Dumitru Staniloae: What is Freedom Good For?

“Holy Scripture shows that life on earth is the arena in which the human person decides his fate for eternity, for after death he cannot change his fate” (The Fulfillment of Creation, VI:30)—this is a foundational premise from which flows much of Dumitru Staniloae’s reflections on salvation and damnation. He grounds this conviction on the explicit teaching of Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers but also on a philosophical understanding of libertarian freedom he believes to be implied, if not explicitly authorized, by the Orthodox tradition.

Only in the body is the human person a truly active being. It is in the body that “he works toward his perfection by spiritualizing the body, that is, by the fact that he makes the body a medium for the senses and for good works” (VI:30). In the body he is given the opportunity to praise and serve God, to love his neighbor, to give alms to the poor, to preach the gospel. In the body he is given the opportunity to cultivate a virtuous character, repent of his sins, alter his behavior, fight against his disordered desires, and freely join himself to the living God in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church. Precisely because man is made a unity of body and soul, his life in the world is decisive for his ultimate salvation.

God has a cosmic plan of salvation; He does not save singular spiritual monads. The human person cannot fulfill this unique mission except in a body intimately connected with this world. This is why the Son of God Himself became a man in soul and body, so that through His humanity He might gather the entire creation in Himself. How then could man become perfect as a spiritual being if the did not act upon the world, if he were not strengthened as a spirit—with God’s help—in relation to the visible world? Moreover, only in this bodily life does man have needy fellow men whom he can help through his body. St John of Damascus says, “When the market day is over, there is no more trading of goods. For where are the poor? Where are the liturgists and the psalmody? Where are the good works. Before the hour of death, we can help each other, and we can offer manifestations of brotherly love to God, the lover of mankind.” (VI:30-31)

We are neither saved nor damned as discarnate spirits but as embodied beings who share a world with other embodied beings. As the Apostle declares, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).

That our earthly existence possesses an absolute significance for our eschatological destiny may seem to us, who fear the divine judgment both for ourselves and those we love, as an arbitrary, even capricious, decree of the Creator. Why such a short time? Why no second chances? The stakes, after all, are so high. At least the reincarnation of Hinduism gives the individual multiple opportunities to get things right. But Staniloae argues that if our earthly life lacked absolute significance, then we would be trapped in an endless cycle of ascents and descents. Life would lose all meaning, and genuine happiness would be impossible:

St Maximus sees the meaning of movement in the fact that we tend toward the final goal: the created beings rest eternally in the divine infinitude. Without the inner tension toward such a goal—absolute perfection in the infinite divine plenitude—movement has no meaning. It deceives us with immediate goals that in fact do not take us out of the plane of relativity, whether we advance further in this plane or we continuously rotate in a circle. In this case, time, in which this movement is produced, has no final goal within eternity, and therefore no meaning. … That is, God’s creation has value because it is a departure point from the state of “being” (εἶναι) that the created being has as a gift from God, through the state of “well-being” (εὖ εἶναι) that he obtains through the movement implanted in him but positively actualized by his will, and to “eternal well-being” (ἀεί εὖ εἶναι) as God’s ultimate and eternal gift.

In this way our existence on earth has a unique, decisive importance. Time is its exclusive form, and this gives time a decisive value, a value that corresponds to that of eternity. Historical life on earth is raised above relativity if obtaining the absolute life in God depends solely on it. It becomes absolute through participation, to translate the patristic expression “deification through participation.” Thus time is also a grace. Eternity cannot be transformed into gradual new decisions and acts; this would mean it was transformed into time.

On the contrary, if time is eternal, if it continues eternally like an infinite pool, it loses its decisive significance, and every historical act loses its unique importance. Anything can be done anytime; anything can be repaired anytime, in a relative sense. Nothing is bound to a certain historical moment, to a certain person. There is no real progress; everything becomes a tiring uniformity. There is no rush to respond to any appeal. One can postpone responding as long as one likes. With the knowledge that there is an endless time to decide, one can keep postponing the decision. Eternity is not a setting for new decisions, nor is endless time a setting that requires a pressing decision. This is why eternity is only the setting within which we reap the eternal benefit of decisions in time. Eternal time is no longer a setting for real perfection.

There is no longer anything wrong with postponing the fulfillment of a decision as much as possible; there is no longer anything wrong with not doing the requested good now. In this case the philosophy of torpor appears as the wisest course. In the eternal dominion of this sort of time, there is no decisive period of existence.

But if there is no longer a time for obligatory decisions, then there is no importance attached to any one human person or another, nor to the totality of persons who are being perfected. That is, there is no longer any person who has a unique character linked to his own time. If we can still speak of persons, they are uniform. Any person can be killed because any other one can replace him. Neither one person nor all together can move time from its relativity, and such persons do not move toward the absolute so that they might become suitable for it. (VI:32-33)

I have quoted Fr Dumitru at length because the above represents his decisive objection to both reincarnation and universal salvation. In his judgment both render life relative and thus meaningless; both render God irrelevant. Authentic freedom requires the dimension of absoluteness; otherwise, it becomes vacuous and ceases to be freedom. Another important, and lengthy, passage:

But a freedom that leads all souls to salvation, or that makes it possible for all of them to pass eternally from good to evil and vice versa, is properly speaking no longer freedom. If all attain salvation either by the will of God or through a law of intrinsic evolution, where is the freedom? Likewise, if souls are led against their will to one incarnation after another, or to one fall after another, where is the freedom? Again, if no one ever reaches perfection in the infinity of divine life, and all continue moving within the plane of eternal relativity, what is freedom good for?

Christian freedom presupposes an absolute that the human person can fight for or can refuse. Without this absolute the human person lacks all support and any cause for affirmation. In a plane of eternal and universal relativity or of strict nature process, the fight for freedom, which on one hand is presupposed by freedom and on the other hand promotes it, loses any incentive. That is why freedom has two forms: freedom obtained by fighting to achieve the absolute good, to impose its victory, and to unite with it; and freedom obtained by fighting to liberate the person from enslaving passions, so as to enter into loving communion with the supreme Person, with God. It is in this communion that the true and complete good is found. He who has attained this has the true freedom (identical with the true and infinite good) from which he no longer wants to depart and from which he can no longer depart, in the sense of an acquired powerlessness. In this communion the person has an unceasing and unending newness, through the good that shines forth from the supreme Person and is manifested in interpersonal communion. (VI:37)

Imagine playing a game in which violations of the rules have no consequences and in which no one wins or loses. It just goes on and on … in monotonous endlessness. What is the point? Why play well? Why obey the rules? Why try to win? Why play at all?

Perhaps we might say that the possibility of eternal damnation is the necessary cost of forging authentic persons. Without the possibility of failure, the achievement of personhood is an impossibility. “If the human person knew that by using his freedom against God’s will he would one day be destroyed, he would be limited in his freedom,” asserts Staniloae. “He is truly free only if he knows that he can eternally oppose God. He is free and has complete dignity only if he knows that he is eternally unconditioned, that is, eternally free” (VI:49).

Why else the presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden? Why the command to not eat of its fruit, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17)? “Freedom, as a sign of spiritual power, is more than just a gift,” states Staniloae; “it is also a result of effort” (The World: Creation and Deification, II:166). If Adam were to become a true partner with God in an eternal communion of love, he needed to be confronted with the tree and given the opportunity to resist the temptation it presented. He needed to exercise his freedom through trusting obedience and begin the journey into the personhood of theosis.

God breathed spirit into man, but the spirit breathed into him was in great part a potency that man needed to make pass into act. By commanding man not to eat from the tree of consciousness before he was guided by freedom of the spirit, God, in fact, commanded him to be strong, to remain free, and to grow in spirit, that is in freedom. This very commandment made appeal to man’s freedom. (II:166)

What is freedom good for? For nothing less than becoming saints who forever enjoy the living God.

(Go to “Judgment of man by Man”)

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10 Responses to Dumitru Staniloae: What is Freedom Good For?

  1. Brian says:

    I see where Staniloae is coming from: we are not truly human or in God’s image if we don’t possess ultimate freedom to say no to God. I wonder how he would have reacted towards arguments made by Talbott and others that our freedom is really limited due to weakness from sin. I appreciate that we must make important decisions while in the body which is how the soul acts. However, this leaves me somewhat cold. So many people live and die without one moment of true “freedom” to choose the one true God. Take an inner city kid, rejected by his uninvolved or even unknown father who lives with an angry mother and a Pentecostal grandmother telling him that God is mad at him for all his sins. He grows up angry and hateful and dies in the streets. Did that kid have freedom to make an “eternal” decision. Surely Christ would come to him as he promised in 1 Peter 3 and preach to him the Good News. Surely the love of God would “burn away” his passions so he could find himself free to actually know the one true God of unconditional love for the first time.

    I have found that most people don’t really feel that deeply about universalism because the alternative doesn’t really bother them for whatever reason. It’s inevitable, they reason, that many will reject Christ. What can be done? So why worry? Somehow they believe that God is fair in all that he does so we will one day finally see it clearly and understand that masses of humanity needed to be separated from Him forever: living a tortured existence of a lack of love and trying desperately to fulfill their passions unsuccessfully for eternity. I’ve even heard it reasoned that we just can’t see the whole picture now but when are in heaven we’ll understand why the masses are in hell. But as St. Silouan says, “Who can bear that thought”.

    Stanlinoae was probably simply not bothered by this outcome and it was enough for him just to believe rightly that God loves everyone equally even if masses end in hell through their rejection. Thus, he probably never delved into an alternative possibility posited by St. Gregory or Clement. I’m sure he simply thought the church condemned it so that settles it. Most Christians I know live this way. They love God and neighbor and just accept that many “go to hell”. Either you accept that and live the best way you can or you go crazy thinking about it or…you find that universalism isn’t such a far fetched possibility.

    I love Stanlinoae and wished he would have dug a little deeper, but I have to accept him for what he taught which has been fairly mainline Orthodoxy. Its just hard when it comes from such a man who was a hysechest and a pious man with a huge intellect. Who am I to question his theology. But for me, I’ll stick with Bishop Kallistos and Met Alfeyev and hope for the blessed reunification of all people to Christ and his church. St. Isaac pray for me.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have added a quotation from Fr Staniloae that I forgot to include. It confirms even more clearly that he believes that the authentic freedom requires the possibility of eternal damnation.


    • Agni Ashwin says:

      By “eternal damnation”, do you mean “eternally unremitting and incessant pain and suffering of the utmost degree” or “eternal separation from the bliss of God, felt as a sense of constant dissatisfaction, not necessarily as incessant extreme pain”? I ask because reincarnation as conceptualized by many Hindus includes the second option. That is, many Hindus believe that the process of reincarnation includes the possibility that someone will always make choices that keeps them always embedded within the reincarnation process, without ever becoming free and entering into communion with the Divine. Such persons will not feel absolute misery and pain 24/7, but they will never become totally free from that underlying sense of dissatisfaction.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        My next article (probably posted on Monday, if I’m able to get it done this weekend) will share more of Staniloae’s thoughts on the question you have posed. But Staniloae does believe that absolute rejection of God does lead to intense suffering, because by that rejection the person has cut themself off from the source of being and goodness.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I suspect that Staniloae would also say that regarding his critique of reincarnation, the degree of suffering does not affect his analysis. True happiness and fulfillment cannot be achieved if we are not confronted with the God who is Absolute and thus confronted with the summons to surrender to him totally in death.


  3. David Jimenez says:

    This is one of the better critiques of univeralism I have seen. Will you write a rebutal/response 🙂


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Probably not a rebuttal but I do have some critical thoughts about Staniloae’s argument that I will probably share at the conclusion of this series.


  4. David Jimenez says:

    But did not Isaac himself make comments like:
    Let us beware in ourselves, my beloved, and realize that even if Gehenna is subject to a limit, the taste of its experience is terrible, and the extent of its bounds escapes our very understanding. Let us strive all the more to partake of the taste of God’s love for the sake of perpetual reflection on Him, and let us not have experience of Gehenna through neglect. (II.40.1).

    I’ve always understood that Orthodox who support universal salvation (Ware, Isaac, Gregory of Nyssa, etc.) never understand Gehena as some brief walk through the park that ends after a brief apology. This is a good critique of modernist views of universalism that deny the reality of suffering/death/repentance, but I’m not sure how effective it is against more mature Christian interpretations.


  5. Edward says:

    Here is what I find confusing. I presume that Father Staniloae believes that Christ’s mission in coming to earth was to save all human beings and not only some. If this is so, what he seems to be saying is that, were this mission to prove successful, it would make human freedom meaningless. What an odd position to take.



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