Becoming Personal

pantokrator_elia.jpg.scaled1000“Person” is among the most difficult words in the classical Christian vocabulary. It is difficult on the one hand because the word has a common meaning in modern parlance that is not the same meaning as its classical one. And it is difficult on the other hand even when all of its later meanings and associations are stripped away – because what it seeks to express is simply a very difficult concept.

 Most of what the world understands as “person” is either a description of the “ego” or of a legal concept. But Person (I will capitalize it for use in its classical form) is not at all the same thing as the ego. In the ego, we describe a set of feelings, choices, memory, desires, etc. that are unique. It is, in its most true form, turned in on itself. The ego is “me for myself.”

For many people, when they think of life after death, they imagine some continuation of the ego. Indeed, many of our thoughts about heaven seem problematic precisely because they seem to contradict the needs of the ego.

“Will there be golf in heaven?” The joke begins.

“Well, there’s good news and bad news,” the angel answers. “The good news is that there is indeed golf in heaven and the courses are beyond description. The bad news is that your tee time is tomorrow at two.”

Such jokes could easily be multiplied – for we imagine heaven (and life after death) to be somehow the fulfillment of our desires and wishes. An existence organized around our wishes, desires and memories is not, however, the meaning of Person.

Person is an “organizing principle,” the center around which and by which our existence is defined. But its character is strikingly contrary to the ego.

The Elder Sophrony Sakharov has been one of the most careful exponents of Personhood in our contemporary period. He notes that the “content of the Divine Hypostases [Persons] is love.” And that “Divine love is selfless; it is a fundamental characteristic of the divine life of the three Hypostases, in which ‘each Hypostasis is totally open to the others’ and thus manifests the oneness of the Holy Trinity in an absolutely perfect manner.” (Quoted from Christ, Our Way and Our Life).

Our own Personhood is no different. Our Person is the self-for-others. It is the content of St. Paul’s statement that “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” The Person here is the Yet-Not-I.

This is a difficult thing both to understand and to realize in our own experience. How do we explain to someone that the Yet-Not-I is their true self while their ego is, in fact, a false self? Of course, the Yet-Not-I is insufficient as a definition. A negative statement will not serve as a proper placeholder. St. Paul adds to his Yet-Not-I, the But-Christ. This moves us closer.

When we consider the persons of the Trinity we move to more helpful ground. Their content is love, Elder Sophrony says. And this love is not some simple force, but a complete disposition towards the other. Christ says of Himself:

Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. (Joh 5:19)

Christ’s Person is the Son-of-the-Father. He is the Nothing-of-Himself-But-What-The-Father-Does. The Father pours His being into the Son and realizes Himself as Father in the Son and in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from Him. The Persons of the Trinity are not In-Himself Persons, but For-The-Other Persons.

And Christ directs us towards the same manner of being:

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (Joh 15:5)

This is the true content of St. Paul’s Yet-Not-I.

This understanding is made difficult for us precisely because we insist on living for ourselves. The ego is my existence for my own ends. This is so profoundly true that we often cannot imagine any other way to exist. But we are taught of Christ that the content of our true existence is love, just as it is the content of the Divine Persons. We are created to live in His Image.

And this is the slow and patient work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is not simply the moral improvement of the ego. In truth, the ego will never be moral for it is always centered on itself. This existence we are told is meant to die, to be put to death. Putting the ego to death is the true aim of fasting and prayer of almsgiving and of all the commandments. Likewise the same things direct us toward our true life, the Not-I-But-Christ whose content is love. The good news embodied in the gospel is that such a life is not only possible but is the fulfillment of our true existence.

This is the Personhood that is made manifest in the lives of the saints. What we see of them is generally not the story of an ego but a life-for-others – a life that is, in fact, defined by its for-otherness.

Something that should be clear if we consider it, is that this kind of existence is something not yet realized in our lives. The legal concept of persons generally considers a living individual to be a “person” by definition. But again, this is not the meaning of Person in the Church’s language. That Personhood is a gift from God, birthed in us but not yet realized. It is the movement of our lives yet to be fulfilled.

Also worth noting is the infinite character of this true Personhood. The ego is always limited because it is turned towards itself. Its boundaries must be clearly defined, both to protect it from other egos and to protect other egos from it. But the Person whose content is love inherently reaches out and can ultimately know no limit. It includes all of creation in its embrace.

The Elder Sophrony describes this as the “hypostatic principle” and sees it as the basis of true prayer and true being. He contrasts this with a psychological mode of existence (the existence of the ego). The ego can struggle to be similar to the Person but can never reach it. The Person is charismatic, that is, gifted by the Spirit. It is God’s good gift to us.

And the teaching on the Person, particularly as made known through the writings of a saint who knows by experience what he says, carries us to a description that exceeds our imagination. Writing of this inner life, the Elder Sophrony says:

Since he has first lived the drama of cosmic desolation through the experience of kenosis, and acquired consciousness of the state of all mankind, he begins to assume a self-awareness of meta-cosmic dimensions. Enduring the sufferings of this stage, he is being crucified with Christ, and ‘he becomes receptive to the infinitely great Divine Being’. This elevated state of man’s spirit is manifest in his prayer for all the world, which he would not be able to withstand unless he had already become a partaker of ‘the universality of Christ Himself, Who bears in Himself all that exists’. Christ, Our Way and Our Life

And so is fulfilled St. Paul’s words:

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. (1Co 2:9-10)

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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40 responses to “Becoming Personal”

  1. Xenia Avatar

    Thank you for explaining further the “hypostatic principle”. I am in the middle of reading several books about/by Elder Sophrony and your words help clarify this. What a rich gold mine of spiritual insight!

  2. David Avatar

    If the me that us saved is not anything I understand to be me, how can I say that I am saved at all? What saving is Christ even accomplishing?

    When I say I unite myself to Christ (when I was brought into the Church) that was my ego that said that. Seems like my ego got a raw deal.

    This seems to be what Paul is suggesting. That there is no “good news” at all for men, who are still doomed to die, but the good news is that Christ will live on.

    What possible interest could I, the ego, have in “something else” living on if I am still going to die?

  3. Michael Avatar

    Father, I’m not sure I understand this yet but you writing about it here is helping me get there, thank you.

    You said:

    “Personhood is a gift from God, birthed in us but not yet realized. It is the movement of our lives yet to be fulfilled.”

    Do all of us have a Person in us, the baptized as well as the unregenerate? And if we do have this Person in us, who does it belong to? If its not our ego then does the nature of this Person have more to do with God than ourselves?
    Another thing; can we ever hope to realize it in this life? I mean, maybe just a little?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Both no interest and every interest. I think of the poem the “Hound of Heaven” (I was listening to it last night a bedtime). We both want Christ and we don’t want Him. There is that, even in the ego, that desires the good, even as it constructs a house of cards that cannot last. And neither you nor I really want to carry the house of cards with us. Our memory is a highly selective distortion of experience (and I could go on and on). But our hunger for authentic existence which even the ego experiences is a hunger for God and the life that only Christ can give.

    If by ego, you mean what I’ve describe, something turned in on itself, then we would be wanting hell (and we often do). But we have to let hell go into order to have heaven.

    It is a death of self, in order to know a life of self that the self always wanted and so often fled.

    “I do unite myself to Christ,” and it scares me to say that, because He might take me at my word and bring the house of cards down sooner than I want. “Lord, save me, but not yet” (was that Augustine?).

    What lives on is me, my true self, my greatest joy, my finest love, my reflection of Christ.

  5. David Avatar

    I’m afraid I don’t follow father. This is a matter of some interest to me, that is, I’ve thought about it a great deal. I’m not sure one can say that Christ does any saving at all, if what comes after is of no part of anything I have ever known myself to be.

    Yes, I have forgotten exactly what it felt like in 2nd grade when I was beaten up by a larger boy, and I have forgotten what it was like to be held by my mother watching the fire on Christmas eve; yet all at was and us me regardless of my present construction. And I do not yet know how next Thursday will appear to me, but it will still be me that it appears to.

    Christ’s risen body was wounded. And we believe in the resurrection of our bodies. The saints remember us and so forth. So something here is amiss. There is nothing good in the good news, if not life from death.

    You come very near to saying: no, still everything dies, but God will make something that resembles me, a sort of clone or what have you.. But *I*, that is the only I I have ever known, or will ever know, has always been and is still condemned to that river of unbeing, that decent into nothing that we call hell.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I see your point. I do not think that the I have known disappears, nor do all the memories, etc. And it is certainly not a change of subject. The subject that is you or me is often driven and effected by many things that are not actually us but are magnified.

    For example, I suffered with a panic disorder and anxiety for most of my life (until about 3 years ago). It was a filter that effected my ego in some very dark ways from time to time. But if that disorder and anxiety are no longer there, how will I see myself and everything I remember? The subject is the same, but the ‘filters’ through which we see things change (if you will).

    The subject remains, but that is certainly a very complex things. For example, I can think through my life, even back into childhood, and the one thing that seems constant is the subject. I can look through memory of being beaten up by a bully and it does not seem at all the same to me now as it once did – even though the subject looking at it now seems to me to be the same subject (and it is). That subject is almost timeless through time.

    We do not pass into a river of unbeing. We grow into a state of greater being – greater than we imagine. Not turned inward but outward. The subject remains, be our orientation is healed and magnified.

    These are indeed important thoughts and not easy to get at, but well worth the conversation.

  7. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for this post and for your comments here, Fr. Stephen. I am reminded of Our Lord’s words in John 12

    24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.

    To me these words mean that in this world I am “alone” in a way that I do not completely understand, but I believe it has to do with my humanity and the mistakes/sins of my life here (which of course I pray to repent and seek forgiveness hopefully always!)

    And so when I die I will no longer “remain alone” but I will produce much grain. When I look at what happens when a seed is planted and dies it opens up quickly and reaches itself out to other open seeds surrounding it.

    Forgive me! And thank you, Fr. Stephen for examining these important aspects of Life

  8. Albert Haddad Avatar
    Albert Haddad

    Thank You Dr. Freeman. This is Beautiful! Indeed, it is; Love & Blessings toball mankind!

  9. Heather Anna Avatar
    Heather Anna

    Forgive me if my language and concepts are clunky; I’m just a catechumen! And slightly sleep-deprived young mother!

    At the beginning of the year my husband and I bought a couple of icons and an oil vigil lamp, and set up our family prayer corner. I have begun to wonder, as I read more about the concept of self-emptying, if the vessel is a sort of icon of ourselves, because only with the oil and the flame, can our true Person be revealed.

    When I was little I once got an art set for Christmas. It consisted of several bottles shaped like fish, and colored sand that you could layer inside the bottles. It had a stick with a blunt end for tamping down the sand (if you weren’t careful to do this the layers would eventually start to separate and get ugly), and a sharp end for making designs between layers. The silly thing was that once filled with sand, you couldn’t really make out the details of the individual bottles anymore, like the facial features and smaller fins and contours. And, though they were plastic and definitely not suitable as vigil lamps, for the sake of the metaphor, let’s just add that they also couldn’t let light shine through once they were filled.

    I wonder if the sand is our ego, and we spend much of our lives carefully selecting the colors and proportions and patterns and skillfully tamping it down, only to get bored by the results and decide to re-invent ourselves every so often. Maybe the “gnashing of teeth” that many people face is the realization that we’ve spent our whole lives mucking around with pretty dirt, when we were really supposed to be emptying it out of ourselves, so that eventually the glory of God can come shining through and reveal what we really are.

    It seems like when people react to something with a disproportionate amount of rage, it’s because someone or something has shaken up the sand, destroyed the layers and patterns, and made it ugly. It’s been revealed to be just a non-permanent passtime, even if they’ve put years of effort into it. I had this happen once, in a way that seemed earth-shattering at the time. Part of a facad, part of a mask, something I had labored at for years, fell off me. And besides my own deep shame to deal with, most everyone I knew was downright angry at *me* because not only had my ego been messed up, but theirs had been as well, by association. The only person who realized it was all just sand, that there was much more to me than that mess, was my fiance, now husband. I wonder if he’s the only person (other than God, the angels, and saints) who has glimpsed the details of my true vessel. Even if for the most part I’m still mucking around with my pretty dirt.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What makes my ego false is that we live in a state if fragmentation and isolation. I seek things outside of myself to fill in the cracks and assuage the feeling of being alone.

    Only in Christ are the fractures healed. Only in communion of thanksgiving are we brought out of isolation.

    Ego as we know it resists that under the false assumption it is in control or should be.

    That is what shattered us in the first place.

    Healed and in communion you are no less you. In fact you are fully you. That is the nature of salvation.

  11. Nicholas Avatar

    David, perhaps one way to put it is the following: When we put the ego to death, the ego does not cease to exist but we cease to identify ourselves with the ego, but rather with the greater Yet-Not-I self that we are. When we die to sexual desire, for example, the sexual desire does not necessarily disappear, but we simply no longer believe in it. We no longer indulge it or resist it, we simply allow it to pass. Dying to the ego is similar.

    Fr. Stephen, amazing post! Could you expand a little more on “this kind of existence is something not yet realized in our lives”? Do you mean that Personhood cannot be realized in this life (i.e. before the age to come)? Or that true Personhood itself is a kind of constant motion toward Christ? If it is the truth of who we are, why can we not realize it now?

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Interesting analogies. To make it even more complicated, the work Christ does in us often remains hidden. I am very fond of this passage from Wisdom:

    1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. 5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; 6 like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. 7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We can realize it now, and in many of the saints this is made clear. The Elder Sophrony is a contemporary whose life seems to have known this kind of Personhood. The new book I Knew A Man in Christ by Met. Hierotheos Vlachos makes this quite clear. Sophrony would have said it was true of Silouan.

    It becomes truer and truer in our lives. I tend to be hesitant about this only not to mislead in any way. I think of it as an increasing manifestation rather than a spiritual progress. It is, I think, very much a hidden thing at first. To know it, and thus to know the true self, it is necessary to find the place of the heart. It is like having scales fall from our eyes.

    Sophrony very much connects this greater openness, with greater self-emptying and connects the greater self-emptying with the willingness to enter into Hades with Christ and pray there for the whole world. Probably the greatest contribution of Sophrony to the world is his teaching on Personhood. For an somewhat organized treatment, read Fr Zacharias’ Christ, Our Way and Our Life.

  14. Nicholas Avatar

    Thank you for clarifying, Father. I’ve just started His Life is Mine, and I’ll add Fr. Zacharias’ book to my reading list.

  15. Polo Avatar

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen.

    I’ve just begun The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis and this article plus the subsequent conversation will undoubtedly help guide me through this book.

  16. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    LORD JESUS CHRIST, I am the darkness. YOU are the LIGHT. LORD JESUS CHRIST, fill the darkness that I am and make me the LIGHT. If we, as egos, are focused in on ourselves, folded over so to speak, no light can enter. As we open up and expose the darkness that we are to the LIGHT, the darkness that we are disappears and we become the LIGHT. Father, is this close to what you are saying?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Something like that.

  18. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen, wouldn’t it help your definition if we would say that the ego is nothing else but the “bodily thought” or the “bodily consciousness” ?

    This is how I understand your posts and the Christian teachings. Our consciousness and our entire existence is exiled in the body. We experience life through the lens of the bodily impulses and the movements of the lower strata of the soul, which are concerned with desires and instincts.

    We experience even the Nous, it is all still there, but its “messages” are extremely dilluted by passins through the thick strata of our disordered psyche and body, so when they reach us, we experience them as just another impression among a multiplicity of them.. We identify ourselved with its and bits and fragments of all sorts, so we somehow become interwined with them, letting them shape us. We change when they change and are broken when they are broken.

    Basically we create an idol inside our imagination which we call “I”- an idol which we cosntantly struggle to re-define and re-shape according to the changes in our environment and experience.

    Our Person is what remains when we strip all these strata, when our consciousness is shifted from body to nous.

    Is this a correct understanding?

  19. Mihai Avatar

    *Just to qualify my statements a little: when I say “exiled” in the body or removing “different strata” I don’t have any gnostic/manichaen idea in mind. I just say that our being has become un-centered and disordered.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is largely correct. But the Person is also dynamic, an ever-moving outward of love. I think that this is perhaps the most fundamental difference. The collection of things that make up the ego are often just a lens through which the “subject” sees. And it effects the subject greatly. I’m sticking the term “subject” in here lest we think that there is some total loss of identity.

    For example, so much of what I see of the world is shaped by anxieties and passions and the like – it distorts the world and it distorts the subject who sees. When someone takes a drug, for example, they are trying to adjust what they see or feel. I remember a man, a successful salesman, who was an alcoholic telling me one time that he did not think he could sell anything if he was not drinking. It clearly numbed certain fears and allowed him to be more outgoing. But, it was a delusion. It was still “him” doing the sales and not the alcohol.

    It is the graced element that is too often missing in our thought, as well. It is why we cannot “imagine” what we will be because we cannot imagine grace. So, it is not just the falling away of the passions, etc., it is an addition. St. Paul says that we longed “not to be unclothed, but to be clothed upon.” There is a potential of the subject, a liberation that we do not imagine. This becomes reality in the life of grace.

  21. Ed Avatar

    In reading this, I was immediately reminded of Father’s article “Looking for the Self in All the Wrong Places”, specifically in connection to his words on Colossians 3:1-4.

    I hope I am not wrong in considering that to be a companion piece to this article.

  22. Christopher Avatar

    “We do not pass into a river of unbeing. We grow into a state of greater being – greater than we imagine. Not turned inward but outward. The subject remains, be our orientation is healed and magnified.

    These are indeed important thoughts and not easy to get at, but well worth the conversation.”

    I have to admit I have similar thoughts to David upon reading this essay. Is Eastern/Orthodox Christianity a “christened” version of neoplatonism, where the “person” is subsumed/swallowed up in a kind of unity (i.e “The Unity”), and thus this life (as both a “fallen” or “event” in time and as a “saved”, “new creation”, seen-from-the-eschaton/kingdom participant) is really and truly nothing at all and thus there is really no real “image of God” in it/us? If “we” (i.e. the saved human Person) are a mere reflection of Christ (‘yet-not-I”) and a Person is not really a thing-in-of-itself but a mere mode of relating of The One within its Oneness (as if that very assertion makes sense and does not collapse in shear inwardness), then there is no Person as such.

    Does the emphasis (?over-emphasis?) of love-as-relating and Person-as-relating of the Isaac/Silouan/Sophrony line not have a neoplatonic feel? This is by the way the reason for the universalism (if true) in them, because universalism goes hand in hand with neoplatonism. Christian universalism is a sort of glass-half-full version of the destruction (the coming to terms with the ultimate unreality of Person) of the many in the one, a reduction of Love and Person to a certain conception of the relation between Persons both in God and Man.

    No David, Orthodoxy is not a christinized, “mystical” neoplatonism, though many in western Christendom think so. I am beginning to wonder out loud if they are not correct however in that the East has this tendency and it comes out in certain Fathers/Saints. I have always gone along with the “west forgot greek/classical philosophy” and thus read neoplatonism into the Fathers, but I think now there is something more to the criticism…

  23. Dino Avatar

    It is a tough conversation… I can’t help thinking though that if (the theological as well as the mystical) fathers (both) claim that God is deeper, more real and more core to our own being than our very selves are, and that the Life of a person who has ‘suffered’ Theosis in the Uncreated One is supernaturally more natural to him (even to his body) than all of creation is, (St Symeon the Thologian comes to mind in particular) then -it would follow- that the neoplatonic sounding ideas of Christianity are nothing of the sort.
    The “I, Christ” notion springs more from an ontological ‘re-centralisation’ of our self.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I absolutely disagree. The “relational” aspect of our existence is precisely that of the Holy Trinity. But the identity, or Person of the Son does not disappear in any way, shape or form, nor does ours. I find your criticism particularly of Isaac/Silouan/Sophrony to be in your own imagination and not grounded in anything else. You simply put forward an insinuation, which is among the poorest of statements.
    Sophrony in particular was deeply clear about this, having been involved in Far Eastern Mysticism as a young man and then returned to the Faith. He brought nothing of that with him, but, instead became a very astute critic.
    I think your worrisome concerns about some sort of creeping universalism is darkening your thoughts and creating problems where none exist.

  25. Christopher Avatar

    It is tough Dino. On the one hand, the reality of the Person has to be preserved (or rather recognized), otherwise “what is Christ saving” as David says – the “yet-no-I” becomes “I am a delusion and only God is real”. God “is deeper, more real and more core to our own being than our very selves”, very true. Yet, there is this little thing called creation (and it is real), and we are creatures (and we are real), and according to Revelation we can be “saved” and “live” in The Kingdom of the Real.

    If the west errors to the “essentialist” side and errors when it starts with the “essence” of God first, does the east (or certain members of it) also error when they begin with the “energy” side, and thus reduce Love to merely relating so that the Person (of both God and Man) gets swallowed up in a kind of universalist energetic dance of light?

    When I read:

    “…Since he has first lived the drama of cosmic desolation through the experience of kenosis, and acquired consciousness of the state of all mankind, he begins to assume a self-awareness of meta-cosmic dimensions. Enduring the sufferings of this stage, he is being crucified with Christ, and ‘he becomes receptive to the infinitely great Divine Being’. This elevated state of man’s spirit is manifest in his prayer for all the world,”

    I am thinking “do I give this a 9 or a 9.5 on the neoplatonic gobbledygook scale?”, but then comes:

    “… which he would not be able to withstand”

    And that saves it for me, for there is a “he”, a Person (who, very importantly, “stands”), that is not swallowed up/negated (a creature that is is loved, does love, and which God “saves” hopefully). But then comes:

    “… unless he had already become a partaker of ‘the universality of Christ Himself, Who bears in Himself all that exists’. ”

    and I want to mentally emphasize “all that exists” over and against “universality of Christ Himself Who bears in Himself” to prevent a neoplatonic reading of “bears in Himself” and preserve the Persons (by which I mean the Trinity, Sophrony, St. Paul who “lives but does not”, everyone) from being swallowed up and lost in a “universality”. I also do this to keep U2 out of my head (you know, “I believe in the Kingdom Come, then all the colours will bleed into one” 😉 )

    No doubt we are running up against the limits of language here. With Jessica Powers I say:

    …I am paging hurriedly
    through wordless volumes of reality
    to find what Love has indicated there.
    I would define my love in some incredible penance
    of which no impotent language is aware.

  26. Christopher Avatar

    “your criticism particularly of Isaac/Silouan/Sophrony to be in your own imagination and not grounded in anything else”

    I will grant that this is probably correct. I have only read their modern interpreters, and throw in my own misinterpretation of the interpreters I doubt I am getting anything close to the original signal. That said, I don’t suspect you and others are seriously misinterpreting them either.

    “I think your worrisome concerns about some sort of creeping universalism is darkening your thoughts and creating problems where none exist.”

    Again, probably true (ok, just “true” 😉 ). The universalism goes way back (as you have stated) and so if it is “creeping”, it is so slow as to be irrelevant. Not exactly sure what to do with it however. My first instinct is revulsion, and to the extant that this is a sentiment and a reaction it is to be walked past and left behind. However, part of me says it is more than this…

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sophrony is good to read, as is Fr. Zacharias (his best interpreter). Actually, Sophrony has almost nothing to say about universalism, and I don’t think I’ve read anything at all on it in Zacharias.

    Where I think the root of the “tendency” is, is in an ontological understanding of salvation (as opposed to a forensic). And this “tendency” is there as something of an idea, rather than plainly stated. It’s an idea in that certain things, if followed out, might lead there.

    I first encountered this 35 years ago when reading and thinking through the ontological approach – first in St. Athanasius. If we are saved by union with Christ (God becomes what we are so that we might become what He is), and not just in some forensic change in our legal status – and if Christ has assumed human nature (and we are all partakers of one human nature), then the universalist question becomes natural.

    There is, if you will, already a salvation of human nature. It has already been united with Christ in the Incarnation. What remains, however, is the salvation of each Person. And it is there that the battleground lies. I think it certainly possible that persons can remain unreconciled to Christ, and thus alienated from their own nature. But when you see, following the Cappadocians and the Councils, that human nature has already been assumed by Christ, then it is at least possible to see that the “playing field” has been tilted towards salvation. We were created for salvation. Or as St. Augustine says, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

    I contrast this with some of the ontological pessimism of Calvinism, in which it seems our nature is positively opposed to God. You get the idea that He was saving us in spite of ourselves.

    I think that the ontological approach, which is common to almost all the Eastern Fathers, has a “tendency” towards salvation (possibly of all). The playing field is tilted. But there remains the perverse freedom of individuals that is able to act contrary even their own nature.

    I think that the ontological approach is not only correct, but also states God’s goodness and utter commitment to the salvation of all. That by no means says that it occurs – only that God desires that all men be saved and has and will do all things for that purpose.

    So, when I contemplate condemnation, I mostly consider my own perverse desires that rebel against God, and I take to heart the warning that there is a danger that those perverse rebellions will come to own me. I think this is always the most appropriate way to approach the question.

    I don’t actually think there is a “creeping” universalism, just a recognition of the tilted playing field. That some one to assume that this brings a happy outcome is not surprising. It is, however, something that is more than the Church says. I have a wall in my life that says: “Don’t go there.” But there is also the danger to want to “correct” the tilt of the playing field in order to guard against universalism, and this is a different perversion. I think we should learn to live with the tilt and yet refrain from saying what we cannot know.

  28. Dino Avatar

    the notion of self and relationality of person, as well as the ‘Person’s’ cosmic dimensions in Christ are explained well in Elder Sophrony. He even speaks [In ‘We Shall See Him as He is’] of how eventually, the utterly ‘Christified’ self can say -as God does- (correctly) “I am” (in Christ). A seperate and distinct ‘I’ that is simultaneously utterly united to “Ο ΩΝ”, the Ground of all that exists. As in the Trinity, it is communion/relation that provides uniqueness to the Person and not something else.
    Fr Sophrony’s words that all creatures can only possibly span the (obviously vast) gamut between the following two extremes should shed some light too:
    from love of self to the point of hate of God, to love of God to the point of ‘hate’ of self.
    And obviously,this last extreme, liberation from individualistic seperation, through personal union with the Ground of all that exists, would make a Person cosmic/universal.
    I know that these statements and words are easily misunderstood inindividualistic modernity, and lament that fact, knowing how simply, easily and not neo-platonically they are understood by simpletons who have been brought up with a sense of the genuine Orthodox tradition.

  29. Robert Avatar

    It seems to me that this issue is very similar to the 1 and 3 conundrum of the Trinity. Any attempt to “explain away” the tension results in heresy. The “tension” between two the (seemingly paradoxical) truths needs to be affirmed and upheld.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve had a couple of further thoughts as I’ve pondered your question. Primarily, the trouble of Neo-Platonism is ultimately its loss of Personhood – it is absorption in the One. Orthodoxy, though rightly emphasizing the relational aspect of Personhood, does not have an absorption. There can be no relation unless there are two (or more). The very notion of relation requires a distinction. I ran across this quote from the conversations of Elder Sophrony this morning:

    “The light of Plotinus does not embrace the world with love.”

    Love utterly requires the distinction (not absorption) of the Person. The subject remains distinct, no matter how related.

  31. drewster2000 Avatar

    The irony of discussing the Person we are becoming is that we have so little ability or knowledge in this area – only hints really. It’s kind of like 5 year olds talking about what life will be like when they’re all grown up.

    The topic inevitably comes up but one has to take many details with a grain of salt and for the most part practice having that “Don’t go there!” wall, lest one misses their childhood from the practice of always looking too far ahead.

  32. Christopher Avatar


    I will have to think on the “tilt” imagery. Given Sophony’s biography, he would have been aware of how an absorption of the radical (and eternal) uniqueness of Persons (both the Trinity and Man) is opposed to the ultimate negation of the Person in both greek and oriental philosophy. Love as Christianly understood is only possible because of this radical uniqueness (which is necessary ontologically and not merely “forensically”, and this means the reality of radical separateness – thus Hell is real – and thus universalism has this neoplatonic flavor).

    I think the whole universalism/hell “answer” is probably found in Maximus. Many moons ago I tried to absorb Thunberg’s “Man and the Cosmos” and Farrell’s “Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor”. However, I quickly understood that Maximus might have been the greatest (and most difficult) *philosopher* who ever lived, to say nothing of his theological and Saintly bonafides. I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says they really understand him, let alone explicate theologically from him. D.B. Hart’s robust universalism hinges on his understanding of Maximus and “choice”, and as others have pointed out Hart’s understanding is “eccentric” to say the least, and probably erroneous in key aspects. Hart is a genius, but Maximus was a genius x 10, or genius squared, or something…


    I actually think that Christianity has much to say on the Person, which is to say that “much” has been Revealed. It is actually one of the few things that makes Christianity utterly unique in “world religion”. For me personally, Christianity’s radical affirmation/preservation of the Person was a hinge that turned me to it, and indeed in Orthodoxy I perceived the true preservation and understanding of the Person (e.g. Orthodoxies theological suspicion of the filioque turns on this understanding – and modern ecumenical advocates who want to make the filioque a mere artifact of “One Big Misunderstanding”, say between latin and greek languages or historical theological/political contingencies, don’t seem to understand this, though this is not to say that there can not be an Orthodox reading of the filioque).

    The world/creation does not obviously point to heaven/hell because other philosophies could be right about it (i.e “the world”). For example, we could be living in a neo-darwinian materialism where Persons are an illusion of the psychology of an upstart-nearly-hairless ape. When a G.K. Chesterton argues against such a conception in “The Everlasting Man” he stands on Christianities affirmation of ontological Personhood (thus the neo-darwinian conception is to ultimately negate the Person into a neo-platonic and everlasting-in-the-material sense “Man” that “evolves” and individuals/Persons are spectral fantasies that are illusions of an organic brain).

    Part of the madness of modernity is its schizophrenia about what a Person is. On the one hand, it wants to affirm the Person (e.g. in an anthropology that affirms political/civil “rights”). On the other hand, it wants to negate the Person (e.g. in just about every other aspect of it’s anthropology/philosophy/materialism).

    I used to think that in our Christian outreach we should do our best to speak to and preserve what was left of the Person in modernity. I now wonder if the too much has been lost and there is too little to affirm. Surely the darkness of nihilistic modernity can be illumined with the light of Christianities radical “You are real, even eternally real and you eternally matter, which is to say you are loved by the very ground of Being Himself” (boy, am I channeling Tillich or what 😉 )”, though I now wonder if the modern “God of Self” philosophy has to be completely negated/deconstructed before any speech about Person can be understood.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The flaw in Hart’s reasoning is to make nature triumphant over person. The natural will indeed chooses God, always. And the character of sin is that we do not live in accordance with our nature. But Hart seems to make it “necessary” that we eventually give in to our nature. He is correct that true freedom lies in living in conformity with our nature, but God clearly (and experientially) does not force the Person to realize its nature. Freedom is inherent in what it means to be Person, and there’s no getting around this by making our nature overcome the Person.

    That is why, though I agree with universalists that God desires and wills the salvation of all – I cannot say with them that this will be the ultimate outcome. I do not find a necessity, however, in it not being the outcome (as some do). But the freedom of the Person to instantiate the nature or not remains and shuts down the goal of our hope short of the goal.

  34. drewster2000 Avatar


    Don’t take this the wrong way but sometimes you seem to be too smart for your own good. That is, your knowledge is your own worst enemy. I didn’t say that there is nothing to learn from discussing such things. I think it’s admirable – and perhaps even necessary – to reach for the moon so that you’ll at least get out bed (forget falling among the stars), but with pride nipping at our heels and our ego begging to be filled with it, the temptation to think we know so much more than we do is a very strong and ever-present danger.

    We can talk all we want, but when we’re done we need to balance the time spent by sitting in silence contemplating how small we are, how little we know and how much we need Him.

  35. Agata Avatar

    “We can talk all we want, but when we’re done we need to balance the time spent by sitting in silence contemplating how small we are, how little we know and how much we need Him.”

    I love this sooo much! Thank you Drewster.

  36. Agata Avatar


    Your beautiful words reminded me of this Prayer of St. Makarios:

    “Lord, as Thou desirest and as Thou knowest, have mercy on me”.

    May the Lord bless and keep all of you who post (and read) here. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  37. Dino Avatar

    The only ‘universalism’ we consistently see ‘taught’ in the Church again and again is that of the pedlar of St Anthony; the notion that all are somehow saved apart from myself… Person thus becomes prayer incarnate and -in Christ and in the assuredness that only the unity with Him can provide – intercedes for all, inspired by the Spirit, becoming cosmic, passing from the individualistic “I have” to the personal “I am”…

  38. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for these beautiful words.

    Fr. Meletios Webber puts it this way:
    “God cannot save *me* unless He saves *you* first.”

    In His omnipotent providence God transforms even my utter selfishness and self-contentedness (my desire to be saved) into a prayer for all others (as my salvation depends on theirs first). But all is accomplished by this most simple [and most difficult] “Lord have mercy on me”, which unites me [and all others] with Him, makes me His.

  39. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    I know I have quoted St Nikolai Velamirovic before, but this is so good I’ll pass it on. He’s writing about the mind of the false self.
    “Wretched is the nourishment of my mind, as long as it is nourished only with what the senses offer it. External vestiges and notions, shadows of shadows, magnified to monstrous proportions (for shadows always grow monstrously huge where there is little light) — is this in fact my mind? I have discovered that all the cognition of my mind amounts to nothing more than constructing frail structures out of frail shadows….And in solitude I repeat to my mind: now, while I am smelling nothing, while I am tasting nothing, while I am touching nothing– what is filling you now, if not merely the shadowy images and memories of what you have heard, seen, smelled, tasted and touched? All this has disappeared into the past, has changed, become disfigured, disintegrated, and died.” At 69 I can look back at my life at what I think happened, but the vagaries become magnified. I cannot see the self I’ve constructed through these memories and events and experiences any more as me. I know that that person is only revealed as I allow myself to be renewed daily through the sacraments, through prayer of the heart, through mindfulness of God throughout the day, acts of mercy, etc. Folks have commented lately about old people sitting around waiting to die. Well, I guess I do sit more! 🙂 And I’ve incorporated into my daily prayers…a Christian ending to my life, in peace, without pain or shame and for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.

  40. Dean Avatar

    Alan….podcasts. …specials….all specials….Holy Virgin Cathedral.

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