Truth, Lies and Icons

As verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means.


Franz Kafka famously wrote: “The Lie has become the World Order.” It was a sobering estimate (by an unbeliever) of the nature of human reality. Lying, simply not telling the truth, can seem a minor thing. But Jesus and the New Testament seem to pay a great deal of attention to lying, and treat it quite seriously. There is more here than the mere abrogation of a moral tenet. It is a concern with something more “Kafkesque.”

The nature of truth and lies becomes clear if they are thought of in terms of being. The Church describes God as the “author of our being.” In the writings of the Fathers, being itself, simple existence, is seen as a good thing, the first of all created good things. God brings us into existence saying, “It is good.” More than that, the Fathers teach that it is God’s will that we grow towards “well-being,” with the ultimately goal of “eternal being.” This, in terms of existence, is the path of salvation.

And this understanding reveals the nature of a lie: it has no true existence. That which is not true not only has no existence, but its very purpose is to obscure or destroy that which indeed has true existence. Fantasy and imagination, even though they have no true existence, are by no means inherently false. Only those forms which seek to distort, deny or destroy that which truly exists can be called “lies” rather than “fantasy” or “imagination.”

But this makes speech about reality (that which truly exists) very significant. The most obvious thing we can say is that reality itself and speech about reality are not the same thing. They are, however, deeply connected.

In classical philosophy, the school of thought that describes words as only “in our heads” is called Nominalism. The names (nomina) of things are described as nothing more than thoughts. Those who argued otherwise (there are various types of such arguments) are called Realists. Orthodoxy, in its classical form, has always espoused some form of Realism. There is a relationship between words and thoughts and that to which they refer that is greater than simply being something “in our heads.”

One of the places where this debate took shape was in the debate over the veneration of icons. It is clear that images had played a role in the life of the Church from very early times. That role was not questioned or explored until the 7th and 8th centuries. The debate was about more than the mere making of images. A greater and more pressing question was the veneration (giving honor) to the images themselves. St. Basil the Great stated a clear connection between the image and the subject of its image: “Honor given to the image is referred to its prototype.” Thus the honor given to an icon of Christ was, in fact, honor given to Christ Himself.

St. Basil’s statement was something of a simple assertion, without elaboration. But in the 8th and 9th centuries, St. Theodore the Studite developed a much more careful treatment of the question. He described an icon as a “hypostatic representation,” that is a representation of the personal or particular characteristics of its subject (the personal is always considered particular rather than general or abstract). He further taught that what is represented is “hypostatically” present in the image. The image does not become what is represented – that would be a presentation of its essence. Instead, it makes present what is represented, i.e., the Person. St. Theodore’s treatment thus used the language that the Church had developed for speaking about the Holy Trinity, as well as the Person and Natures of Christ to speak about the Holy Icons. It is a treatment that is often forgotten or neglected.

St. Theodore’s teaching on this question manages to avoid Nominalist solutions. He does not say, “It’s just a picture.” He does not say, “It’s only connection to what is depicted is in the mind.” Like all of the Fathers, he is a Realist. There is a true, even ontological, relationship between the icon and its subject. But he avoids charges of “magic” by maintaining that what is represented is only hypostatically present.

His explanation makes it possible to say, “The man in the picture is Peter.”

Turning back to language, the same understanding says that words matter. They have an actual relationship with the reality of which they speak and it matters. Fr. Georges Florovsky once said that “doctrine is a verbal icon of Christ.” Or, as the Seventh Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

Of course, the palette of language is far richer than the palette of the artist. Words have “shades” of meaning and subtle hues that an artist should envy. But, in the teaching of the Orthodox faith, words have a grounding in reality beyond psychology.

Some have said that the modern world is inherently Nominalist. We believe that our words are only words, and only have meaning because we say or think they do. The “reality” they describe is, therefore, in our minds. There was a school of thought (Idealism) that held that there is no objective reality outside the mind, or certainly that it cannot be proved. That extreme position has never gained acceptance. However, the modern sociology of knowledge, in which perceptions, prejudice, etc. are given a dominant and controlling position, yields something of the same effect. Conversation begins to falter in the face of withering doubts about the reality or trust-worthiness of anything in our heads.

Words have something of a sacramental relationship with the reality they represent. Or, to be more precise, they have an iconic relationship with reality. Icons are not photographs, nor can words ever serve as photographic or holographic substitutes. But icons also carry more information than photographs and are able to make associations and connections that reveal the truth of reality (its foundational reality) far more profoundly than is possible in a photograph. Words have that same ability. Take the poetic sentence:

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

No photograph (and perhaps no icon) could carry as much information as this combination of words from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” The many associations of “beast” (including the Beast of Revelation) do not “approach” – they “slouch.” It carries overtones of “slither” (and the serpent of the Garden) as well as other emotional content. And so the analysis would continue. It is a phrase that lives in my mind, capturing a reality both present and yet to come.

And this brings us back to lying. The struggle to speak the truth transcends mere morality. At its most fundamental level, it is a struggle to rightly relate to and participate in reality itself. To “live a lie” borders on not living at all – and is a synonym for hell.

To claim that the reality of our words lives only in the mind is itself a “lie” (not an intentional one, but simply not true). And even the photographic presentation of reality (as in all literalisms) fails to rise to the status of truth.

The Fathers held that the world-to-come (the Eschaton) was the truth. The Old Testament, they said, was a shadow, while the New Testament was an icon.

As verbal beings, we live in a world of icons. We experience the world in an iconic fashion. A major difficulty for us is that we have lost the vocabulary of iconic reality. We have substituted the language of photography. The dissonance between reality and our photographic assumptions has led us to doubt both. Man is an iconographer and needs to re-learn what that means. The result can be a movement towards the truth and a renewed confidence in our speech.

On this Sunday of Orthodoxy, speak the truth. Reveal that which is hidden by living in union with the truth. Refuse the lie. Refuse to participate in the lie.

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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62 responses to “Truth, Lies and Icons”

  1. Robert Avatar

    Father would you explain what you mean to say is the substantial difference between icon and photo? Are both not in need of interpretation? Are both not images, representations depicting reality, each in its own way? By beholding either does subjectivity not play a significant role?

  2. Christopher Avatar


    The two words that stand out to me in your questions are “interpretation” and “representations”. They assume a *distance* between things-in-of-themselves (rather persons, or any other kind of creation) and the words/thought. A nominalistic world view assumes this distance is always there. What if the distance was not a character of reality itself, but rather was a condition of the lies within oneself – one’s purity?

    “The Fathers held that the world-to-come (the Eschaton) was the truth. The Old Testament, they said, was a shadow, while the New Testament was an icon.”

    an interpretation and representation is always a shadow – a shadow frozen in the mind for examination, measurement, and ultimately for manipulation.

  3. Brandon Avatar

    Father – would it be accurate to say that an icon shows us what truth the icon embodies i.e what it means vs a photo that merely shows us what the photo is of in terms of “meaningless” matter? And therefore until we view everything in an iconic or sacramental manner, we won’t be able to see the true meaning of anything – how God created it to be.

    Within a materialistic view, nominalism makes sense because everything can ultimately be broken down into a bunch of atoms, instead of a physical expression of a metaphysical truth that can be found in a spiritual worldview.

    Thank you

  4. Karin Avatar

    “A glance at the picture, a thought – remembrance – of the original,” was a phrase my mother always used, albeit in German. To me that meant, a thought – remembrance – of one person in the picture, did not evoke the same feeling as a thought of another person, perhaps even in the same picture, all depending on the relationship, heart connection, and intimacy I had with that person pictured! Although I was raised to not worship any image, I think I understand the icon and the significance it ha, or can have, in the life of a believer. One look at the icon, should focus my thoughts on the person, not on the icon itself! And yet, I still have reservations, because the artist’s rendition of the physical icon, pales in comparison to the beauty I imagine will one day be fully revealed! Somehow I feel that I don’t need the icons, to think of my Lord and Savior either in all his pain, agony and suffering, or His delight when He was with children, or the fact that I cannot possibly imagine my Risen Saviour’s Beauty – what no eye has seen! Not sure if any of this makes sense, wasn’t even sure I should comment. Blessings!

  5. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father Stephen. Nice thoughts. Comforting thoughts.

    “…what is represented is “hypostatically” present in the image. The image does not become what is represented…Instead, it makes present what is represented, i.e., the Person.”
    I think about images of the Theotokos that weep, and the healing that flows forth from icons. It is Truth “making Itself present”, tangible, by Grace. That is to say, God presence in His energies. So I see icons as a manifestation of God’s presence, the Word made flesh, as well as through the images of the Saints and martyrs who are now in full participation with Him through His energies. And it doesn’t even have to be a Person. It can be an image of the Cross, because in the Eschaton all matter (trees, plants, etc) will be alive in Him. You can see how dimension in icons disappears and all is “one”, or on the “same plane”. There is no “other dimension” when God is all in all. Photographs do not have this Reality.
    Same can be said for words. When you speak the truth there is life behind those words…they are ‘life-giving’. And when you lie, well, how can there be any life in lies. The father of lies led our first parents, and the rest of mankind, to death. But Christ , as Truth, Who spoke words of truth, is Life, the very Life of the world.

    Thanks again Father. A blessed Sunday of Orthodoxy.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that in my usage, I am describing the photo as an attempt to portray things “as they really are.” In truth, photos are almost always other than what things really are. For example, I took a trip to the Southwest some years ago – Grand Canyon, etc. I took tons of photos with a new camera. When I got back, I was terribly disappointed. The camera photographed what it could see – but it could not see what I saw. It simply could not convey the experience of the Grand Canyon – not even remotely.

    Icons function differently – truly great icons, or well-done icons. They can and should bring far more to the image than you could possibly do with a photograph. It’s not just the image itself – but the icon is also an image of something/someone and it opens up into so much more than is simply at the surface. It draws you into a relation with the whole of what it makes present.

    I’ve very little interest or respect for the term “subjectivity” and think it’s a red herring that misdirects the conversation. It brings a suggestion about the nature of reality and consciousness that are not true. But that’s a much longer subject.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A photograph, like nominalism, presumes a reductionist view of the world – a sort of minimalism. An icon inherently presumes an open world, one in which eternity itself impinges and coinheres with everything.

  8. sgage Avatar

    “I’ve very little interest or respect for the term “subjectivity” and think it’s a red herring that misdirects the conversation. It brings a suggestion about the nature of reality and consciousness that are not true. But that’s a much longer subject.”

    Fr. Stephen, I believe you are really on to something here, a very big something. I, for one, am hoping and looking forward to an essay exporing this matter.

  9. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Father I understand the many significant differences between icon and photo. If you are questioning the notion that photos don’t require interpretation, that they are unmediated truth, then I wholeheartedly agree. But the problem is not with the photograph as representatiional image. The photo like the icon points to a reality, but is itself not the reality. A good photo can have an iconic quality to it – engendering shared experience, emotions, recollections, and so forth. While subjectivity can be misused, certainly you are not denying subjectivity altogether. I don’t take you to reduce or erase the human as a real, living person endowed with intention, intelligence and sensibility. But our common experience includes the persisting reality of our subjectivity – your experience with photos from the Grand Canyon illustrates precisely the importance of your personal experience as a perceiving subject in encounter with the real. Your personal and subjective experience (it was your experience, not someone else’s) judged the photos – as images of representations of the real (I take it we all agree the Grand Canyon truly exists) – to fall substantially short of the reality you encountered. Explaining the photos to your friends at home would be laden with accounts of additional experiential information – providing interpretation, context, and meaning.

  10. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Christopher, it is not self evident to me why representation, interpretation and distance are necessarily destructive, per se, in and of themselves. Representation indicates image (icon, photo) cannot be mistaken for the reality it signifies – the image points beyond itself. Interpretation is necessary to provide understanding and meaning. Unless we want to make space and time the locus of evil, then disctance is at worse a marker of creaturely limitation, and at best a God-given good.

    Do you really mean to say the objects we encounter and our thoughts do not have distance between them, that they are identical? This too is not self evident to me, on the contrary it goes against common experience, my thoughts about you are not you. I understand concepts and words to be verbal icons, which cannot and should not be identified as the reality they image. As such there will always be a subjective dimension, calling for interpretation and evaluation.

    We see and know in part, through a glass dimly.

  11. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    The absolute brilliance of the Christian icon and the Orthodox theology supporting it is that the icon upholds the truth of both the subject and the Object. The reality which the icon images does not entail a denial of the reality of beholder of the icon. There is no dialectic struggle in which the reality of the one comes at the cost of the other. Interpretation does not diminish the image. Subjectivity is not an occasion to obscure the light but rather its precondition. Distance proves to be the ground for revelation, not its impossibility. Representation is the analogy of being., as creation is an image reflecting God. The experience of the one is not diminished nor reduced by the other, for the Prototype is without need, the gift to the beholder is gratuitous, utterly free. Beholding the Trinity, drawn in by the beauty of the icon, the viewer’s subjective encounter is revealed to be the reception of revelation, an encounter which means truth and freedom. In the icon we become truly human in the revelation of the Living God.

  12. Dino Avatar

    Very interesting Robert!
    This is a curious subject that I seldom think of. Some interesting aspects of iconography are how it almost undoes the fragmentation that we experience (of times and places and ‘individuals’) while managing to depict so much more than meets the physical eye. (This could also be found in some Indian religious art but that spiritual worldview colours things differently over there…)
    For example: a theologian might be depicted with an unnaturally ‘upwards swollen’ forehead and wrinkle lines bowed upwards -towards the direction of a blessing hand-of-God appearing from a half mandorla- while scenes from his entire life might also be depicted all around him.
    All this is done with minimal self-“expressionism” from the artist/iconographer and maximal respect to Tradition.
    If we had a photo of the said saint, we would take it into account for the physical characteristics, but, if we had met and actually seen the saint alive in the Uncreated Glory of God, we would be interpreting the reduction of any surviving photo of him through our living experience of him very, very different to others. The extent of the aspect of reductionism of photography is only understood when we are considering such examples.
    With a modern day ‘model’ on the other hand, who ‘photographs well’, we might have a situation where the photo actually does give ‘more’ rather than less of the surface/objectified look that they’d want to transmit, perhaps even more than the reality of seeing them (without make-up and lighting etc). But how entirely different is that?

  13. Dino Avatar

    What I mean to say is that icons make of creation a window-towards-God (and the eschata), while photos retain the opaque (post-fall) quality of creation as something (a surface) that draws attention to itself rather than to another.

  14. Xenia Avatar

    There is a wonderfully profound book out that is a must read for all who are interested in icons. It is “The Art of Seeing, Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography” by Fr. Maximos Constas. You will never look at an icon in the same way again and you will come through it with a deeper understanding of truth of icons. And, yes, you will think, “I need icons in my life.”

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I can only reply briefly this morning. Obviously, it is possible to draw positive comparisons between icons and photographs. And it’s possible to do a sort of theological “rif” on the topic. I do not think, however, that the thoughts you’ve offered are a direction I would take those thoughts.

    Were you to walk into a Church that (somehow) had managed to have photographs of the saints rather than icons – and that’s what you had on the walls, iconostasis, etc., the effect would be jarring in the extreme – and, I suggest, what was there would be false in some manner.

    My thoughts are rooted in understanding that difference. We all probably use photographs and our sentiments attached to them to explain why we venerate icons. It’s a nice, handy teaching tool. But it fails dogmatically. Probably for the same reason that the Orthodox do not make statues (as a rule – though there are, no doubt, exceptions). Imagine, instead of icons, you walked into the Church and there were absolutely life-like mannikins that, in every way, were perfect copies of the saints depicted. The effect, strangely, would be horrifying. Again, why?

    My thoughts on subjectivity are largely rooted in Owen Barfield. Yes, I know he’s not Orthodox. I think his work on consciousness – which is not something Orthodoxy has given a great deal of attention to – is closer to describing the nature of the case than anything else I’ve read. I plead my affinity for Lewis and Tolkien and their own dependence on Barfield in this respect. Like them, I find him compelling in many points.

    The fragmentation between subjectivity and objectivity is, I think, rather modern, or, more modern than ancient. It is, in many ways, a very common version of the 2-storey universe. The relationship between perceiver and perceived is far stronger than our subject/object distinction. In my experience, the language of subjectivity and objectivity are rooted almost entirely in a Nominalist world view. As such, it would seem ironic in the extreme to appeal to subjectivity in a conversation regarding Nominalism.

    This is not a conversation that will admit of dogmatic distinctions. So, I will not say, “You’re wrong.” I can only say that I would prefer not to discuss it in the terms you are employing because I think they will create more problems down the road than not. Subjectivity would, I think, always tend towards a Cartesian worldview – which I think is a deep and great mistake.

    Consciousness is a very difficult topic.

    A quick last thought. It would seem that introducing subjective experience into a discussion of icons presumes that their value is found in our thoughts. St. Theodore’s teaching would indicate quite the opposite. Their value is found in that the saint depicted is hypostatically present in the icon. What I might or might not think is, to a degree, beside the point.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I like that book as well.

  17. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin


    As much as the image of God in creation is affirmed as real and substantial (and not merely a concept, but rather an ontological, inerasable gift of God) I don’t see how photos are subject to depict the fall more so than any other image. This is where the illumined eye of the beholder (offering by grace true meaning) comes in – only by the Spirit can we behold the truth, and this applies no more or less to icon, photo or any other vision. One might mistake an icon for poorly stylized art, as one may mistake a photo of a useless beggar for a mere depiction of a street person, while in truth both images may very well depict a saint. One might, as did many who witnessed the events in first person, see in the suffering derelict no more than just that, a convicted rebel receiving his just reward.

    I understand of course that the Christian icon is much more than just an image. It is, if anything, a theological image, and as such has the added layer of theological meaning incorporated into its image, which an unaltered photograph does not contain. This however does not imply a photo is more or less subject to error, in and by itself.

    The real problem seems to me is desacralization – the modern mind has stripped all layers of meaning, reduced existence to a singular level of the material, having displaced transcendence with the immanent. Meaning (and beauty and truth) then only resides in the here and in the here only, and never can it venture beyond. Its reference can only be itself. The icon, and the photo, then can only depict the here and now.

  18. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    It remains unclear to me what the “language of photography” and “photographic assumptions” are. I suppose these are in some way opposed to or different from ”iconic language” and “iconic assumptions” (whatever those may be)?

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An photgraph could be interpreted iconically – though its “language” is that of realism (or a pretense of realism). Of course, we all have apps on our phones now to make our photos more “painterly” if we would like to. In point of fact, everything in creation has an iconic character to it – including photographs. But, of course, photos evolved in a nominalism/secularized culture and tend to bring that baggage with them – to think of them in an iconic manner, it seems to me, would require a rather constant remembering that the photo is not actually realistic, but is an abstraction of sort – sort of distorting its intend capture of reality, then bring back to it an iconic reading. All rather exhausting.

    The grammar or language of iconicity does not presume the capture of reality itself – but a participation in that which is depicted. That is something else. The tradition of Byzantine style (in its many iterations) purposefully abstracts towards a theological presentation. Properly, according to the tradition, an icon only becomes an icon when the name is inscribed on it. There are some places where iconographers paint, then bring the icon to their spiritual father (or the staretz of a community) who decides whether the icon is proper and to be presented to the faithful, and only then is the name, or its abbreviation added to the icon. As such, it has a liturgical relationship with what it represents and not just an artistic relationship.

    Florensky’s work on icons holds that an icon is properly painted when the iconographer is depicting what is noetically perceived. That being the case, I would suggest that many things we call icons are, more accurately, “icon-like,” and that might be the best we can get our hands on. Florensky, using this same approach held that Rublev’s Trinity was proof of the existence of God! That is, Rublev could only have painted the icon called the Trinity, if he had truly and noetically perceived it. I have discussed this with some who have seen that icon in person – and who agreed with Florensky. It’s an interesting train of thought.

    Iconicity is a very important concept. I have a lot of thoughts about it – having written my thesis on iconicity years ago…so, I probably have more opinions than most – for which I beg forgiveness.

    I would contrast iconicity to the concept of the literal. Literal is an important category to the modern mind. It certainly collapses meaning into the thing itself (literally!). It could be described in the manner you have with the terms of transcendence and immanence, though those are not terms I like to use.

    I think that the concept of literal is a false idea – there is no such thing. The reason is that reality is more than meets the eye – always and everywhere. There is a depth, whether we call it noetic, spiritual, or whatever that is always and everywhere a part of and connected to that which we see and hear. In the tradition, there is the language of the “logoi” of created things (I know you’re familiar with all of that). To a certain extent, we do not truly and fully see anything when we do not also see its logos. Since most do not preceive the logos of any created thing, most are walking through the world partially blind to reality. That’s not surprising since we do not see God either, despite the fact that He is everywhere present and filling all things.

    The icon not only refers to that which is transcendent – but it actually participates in it. That which is material is never merely material. I find this very helpful in thinking about Scripture. There is no “literal” reading that is sufficient. “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” the 7th Council said. This recognizes the iconicity of Scripture as well. Scripture does with words what icons do with color – I believe this to be an accurate statement.

    Here, however, the nature of participation is key. “Referral” can easily be reduced to nothing more than the mental exercise that is common to nominalism. “It’s there because I think it’s there.” In the language of icon – that which participates in the icon is truly there (hypostatically) and can be perceived (noetically). This alone is a perception of reality in its fullness. I would suggest that this perception is an inherent part of veneration. We cannot see an icon properly until and unless we venerate it. By the same token, we see nothing in creation properly until and unless we venerate it (in the manner proper to it). Nothing appears to be what it is apart from love.

    If all of that is not helpful, I apologize.

  20. Byron Avatar

    This reminds me of an interesting cartoon by A. B. Frost that made the following comment, poetically, on early photography.

    Said this artist, “Now don’t you suppose
    An intelligent man like me knows
    How a horse ought to go
    Yet you say I don’t know
    And believe what a photograph shows!”

    I was always confused by this viewpoint but I have come to realize, over the years, that an artist may actually depict a horse, while a photograph will only show a horse. The level of personalization changes significantly from the former to the latter. This has helped me quite a bit with my understanding of icons and Father’s teaching point that God is always revealed in the particular. Just my thoughts.

  21. Jeff Avatar

    “Their value is found in that the saint depicted is hypostatically present in the icon. What I might or might not think is, to a degree, beside the point.”

    Thank you, Father for these words. This truth is one God has been persistently bringing to my attention lately. God’s existence is not determined by my experience of Him. He pre-exists and invites our participation in Him. I am formed. Does it work to say I can participate in forming, but that I do not form or initiate this forming? Icons being one part of how he works to form us?

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose that we can say that we participate in our forming – essentially, we do that by keeping His commandments. Spiritual formation is too slow for us to observe easily (if at all). So, we just keep saying yes to God.

  23. Vasilia Avatar

    I have an interest in icons, so thank you Xenia for the book recommendation. I would welcome further reading suggestions. This post and your comments are rich and informative (as usual). Thank you.

  24. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for the reminder of, one, that spiritual formation is “too slow for us to observe easily (if at all),” and two, the reminder of its certainty, which was also pointed out to me this morning in prayer…

    “Rising from sleep, I thank You, Holy Trinity, for in the multitude of Your goodness and compassion, You were not angry with me the idler and sinner, nor have You destroyed me in my transgressions, but You maintained Your usual love for mankind; and when I was prostrate in despair, You raised me up to offer this morning prayer and to glorify Your power. And now enlighten the eye of my mind; open my mouth to contemplate Your words, and to understand Your commandments, and to do Your will, and to sing to You in heartfelt confession, and to praise Your all-holy name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

  25. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    It is helpful Father Stephen, and thank you. I don’t share the anxiety about personal experience (call it subjective, first-person encounter, phenomenology, consciousness, or what have you) as the good news of the Gospel is that God’s self-revelation does not come at the cost of the freedom and truth of creation – rather than its annihilation or diminishment Pascha is its fulfilment. We can be truly human. Subjectivity is, at long last, freed from its hellish echo-chamber of self-reference it could never escape, for in Christ alone it is anchored in the ground of its existence. Truly God is both more “intimate than my innermost” while also “higher than my highest,” to paraphrase Augustine. God meets us in our innermost personal and subjective experience as He who transcends all. But perhaps such language is scandalous or simply not helpful, in which case I likewise ask for pardon.

    Here’s a final thought – perhaps it is possible to perceive the photograph, as representation of a moment in time, in an iconic fashion? Not to substitute the icon of course, but as a way to see all of creation as redeemed, imbued with a sacramental dimension, and never beyond the reach of God? Maybe that is a stretch, I don’t know.

  26. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Robert – I am greatly enjoying your comments and discussion with Fr. Stephen. What concerns me are statements such as, “Subjectivity is, at long last, freed from its hellish echo-chamber of self-reference it could never escape, for in Christ alone it is anchored in the ground of its existence.“ Since subjectivity is, by definition, self-referential, is it not the hellish echo chamber from which Christ liberates us? Should we not, therefore, reject subjectivity altogether and thereby ( as Paul says) be transformed by the renewing of our minds?

  27. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.
    – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Theo-“logy” suggests that words matter. To say “personal experience” is not at all the same thing as “subjectivity.” I have no anxiety about personal experience – except to say that modernity has damaged our understanding of it.

    I have to say that when I write, the memory of these thousands of conversations remain with me. My answers and articles have that larger audience and larger set of questions in mind. A careless use of a term will, two or three articles down the line, make it difficult to say what needs to be said without constantly back-tracking and correcting. Despite an uninformed abuse of the discipline of systematic theology that I occasionally see in internet Orthodoxy, there is much to say for consistency of language and understanding (not that I’m perfectly consistent).

    On photographs – I agree that we can perceive the photgraph as an icon of a moment in time. It’s a helpful way to think of it.

  29. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…and all in this conversation,
    Yes, another conversation that worked itself out. I appreciate that. Thank you.

    ” My answers and articles have that larger audience and larger set of questions in mind. A careless use of a term will, two or three articles down the line, make it difficult to say what needs to be said without constantly back-tracking and correcting.”
    When Father Stephen mentioned the danger of subjectivity, I knew two things. One, that he was not saying that self-reflection was to be avoided. It seems that is an impossibility. Two, I knew he was saying something I was not grasping, and wanted to know what he was trying to say. Father, you have written about it in the past. So I did a search on ‘subjectivity’ (the blog search box) and read the articles. I also did a search for ‘words are icons’ because I was not clear on that either. For me, the archives and search box are a very helpful tool. Because throughout the years Father has not ‘switched gears’ but is consistent in his teachings, which are the teachings of the Church.
    As much as possible, now I understand.
    Thanks again Father, and all.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for this. It’s good to know that I’ve maintained some consistency – enough to be useful. I highly recommend the search option. There are nearly 2500 articles on the blog!

    One thing that has changed for me over the years, and it was brought home to me like a ton of bricks recently during a series of lectures by an Athonite monk and theologian, is that I have changed my mind completely on the work of Met. John Zizioulas. I had not realized it, as such, until I was reflecting on the talks. My thinking in this matter will take some time for me to flesh out in a consistent way. All of that is to say, if you run across mentions of Zizioulas in earlier articles, be aware that I’ve changed my mind…over a long period of time.

  31. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father, yes you are certainly consistent. The archives wouldn’t be of much help if you weren’t!
    Thanks for the ‘heads up’ regarding Met. Zizioulas. Now, of coarse. I wonder what it is the monk said and what occurred to you about the Metropolitan’s work. I do not have enough of a knowledge base to determine where he might have veered off from Tradition. I’m thinking it has to do with his teachings on “Person” I read Being in Communion a couple of years ago and was impressed. And some of his work that is online. Yannaras’ work seems similar.
    Anyway, do you plan on speaking about your change of mind on the blog?
    Are those lectures by the Anthonite monk online? Though I am not sure I would put two and two together as you did.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will be writing about my reservations at some point. The talks are available online

    I do not think that anyone listening to those talks would necessarily know what I’m referring to. But I think Met. Z has made some mistakes in his work on the nature of Person and its priority over Being. Some of those mistakes are becoming more clear some 30-40 years down the road as they are playing themselves out. They are creating a very false understanding of primacy, for one (or being used to justify it). But I’ll say more later.

  33. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Paula AZ – I also use the search box. Searching key terms in a post helps clarify and give me a better understanding of what Father is saying. It has also saved me from using the comments section to re-plow old ground that has already been well plowed in the comments.

  34. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks so much Father. For the link too.
    In the meantime, I will keep in mind the Person and Being dichotomy (?) and its impact on Primacy. A helpful start….

  35. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Indeed, David!

  36. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m very intrigued by the connection between icon and reality…though it’s hard to put into words. But I do think you’ve deepened my understanding between reality and words – along with the problem of lying.

    Using an example, if someone tells me I’m ugly, it is a lie – not because of my particular “handsomeness” rating but because God doesn’t do ugly. HOWEVER, those words have introduced an unreality of ugliness which begins to eat away at my reality of beauty and actually make me ugly. If I don’t deal with that lie, I will end up ugly.

    The process will begin with my belief on some level that I am ugly – and then slowly as I act on that belief and ingest it, I allow it to deform me with its unreality. As I said, the end result is that I become truly ugly – or rather, lacking in beauty.

    The END end result is that God will one day destroy the lie and restore my beauty, but in the meantime if I let the lie have power, it will become reality.

    Does that sound correct according to your understanding of the power and nature of the lie?

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a reason that our adversary is called “the father of lies.” This all started with a lie…”God has not said…”

  38. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin


    I think we are in broad agreement, and so my thoughts on this are just an exploration of a very worthwhile topic.

    Using the wikipedia entry on subjectivity, I see only the third usage as problematic:

    “the quality or condition of:

    1. Something being a subject, narrowly meaning an individual who possesses conscious experiences, such as perspectives, feelings, beliefs, and desires.
    2. Something being a subject, broadly meaning an entity that has agency, meaning that it acts upon or wields power over some other entity (an object).
    3. Some information, idea, situation, or physical thing considered true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects. ”

    It’s the “only” in that third definition that makes it so troublesome. The realist objects to this for it makes personal experience the final arbiter of truth at the exclusion of anything outside itself.

    So it is David that I don’t see personal subjective experience (or subjectivity) qua subjectivity as sinful or evil. Redemption is fulfillment, a completion and not a reduction or annihilation. What this means, so it seems to me, that the redeemed person remains a person (yes radically transformed, but a person still). God created us as rational, intentional, conscious persons. What I meant then a few comments back is that the human person in Christ is now no longer closed in on himself, in an egotistic death struggle where objective reality comes at the cost of the subjective reality, and the subjective at the cost of the objective. No longer is the reality of my personal experience affirmed by the denial of anything outside myself. For Christ revealed that the Transcendent is also the Immanent, the highest is also the innermost, the sublime the beautiful. In Christ transcendence does not come at the expense of immanence, for God exceeds both. My reality is not threatened God’s reality, for His presence fulfills my existence. It is no longer the false struggle of the self to make a reality and a space for itself, to create identity and meaning in and by itself, such as exemplified by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” or by the works of Hume and Berkeley for whom the mind determined reality, setting the subjective against the objective in a false opposition. Nor, on the other hand, do we have a false (and absurd) becoming of God in the dialectic of Hegel in which God through history struggles to forge out His own identity.

    Therefore it seems to me it is warranted and even necessary in the light of modern and post modern thinkers to uphold the integral reality and the sacramental dimension of human subjectivity (in the sense of definition 1 and 2). Every moment, every thought, every experience, every person is, or can be, an occasion for the indwelling presence and revelation of God. This is the miracle of the Uncontainable wrapped as a Babe in swaddling clothes. He is reason and the affirmation of the reality and freedom of our human experience, as exemplified by Mary’s “let it be so according to God’s will” life affirming response to God’s call.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m sorry, but the wikipedia entry is just inadequate, it would seem. Subjectivity is primarily a Kantian category (the word was invented in the 18th century and made popular by his work). I don’t want to get into a critique of the entire Kantian project – but it’s actually where my problems are located. I would rather discuss human experience in terms other than “objective” “subjective” and avoid about 300 years of a wrong turn.

    I think I understand what you’re saying in a “sacramental dimension of human subjectivity.” It’s just not expressed in a manner that is helpful to me. It privileges a whole account of the modern project that is just wrong and doesn’t need to be rescued by pasting earlier, sacramental language onto it. I know that’s not what you’re thinking – but, words matter.

    Forgive me.

  40. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Well let’s just leave it at that then. 🙂

  41. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Robert – I did not mean to say subjectivity is sinful or evil. I meant to say that it is hellish. In any event, this discussion is far too learned for me, so I shall withdraw. God bless. You are in my prayers.

  42. Nikolaos Avatar

    Father Stephen it would be very good to read your thoughts on Metropolitan Zizioulas’ theology, as there has been quite a lot of confusion and criticism lately. Some of that may be related to the perception of him as an ecoumenist. Having read a lot Metropolitan Ieotheos Vlachos’s books, I have been influenced by his critique ( for those who read Greek here:

    However, I was surprised to hear from a rather respected priestmonk and spiritual father to many, who I know well, that in his view the critique is mostly on “technical points”.

    I look forward to your perspective.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A primary criticism on Fr. Chrysostomos’ part is Zizioulas’ contention that “nature” is limitation while person is freedom. In the Fathers there is no conflict between person and nature. In application, some are using Zizioulas’ ideas to support a concept of personhood apart from nature that is easily taken up in post-modern movements in which people “define” themselves without regard to any sort of notion of human nature.

    Listen to the first talk of Fr. Chrysostomos.

  44. Dino Avatar

    Regarding anthropology, rather than Triadology, one issue with the English understanding of *nature* as a opposed to *person* (vs. the traditionally more varied Greek) is a tendency to conflate *nature* (the ‘what’ – as opposed to the ‘who’), which is Man is double (spiritual as well as earthly) and *logos* (the ‘why’). Slightly beside the point but I think this needs to be kept in mind.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks. Very important, I think, is to see that nature, logos – that which is “given” to us – is not a constraint or a “necessity” in our existence, but a gift. That is the heart of Fr. Chrysostomos’ critique of Z. I have written a lot over the past several years about “becoming human,” that what we are is “traditioned” to us and that our salvation is tied up in our being able to truly become what we are created to be. Listening to Fr. Chrysostomos, I realized that this line of thought was incompatible with Z’s. That led me to take a much more careful look at the matter. God is a good God.

  46. Dino Avatar

    Couldn’t we say that – anthropologically speaking – the ‘who’ (person), the ‘what’ (nature) and the ‘why’ (logos) of Man can either be viewed (paradisially or hellishly) as:
    1. an indivisible & meaningful whole that is all gift, and which has a free agent (person), working with a perfect gift (his *double* nature), for a perfect end (his logos)… (a movement towards eternal well being), or:
    2. a fragmented & defiant individual, battling with a frustrating & constraining nature, against its ultimate God-given calling/logos (an irrational movement away from eternal well being)?

  47. Byron Avatar

    Father, Dino, pardon my question, but how does this understanding of Man’s nature work with the view that our true nature is only found in [conforming to] Christ as opposed to seeking ourselves (in what we desire/feel/etc.)? There’s an ascetical “step” that I am missing in your definition(s)…. Forgive me for not following well.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the misunderstanding could come in your use of the term “true nature.” I know what you mean. In fact, what you are describing as “true nature” is the only nature. Theologically, our nature is stable – we are always “what” we were created to be. The trouble, what is fallen, is that we do not live in accordance with our nature. The movement towards our nature is where asceticism is found.

  49. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dino,,,do I read #’s 1 and 2 of your last comment as an either/or? If so, I think our fragmentation and movement toward healing manifests itself in a very broad range. While ignorance is no excuse, we in our desire to do good, are very ignorant most of the time.
    What I have trouble with is your use of the word defiant. Couldn’t it be said that each one of us acts defiant at one time and compliant at another? How could a fragmented person battle with a constraining nature when our nature (logos) is not given under constraint? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that we are blind and ignorant to our God given nature and in need of the transforming Grace of God? Why would you describe them as defiant? To me, that would be like a doctor saying their patient’s defiance made them ill. While there may be some truth to this…i.e. weak-willed, unable to make healthy choices…I think that to call their actions defiant is an incomplete description. Left by itself, not very helpful.
    Christ came down hard only on those who knew themselves as God’s chosen, they knew scripture, Moses and the prophets, their lives and their religion we inseparable, yet they did not know God when they saw Him with their own eyes. But would you call them defiant? I’d say it’s more like blindness, despite the ‘many infallible proofs’. You can’t see when you are blind. Why would Christ on the Cross say to The Father, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”?

    I am sorry if I read too much into your comment, Dino.

  50. Dino Avatar

    That is the sort of conflation that I had in mind regarding the term ‘nature’, especially in English.
    What you call ‘our true nature’ is closer to the term ‘our logos’.
    In Greek we will say ‘nature’, both meaning ‘what we were created to be’, as well as our fallen tendency (what we might more accurately term our ‘second nature’ – an ingrained “contra-natural” movement which discover inside of us even without a personal history of ‘fallen behaviour’).

  51. Dino Avatar

    Paula AZ,
    That makes sense to me. Defiant is a strong word (more appropriate to the demonic which is what I had in mind), however, there is a very strong sense of the possibility of this feeling (defiance) rearing its ugly head in man as well as in fallen angel. Perhaps it is only at this point and beyond that one truly enters conclusive, as well as truly culpable, spiritual blindness?

  52. Byron Avatar

    Father, Dino, many thanks for the clarifications.

  53. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks Dino…demonic defiance I can understand. Sure, we can be defiant. The word stubborn seems a bit more appropriate…like a child who wants his way, unwilling to bend (bow) to the ‘O/other’. But whatever word we use, we are culpable, even for spiritual blindness. St Paul says in Romans that there is a point where God turns some over to a depraved mind. I’ve been taught that that means no hope for salvation. I do not believe that anymore. With God, there is always hope for repentance.

  54. Dino Avatar

    [Regarding God’s unending invitation towards the ‘self-damned’, to come to His love and forgiveness and salvation, and, more significantly, whether this can actually be everlastingly misinterpreted by some who’d rather have hell than heaven] We can only speculate when venturing outside of what CS Lewis puts into Aslan’s mouth in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. If I remember well it’s something like: “I cannot even be understood by such an old sinner, and cannot comfort him either: he’s made himself incapable of hearing my voice. If I even spoke to him, all he would be hearing would be but growlings and roarings. “Oh Adam’s sons, how ingeniously you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”

    Of course that theme is one we often return to here and has been exhaustively covered – always reaching the same conclusion.

  55. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    Fr Nicholas Loudovikos has written in detail about Met. Zizioulas’ identification of nature with necessity and person with freedom. Loudovikos contrasts this with Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus for whom freedom and salvation is in its given personal particularity and therefore the self is not to be eliminated as if bound to necessity and a hindrance to freedom. Loudovikos’ Eucharistic Ontology is a good read as a corrective to the wrong turn in Zizioulas in this regard (this is not to discount all of Met. Zizioulas’ work, as he has contributed much that is indispensable).

    The rejection of identifying nature (including personal subjectivity) with necessity motivates my insistence on the integrity of the human person and personal experience.

  56. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    “Of course that theme is one we often return to here and has been exhaustively covered – always reaching the same conclusion.” About high time then Dino to drop CS Lewis for St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac the Syrian. 🙂

  57. Dino Avatar

    I’ve always really liked Father Nikolaos Loudovikos although I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea.
    Regarding “dropping” CS Lewis rather than any Fathers – as this theme has been covered repeatedly to the nth degree, including using both sides of the patristic arguments (those of the universalist slant as you mention, as well as from the other camp) – so, CS Lewis’ children’s story seemed somewhat more appropriately whimsical a quote, despite the seriousness of the matter.

  58. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dino…yes, to the nth degree it has been discussed! We were not given to know…but I so want to believe all will be saved. Myself included. And so we plead for God’s mercy and pray, just as we do at the Liturgy, for the world.
    St Gregory and St Isaac are a joy to read…I especially love St Isaac’s writings. He is so gentle…

  59. Nes Avatar

    I am a photographer and have spent hours, sometimes days developing a photo in order to make it “sing.” A good photo is perfected in development when the artist balances contrast and color and exposure, allowing the onlooker to feel and understand something more than the portrayal of a brute fact. Preceding development of course is the composure of the image, something that is often artificed, moving subjects around or changing ones vantage to find a particular and peculiar angle, similar to how a painter chooses a vantage.

    Conversely, I have also seen paintings and icons that were very poorly done, some trying to imitate ancient iconography and failing, and some trying to make a “modern” depiction of Christ or some saint (the kind that makes Jesus look like a GQ cover boy or a Star Wars character) and failing even more. This is why when Father mentions that icons in the Tradition have to be assessed by a master and only then have a name inscribed upon it is so important: Art can be good or bad, it can err towards truth or nothingness.

    The point I’m trying to make is that all forms of representation are able to be modified to illicit wonder and/or point to truth — a poem, a song, a painting, a photo. It seems that the truth inherent in a form depends not on the kind of form it takes, but the spirit that moves the form-er. This is why there are great artists and bad artists. I understand this allows for a kind of artistic meritocracy, but artistic excellency is not so much merit, but gift given by God.

  60. Christopher Avatar

    I have been traveling, so just now getting back to this thread. Father, thanks for these words:

    “The grammar or language of iconicity does not presume the capture of reality itself – but a participation in that which is depicted…. Florensky, using this same approach held that Rublev’s Trinity was proof of the existence of God! That is, Rublev could only have painted the icon called the Trinity, if he had truly and noetically perceived it…The icon not only refers to that which is transcendent – but it actually participates in it. That which is material is never merely material…Here, however, the nature of participation is key. “Referral” can easily be reduced to nothing more than the mental exercise that is common to nominalism. “It’s there because I think it’s there.”

    I think they are a good summation of the context of Nominalism, Realism, Icons, and most of all the use of what you rightly referred to as Kantian/Cartesian language and frame of reference in thinking about all of this.

  61. Christopher Avatar

    On Met. Zizioulas:

    What I have read of him, he always seems to be (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) using “nature” in the way Augustine and Aquinas do. So part (all?) of his project seems to me (this is my generous reading at least) appears to be setting up this opposition (i.e. nature vs person) as a it occured in the main in the west, when Augustine took up a neoplatonic and thus restrictive/limiting understanding of “nature” as *simplistic*. So, naturally, nature has to be overcome or transcended by something else *from the outside*, such as Grace, or Personhood, etc. so that freedom in this world and “free choice in the Eschaton” (as St. Maximus would put it) can itself exist, ontologically. Did Zizioulas not follow Yannaras in this suppositional use of “nature”? What Dino said about nature as commonly used in Greek seems to support my idea that Zizioulas project is first and foremost “ecumenical” – he is (looking at it positively) always seeking a neo-Patristic synthesis. In any case, Zizioulas argues that this suppositional use is in accordance with St. Maximus himself – that St. Maximus is the first to flush out the notion that it is persons that “have” natures, and not the other way around.

    Robert Fortuin,

    I will have to revisit Loudovikos. I wrestled with the first half of “Church in the making” and, well I lost the match. His style is verbose, repetitive, and just plain eccentric. I found a few diamonds in the rough, but boy, tough to get to them. “Church in the making” is the work that comes after the one you mention – I might go to it and see if I can’t do a bit better with him.

    Before that however, I am going to listen to Igumen Chrysostomos’ lectures that Fr. Stephen refers to above. I look forward to your thoughts on all this Fr. when you get them written out.

  62. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin


    When the natural order by reason of its physicality is perceived as bound by necessity as either evil or a hindrance to freedom and thus in need to be over-come or eradicated, its sacramental and iconic character is diminished or entirely eliminated. This is a chief reason why Origenism was rejected by the Fathers – they affirmed the goodness of nature which even in its fallen state as an icon reflecting the image of God participates in the divine life. The Fathers’ position on nature , I am thinking here of St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa in particular, meant a synergy between divine and human activity. The synergy is upheld and made possible by the fundamental integrity of human creativity; so for Sts Basil and Gregory human concepts (epinoia) were fundamental to understanding and experiencing God, in their given limits. The point being that they fiercely defended epinoia against detractors who claimed human language was divinely instituted and revealed (such that “unbegotten” describes God).

    The modern problem is much the opposite in that it knows only itself, considers only its own thoughts and leads to what I think Fr Stephen means by the “language of photography.” The picture we see is all there is and all there is to it. The iconic quality of nature, its ability to reflect the divine, has been removed for opposite reasons – not because it is fundamentally a hindrance but because it is deemed fundamentally good, it is the Good. Nature is not an image of the divine for the post Christian modern – it is the prototype, the original. And so nature is reduced to a grand scheme of self-reference – locked in an echo chamber of its own making it can only hear its own voice. That is not a good place to be.

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