Searching for Our Human Face: The Babel of Autonomy

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.


It was well recognized amongst the early church fathers that fragmentation and the Fall went together. “Where there is sin, there is multiplicity”—Origen. “And now, we rend each other like wild beasts”—Maximus the Confessor. “Satan has broken us up”—Cyril of Alexandria. The joyous unity of the Adam becomes the blaming of Eve, the serpent, mistrust between the sexes, the whole sad groaning of creation which is the only reality we have ever known. How does one get around it? Part of the difficulty is that one should not isolate freedom and identity as if one could focus purely on the individual. There’s the story in The Brothers Karamazov about the old woman in hell who once gave a shriveled, sorry excuse for an onion to a beggar. An angel tries to pull her out from infernal chains by the strength of this single act of charity. Other souls try to cling to her and gain release as well, but the old woman shouts, “it’s mine, mine”—and tumbles back into the flames. There is also Father Zossima’s mysterious claim that “each is responsible for all.” This can only be an irrational puzzle for those who have imbibed the ethos of modern western individualism. But if the Triune God is the exemplar of what it means to be a person, our creaturely experience is analogous and only partially, incompletely, imperfectly approaches genuine personhood. We are still figuring it out. Thinkers like Zizioulas, Yannaras, Balthasar, and Desmond are among those who remind us that our understanding of the person remains provisional and open to eschatological revision.

Personhood is not simply a given, but a task. At minimum, we should recognize that the relational dimension of the person is just as constitutive of identity as what one might think of as a “substantial core.” As Desmond puts it, there is a porosity to personal being both in terms of the deep structure of the soul and our natural openness to the exterior other. We are “wholes” in our irreplaceable singularity that paradoxically realize our integrity through dynamic, dramatic interaction with the Other (an interaction with the infinite capacity for novelty, as Gregory of Nyssa so perceptively noted). The eternal is not synonymous with static closure or some kind of totalizing completion, a fear that haunts the post-modern heirs of late modern “masters of suspicion.” The familiar notion of the self is a product of modern rationalism. When one breaks it down further, it often is little more than a managed set of desires and a very limited scope of ideologically constrained concepts pretending to be genuine thought. Ironically, many of those who are most vociferously anti-modern and anxious to promote a biblical alternative import this modern self into their theological assertions. Even those, no, particularly those who embrace a fideist rejection of secular reasonn exhibit an unwarranted individualism in their images of ultimacy. Further, for all their talk of grace, they tend to assert a soteriology in which the will is sealed off in atomized fashion from any larger context that might impinge on a purely autonomous disposition of the self.

The modern pose is utterly pretentious and unreal. No one is free like that. Apart from any consideration of the importance of relations to a proper metaphysics of the person, it is evident to anyone with moderate insight that there is something terribly adolescent in the will to power. We are too complex and too vulnerable for such a simplistic solution to the mystery of ourselves.

Our flesh is fragile; any piece of matter in motion can pierce it, tear it, smash it, or derange forever one of our internal mechanisms. Our soul is vulnerable, subject to depressions without cause, pitiably dependent on all manner of things and beings which are in their turn fragile and capricious. Our social self on which the feeling of our existence practically depends is always and entirely exposed to every possible hazard. The center of our being is bound to those three things with fibers so tender that it feels their wounds, to the point of bleeding. What diminishes or destroys our social prestige, especially our right to consideration, seems to alter or abolish our very essence, so much so that illusion is our very substance. (Simone Weil, quoted in Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, p. 65)

Any attempt to grapple with our freedom and to make apodeictic pronouncements on the ultimate disposition of the self must weigh the delicate threads of otherness that play inextricable ingredient in our constitution. Even as we are singular, “idiotic” beings called from nothing and irreplaceable, we are also bound to the communion of being. “There is a profound and original nexus between the fulfillment of my person, my path as a person and the destiny of the world” (Guissani, The Religious Sense, p. 77). If this sounds contradictory, one must recall that paradox is ineliminable when broaching the Triune life, and we bear the trace of Trinity. As both Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky repeatedly emphasize, the truth is antinomic. Yet further, one must insist that short of Christ’s revelation, we would never discover an authentic path to freedom. Anyone who has thought even superficially upon the uncountable and powerful elements that bear upon our destinies will have seen the point. This is how Bulgakov puts it in The Bride of the Lamb:

The truth of the doctrine of “predestination” consists precisely in the fact that this doctrine attempts to take into account this force of necessity in human destinies. This necessity can take different forms: laws of nature, fate, chance, historical circumstances. But in all these forms it presses on freedom, not only limiting it but in some cases paralyzing it. Necessity is capable of provoking somber fatalism, the phantasms of reincarnation, karma, and fate. God or “moira” (i.e., fate) – these are the alternatives. Only the naiveté of positivism can console itself with various self-deceptions and imagine, as a victory over fate, a “leap” from necessity to freedom. The phantom of blind fate can be dissipated only by the power of the religious understanding of life and the feat of faith, which also gives knowledge of freedom. (p. 249)

This knowledge of freedom is awareness of the agapeic Father. “Freedom is relative: its being is entirely grounded in creaturely being; the task it is to accomplish is based on what is given” (BL, p. 491). This givenness, which is more than nature, is both the key to freedom and the source of man’s resistance. But love will win out. “Freedom is not an independent power in itself; it is impotent in its opposition to divinity: `Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32). The truth is ontological” (BL, p. 491). The assertion that God’s respect for freedom precludes a definitive capacity to intervene and heal the damage of literally insane choices (to the point of reserving an eternal hell that perdures outside the desire of God’s loving will) requires that one accept the modern premises of freedom as freedom. If it is not actual freedom, but only its prerequisite and the potential for authentic (metaphysical, perfective) liberty, the modern fetish for its inviolability turns out to be one more function of autonomous flight. The request that hell remain is a desire for the divine healer to allow the ravings of the mad man to stand. But we already know (the Gadarene, for example) that Christ will not allow that—and we also know that the surrounding society did not like it.


Henri Boulad tells the story of a young man condemned to death. I cannot recollect his crime, nor is it important for our purposes. As the youth was being led to the gallows, he spoke to the crowd. “I am more than my life,” he said. That is a remarkable insight. Thinking deeply about death can spur such thoughts. A culture that evades death or only thinks in terms of endless precaution and deferral will not have them. The Greek word for sin is hamartia. It is a missing of the mark. It is often thought by theologians to mean lives made up of actions that fail to reach God. I do not disagree, but only add that finding the mark includes unique identities, irreplaceable missions. I have said elsewhere that the original gift of being involves a unique, singular telos that we are able to intuit at some level, but that the calling is deeply placed and more apt to be touched in dream, play, wonder, creativity, and loving encounter. It is hard to talk about and impossible to comprehend. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is always present, so that our acts are always haunted by approach or betrayal to the name given as promise and task by the All Father. This is what the young man sensed as he climbed towards the noose. The name was a judgment, but it was also a hope for it promised that we are not simply bound by the failures of our finite acts.

(Go to “Depths Within Depths”)

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