from nothingness (ex nihilo), and ultimately that is what I am. That is my real or true identity, I believe. God is the only something there really is because He didn’t come from nothingness. But for me, I am nothing. The abyss of nothingness that you spoke of is my real mother. It is the mother of us all. But God is our Father. By uniting with Him through Christ our nothing can become something, if only by grace.

  49. Nicklas Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for the reply.

    “My question would be to wonder why we assume thought to have this quality of immateriality.”

    I think we often equivocate between two or more senses of immateriality. The angels in our tradition are called ασωματες, bodiless, and thus are immaterial in some sense; but they are not immaterial in the later Cartesian sense, lacking both extension and location. After all, the angels are limited, and located or even multilocated beings.

    As for whether human thoughts are immaterial in our sense, or in the Cartesian sense, or some other sense, I’ve not settled on an answer. But I do think that thoughts aren’t material, just because the facts about a brain state, even “contextualized” within a human being’s material unity, aren’t sufficient for identity with thought; they are certainly sufficient to cause and characterize thoughts, but aren’t thereby identical with them. I’m not dogmatically attached to this position, it only seems to me the most plausible. I would happily endorse your view, as I understand it, and perhaps I will someday.

    “Though we may certainly have an immaterial aspect, call it the soul, why should we assume that the soul is experienced as thought?”

    I don’t really endorse the notion that the soul is an immaterial mind, but rather that soul is the constitutive animating character of beings like us; and in some sense, it is a character that will not survive death, per St. Paul: It is sown a soulish body, it is raised a spiritual body.

    “When the Hesychast enters the heart, he doesn’t entertain thoughts (that would take him out of the heart). But he is present with God.”

    So he doesn’t entertain his own thoughts, but rather he attends, with his mind in the heart, to the Active presence of God. Is that correct?

  50. Lou. Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    Two quick thoughts.

    I remember an old, holy Jew hearing a lecture from a Jesuit. He came up to the professor after the speech and said with outrage, “You make us Jews too spiritual!”

    In my own life, I remember preparing for my wedding. The selection of the dresses and plates and flowers consumed much attention. The use and placement of old family silver demanded a staggering amount of thought. The priest was not concerned or jealous, observing that G-d makes family and silver and marriages.

    I have often wondered whether there is a sacramental dimension to silverware. In fact, I am sure of it.

  51. Dino Avatar

    You made me remember Elder Sophrony’s statement that, “there is no clear definition of person or hypostasis to be found anywhere in the Fathers.”

    In spite of this statement, a (very) restricted yet somewhat illuminating description of person/hypostasis (based on the Church’s hesychastic theoria, as well as our ‘model’ – the Son of God who bares upon Him all that exists) might be this:
    if the whole of humanity (all the hundreds of billions until the end of time) as well as all of creation is considered as a many-sided diamond, one facet of this whole diamond that speaks to the Creator on behalf of the whole is what a hypostasis is. A quite similar description of the child Mother of God (to be) in the Temple, hesychastically encompassing all of “Adam” in her hypostatic prayer to the Creator has been provided by St Gregory Palamas. The Elder Sophrony also kept coming back to the hypostatic prayer of Christ in Gethsemane, and the inverse pyramid of being resting on its tip – Christ the perfect Hypostasis incarnate. Saint Porphyrios kept repeating that there is no need to say “have mercy on us”, since saying “have mercy on me” to a true person includes all peoples in this “me”. I particularly like how the relational, the eschatological, and the “time and space transcending” nature of hypostasis becomes immediately clear in this definition.
    In Greek person (Prosopon) literally means face (not dissimilar to this idea of a person that hypostatises a whole – of the divine uncreated essence or the human created nature)
    ps: sorry for making our hair hurt… 🙂

  52. Dino Avatar

    “By uniting with Him through Christ our nothing can become something, if only by grace”

    well said David!

  53. Andrew Avatar


    Thank you for all of your posts. Your recent series of posts has been absolutely wonderful. I was wondering, have you ever read Simone Weil? A lot of her writings focus on looking for God in the void, like you were talking about here. And she has a lot of other great writings about society, progress, and tradition. You would really like her. If your “to read” list is half as long as mine, you’ll probably never get to it, but you can add it to the list.

  54. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen, this conversation on Personhood is interesting. The following statement reveals that the Son of God was a Person before becoming a human:

    “That Person took flesh, a soul, all that it is to be human, but did not become a new Person. One easy conclusion is that Body and Soul are not synonymous with Personhood. A Person has a body and has a soul, but the Person is not the same thing as the body or the soul…”

    So, before the Incarnation, and thus also the Resurrection, the Son of God was a Person, but not a human. He became a human, died as a human, and then resurrected as a human, but His Personhood is not, apparently, contingent upon any of these occurrences. This is interesting to me because I’ve always viewed the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, as being eternally “true, perfect human,” even somehow before He was Incarnated, as though “true, perfect human” was an eternal truth within the Trinity. So, my question is, even before the Incarnation does the Son of God identify as a human?

    I can see that Personhood is clearly not exclusively contingent upon being a human being when considering the Personhood of the Father and the Holy Spirit, but isn’t the “kind” of Personhood one happens to be always contingent or related in some way to the “kind” of being/existence one happens to be? Doesn’t the Personhood of the Father differs in nature from both the Personhood of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God, by virtue of His Personhood being distinctly unique to Himself as Father when compared to the identities of the other 2 Persons of the Trinity? And, likewise, the Personhood of the Holy Spirit is contingent upon/related to His unique identity as Spirit, not being the same “kind” of Person as the other 2 Persons of the Trinity? And, of course, the same goes for the Son of God’s Personhood’s uniqueness, being related to/contingent upon His identity as the Logos (or blueprint) for the created universe?

    The following statements, “So, I can say that I am a Person (though the Church would say we are also growing towards the fullness of Personhood), and that Person has/is a body, and has/is a soul….,” along with, “Our personhood is certainly related to and thus somehow contingent to our body/soul – they share an identity and the identity is the Person. Apparently, the fullness of Personhood is manifest perfectly in the resurrection,” reveal that the nature of Personhood of a created human being is related to/contingent upon their creaturely-ness, meaning their created body and soul.

    This brings us back to my question, even before the Incarnation does the Son of God identify as a human? If before the Incarnation, Christ’s Personhood is still related to His identity as a human, then we created humans share the same Personhood. But if His Personhood is not related to His humanity (by virtue of His not identifying as human before the Incarnation) in the same way ours is (related in the sense that our Person, as you said, “has/is a body, and has/is a soul”), then doesn’t this conclude that we do not share the same “kind” of Personhood as the Son of God? I thought the salvation of our Personhood relied on the fact that we do in fact share the exact same kind of Personhood as the Son of God.

    You’ve emphasized the fact that we cannot separate our “human-ness” from the created, material realm, and that we cannot separate our Personhood from this “human-ness,” but that, at the same time, we share the exact same Personhood as Christ, despite that His Personhood is not related/contingent upon, and thus separate, His human-ness in the Incarnation.

    I know this is getting off topic, and I’m just thinking “aloud” here, but it’s interesting 🙂

  55. Dino Avatar

    Some light can be shed on these questions by digesting well the differences between what is termed ‘nature’ (Divine-Uncreated or Human-Created) and what ‘Person-Hypostasis’ or “enhypostasized nature” (Jesus the Son of the Father –enhypostasizing the two natures only after the incarnation).
    The personal attribute primarily of “sonship” of the Second Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity are key to our ‘calling’ to become what our ‘model’ has demonstrated in His human nature. These attributes that are not shared by the other two Divine Persons can be shared, through grace, by our human person.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Seems like the right track

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. A Lutheran theologian, Robert Jensen, once said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in the Son.” I think it is generally a correct saying, though not to dogmatize on it. But Personhood is not about me, it’s about me and the Other. And what I know is the Other, and myself in the Other. That is love.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes it is interesting. And it is probably only when we start really wrestling with the difficulties involved that we come to appreciate how quickly things got sideways after the 4th Council (Chalcedon) and we should look a little skeptically at those who treat Oriental Orthodox in the manner of “heretics.” That is so misleading. They are not heretics. What they hold regarding the Incarnate Son of God is not heretical. They hold what St. Cyril held. It’s that they do not hold (officially) what Chalcedon and later held that is a problem – but even that is not quite true if you explore. Pardon my rabbit trail there…

    But, we do not and cannot say that the pre-incarnate Person of Christ was human, or had “humanness.” What we can say, however, is that He (the Son of God) is the image of the invisible Father. And He is the Image of which we are the image. It’s less about His humanness, and more about how we resemble Him. “He came unto His own…”

    So there is indeed something about the human that is like God and that is made manifest in the God/Man Jesus Christ.

    It is interesting to me, by the way, that this post led to some conversations about Personhood. I think that I could not have come up with a better way to approach it – but stumbled into this accidentally by thinking about materiality.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll add her.

  60. Mike Kostich Avatar
    Mike Kostich

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your exposition. Physics might be a bit dated (string theory and all that), but you have persuaded me to re-examine many of the assumptions inherent in my satisfaction with that classic bumper sticker, ” we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.”

  61. Greg Davis Avatar
    Greg Davis

    Thank you father. Godspeed!

  62. Mike Kostich Avatar
    Mike Kostich

    Still too used to thinking about the visible and invisible – it wasn’t too long ago that the Stalinists were holding, defending and claiming the material high ground, in a comically Newtonian, billiard table, clockwork / mechanical, Hobbsian universe.

    But as you said, better to rethink all of those assumptions, more carefully.

  63. Dino Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Concerning the statement of St Anastasios on memory turning to dust, perhaps one curious clarification is necessary: Although memories as “logismoi” are indeed ephemeral (memories of created things that is), there is a quality about (ephemeral) man’s “memory” of the uncreated that is not exactly so. One’s contact with the Uncreated leaves an indelible mark of eternity unlike any other memory. In Hesychastic language, that might not be termed a ‘memory’, but something like ‘participation’ in the Uncreated one. Nonetheless its grafting unto the heart is something that remains forever in such a way that it is eternal. To use an example, if it had been possible –for argument’s sake- for St Peter the Apostle to despair like Judas rather than repent, then even in Hades (his soul), and amongst the dust (his decomposed body) would retain a mark of the “memory” of the Transfiguration…
    A quality of this is exerted by the countenance of Saints sometimes. We remember the living encounter with a Saint in a different light to all other memories, even including those that might be considered potentially permanent by psychology. Perhaps this is because of the Saints’ prior encounter with the eternal Lord.
    I remember fondly the spiritual child of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Charalambos (of Dionysiou) and how he spoke of this other type of ‘memory’, even though at the time I met him I had no idea what a spiritual giant I had in front of me.

    If you don’t see Christ with the eyes of your soul when you pray, you haven’t yet learned to pray. If only you knew what it is to see Christ with your eyes…
    As soon as you see Him, you’re filled with joy that passes all understanding. Yet you’re overcome with an overwhelming feeling of awe, such that your legs bend involuntarily, you fall on your face before Him and you stay there, in indescribable ecstasy, sobbing unceasingly.
    What can you say there, in the presence of God? You simply wonder, you’re shattered and you weep without end.
    I’m telling you, it wasn’t one day or two, it was three months I couldn’t stop my tears. That sweetest of yearnings just burns you up. Try as you will, you can’t help yourself…
    After three months, the tears grew less, but that memory never fades…

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And they were reacting to a caricatured Christianity. The worst response is to defend the caricature.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Quite. There is indeed a kind of memory, a kind of thought, a kind of knowledge that belongs to the heart – I like participation as a term. And it indeed forms and shapes us according to Christ. Many people when they think about these matters (the soul, personality, etc.) are trading their birthright for a mess of pottage. When we are told, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man the good things God has prepared for us…”

  66. Dino Avatar

    Indeed Father, sin has traded our birthright for ‘garments of skin’.

  67. Athanasios Avatar

    Father, I struggled with Personhood until becoming Orthodox. Despite having a higher educated philosophical and theological background, it is a topic far beyond me. But it was resolved in my mind when standing there and praying, “Memory eternal.”

    I can’t say exactly why. Like I said, the topic is beyond me. But it seems to me that the “Memory eternal” prayer of the Orthodox is at the core of Personhood.

    Though, perhaps I’m just blowing hot air, considering that I cannot explain it any better than that. It’s not a feeling I have, though. Nor a gut instinct. More like wonder at the very idea that God, in His eternal being, holds us in His memory (which is wholly unlike my own memory) – and how unfathomable that is.

    Thank you for the article, Father. They are always helpful to me.

  68. Dino Avatar

    you make a very good point indeed, I fully agree.

  69. Brian Avatar


    That is best best hot air I’ve felt in a very long time.

  70. drewster2000 Avatar


    I wanted to have a go at restating a couple of main points of the article, in case it’s helpful:

    1. Physical and Spiritual (or material and not)

    Fr. Stephen was making the point that many of us think about these states as being totally separate. For example, the body is bad and is really the main reason we sin (gluttony, lust, greed, materialism, etc) whereas the spirit is pure and would lead us to all holiness if only the body weren’t involved.

    When in fact it is much more the case that all were made by God and all are important. Further there is in reality much less distinction between body, soul and spirit than we give them credit for. We speak of them almost as if we could leave one of them at home if we chose to, when the truth is that they are each inextricably woven together with the other parts. And this isn’t just about ourselves; all of creation is spiritual and physical.

    Some implications: If we can gradually begin to think this way, it makes perfect sense that…

    –the Eucharist is both bread and flesh at the same time, both wine and blood simultaneously.
    –we are both equally physical and spiritual beings.
    –our thoughts are both physical things that go through the pathways of our brain and also these things called ideas that we have and create in a spiritual way.
    –a prayer or a sprinkling is both a series of audible sounds going over our vocal chords (or water in the second case) but also a blessing given to the other person or a request sent to God or one of His saints.

    It is difficult for us to think like this. We have kept physical and spiritual in separate boxes for so long that it’s hard to get them back together, but they belong together like bread and butter, like Heaven and Earth.

    2. The Function of Prayers

    This was kind of an aside, but the point was that prayers aren’t magical arrows shot at the evil one (or toward the recipient with good intent) or spiritual orders sent to Heaven’s Answer Shop. They are requests to God.

    If children want something, they ask their parents or someone in charge. It may or may not be granted, but ideally the authority figure would at least consider their request.

    Same for God. Our prayers don’t hold the plane up in the air, but they let God know that this is important to us. As Fr. Stephen says, He is so humble and loving that He allows us to take part in His will. He might still deny our request for other reasons, but He hears. He cares what we think. We are His children.

    There are other points but these were the initial ones that seem most approachable.

  71. drewster2000 Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    I have been meaning to let you know ever since wading through the “Sex and Immorality” post that I’ve really appreciated your contributions. In particular I think you and your wife’s experiences of marriage are testimonies to be heard more than once. It sounds like you’ve been in the trenches in many ways. You’ve seen the best and the worst of what marriage has to offer – and lived to tell the tale.

    I greatly appreciate this. Thanks for sharing.

  72. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    drewster, my wife has seen much of the worst, yet by God’s grace and her effort to firgive she still loves and is kind.

    The point I try to make is that God provides and is merciful. He has given me a wonderful woman with a Godly heart to care for despite my many failings. It is an enchantment that is utterly amazing.

  73. drewster2000 Avatar


    I agree, and I know from experience that a wonderful woman feeds and nourishes the husband so that he can be a wonderful man. Thanks for sharing with us.

  74. Corey Avatar

    I know I’m a little late in commenting, but I’ve been stewing on this for awhile. I hope you’ll find time someday to reply, but with Pascha approaching I would understand if that didn’t happen. Could you comment on how the soul interacts with the body, given your views? The common tripartite scheme (body, soul, spirit) seems to indicate that the soul is distinct from the body somehow, but you seem to be sayimg (forgive me if I’m wrong) that the soul is material. How then is it distinct from the body? Is the soul (as I’ve seen suggested) an arrangement? A form? Moreover, a material soul would seem to resolve some issues but raise others. On the one hand it would resolve some tensions between neuroscience and religion. The notion that my rationality and consciousness is found in my brain certainly seems less problematic under your view. But it seems to make difficult the continuity of my existence. Brains (read: memories, personalities, preferences) can be altered or destroyed by a sufficiently trained neurosurgeon. Would that alter me, as an individual? We read that Phineas Gage became surly and mean-spirited (sins, mind you) after part of his brain was destroyed: did the unfortunate accident somehow darken his soul?

  75. Christopher Avatar


    Your questions I think cluster around how you use the word “material”, which you use in a modern sense. The modern sense of this word (and every word) is a nominalist one, where as the classical Christian (and many other world views) views the material in a realist way.

    So, when you ask “Could you comment on how the soul interacts with the body, given your views?”, you have already answered the question, in that you presuppose the *mere* material that has to cross an unbridgeable metaphysical divide in a *supernatural* way to “interact” as you put it (which of course presupposes that they are two metaphysically opposed things) with some ghostly “soul”.

    One way to break through this nominalism might be to ask yourself, why is the material *merely* material and not already, in-and-of-itself, *supernatural*?

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher’s thoughts are worth thinking about. The division in Christian theology is not between material and immaterial exactly. The most important division is between created and uncreated, the latter being proper only to God.

    The Scriptures themselves suggest that the “dividing asunder of soul and spirit” (Hebrews) is extremely problematic. I am saying that the same is true about soul and body and that we frequently speak about these things in an incorrect manner. Soul and mind are not necessarily the same thing at all. They certainly overlap in some manner.

    The “materiality” of the soul is actually something occasionally speculated on within Orthodox conversation. They are certainly “material” in some sense of the word, they are spatial/temporal somehow. But again, we have no theological category of “immaterial.” We have the “bodiless” powers of heaven – but that’s not saying that the angels are immaterial. It’s more likely to hear fathers speaking about them of being “finer” than we are – less heavy or something.

    I was pushing hard in this article on our material experience – both to suggest that materiality is far more “spiritual” than we think. The dichotomy of material/spiritual is a false dichotomy.

    I am suggesting that a lot of strange things have crept into our heads on this topic. It’s worth stewing about.

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Created and uncreated. The created suffers entropy and the possibility of nothingness. The uncreated does not. By God’s grace we are some of each are we not?

    Because of that we can participate in the uncreated and are sustained in existence by the inexplicable condensention of God to enter hypostatically into His creation and remain with us or rather allowing us to remain with Him.

    This we experience as love, light and life.

    Hope I’m not too far off.

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We are utterly created. We become partakers of the uncreated by grace. But St. Maximus teaches that in the eschaton, the dichotomy of created/uncreated is overcome – all of creation groans and travails…

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