Saturday, May 24, 2008

PERSONALISM: a brief critique




When Dr Andrew Sopko made a comment about Personalism in his examination of my theology, I became curious about the philosophy of Christian Personalism and its French roots. Dr Sopko observed that, unlike some contemporary Orthodox theologians, I had not fallen into "Personalism." From my examination of Personalism, I conclude that there can be no Orthodox Personalism. Whatever our view of it, it is evident that there is no patristic support for Personalism, or for any kind of synthesis of Christianity with Phenomenology or neo-Kantian liberalism. While one cannot consent to the theology expressed in Personalism, it is an admirable philosophy, and since it includes the wonderful Dorothy Day, at least some of its adherents actually put its concepts into real practice. My critique is with regards to the theological precepts, not the philosophical concepts, and certainly not a critique of those self-less people who put those concepts into practice.
....Many historians had presumed that Apostolic and sub-Apostolic Christianity was shaped by an osmosis from Plato and Aristotle. This surmise has been based upon the use of some vocabulary which developed in the process of Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophy. Scant attention was paid to the fact that the Church fathers were diligent to maintain a clear separation of theology from Platonism and Aristotelianism. Nor was there any harmonising of Christianity with Plotinus and the Stoics by the Church fathers. It is true that some early Christian writers and philosophers such as Augustine and Origen did not observe this separation, but the fathers of the Church did.
....They did appeal to Hellenic thought and vocabulary as an instrument of discernment, communication and elaboration of the Faith. In other words, unlike post-patristic theology, philosophy and ethics, there was no amalgamation of first principles between the Church fathers and the Greeks. There is no continuity from antiquity to modernity on the question of the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Greeks—the dogmatism of Western scholarship notwithstanding.
....Personalism arose well over a century ago within the Western heritage but I want to direct the reader's attention to Personalism and its modernity — "the paradigm for the second modernity," as James Lawson refers to it. Although Personalism has many both Christian and non-Christian proponents, such as Charles Peguy, Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Maurin, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Martin Buber, Max Scheler, and others, there are three Personalists who will occupy most of our discussion: the French Roman Catholic Emmanuel Mournier (1905–1950), whose journal, L'Esprit, launched the principles of Personalism; the American Methodist Professor Borden Parker Bownes (1847–1910) of Boston University and, finally, the Russian Boehmist émigré Nicholas Berdyaev (1874–1948), "the prince of the Catholic Workers Movement." Like many others, Berdyaev viewed the "communitarian revolution" of the 1930s as a social demonstration of Personalism.
....This Movement (and several similar ones) was ignited by the Great Depression. It was fuelled by several papal encyclicals: Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891) with its concern for the urban poor; and later, Pope Pius XI Quadragesomo Anno (15 May 1931) which called for the reconstruction of the social order through the recognition of the sanctity of human life and the dignity of each individual. They were aware of the significant number of members that the Catholic Church had been losing since the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, these papal declarations prepared the way for a religious answer to Marxism. Unfortunately, this religious response to materialism and collectivism did not imply a return to the Christian Tradition but rather encouraged Personalists to hail their experiment as a grand synthesis or, as some had described it, the "clarification of thought" and a "new humanism."


The use of the term "Personalism" first appeared in Friedrich Schleiermacher's "Personalismus" in his Discourses (1799) and in the 1860s Walt Whitman and Bronson Alcott used it. Personalism did not, however, assume the character of a school until the appearance of the work of Boston University's Borden Bownes. He had been taught in Germany by the philosopher Herman Lotze (1817-1881). Against the pantheist, George Hegel, whose Absolute or Universal Spirit threatened to swallow the cosmos, Lotze defended the unity and indissolubility of the individual self. He had also been the teacher of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), whose Phenomenology inspired his pupils Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), the prodigal Max Scheler (1874–1928), and Edith Stein (1891–1943). Scheler attempted to find an objective basis for ethics which avoided "the empty and barren formalism" of Kant's "practical judgment." One of Scheler's pupils was Roman Ingarden who was the teacher of Karol Wojtyla.
....Personalism also inspired post-World War I American radicalism, none more important than the work of the marvellous Dorothy Day (1897–1980), a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was taught Personalism by the French Catholic émigré, Pierre Maurin (1887–1949), co-founder and collaborator in the social action of the Catholic Worker Movement. Curiously, Day referred to the Russian Sophianist Vladimir Soloviev as her favourite philosopher, without meaning any slight to the inestimable contribution of Berdyaev to the Personalist doctrine. However important all these figures were to Personalism, it was Emmanuel Mounier (a "new Catholic of the Left") who was its guiding spirit. The organ of the Movement was the L'Esprit which he established in 1932. It has been described as anti-American, anti-Socialist, and pro-fascist.
....Mounier's Personalism is eloquently expressed in his numerous books, most of which have been translated into English and other languages: Personalist Revolution and the Communitarian (1935), A Personalist Manifesto (first published in L'Esprit, October, 1936) What is Personalism? (1947), Personalism (1940), Be Not Afraid: Studies inPersonalist Sociology (1951), etc. They are dedicated to the affirmation of the absolute value of the human person. When Mounier declares the person to be something "absolute," we must not think of the word in Hegelian terms. Not even the Rights of Man elevate him to that status.
....Inasmuch as Mounier's Personalism is both religious and Roman Catholic, he believed that man is neither "clump of clay" or "pure spirit." The human person is, contrary to Descartes, a single unified substance, a dynamic whole which is the synthesis of body and soul. He is a self-conscious embodied soul. To be sure, Mounier admits that each man is in the image of God, but his philosophical interpretation of the concept left him far short of Christian anthropology. Although he agreed with Thomas Aquinas that "person signifies the most perfect of all"— a position Mounier shared with Jacques Maritain — the former insisted that, thanks to Christ, the person is neither Greek nor Christian, but self-born. He is self-created (autogenesis). Personalism generally agrees with those Existentialist philosophers who hold that man has no essence; and must form it by his decisions and actions. His autonomy makes man "the being who defines himself." He is sine matre creatum. This will not equal the patristic concept of hypostasis, but rather asserts an existence without an essence. Man would, in this system, give birth to his own essence and he would constitute his own essence. A particularly disturbing aspect of this is the disunity of mankind that such a position indicates. Orthodox Christianity understands that all mankind shares in the same essence, the human nature. The human nature is what is common to all and subject to the laws of nature. It is this common human nature that should cause us to have a respect for all human beings, and which should, for example, tell us that racism is a form of apostasy. Nevertheless, we are not without an individual personhood, a "particular" essence, which we can shape and expand (or contract). The holy fathers resolved this apparent paradox by expressing our individual personhood, our "particular essence" with the ontological category of "hypostasis." The category of hypostasis includes one's personal differentiation and particularity. It relates to what we consciously and intentionally do with our essence and energy. Hypostasis signifies, therefore, not only our personal differentiation but our freedom within, and ability to rise above, our common nature or essence. This concept is necessary in order to understand how we have individuality but are at the same time all comprised in the one, single human nature, regardless of race, nationality, religion, gender or any of the other categories that our fallen humanity can think of in order to create divisions and hatred among humanity. Nevertheless, we do have a unique hypostasis, and this provides our personal creativity and our freedom to shape our own lives and fulfil our own personal potential. We would understand this hypostasis as a gift of grace. Orthodox Christian anthropology holds that all share in common the human nature, even though this nature can be known only in individuals, not in abstractions. He is part, and yet he is whole. The individual personhood of each lies in his hypostasis, not in a being without an essence, an essential tabula rasa. This concept of nature and hypostasis is discussed more fully in my book Freedom To Believe: Personhood and Freedom in Orthodox Christian Ontology.
....In the absence of these proper ontological categories, recognised in the Orthodox Christian Church, Personalism developed in the quest for the resolution of irreconcilable paradoxes in the understanding of the individual as part and whole of humanity. That is, in our Orthodox perspective, the human person shares the common human nature, but that nature can be known only in individuals. He shares in the common human nature, but he possesses a "particular essence," which is evident from his ability to develop himself and seek and develop his relationship with God. So we (from an Orthodox point of view) assert that he is both part and whole of humanity.
....Mounier would not have us confuse Personalism with Individualism. The latter is a conception of the self as an object, and this is not the purpose of Personalism. For Mounier the individual is an object without interiority; he is a mass of emotions agitated by the senses. Individualism, therefore, blocks the road to social participation; in fact, it is an enemy of the community, for if the individual is the supreme value, his interests are subordinated to the interests of the many. In its extreme form, individualism leads to solipsism or the belief that only the individual is real. It is a kind of self-deification. Mounier wants no obstacle to his autonomy and demands the right to act freely, but not in the form of a radical individualism. For him, the individual defines himself as independent of any social bonds. He opposes rights to duties. But Mounier is not being self-contradictory. The irony of individualism is that, as Plato said, it will morph into a collectivism, where the individual will also be on his own, perhaps only an object in the communal landscape.
.... For Mounier, the only answer to individualism and collectivism is Personalism. Mounier offers its creed in the Personalist Manifesto. Although he admits that Personalism presupposes certain principles or may be viewed as the necessary effects of ultimate causes, Mounier denies that it is a philosophy expressed in ideas. Furthermore, there is a Personalist understanding of the universe that is seen from the perspective of a "free and creative person." In terms of these principles and effects, he describes a person as "a spiritual being constituted as such by subsistence and independence." The Personality adheres to a hierarchy of values "freely adapted, assimilated, practised by a responsible faithful and self-committed self." Each human being unifies all its activities freely for the purpose of developing his own personhood. His decisions and creative acts—each with his own vocation—shows that he is a moral being.
....Mounier did not place his trust in political parties. He also rejected the notion that Personalism requires violence in order to transfigure contemporary institutions. It may be "revolutionary," but only because it seeks a new social order — that is, for the order first enunciated by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Such a point of view seems inconsistent with his advocacy of the liberal democracy and the universality of human rights. A liberal democracy ultimately and ironically guarantees anarchy, and the demand for a universality of human rights without any contingent expression of a universality of human responsibilities ultimately undermines democracy. The demand for a universality of human rights without a clearly defined universality of human responsibilities is based on unsustainable presuppositions of man as "a human being with natural rights." Human rights are defined by human societies, they are not "naturally occuring." The "certain inalienable rights" prescribed by the founders of the American state are defined by them, not mentioned by the Creator. Man was created with the freedom to form his societies and to define the rights and obligations of those societies. The boundaries of those rights are not agreed upon by all members of any society, even the most democratic, and in some cases they are sharply debated by substantial numbers of those members. Personalism my advocate a system of rights that it considers to be "natural human rights," but if some group which they disapprove of demanded equal "natural human rights," then one would find many of them advocating that those "certain inalienable rights" exclude that particular group (Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves, after all).
....In advocating the Personalist cause as something that calls upon humanity to fulfil the improbable task of living "in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus," Mounier is either incognizant of or indifferent to the power of sin and evil. His optimism is laudable but naive, for these are forces which must be encountered and dealt with in any process of striving to fulfil such a lofty calling. Utopian movements typically collapse because the fallen nature of mankind is not taken as a reality.
....Let us make clear what we mean by "sin and evil." Orthodox Christianity does not understand sin as "breaking a law." Rather sin is the habitual misuse of our energies, a misdirection of our freedom. This misuse and misdirection is not corrected by a mere act of will, even with the best intentions. It takes moral struggle aided by grace to strive for regeneration. Living fully in accord with the justice and charity of Jesus is no simple task. Personalists are speaking of social justice, and the Hebrew prophets spoke about it also. The concept of the justice of Christ is a type of social justice, but it includes much more, a kind of mercy that exceeds social justice and which, were we to truly attempt to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus, we must also fulfil. The justice of God is, in the understanding of the holy fathers, diametrically opposite of all human forensic or juridical notions of justice. It is not about punishment, but about rebalancing the kind of moral "rightness" that embraces the needs and failures of others in a healing and supportive manner, without destroying the essential freedom of any. This is perhaps best expressed by the Greek theologian Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros who reminds us that:

This is a theme which "needs to be preached with great insistence [for] not only the West but we Orthodox have departed [from it] in great numbers, causing men to fall to atheism because they are revolted against a falsified angry God full of vengeance toward His creatures...We must urgently understand that God is responsible only for everlasting life and bliss, and that hell (gehenna) is nothing else but the rejection of this everlasting life and bliss, the everlasting revolt against the everlasting love of God. We must urgently remember and preach that it is not a creation of God but a creation [i.e., product] of our revolted liberty, that God did not create any punishing instrument that is called hell, that God never takes vengeance on His revolted creatures, that His justice has nothing to do with the legalistic `justice' of human society which punishes the wicked in order to defend itself...That our everlasting spiritual death is not inflicted on us by God, but is a spiritual suicide, everlasting because our decision to be friends or enemies of God is a completely free and everlasting decision of the free spiritual beings created by God, a decision which is respected by God eternally and absolutely."

As Abba Isaak the Ninevite says:

As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so God's use of just judgment cannot counterbalance the likeness of His mercifulness. As a handful of sand thrown into a great sea, so are the sins of all flesh with respect to the likeness of the providence and mercy of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures."

And again he tells us:

Now by this as in an image the Spirit depicts the design that God has had everlastingly. But the man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that in that Fountain of Love and Ocean brimming with goodness, vengeance could ever be found!...For He wills that we should rejoice not as it were in what is His, but as it were in the recompense of our own deeds. For although all things are His, yet He is not pleased that we should consider them His, but that we should delight in what is as it were ours.

St Dionysios the Aeropagite also says:

The divine justice in this respect is really true justice because it distributes to all, the things proper to themselves, according to the fitness of each existing thing, and preserves the nature of each in its own order and fitness...the nature of each in its own order and capacity.

....Evil does not have any ontological "being." There is no amorphous evil. Christ did not say to pray "deliver us from evil," but "deliver us from the evil-one," that is, the one who wilfully and intentionally misuses his energies in a destructive and malicious manner. Evil is not a "thing" in itself, but a corruption and deeply ingrained addiction to the misuse of one's energies.
....Mounier believes that Personalism may adopt Francis of Assisi as the Personalist icon, while, at the same time, ignoring the Faith that motivated Francis. This gallant defender of the papacy would never have allowed himself to be set in opposition to "the clerical order" of his Church. I doubt that Francis would have endorsed Lev Tolstoy's subjective and anti-Church understanding of the biblical words, "the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21–" µ "). Tolstoy understood the words, "the Kingdom of God is within you" in a secular, utopian sense which Francis would never have conceived. Mounier was more attuned to Tolstoy's concept than to that of the peaceful monk of Assisi.
....Necessarily, then, leftist Personalism demands a secular "revolution." Advocating, as it does, "the daily works of mercy" (hence the building homes for the homeless, farming communes, discourses of love, etc.) as noble as it is, does not permit us to identify these acts of mercy with those prescribed in Christian revelation, for they are based in concepts of secularism. Christianity advocates the same thing but does not divorce them from the process of the regeneration of man. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel makes it clear that entry into the joy of Christ, the Heavenly Kingdom, depends on the fulfilment of such care for others, motivated by unselfish love. Christian revelation does not, however, suggest that we can create a secular "people's paradise" on earth and lose sight of the Heavenly Kingdom and the age to come. When they collapse into ideology, neither utopian philosophies nor Christianity can sustain these high ideals in practice. But let us not denigrate the works of mercy just because they are fulfilled in the context of secularism and not mindful of the process of regeneration. They are still inspired by Christ. Perhaps one could rather use the injunction of Christ, " these you ought to have done, while not leaving the other undone" (Mt. 23:23). One cannot claim that being Christian guarantees the fulfilment of either one.
....According to Mounier, Personalism is quintessentially "a philosophy of hope." Yet, it is genuine futility to believe that the majority of people will dedicate themselves to the Personalist responsibility of changing human institutions without there being first a regeneration of human nature. We have heard before the motto "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Mounier has merely assumed that man has an unimpeded free will and that, with an appeal to his better side, he is able and willing to realise the Personalist agenda. It is a "hope" no better than the vision of Socialism. To use the words of Christopher Lasch, Personalism is nothing but a "culture of narcissism."
....There is nothing unique about Mounier's Personalism. It claims to disdain Socialism and Marxism because they deprive man of his dignity and value. Yet in its own definition, Personalism reduces man to a "being with rights." Claiming to be Christian, it equates, for all practical purposes, the biblical idea of imago Dei with this conception, as if the image of God in man was the sum total of "natural rights." Mounier's Person is a philosophical notion that is found nowhere in the Christian Tradition. It was futile of him to associate his secular philosophy with the "psychology" of Francis of Assisi and Augustine of Hippo. He may proclaim joyfully that Personalism has nothing in common with Descartes' cogito ergo sum which he has replaced with I love therefore I am; but in both cases the self is the source of truth. Besides, "love" is easier to say than to do and some very wretched deeds have been carried out in the name of love, especially when "love" was part of the "white man's burden."
....Moreover, undismayed by the criticism of their philosophy, Mounier and those with him are convinced that Personalism is the solution to the world-crisis. They perceived the task on a grand scale: "Contrary to what takes place with many petty reformers our programme must be cut in a pattern of large dimension. Historically, the crisis that presses upon us is more than a simple political and/or economic crisis." We are witnessing, he lamented, the collapse of a whole area of civilization. The old world was initiated towards the end of the Middle Ages, and climaxed in the industrial age "capitalistic in structure, liberal in ideology and bourgeois in its ethics." It is a criticism of the post-Christian West that we have heard before, not least of all from Karl Marx.
....Admittedly, the Personalist answer differs from materialism by virtue of its spiritual dimension and its call for human cooperation in the solution to that perceived crisis. This is better than depriving the individual man of his moral value in the mill of economic violence and struggle. It is clearly superior to materialism which has no cognizance of man as a spiritual reality. Materialism views the "crisis" as social and economic deprivation. Personalism calls for a spiritual and cultural renovation by common social action whose first principle is the moral value of every human being. Both philosophies believe that "salvation" comes by human effort, without any thought of revelation and grace. Personalism is auto-soteric. One might be interested to have a detailed map of what is considered to be the "moral value" of every human being. One answer that Orthodox Christianity would give is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and, moreover, since we all share in a common human nature, we must all have the same intrinsic value as human beings. When we speak of Personalism as being auto-soteric, we cannot express the meaning of this in purely Scriptural terms of salvation (which for Orthodox Christians means deliverance from the bondage of death and power of the Evil-One, and a restoration to the household of the Father). Personalism (though not every one of its professors) would see salvation rather as a positive evolution of social order, and enshrining of one or another concept of human rights (even though one concept of human rights might exclude a portion of society whose rights are not deemed "natural.") This is one of my main objections to the concept of "natural human rights." "Human rights" is a concept created and developed in human societies, and not without conflict and violence. But the concept of human rights is almost never universal; there are generally some who are omitted from this "universality."
....In vain does Personalism seek to reverse the deleterious effects of Scholasticism, the dehumanizing consequences of the Industrial Revolution and of capitalism, rampant irreligiosity, and the conventional ethics of the bourgeoisie. Nor does it adequately resolve the contradiction between morality and moralism.


Personalism emerged philosophically linked to the German Idealism which invaded the United States in the nineteenth century. German Idealism held that material things do not exist independently of the mind, but are constructs of the mind. More significantly, it teaches, it is by the categories (ideas) of reason that phenomena are formed. We become aware of the relationship between thought and being by the interaction between thought and the external world. It would appear that Mounier was not much interested in Idealism although its tenets were fundamental to Personalism. As with the teachers of Idealism, however, he was opposed to materialism which reduces the individual to something impersonal.
....For a theoretician of this philosophy, we look to Borden Parker Bownes, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He was the founder and popularizer of American Personalism. He was also keenly devoted to elaborating its metaphysics. Reality, he wrote, is known by persons, society is a community of self-conscious persons, a society of "interacting persons." Put another way, human reality is the person that acts on or which is acted upon by another. All persons, whether individually or collectively, share in "the living experience of intelligence itself." But is not such "reality" only an adjective masquerading as a noun?
....Bownes described himself as a theist. He referred to God as "world-ground" and, therefore, "implicit in everything" and "the postulate of our total life" (perhaps something like Paulo Coelho's "world spirit?"). For Bownes, God is "the Supreme Person" to which human persons are analogous. Bownes rejected the idea that God is the impersonal Absolute of Hegel, if only because the Absolute is completely devoid of moral attributes. It is fatal to religion which is essential to the personal development of human beings. Moreover, he asserts, if in God there are any limitations, they are self-imposed. Bownes was careful not to let divine omnipotence tread upon human freedom. To those who argued that the existence of evil placed restrictions on the divine Will, he replied that the problem of evil has no "speculative solution."
....Bownes offers arguments for theism. The universe is intelligible with its order, design, teleology, and the fact of man's finite intelligence. In fact, any evidence of intelligibility in the universe is a clue that the external world is intelligible to the mind; and, on account of the rationality of the universe we have a convincing argument for theism. Furthermore, he argues, unless we assume that the world is essentially a realm of thought, there can be no knowledge at all. The fact that the mind has categories is no evidence that categories explain the mind. Accordingly, the "active intelligence" shows the validity of metaphysics' deduction of the unity, identity and causality from the idea of being. If, Bownes asserts, we concede to someone like Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) that the Deity is "unknowable," we must surrender any hope of morality. Indeed, an unknowable God is no better than no God and, as Dostoevsky says: "if there is no God, then all things are permissible, even murder." Bownes seeks to protect himself with the appeal to the idea of mystery.
....Bownes held that we must recognize the existence of God as "the Supreme Person" (a personal Being), because as Being He interacts with His creation, with time, which gives time relevance, and His Power alone can explain world-order in relation to world change (evolution). Orthodoxy would argue that God is "beyond being," but would not suggest that He is not a "personal God," nor that He does not commune with and sustain His creation. However, in theistic Personalism we can detect a flavour of pantheism, firs of all because it does not distinguish between energy and essence.
....For Bownes, we have no proof of human freedom without God. At this point, Bownes attempts to answer another objection to his theism: how can man be free if God knows everything he does? He replied that God does not know a person's specific choices. Might it not have been better for Bownes to have postulated that God has chosen to be ignorant of human actions? In this case, however, the Omniscience of God would suffer. Only the theory of a "limited Deity" is left to him. As we shall see, it was the position taken by Berdyaev.
....With this theology in hand, Bownes developed an ethics to which most Personalists would not object. Asceticism is not central to it and the reality of sin is no impediment to the service of the general good. He does seem to have considered that the impartial and unselfish will is not only an uncommon phenomenon, but its application is often impeded by mood or passion, public indifference or political opposition. He is certainly right that abstractions such as "virtue" or "happiness" or "pleasure" are worthless unless human will and intellect have contacted reality – whatever, philosophically, that may be. Is this reality a metaphor for the unknown, or still and adjective aspiring to be a noun. Bownes was equally correct to believe that the greatest need of ethical practice is the serious and thoughtful application of the mind to the problem of life and conduct. In all this, the basic flaw was failure to ascertain the nature of the God to whom he had related his ethical theory. Perhaps he leaves us with a form of Kantian autonomous morality and a deity who does little more than nod his head in approval or wistfully shake his head in disapproval, but nothing more.
....Bownes claimed to have been a theist, but His God was not identified, as it was in the Personalism of Jacques Maritain or Jean Danielou, with the Holy Trinity. In any case, no Personalist worshipped the God of the early Church fathers, and this fact is reflected in their understanding of the man and his good. Bownes would have agreed with Pope John-Paul II that self-mastery not self-assertion is the index of a truly human freedom, but Bownes gives us no programme for the attainment of the first and the purgation of the second. Neither he nor the Pope seem to have any notion that self-mastery is much more than repressing what is natural to our nature. "Thoughtfully and freely channelling the natural instincts of mind and body into actions that deepen my humanity" is impossible if undertaken without recognizing man's "darkened mind" and distorted will which he cannot himself alter. Indeed, repression may only make the darkness more stifling. It can created in man a building pressure and frustration that can explode in most unpleasant ways. Repression is not synonymous with self-mastery. One may call upon men to act together in order to participate in common thought and action, but the experience of the human race has demonstrated that, without Divine intervention—which Bownes does not clearly kneed into his philosophy—human cooperation is generally very brief and often leads to greater evil.

Nicholas Berdyaev

....Nicholas Berdyaev was an associate of the Solovevian brotherhood which was ejected from Russia after the Communist Revolution. He brought with him to Europe a philosophy of Personalism which led William Miller to describe him as "the prophet of the Catholic Worker Movement." Others went further, and Paul Maurin lauded him as "the Prophet of the twentieth century." Berdyaev did not bring a social agenda or a political schema to the cause, but its metaphysical, romantic if not Gnostic, presuppositions. Berdyaev should not be thought of as representing Orthodox Christian theology; indeed to think of him as an Orthodox Christian at all is to give the term a very elastic definition.
....Berdyaev's Personalism begins with a critique of the Western world. We are, he correctly observes, passing through "the crisis of the Christian world," that is, "a crisis within Christianity itself." As it is presently practised, Christianity is no longer relevant; and in fact it has contributed to the present dilemma. It has encouraged, if not spawned banality and bourgoiseity, legalism and rationalism, collectivism and individualism. Berdyaev sees Christianity as not concerned with an earthly future but rather as stalled by its worldview. We are, as it were, in an entr'acte and for that reason are experiencing a time of suffering. We are living in an era in which man is deprived of his dignity and freedom and, therefore of his happiness and perfection.
....There is something more: if man is to regain the lost virtues of dignity and freedom, he must be redefined; and indeed so must God and reality. Our clue to all these truths is Christ Himself: the God-man. The great error of Western Christianity was to place the task of regenerating the world either in the hands of God or man. The truth ought to be found in the cooperation between God and man, a proposition that sounds deceptively similar to the Orthodox Christian doctrine of synergism. Berdyaev has a valid point, but not a valid conclusion. Even worse, Berdyaev thinks, there has been a failure to recognise the reason for the tragedy or to raise any questions about it. Christians, he surmises, should have turned to the Gnostics who were long ago aware that revelation and absolute truth are adapted to the men who receive it, but, for some reason, Christianity has chosen to ignore this fact. In other words, we are now compelled to reevaluate, if not transform the Christian Faith, because its present form it is irrelevant. Traditional Christianity was given to another people at another time.
....Berdyaev's synergism (cooperation) appears more as a project shared by God and man for the restructuring of human institutions. Philosopher David Cain reminds us that synergism between God and man is always radically asymmetrical." Orthodox Christianity fully acknowledges man's freedom. God offers His love and grace for the regeneration and restoration of man, and man may freely chose to cooperate with that love and grace in working out his salvation. The idea that God and man cooperate in creating a utopian system on earth is in no way an aspect of this synergism.
....Berdyaev describes the man who, with Christ, hopes to transform the world as a genius, the creator of new things by his freedom. He is beyond the good and evil which are the proper condition of the fallen man. He may not be perfect, but his imperfection is a spur to excellence, towards greater creativity (which, incidentally, was Berdyaev's concept of freedom). "True creativeness" is linked to the Holy Spirit. It is always in the Spirit, he observed, for only in the Spirit can there be that union of grace and freedom which is inherent to creativity. Of necessity, therefore, acts of freedom are also acts of the works of the Spirit. Hence, it is no great leap in logic to describe those acts as "ethical."
....To begin with, ethics must inquire into the moral significance of all creative work, even if it has no direct relation to moral life. Art and knowledge have a moral significance, like all activities which create higher values. There are, of course, personal values: a belief, a mission, principles; and, also, cultural values which are norms of acceptable thought and behaviour. For Berdyaev, such values are created and, considering the moral and spiritual condition of most men, creativity must be the privilege of the genius. He refers to such creativity as "theurgical" (the creation of being). The "new man" must work together with God to produce the "new age." And here, any relationship to the Orthodox Christian concept of synergism collapses.
....Berdyaev writes beautiful and his philosophy is enticing. He tells us that to reach that time, that "new age," we must struggle to open the way for the development of the Person whose heart will not rest until it abides in that transcendent realm of beauty and freedom. This is the reason, incidentally, that Berdyaev rejected both Capitalism and Communism. The former, he said, destroys man's eternal spirit but forces labour to depend on power to achieve his ends. The latter has "killed God" and, therefore, takes the religious element out of his life. Of course, both deny that Personality is the central category of value, the value of the Divine and human existence. They deny that the Person of man is the analogy of God. It is inevitable, then, that in these systems the Person is relegated to an "individual," that is, a naturalistic and biological category, while in fact, Personality is a religious and spiritual one. "The individual is part of the species, it springs from the species and may isolate itself without conflict. It is a biological process: it is born and dies. But Personality is not generated, it is created by God. It is God's idea, God's conception which springs up in eternity."
....To repeat the essence of Berdyaev's thought in this area, Personality creates itself, and exists by its own destiny. The individual is the objectified moment in nature's evolutionary process. The enemy of Personality is the community, because the socialization of man abrogates the freedom of spirit and conscience. "The socialization of morality implies the tyranny of society and of pubic opinion over the spiritual life of man, and his moral valuation," asserted Berdyaev.
....Berdyaev distinguished between collectivism and soborny, the Russian word given prominence by the nineteenth century lay theologian Alexis Khomiakov. Berdyaev does not use the term, however, in a strictly Orthodox Christian sense as Khomiakov did.
....Soborny, in its Orthodox context, is community in the sense of "commonweal," the common good. It recognises both the personhood and individuality of each, and the positive aspect of the community. I want to suggest also, the idea that we know ourselves only in relation to other people. The fulness of our personhood includes our relation to others. The broader concept of soborny includes such concepts, although literally translated it would indicate the Greek concept of catholicity: a Eucharistic fulness of community which does not impinge on the personhood of the participants in the community. Collectivism drowns the Personality in the crowd of individuals who are in fact, spectators. In terms of the Orthodox Church, soborny refers to a visible unity of Persons, who share the unity of the Holy Spirit. The Sprit is the realm of freedom wherein the human will acts effectively in the realization of the ends which the Person was intended to achieve and enjoy. It is an association of free persons who are unified by the Holy Spirit in the common cause of the Eucharist. Nowhere is there a loss of free will.
....Berdyaev's philosophy is attractive if unrealistic. His religious vision is open to valid criticism from an Orthodox point of view. We have yet to examine his idea of God and man, the so-called "mystery of human life" which he identified with "the mystery of Godmanhood." We must not be led astray by his fascinating allusions to the Trinity and the Incarnation. He offered exciting ideas about man as a spiritual being whose free will (creativity) is essential to our understanding of man and his destiny. As we shall see, however, Berdyaev's triadology and christology calls his Christianity into question. What we have seen thus far is only the surface of a theology. His ideas about human dignity and freedom are not conventional, nor is his teaching about man, good and evil. To comprehend Berdyaev's philosophy we must look to "the dialectic of the Divine and the human in German thought" to which he was devoted. The father of this "dialectic" and, therefore, all German Idealism is the Gnostic, Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), without whom there would have been no Fichte, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, and no Berdyaev.
....The basic assumption of Berdyaev's philosophy is "the coincidence of opposites" (coincidentia oppositorum) which applies not only to man and nature, but to God or Trinity. He emerges from the Abyss, the Absolute, the infinite, incomprehensible and bottomless nothing (Bogchestvo, Gottheit, Theotes, and Deitas). Thus the "birth of God" (theogony) is the beginning of the world-process. There is no creation from nothing, for "nothing" has no meaning outside the Absolute. The world is, therefore, erected from the mutable substance of God. He is the "unfolding God" out of which all things come; and all things are born, directly or indirectly, from Him (cosmogony). God lives so long as the world exists, because the explication of God in time is merely the evolution of man and the cosmos. The one cannot exist without the other.
.... Freedom and evil also leap from the Absolute independently of each other. God, freedom and evil have no control one of the other. They possess the unchanging Absolute; and, therefore, they are, because of their relationship to the Absolute, both changing and unchanging. The Absolute alone is immutable. Moreover, man contains all three dimensions which means that God is not responsible for evil in the world; nor can he prevent man from choosing, thinking, or acting. At the same time, man may resist God and evil by his freedom. "Personality is not generated; it is created by God. It is God's idea, God's conception, which springs up in eternity. From the point of view of the individual, Personality is a task to be achieved."
...."In other words, the existence of Personality presupposes the existence of God; its value presupposes the supreme value: God. If there is no God., Personality has no moral value and man has no inherent dignity. There is merely the individual entity subordinate to the natural life of the genus," Berdyaev continued. "Personality is the moral principle, and our relation to all other values is determined by reference to it. Hence, the idea of Personality lies at the basis of ethics. An impersonal system of ethics is a contradictio in adjecto. Personality is a higher value than the state, the nation, mankind or nature; and indeed is not part of that series." In other words, because the Personality comprehends all things within Itself, It is a microcosm.
....Furthermore, Personality develops by virtue of its communion with other Persons (soborny). It is nurtured by fellowship "within its genus." The complexity of man lies in the fact that a man is both an individual and the Person as a spiritual being, especially in his freedom. On account of his unique place in the universe, his Personality, man has supreme place in the hierarchy of values, He is the mediator between God and himself. It is clear from Berdyaev's metaphysics that man — specifically the Personality — is divine. He sought to protect himself by arguing that the human species was created by God, but God with His limited powers could not create anything out of nothing (ouk on). There is no "nothing." The only "nothingness" (me on) is the "nothingness" of the Absolute or Abyss from which God, evil and freedom spring. It is for that reason that Berdyaev contends that all is ultimately meonic. He described freedom as "meonic freedom."
....We need go no further in our treatment of Berdyaev's theory of "freedom." He complained in his "philosophical autobiography" (Dream and Reality) that a certain Orthodox cleric referred to him ironically as "the captive of freedom." He was "captive" of much more. He failed to think outside the perimeters established by Western philosophy. In this regard, Berdyaev was a rationalist. It may be argued, also, that although he invoked the names of Christ and the Trinity, His "God" is not the God of the Orthodox Church into which he was baptized. It would be better to call him a pantheist. His Personalism is a testament to his loss of faith.


....At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned that Personalism arose within the Western heritage. The principles upon which its doctrines stand were born of the categories and values of a mind-set whose ancestry is the Latin Middle Ages. Not a few Roman Catholics credit Augustine with having developed the first Christian Personalism. In any case, there is an historical truth in the emergence of Personalism: the inseparability of God and man: alter your conception of God and you will inevitably alter your conception of man. I am convinced that the reverse is also true. This is the trail followed by modernity, of which Personalism is an offspring.
....To be modern, wrote one philosopher, is to "think modern," to believe that modernity is in possession of "blossoming humanity." Necessarily, then, modernity has abandoned all "tradition," that is, the Greek and Christian ideas of God and man. The old idea of God as providential and revelatory or man as a "political" or "rational being" are supposedly bankrupt. Even more repugnant to moderns is the fact that man is a "substance," a fixed nature. And, of courses, there is nothing more abhorrent to modern thought than the ascetic and his devotion to "the supernatural state."
....Although he may live in a country, obey its laws and pay its taxes, the ultimate loyalty of "the new man" is this world: to live in it and to perfect it. There is nothing more precious than "freedom" or "liberty." He was eventually defined as "a being that has rights." Under these conditions, he is at liberty to work for the establishment of a just social and moral order, which, as Hobbes observed, neither the Greek nor Christian Commonwealths ever provided. He must therefore, have "an entitlement of rights" which involves the fundamental right to exist and, consequently, the ability to develop his own personality. This requires a new political order, an order that is impossible if we fail to replace the Christian idea of the city with another. This can be achieved only if the West's Scholastic legacy is utterly eviscerated.
....From the eighteenth century to the present, the God of Christian theology was studied under the assumption that it was the Biblical God who was being examined. He was in fact "the God of the philosophers and the savants." There was something ironical in the proclamation of the Enlightenment that the Divinity created the world and left it to man to perfect. The dualism between thought and being (not nature and grace) as the insuperable reality—a philosophical conundrum which has been the surd of modern philosophy since that time, especially with the "transcendental metaphysics" of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). He was confident that his philosophy was the sure path to "freedom."
....Nothing was more suggestive to future thinkers than Kant's substitution of "the conditions for the possibility of experience" for the traditional idea of man as a "substance." In addition, Kant did not want to reply upon God for freedom and moral goodness. For him and many of his colleagues the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, but the repertoire of stories filled with subjective and edifying images. For those who find these writings helpful, they might contribute to "the feeling whose special office is to impel the improvement of life." Finally, he left to modernity both skepticism and a dogmatism which reinforce each other in their repudiation of anything which dares to violate or restrict human rights.
....One thing had been very clearly asserted by modernity: its philosophers had demonstrated that a human nature (an inviolable substance) could not be proved to exist. If man has no human nature, he has no fallen nature, the concept of which had for so long deprived man of his rights, especially the right to determine what he was to become. No wonder monarchy and aristocracy were abolished—so interlocked were these with the old theology and anthropology. Mikhail Bakunin was not the only thinker to believe that the existence of the state (monarchy) is linked with the existence of God; hence, with the disappearance of the one will follow the disappearance of the other. If I remember correctly, Albert Camus lamented that the death of the king silenced the voice of God on earth.
....Nietzsche declared the death of God (but in the atmosphere of the idea of the deus abscondidus, why not). Naively, he asserted that man was now free to become whatever he wishes. He can, as one school of Existentialism said, create his own essence. Twentieth century Personalists came to the conclusion that "the cultural death of God" is an invitation to anarchy. It was implicit in their thinking that a man is a being who has rights, but also that this dogma could not have been possible if his being was substantial. The Personalists saw that rights and self-determination had their dangers, not the least of which was a society that forgot its poor, infirm and homeless. The response to this threat came primarily, albeit not exclusively, from the Catholic left. Mounier and the Catholic Worker Movement envisioned a world of freedom with the Sermon on the Mount as its moral guide.
....Whatever its form, Personalism is another non-Christian philosophy. Jacques Maritain, Pope John-Paul II, Nicholas Berdyaev, John Macmurray, J.H. Oldham, and others. hoped to create a Christian Personalism as a possible answer to the contemporary secular environment. It is likely that this is also both the philosophy and the motor that drives the reductionist notions of Ecumenism. Ecumenism solves nothing but only weakens the fabric of the faith, and ultimately contributes much to secularism. We are not speaking about interfaith dialogue, for dialogue is a necessity of all civilised intercourse, just as tolerance is a necessity for any hope of peace. Nevertheless, the idea that Personalism (and Ecumenism) could preserve Christianity by another synthesis inevitably fails, if only because the religion they have espoused is itself only an amplification of defective elements in contemporary Christianity. They had forgotten the fathers of the Church. Unlike them, Personalists no longer believed that Christian truth comes by the Christian tradition preserved and protected by both the Greek and Latin Orthodox Church fathers. Personalists do not seem interested in life eternal, but in a "better world" through organization and ethical conduct. Freedom is the way to that end: freedom as inherent rights, by which each person is free to be whatever he desires in accord with secular ideas freedom—surely a recipe for chaos, cruelty and anarchy. Such things ultimately lead to dictatorships and a complete loss of freedom. One can hardly imagine a greater tyranny than an Ecumenical one world religion, particularly if it had any power to enforce compliance or exercise ostracism.
....But how does the Personalist know that he is free or that the ideals in which he has invested his freedom are true? He cannot create the reality in which he lives. Human experience shows that sometimes our good intentions have evil consequences. Personalists, in general, have not sought to expel the passions of the inner man by grace, as patristic Christianity demands; nor have they even hearkened to the call of the Greeks to bring the passions under the control of reason. They have rejected both in favour of "the third man," the timeless labourer and consumer who may despair of the good, but never of himself. He cannot define the good and he cannot know his end, placing his faith in the force of history. Personalism gives us no idea of what this actually means.



Dave said...

Dear Vladika, It is ironic that I have stumbled into your blog as I was watching a web lecture from princeton and trying to find a book from synaxis press. Anyway the lecture was conducted by Krista Tippett, "Speaking of Faith", a regular airing on PBS radio with which I am unfamiliar. She is reading from a book which she is remarking about the difference of the individual from the whole. She goes on to say that: It is one thing to say, "this is the truth vs. this is my truth". Making a clear distinction between one person's truth being entirely removed from anothers. She mentions the Benedictines whom she says predate both the east and west. Here is the link to the web lecture for your purvue:

February 5, 2008 - Public Lecture Series
Krista Tippett, Founder and host of American Public Media's "Speaking of Faith": "Reading from 'Speaking of Faith' Followed by Panel Discussion"

SCroll down to:

Very ironic indeed,
With Love in Crrist,

Steve Hayes said...


I don't recall ever having heard of "personalism" before. I haven't had time to study your essay fully, and have bookmarked it for later study, but i wonder how it relates to Christos Yannaras and his assertion that Orthodoxy sees man as a person rather than, as in the West, eitheer individual or collective. Hierotheos, Bishop of Nafpaktos seems to take a similar view in his writings. So much so that until I read your article, i would have assumed that "Personalism" was a good description of Orthodox anthropology as opposed to that of Western modernity.

ephrem gall said...

Thank you, Vladika. Those of us who live in the world of the USA, having endured the election season and its outcome of the seemingly lesser evil of the progressive but pro-abortion over the neo-conservatives who have quickly demonstrated the bankrupcy of their way, would wish to find a perspective from which to truly advocate for a peaceful world. Chrisitian personalism seemed attractive.
I would add that I see many elements of Personalism in views espoused on the OPF mailing list. Ecumenism, the vision of Dorothy Day.
But I don't think Personalism is enhrined there. I believe OPF (with the Church of which it an expression) is together struggling toward peace and love and life, found in Christ.
And it is at monasteries who are at the forefront of this- those who have sold all and have nothing to defend.
There is no hope in the world itself; all hope is in the Kingdom. And the day coming when the kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.
But in the interim I must struggle to be a man of peace so that thousands may be saved. And we must struggle together, for without the Church no one will be saved.
Christ is born. Glorify Him!
Many years, Master!