Nature and Persona

The Thought of Oliver Clément, The French Orthodox Theologian

[Response to the question of Tiina Malinen in Gregorian Study Circle]

Fr. K. M. George


Question:  I have read an Orthodox spiritual anthropology of Mr. Olivier Clément (On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology) in which he says the image of God is not something within humanity, but is, if I understand him right, in the person, which is by its origin transpersonal. He says the fundamental distinction is between persona and nature. Can someone perhaps clarify this thinking line within orthodoxy? Isn’t the image of God everywhere, also in nature, not only in persona? Is there or is there not an implicit hierarchy between persona and human nature, and what are the consequences? Is the persona and the image of God synonyms, or is the image in the persona? Is the nature in the persona or the persona in the nature? Or is this division just one of those too analytic view to a mystery?

Mr. Clément says that person and human nature always exist together, but he also makes this distinction between human person and human nature. Mr. Clément is a Frenchman and he is close to the Russian Orthodox thinker, Mr. Vladimir Lossky. Both of them have been teachers in the famous Saint Sergius Institute, Paris.


                                                                                                   Tiina Malinen, Finland


Answer: Tiina Malinen has raised some interesting questions to the members of the Gregorian Study circle in connection with her study of Oliver Clement. My comments are rather general, and offered for discussion.

The French Orthodox theologian Oliver Clément (OC) stands in a long line of Orthodox theologians whose theological anthropology is drawn primarily from the three Cappadocian Fathers, namely, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

The Cappadocians were highly learned theologians and Christian humanists who knew very well the Platonic and the Neo Platonic understanding of the human being. They were fascinated by this Greek philosophical vision of human nature and destiny, but at the same time critical of it, and drew a distinction between the Christian biblical understanding and the Greek philosophical notion of the human being.

Oliver Clément and several others like him seem to think that the Asian thinking based on Hindu and Buddhist religions is the Eastern counterpart of Platonic-Neo-Platonic line of thought in our contemporary situation. So in trying to outline an Orthodox understanding of the human being, Oliver Clement refers often to the Indian and Far Eastern spiritual-philosophical traditions in order to show the distinct character of the Orthodox Christian view. With this background in mind, let me make the following observations with the hope of engaging in a fruitful debate.

1.                    Oliver Clément adopts the word Person (with a capital P) for the human being, knowing well that the Greek prosopon and Latin persona represented theatrical masks and therefore the superficial aspects of the human being. He also refers to the Greek hypostasis which can mean substance or nature, and stands for the distinct identity of a thing or an individual. So he adopts Person for the Human Being in order to avoid the pitfalls of the superficial level suggested by persona and the merely natural identity of anything else in the universe suggested by hypostasis.

2.                     A Person in Orthodox Christian understanding is created in God’s image. What constitutes the “image” of God since God is spirit and without form is a matter of speculation. The Eastern Fathers like the Cappadocians generally held that freedom and reason are two essential traits of God’s image in the human being. A rational human being (ie the one who can freely exercise the power of logos in terms of his/her capacity for reasoning, language, discernment, imagination and creativity) is the one who can freely choose between good and evil, and is capable of love and self-sacrifice. Such a person participants in God’s nature. This participation (metousia) of the Human Person in God’s attributes is not by nature, but by grace, since human person is always a created being.

3.                     It is this Imago Dei (Image of God) that distinguishes the human being from other creatures. All other creatures and nature in general are certainly stamped with God’s love and free will, since God is their creator. But the human person combines in himself/herself the transcendent destiny and capacity to partake of the divine nature in a special way. At the same time he/she shares created nature with the rest of creation. In this sense human being is a mediator between matter and spirit, between body and soul. So he/she can mediate grace to all created reality and stand in God’s presence on behalf of all creation.

4.                    In the incarnate Christ who is the unique mediator, divinity and humanity are united without confusion and without division. Human beings in Christ share this vocation of mediation and reconciliation. The Human Person in Christ is not simply a part of nature, but ontologically rooted in the transcendent reality of God. Though one cannot really separate the person and nature in human beings because of the inseparable union of both, one can simply point out the distinct character of the human person on this basis of union between the uncreated divine and the created human.

5.                    Oliver Clement points out that in the Indian tradition salvation is understood as the total dissolution of the being in an impersonal faceless eternity. He also refers to the Chinese-Japanese gardens and paintings in which nature gradually fades into waters and mists. This is a nagging fear in the West that the individuality and particularity of the human being is lost in nature, in the vastness of the universe, and reabsorbed into the an impersonal divinity.

Many years ago as a young theological student I had asked Fr. Bede Griffiths, the well-known English Benedictine monk who combined the Indian style of monastic life and his own Western Catholic tradition, about the difference between the Christian and Hindu mystical traditions. He told me that in Christianity the Human Person and the Deity remain distinct from each other in spite of mystical union while in the Hindu tradition, there is total union to the point of absolute oneness. Later when I came across the idea of theosis (divinisation) in the Cappadocians and the later Eastern Fathers, I doubted whether that distinction was as easily held as in the Western approach.

When the image of God in us attains total likeness with its Archetype, namely God, it is hard to make a distinction. However, it is to be admitted that the created Person remains a creature however he/she may conform to the original Image of God as shown in Christ.

6.               In the predominant Hindu philosophical tradition, there is no idea of creation by a Creator God. All that appears distinct and separate from each other (nama and rupa – named and forms) is a matter of wrong perception rooted in our ignorance (avidya). When this ignorance is removed, the truth of absolute oneness of all is manifested. The great sayings (mahavakyas) like Aham Brahmasmi( I am Brahman), Tattvam Asi (Thouart That), Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti (Truth is one, though the learned speak of it in diverse ways) clearly show us the ultimate unity and oneness of all reality in the Indian/Hindu understanding.

7.               In the Christian tradition, however, the concept of creation is crucial. The distinction between the creator God and the created reality remains. No degree of mystical ascent or spiritual exaltation of the created beings will obliterate this fundamental distinction. The Trinity with its three distinct Persons (hypostases) and one Essence (ousia), a logically difficult concept, and the incarnate union of divinity and humanity in Christ, another logical aporia, are at the heart of creation theology. There is an ineffable distinction and unity simultaneously existing in the Trinity and in the Incarnation. The Christian concept of Person is interwoven into these mysteries.

8.              Oliver Clement thinks that it is part of the vocation of humanity to humanize all creation. Human beings can help transfigure all created reality so that creation participants in God’s image through the human Person. Following Gregory of Nyssa, Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios speaks of human being as the priest of creation, that is, standing before God on behalf of all that God created, in thanksgiving and worship.

9.              Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa would hold that the man-woman distinction is only for this historical existence, with the purpose of the propagation of the human race. In the Kingdom of God, the male-female distinction does not hold as Christ himself alluded when he said that in heaven one does not marry, nor is given to marriage, but all are like angels, without gender distinction.

In the human existence here in the world, men and women individually and corporately carry the Image of God. No discrimination whatsoever could be meted out on the basis of any ontological distinction between man and women.