Restoring the Human Icon: Elder Sophrony and Bio Ethics

         Our modern world has been aptly described as the iGeneration; yet, at the same time, our society is reeling from an acute identity crisis. Bishop PAUL of Chicago and the Midwest, in an address given on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, fervently stated that while the Church celebrates the restoration of the icons in ninth century Byzantium, our own society is facing perhaps the greatest iconoclastic persecution ever witnessed: the destruction of what it means to be a person. Fr. John Breck writes, “Ours is a world in which human life is often considered—and treated— as a mere product that we can create on demand and eliminate for reasons of convenience” (Breck, 244). The contemporary ethical debates regarding abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality inevitably pivot upon the axis of personhood. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the Orthodox Church. Elder Sophrony often stated that “if we manage to express correctly what God has revealed to us about the person, then without fail the uniqueness of the Church’s tradition . . . will be made apparent” (Zacharias, 17). Orthodox anthropology necessarily involves three elements: image, likeness, and telos (goal or summation). The following essay will examine each of these terms and their implications on the Orthodox approach to ethical theory and practice.

There is nothing in heaven nor on earth as privileged as the human person. We alone, according to the Genesis narrative, were made in the image and likeness of God. This irreducible conviction lies at the heart of the Church’s approach to all stages and forms of human life. Breck, in his study, The Sacred Gift of Life, relates that Orthodox ethics “necessarily [focus] on the individual as a person, created in the image of God and endowed with transcendent value” (Breck, 246). The human being is not simply an advanced manifestation of evolutionary progression, distinguishable from other biological forms of life only by the superiority of its intelligence. Man is, in a mysterious manner, an image of God, a created reflection of the Uncreated. However, the question remains: of what exactly is this image comprised and how is it distinguished from “likeness?”


Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant book, Who is Man, relates, “Every human being has at least a vague notion, image, or dream of what humanity ought to be, of how human nature ought to act. The problem of man is occasioned by our coming upon a conflict or contradiction between existence and expectation, between what man is and what is expected of him” (Heschel, 3). The tension between “what man is” and “what is expected of him” has naturally led many to the idea of ethical progression. Alison MacIntyre, in his study, After Virtue, speaks of “human nature in its untutored state” and “human-nature-as-it-could-be,” and defines ethics as the bridge linking one to the other (MacIntyre, 53).

Likewise, Orthodox anthropology has traditionally viewed “image” precisely as the divinely bestowed potential to grow, by grace, into the “likeness” of God. St. Maximus explains, “For to the beautiful nature inherent in the fact that he is God’s image, [man] freely chooses to add the likeness to God by means of the virtues, in a natural movement of ascent through which he grows in conformity to his own beginning” (Ambigua 7, 105). Parallel to the understanding of image as potential is the patristic teaching regarding the λόγοι. Bishop Alexander (Golitzen) comments, “The λόγοι are . . . foreordained vocations to which we may or may not choose to become conformed . . . to which we may choose to be ever in process of becoming conformed” (Alexander, 86). In other words, the λόγοι are simply God’s pre-existent ideas for the world. Image can be thus understood as the God-given blueprint or λόγος for man’s God-like existence, which each person chooses either to negate or actualize.


Adam’s choice to abandon his vocation certainly hindered his progress towards actualizing God’s pre-existent will (λόγος) for him. Nevertheless, St. Gregory Palamas insists, “Although we cast away our divine likeness, we did not lose our divine image” (Palamas, 363). The image of God can never be completely eradicated in as much as God’s pre-existent will for a man remains eternal and unwaning, despite the extent to which a man may resist this call. From this perspective, the moment in which a person “begins to exist” is irrelevant. Though the genesis of their being takes place in time, God’s idea for a person takes place outside of time. In the realm of bio-ethics, this conviction has tremendous implications. Regardless of the duration of a person’s physical existence, all whom God has willed to come into existence bear the image of God and possess the capacity to be, by grace, everything that God is by nature. Fr. Joseph Woodill declares, “Every created person, in every state of life, is called to the telos of theosis (Woodill, 97). This is a completely different approach than those typically encountered in contemporary ethical dialogues.

The two prevailing schools of thought, deontology and consequentialism, invariably isolate the person from the moral decision. The deontological approach judges the “rightness” of the decision against a universally applicable moral code. Consequentialism, likewise, considers the exterior effects of a decision on the greater society. In contrast, the Orthodox approach focuses on a decision’s impact upon the person. All things are seen in light of a person’s call or telos to grow continually in the process of theosis. Morality is not the weighing of outcomes, but the weighing of a heart—not an obedience to “what’s right” but rather a reflection of who a person is. God is not interested in people who make “good decisions.” He is in the business of making good people.


Heschel writes, “Man is a peculiar being trying to understand his uniqueness. What he seeks to understand is not his animality but his humanity. He is not in search of his origin, he is in search of his destiny” (Heschel, 22). Ethics is largely teleological. Its purpose is to depict the goal or telos and the means for achieving this goal. Every decision and situation is viewed differently, personally, but the goal remains the same: theosis. Traditionally, the progression towards this goal has been measured by the acquisition of the virtues. Authors such as MacIntyre have, in recent times, issued a call for the return to this virtue-oriented ethics. However, while MacIntyre’s groundbreaking efforts are to be lauded, a virtue-ethic that remains divorced from a universally applicable model is bound to fail as quickly as any other approach. Without a basis upon which to determine the nature of the telos, all questions regarding virtue necessarily become relative. If to be virtuous is to be human, man still remains blind to what this means. Heschel comments, “Humanity is not something [man] comes upon in the recesses of the self. He always looks for a model or an example to follow. What determines one’s being human is the image one adopts” (Heschel, 8).

For Christianity, this image is Christ. He is the τελεία ἀνακεφαλαίωσις, the perfect summation of what it means to be a person. Nicholas Sakharov comments, “The incarnation is the vehicle of the divine revelation not only about God but about man as well” (Sakharov, 148). The Λόγος, by joining to His Divine Nature the human nature, fulfilled God’s pre-existent λόγοι or ideas for the first Adam. St. Maximus writes, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the second Adam, came and ‘summed up all things himself (Eph. 1:10)’ and showed for what purpose the first human being was created” (St. Maximus, Questions and Doubts, 156). In this sense, Christ is the telos of human ethical striving and the incarnation of virtue. St. Maximus again relates, “The essence of all the virtues (ἀρετῶν) is our Lord, Jesus Christ, as it is written: God made Him our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption” (AMB 7 (PG 91:1081d), 103). It is only in Christ’s Person that we can perceive the image of a virtuous life.


This Image, par excellence, is love. Christ showed Himself to be perfect love when He took into His heart all of our diseased humanity, all of fallen creation, and offered it up to the Father in His voluntary and Eucharistic sacrifice. In this action, He fulfilled the greatest commandment: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Love is the summation of all virtue. Perry Hamalis and Aristotle Papanikolaou, in their article “Toward a Godly Mode of Being” relate, “In the end, the human being’s one and only goal is to learn how to love (Hamalis, 277). To be a person is a beautiful thing. We alone possess the capacity to unite all things in our love. Elder Zacharias writes, “The purpose [telos] of man’s creation, and his destiny as a true person-hypostasis in Christ, is to embrace all being, created and Uncreated (Zacharias, 81). This is the fundamental component necessary to any Orthodox discussion regarding man’s creation in God’s image and likeness and the comprehension of his telos. Ethics cannot be divorced from man’s vocation to love. Self- emptying Love, in the likeness of Christ, must inform every moral decision.


** *

Judging my own moral development is a difficult task. Elder Sophrony likens our life to a glass of water. Every action and decision either purifies or pollutes the water. He writes, “The whole of our earthly life, from birth to our last breath, in its final conclusion will appear as a single act without duration in time. Its content and quality will be seen at a glance” (Sophrony, 38). I had this revelation sometime in my late teens. I had suffered several personal disappointments and failures and had seriously questioned the value of my life. It was then that I realized that the greatest asset someone could possess was a virtuous life. I was not Orthodox at the time but I understood virtue in the sense of an innate disposition to choose the good. I realized that being a person of character meant that in whatever moral dilemma I found myself, I would manifest the inner virtue that was rooted in my person and not in a rational decision process. I believe the greatest influence in this regard was my avid love for classic literature, particularly the novels of Charles Dickens. In these, I learned what is to be human, what is to be a virtuous son, husband, and father. Dicken’s characterization adopts the premise that virtuous people, regardless of their situation, always display virtue and likewise the immoral are always revealed in the end to act according to their inner poverty.


Now, being Orthodox, I understand this all the more clearly. I recognize that the multitudinous and mundane actions and thoughts that occur each day are slowly shaping who I am as a person. Partaking of the sacraments, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving each act to purge the “water” of my soul. At the same time, the influences that I allow into my life, the music I choose, the books I read, the thoughts I allow to enter, all affect the ultimate character of my person. Thus, in one sense my moral development is continuously being shaped by my daily decisions. Yet, on the other hand, I know that God’s judgment will not rest upon the decisions that I have made but upon the single unity of who I am as a human being. If Christ does not see His likeness in my person, then all moral deliberations will prove to be pointless.

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