"On Speaking the Truth"


On Speaking the Truth


Orthodox Reflections on Contemporary Social Intercourse


Fr. Edward Rommen, Ph.D.


It has become increasingly difficult for Christians to express an ethical conviction that questions the behavior or belief of another individual and not have that taken as a rejection of the other person. Many priests have experienced this when attempting to teach parishioners that a particular behavior is not in keeping with the truth of divine revelation. One might, for example, challenge the morality of the intimate practices of a gay couple only to find himself accused of rejecting them as persons, of hate, and intolerance. This kind of reaction is not aimed at the substance of the position, but is, rather, an expression of an offense taken at the perceived violation of personhood. No matter how carefully we seek to differentiate between ethical convictions and the individuals who might act on them, no matter how carefully we qualify our remarks, it seems that any criticism of the other’s behavior, thought, or belief, is “heard” as an attack ad hominem and the response is more likely to trigger a defense of individual personhood than an open dialog on the issue at hand.

For example, as an Orthodox priest, I might be asked to marry an Orthodox Christian and a non-Christian, let’s say a Muslim. Bound by Scripture and Tradition, I would, of course, have to decline. But my experience in such situations indicates that the response will probably be something along the lines of, “Are you rejecting us as persons?” Or they might say “we are adults, don’t you respect our right to make this choice?” I could respond by appealing to the sources of my conviction, such as the Bible, Canon Law, or the instructions of my Bishop and seek to justify, or at least explain, my position. But my post-enlightenment listeners, who assume the right to make such discriminations untutored, read this appeal to moral authority as an affront to self-determination and, as I have so often found out, they then feel compelled to establish and or defend their own personhood. This identification of personhood-as-such with personal opinions or behaviors inevitably surprises me, since I am not questioning the personal nature of their existence. In any case, this kind of reaction does, as I have said, make it very difficult to speak the truth. So, I wonder what causes this response and what we might be able to do to avoid or, at least, mitigate it.


1. The Homogenization of Personhood

As I see it, this extreme personalizing of discourse is an expression of a fundamental shift in the way we define and experience personhood and inter-personal discourse. This shift can be conceptualized as a collapsing of the God-given multi-layered, hierarchical nature of personhood into a single, flat generalization.[1] The richly textured structure that defines personal being is reduced to a single, one-dimensional abstraction, which is forced to do service for the whole without the help of its constitutive parts. One imaginary construct replaces the living reality of a dynamic, multi-dimensional hierarchy, and becomes the primary currency of social interaction.

Orthodox Christians confess that God exists as one divine nature hypostasized (personally actualized) as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. [2] But, God does not simply exist as some substance (ousia), but rather as person, that is, as three persons (hypostasis). The ‘who-ness’ of God is obviously tied to the inter-trinitarian relationships. Who the Father is, is revealed by his relationship to the Son and the Spirit. This is an expression of the self-emptying freedom of each person in service to the others, not defining their own boundaries, but rather a transcending of those boundaries for the sake of the others. So divine personhood does not exist in isolation, but rather in the communion of personal relationships. God “is” as the eternally existing, tri-hypostatic divine person.

As applied to human beings, we believe that God replicates something of Himself in us, i.e., we alone among his creatures take on the personal character of the Trinity. The concept of personhood, then, is rooted in God and is actualized in us as the very image of God. For this reason, personhood is not secondary to the existence of some substance (human nature), but is rather the primary mode of human existence. In other words, a human being can never not be a person. However, as we appear in the world, each individual is only recognizable as a person when certain aspects of the divine image are actively expressed in the spacio-temporal realm. The primary forms of this expression take place within a bi-directional set of relationships. On the one hand, the fullness of human personhood can only be experienced within an active relationship with the divine person upon whose will our existence as persons is contingent. This is the foundation that facilitates all personal relatedness. On the other hand, personal existence also has to be realized or expressed in relation to beings of like nature, that is, in the context of human-to-human discourse. In other words, we cannot be fully human[3] outside a context defined by personal relationships.

The exact meaning of the concept “person” has been much discussed and has often been equated with the ability to think, to love, and to reproduce. But one author[4] has suggested that the unique mystery of human personhood can be captured in what he calls four basic conditions of personhood. He is not referring to personality or identity, both of which are products of being-in-the-world, that is, of participation in goals, values, and languages shared with others. Personality is individual identity or the self as established by the ongoing history of one’s interface with the physical, as well as, social and cultural dimensions of the world. What concerns me here is rather the basis of personhood-as-such, in other words, that, which answers to the question “under what conditions can we refer to a particular entity as a person?” Evnine suggests that there are four conditions, abilities, or faculties, which form a basic hierarchy that makes personhood-as-such possible.

a)  Finite/Infinite Nature[5]

First, there is Finitude/Infinitude, that is, the dual or composite nature of the human person. Obviously, to be recognized, a person is going to have a physical or material presence bounded by time and space. But while human beings are spatially and temporally limited, their nature points to something beyond both time and space, that is, to the ever-present image of God, the infinite divine Spirit (Gen 2.7), which is the source of life itself and which establishes the very foundation of personal life, namely intimate communion with the living God. These two components, the finite and the infinite, must be maintained simultaneously if justice is to be done to the mystery of human personhood.[6]

However, this is exactly what is not being done today. The materialistic influence of modern thought has effectively reduced personhood to its finite aspect. It has collapsed the hierarchical, dual nature into a single concept by denying or ignoring all of its infinite aspects. As a result, human personhood is no longer seen to be animated by a relationship with the infinite and has to turn in on itself in a kind of ontological reflexivity, that is, an extreme self-centeredness, a self-relationship(?). It has no choice but to ground its own finite existence in a tautological reference to itself. “I exist because I exist.”[7] But, if this most fundamental of all aspects of humanity, its very existence, is established exclusively in the finite realm by reference to the self, then it stands to reason that all other aspects of human existence, such as the ability to determine what is true, right and good, are also established by reference to the self, and it becomes the final abitur of truth. Because this conceptualization of personhood is a homogenized, one-dimensional, utterly finite construct, its over-all existence, personhood itself, is virtually inseparable from its constitutive components. Thus, a challenge to one aspect of existence, such as its stance on a particular ethical issue, is seen as a challenge to the whole of its existence.

b) Belief

The second condition of personhood is Belief. This idea expresses the human ability to hold some cognitive content to be true. It presupposes the presence of logical thought processes, which leads to the conviction that certain things follow or are true. These beliefs are not held in isolation, but are taken together to form a conceptual framework or structure within which new content can be continually evaluated. However, the post-enlightenment insistence on the right to, and assumed veracity of, personal opinion has shifted the focus away from an ability to believe to the content of that belief, or the practical outcomes of believing. In other words, many now see the things they actually do believe as constitutive of personhood rather than the fact that they have the ability to evaluate content and arrive at conclusions, beliefs. Personal beliefs and opinions are thus folded into or equated with personhood itself, making any criticism of that opinion tantamount to an attack on the person, since we are now convinced that “I am what I believe.”


c) Agency

The third condition of personhood, Agency, is the freedom or ability to translate belief and desire into concrete action, that is, to self-actualize. This is accomplished through the application of rationality, love, and creativity whereby the individual has the freedom to determine what he or she does, says, or thinks. But the Creator did not intend this to be an absolute freedom, but rather one conditioned by the contingency of our being and the communality of our existence. In other words, these actualized desires are to be implemented in the context of relationships, that is, directed toward and for the benefit of others and not the self. [8] However, the whole faculty of self-determination has been perverted by the fall into sin and further exacerbated by contemporary reflexivity. Because individuals posit their own being with reference to themselves, it is easy to see why the actualization of one’s own desire could be misunderstood as indicative of personal existence itself. That is, the realization of individual desires is so closely aligned with the actualization of personhood that the individual comes to define personal identity in terms of the things they do for themselves. This refusal to participate in the relational life upon which the fullness of created existence depends has fragmented the unity of human being and disrupted inter-personal discourse. For this reason, any challenge to one’s actions or behavior are taken to be a rejection of the right to self-actualization and therefore personhood itself. As with belief, agency is being folded into and identified with personhood so that “what I do is who I am.”

d) Morality

The fourth condition, Morality, involves the comparison of the rightness or wrongness of a particular action with some standard independent of one’s own desires and preferences by which self-actualization itself is judged. Unfortunately, contemporary moral reflexivity and the identification of beliefs and agency with personhood has turned this faculty inward onto the self, which then serves as the measure of all behavior and thought. We might conceptualize this phenomenon by using the idea of what we could call individual plausibility structures.[9] These are internal, mental frameworks that help us decide whether the things that we hear or read are believable. Now, while plausibility structures usually govern believability in a general sense, they could, and I believe, have been extended to include things that we intuitively consider to be right or wrong. In this case, the discrimination of right and wrong takes place internally, within the private and intimate space of individual personhood. As a result, any challenge to a person’s assessment of a behavior or a belief is often taken to be an attack on the personhood itself and the assumed right to make moral choices independently. In this context an actual dialog on the issue at hand rarely takes place.


2. Consequences of this Homogenization of Personhood

a) Inability to Process Inter-Personal Difference

Reducing this hierarchy of personal abilities to the result(s) of those abilities rather than the abilities themselves has a number of unfortunate consequences that impede interpersonal interaction. By allowing the outcomes of the dynamic and necessary processes that define personhood-as-such to be subsumed under the single, one-dimensional abstraction, comprised of “my personal opinions and actions,” we actually lose the ability to interact with others and process differences without taking or causing offense. So, “if you disagree with me, we cannot talk.” In his book on the lost art of conversation, Steven Miller reports “Once, at a dinner party, I disagreed with an eminent sociologist. He disliked Flannery O’Connor. I said she was one of the best American writers of the postwar period. He looked at me, gave me an odd grin, and turned to talk to the person on his left. He never said another word to me for the remainder of the evening.” [10] He goes on to suggest that today “People who disagree rapidly move from talking over one another to shouting one another down, and from expressing their opinions on the matter at hand to expressing their opinions on the intelligence and morality of those who disagree with them.”[11] This is often extended to “if you do not accept my lifestyle (which to me is the same thing as my person), you are rejecting me as a person.” As P. M. Forni puts it “Since what we believe is an integral part of who we are, we tend to perceive criticism directed at our opinions as rejection. When that happens, defensiveness and resentment can put an end to dialogue.”[12] The immediate and spontaneous, and even understandable response to a perceived attack on one’s person is, of course, to mount some kind of counter-attack or self-defense. Depending on personality traits, the general situation or setting, the topic, and the nature of any previous relationship, the person feeling “attacked” will: lash out in anger saying things they would not ordinarily say; resort to sarcasm using their knowledge of the language to deflect or more likely to reciprocate by deliberately trying to inflicting some harm; or engage in some form of passive aggressive behavior, such as going silent, leaving, dissembling, or even feigning agreement. In any case, the rightness or wrongness of the action, belief, or attitude, which has been challenged, is not even talked about and no reevaluation or correction takes place. Functionally this is a refusal to be advised or taught and, in the case of Christian teaching, is usually an outright rejection of divine and biblical imperative and open discourse is put to a troubled end.

b) The Loss of the Self

Another consequence of this flattening of the hierarchy of personhood is personal meaninglessness or the loss of self. By deliberately ignoring or neglecting the very faculties that define and enable personhood, the individual loses, practically, not ontologically, their own ability to express personal being. The exaggerated inwardness of the contemporary social context prevents them from actually trusting anyone other than themselves, prevents them from dynamically developing and evaluating beliefs against standards outside themselves, from actively adjudicating between different opinions, and attending to instruction and correction. All that is left is the futility of their own isolated thought, opinion, and behavior. But if an individual is nothing other than what he makes of himself, then he bears the full responsibility for the outcome, every choice, every discrimination of good and evil, every framework of a meaningful life, with no external standards, no tutors, and no one to share blame for eventual mishaps. Given the universality of less than perfect outcomes, the isolating reflexivity of absolutized inwardness must eventually issue onto an equally inward and overwhelming anguish/forlornness, an existential anxiety.[13]

From what has been said thus far, I conclude that human personhood is not simply a function of material existence, but that it is derived from the infinite and absolute source of personal being, namely the tri-hypostatic person of God, the Creator, Who replicates Himself in us. It is only within the context of an ongoing, active relationship with or dependency on that infinite source of personhood that finite personhood can be completely implemented. Furthermore, the fullness of personhood cannot be reached in a static state created by cognitive content sheltered beyond the influence of active discrimination, but rather in the actual, active exercise of the ability to believe, to act, and to discriminate right from wrong, that is, the continual evaluation of that which is then held to be true and right. So what makes a person a person is not what they believe, but the fact that they are able to believe. Moreover, personhood is not fully realized by action or agency dictated by individual perceptions of right and wrong, but rather by the ability to act on the requirements of a moral standard outside of and larger than the self. So I am a person not simply because I can act, but rather because I can act according to some extra-personal standard.


3. Reestablishing the Hierarchy of Personhood

If these changes in the way we define and experience personhood are making it difficult for us to speak the truth, then what are we who are charged with presenting that truth to do? How can we help others understand that by stating and defending divine content we are not rejecting them as persons? As I see it the only possibility is to somehow reestablish the full hierarchy of personhood. If that were to be done, I believe that we would once again have the freedom to effectively speak the truth without that being heard as a challenge to our listener’s person. So how can this be done? What would this look like in pastoral practice? In my conversations with both believers and non-believers, I have come to the conclusion that before speaking the truth I will have to actively help them reactivate each one of the above mentioned conditions of personhood, that is, to help them reconstruct the God-given hierarchy of personhood.

a) Reaffirming Existential Dependency on God

One of the first things I will have to do is help my listeners overcome existential anxiety by rediscovering ontological security through dependency on God. I will begin by showing them the ontological significance of God's being for all existence and that we are all contingent on his being, i.e., we possess being itself, personhood, only as it is granted by the creative will of God. Understanding this makes it possible to avoid the primary cause of contemporary existential anxiety by giving the individual a stable ontic core. As created by God we cannot be anything other than persons. This is a given and is not something that we need to establish. Because personhood does not depend on what we believe, it cannot be lost to our ever-changing opinions and behaviors. So a challenge to those beliefs and actions does not call into question personhood-as-such. If we can convince the individual that their personhood is secure in the very will of God, we will have created a small zone of ontological security that assures their acceptance and frees them to confidently interact with differing opinions.

b) Reactivate the Faculty of Belief

A second step in the process will be to help the individual reactivate their God-given faculty of belief. The amazing thing about human personhood is not the end results of this process, the beliefs themselves, but rather the ability to believe. For that reason, we are not condemned to live forever with any particular conclusion we draw. We do not have to be paralyzed by a fixation on some particular outcome of this faculty. The Post-Enlightenment conviction that we have the right to think for ourselves and to form our own opinions is, at least in that sense, true. But that idea does not condemn us to a one-time application of that ability or to being held hostage by that initial move. So part of what makes us persons is the capacity for constant reevaluation of the content that we hold to be true. That ability allows us to avoid being permanently captured by false content and gives us the freedom to consider and even accept new content without affecting the status of personhood-as-such. So part of our responsibility as pastors is to facilitate in our listeners this ability. So rather than simply presenting the truth of ecclesial teaching as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, we have to carefully set it into the context of the individual’s ability to evaluate. So, “I am not telling you what to do” I am trying to give you options to consider and I am asking you to engage your ability to evaluate, which I know you have.” “So, what is wrong or right with this?” In other words, “let’s actually talk about this, rather than cut off dialog simply because we disagree.”

c) Refocusing Agency

As already indicated agency is a function of human will and takes the basic form of desire-satisfaction. As long as this is done in a matrix of relationships characterized by self-transcendence, kenotic love, and complete freedom, that is, as long as the desires of the will are focused on others, human agency reflects its divine counterpart and contributes to moving them toward humanity’s telos. In order to reach its full potential, its intended purpose, personal agency has to be transformed by communion with the divine and instructed in the ways of self-transcendence, love, and freedom. So our next task is to help the individual reactivate the God-given faculty of self-transcendent agency. This involves achieving a state of being in which self-love has been overcome. Overcoming this self-addiction involves two things. First, it means taking the path of detachment, disengaging the self from all those things to which it is attached, all those things which bring it carnal pleasure. This includes not only our material possessions, but also our desires for the sensual, for recognition, and amusement. It is a radical state in which no personal desire can compete with and supplant the will of God. Second, it means loving God and conforming one’s self to the will of God. The focus of the person’s will or desires is shifted away from the self and is focused on another, initially on God. This enables the individual to be fully present to God and at the same time to other human beings. For a believer this should be an understandable and legitimate goal. As St Paul writes to the Philippians (2.3–4), “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others as better than himself. Let each one of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Learning to practice this self-transcendent agency, then, is one sure way of reestablishing the fullness of secure personhood.

d) Reestablish the Foundations of Moral Discrimination

The last step represents the ultimate goal of such instruction, namely facilitating the willingness and the ability to say that a particular opinion or behavior is right or wrong and to say why that is the case. This involves the faculty of second order beliefs (beliefs about belief and agency) or morality. This outcome is the result of an actual dialog, that is, real engagement of the moral issue(s) at hand. It is usually based on some standard outside of the individual because, if the person were that standard, we would simply create an endless self-referencing logical loop with no moral authority.

So what standards are available to us? One readily available standard, at least for Christians, is Christ himself, who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life (John 14.6). If we accept the need for a standard, and if we acknowledge the life and teaching of Christ to be such a standard, then the exercise of personal faculty of belief could involve a continual evaluation of every conclusion against the standard of his words. Of course, we will not be able to prevent our listeners from choosing other standards such as secular philosophies and ethics, political systems, internet “experts,” and the like. But once we agree that both evaluation and a standard are needed, then that same process can be applied to the assessment of the various standards available.

Let us assume for the sake of discussion that I am faced with one of three possible situations: a) someone comes to me in my role as a priest and asks me to explain the teaching of the Church, b) dome one comes to me in my role as teacher and expects instruction, or c) I am informally engaged in a conversation, let’s say at the local pub. The question asked, the subject matter, is some contemporary social issue about which I am obligated to take a position that differs sharply from that of the prevailing society, gay rights, same-sex marriage, etc. The question that I have been considering throughout this essay is how can I speak the truth in love (Eph. 4.15), that is, without angering or unnecessarily[14] offending my discussion partners. To do this, I think I will have to create a context in which the listeners feel accepted and affirmed as persons and in which we all have the freedom to express our thoughts. How can this be done?

I would begin the discussion by reminding the participants that the topic we are about to discuss is quite controversial and a whole range of opinions are help on the subject. Then I would say something like…

I affirm your ability to believe what you choose to believe on this issue. Likewise, I affirm your ability to act on that belief in whatever ways you choose to do so. This is important for our discussion, since these abilities, an not the things we actually conclude, is what establishes each one of us as unique, individual persons. Now it is possible that, when using these abilities, we will arrive at different conclusions. However, this in no way diminishes the dignity or value of any one of us since it is not the conclusions but the ability to arrive at those conclusions that is the foundation of our personal being. Moreover, the fact that we are all persons, and not our opinions, is what makes it possible for us to relate to one another. So we don’t have to stop talking just because we have different opinions. We can agree to disagree. But actually our abilities make it possible to move way beyond that to an active discussion of the issue, a real dialog during which we all apply these mutually acknowledged and respected abilities to the collective evaluation of the subject at hand. Of course, we may not all arrive at the same conclusions and not all conclusions are equally valid. So we will want to be able to say that this or that position is correct or right. This is not established simply by having or expressing an opinion, it is usually done by making use of yet another human faculty. We measure our own positions by appealing to some external standard. That could be statistics, law, history, Scripture, etc. So I will now share my opinion (the teaching of the Church, etc.) with you and in doing so I invite you engage using the very faculties the make your personhood so secure.


4. Conclusion

Everything I have said depends on the person who is being reproved recognizing that the presuppositions to which they are committed are not the same thing as their own person, but are the results of dynamic faculties that express the fullness of personhood. This means that behaviors and beliefs can be challenged, discussed, and even altered.  But, if we are going to speak the truth today, we have do so in a way that facilitates reestablishing the hierarchy of personhood. Doing that enables us to show that in being challenged, taking that criticism seriously, and truly engaging in the dialog, the individual is affirming, not losing, their personhood. So rather than being offended by our listener’s counter-attacks, let us patiently teach and in doing so follow the example of Christ by offering our listeners not only the information that will enable them to freely and fully express their own personhood, but our own personhood as well. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), he was obliged to speak the truth and rebuke her immoral behavior. She tried to take offense, she tried diversion, but Christ repeatedly brought her back to the knowledge of himself, enabling a real engagement by gradually revealing to her His person, the source of all human personhood.


[1] Charles Taylor suggested that something similar had happened with respect to time in his book A Secular Age, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 271.

[2] Some have suggested that this statement is not Orthodox and has never been taught by the Orthodox Church. However, this is precisely how St. Basil the Great describes the Godhead. I am using the two words, ousia and hypostasis, the same way he used them, that is, to distinguish between the general and the particular (Letter 236.6). It is one way to simultaneously express both the oneness and the triunity of our personal God. As St. Basil says in order to give a sound account of our faith. “we must… confess the faith by adding the particular to the common… The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, “I believe in God the Father.” (Letter 236.6). So by confessing One God the Father I am, at the same time, confessing Basil’s understanding of the Godhead as one in ousia (the level at which there is unity) yet three in hypostasis (the level at which there is distinction). Cf. John Bear, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Basil of Caesarea at http://www.allsaints-stl.org/Trinitarian%20Theology%20of%20St.%20Basil%20of%20Caesarea%20-%20Web%20Version%202008.pdf and Chrysostom Koutloumousianos, One and the Three, James Clarke, 2015.

[3] Some might object to this idea of being fully human. But the necessity for a context of relationships in some form as a foundation for human being has been recognized by others. For example, P. M. Forni writes “To be fully human we must be able to imagine others’ hurt and to relate it to the hurt we would experience if we were in their place.” Pier Massimo Forni. Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. 1st ed.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002, 8.

[4] Simon Evnine, Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[5] Evnine, who is not a Christian thinker or theologian, concentrates on the material aspect of personhood. I have taken the liberty of expanding that idea to include the infinite.

[6] Jean Zizioulas and Paul McPartland. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. London: New York: T & T Clark, 2006, 219.

[7] I have commented on this at length in Get Real: On Evangelism in the Late Modern World.  Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009.

[8] St. maximus call this self-love, the root of all other sin. Cf. Thunberg, Lars. Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of St. Maximus the Confessor (Chicago: Open Court, 1995). 226-227, 298.

[9] See Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 8-11.

[10] Stephen Miller Conversation. A History of a Declining Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 3.  See also

[11] Miller, Conversation, 25.

[12] Pier Massimo Forni. Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. 1st ed.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002, 77.

[13] Cf. Edward Rommen. Get Real: On Evangelism in the Late Modern World.  Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009.

[14] I say unnecessarily because there will always be a certain risk of offense when we clearly present the fact of and the implications of the death and resurrection of Christ. Cf. 1 Cor 1.23