In the common use of the English language, it would seem strange or impossible to say that someone was living an “impersonal” life. And, even in our classical Christian vocabulary, we would say that God (Who is Person) has created us in His own image and that we are inherently “personal.” And yet, the Church also recognizes that it is our personhood that is most effected by the fall.
In theological terms, to exist as a person is to exist in freedom, to exist in self-giving love, and to recognize that it is God who guarantees our existence as persons. Instead, what we often experience is bondage instead of freedom – even the freedom we do know is itself exploited as a bondage; we love but often in the most selfish of ways; we see ourselves as the origin of our daily existence, jealously guarding our rights as individuals. In such fallen terms we live in competition, seeing others as living at our expense or at the expense of our well-being.
Of course, the opposite is true. The existence of others – a gift from God, like our own existence – never decreases us, but gives to us an increase whenever it is greated with love and the expansion of our self in loving, self-giving relationship.
To live a personal life is thus a synonym for living the Christian life. Christ is not an addition to our life – He is our life.
It is for such reasons that words like “religion” are insufficient to properly describe the Christian life. Anything that describes our life as having a true existence apart from its relationship to God or describes our relationship with God as an aspect of our life, has diminished God and ourselves – dividing our lives and our world into “God” and “not-God” categories.
There is no true existence apart from God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”). This applies not only to human beings but to the whole of creation. Though it is not common to refer to non-human existence as “personal,” it is still closer to the true character of all existence than the word “impersonal.”
My favorite illustration of this phenomenon is the relationship we have with our pets. It is easy to describe the “anthropomorphism” we practice with regard to animals – treating them as though they were human beings – but it is more accurate to say that we frequently treat our pets as “personal” rather than human. The account of creation in Genesis describes God as bringing the animals before Adam to “see what he would name them.” It is an interesting image – one in which man rather than God is the giver of names. That relationship with creation (particularly with our pets) continues as we name animals and observe within them aspects of personhood. This is not a product of a misdirected dotage – but rather a reflection of our God given drive to live as persons and to extend that personhood to creation itself.
We do not immediately see this same question of personhood when we think of “inanimate” creation – and yet the Scriptures frequently do: trees clap their hands; rocks sing; all creation is called on to give praise to God. Thus a proper Christian understanding of the world around us carries a sense of the personal to everything – even if those “things” cannot be spoken of in the strict terms of “personhood.”
Thus our true existence is found in proper relation to God and to everything God has made. This relation is seen time and again in the lives of many of the saints. Animals behave in a different manner (St. Seraphim and the bear or St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio), trees and flowers behave in different manners, even rocks obey their command (the stories of some saints and their power over earthquakes). “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” Christ’s disciples ask one another.
Such an understanding of the personal character of God’ creation does not grant us permission to begin a theology of personhood or an ethic of personhood that has no relation to God the Holy Trinity. Apart from God, personhood has no meaning. It is not an ethic nor a theology but is descriptive only of true life as lived in union with God. This is the danger that exists when Orthodox theologians seek to bear witness to an ecological ethic that can be appropriated by non-believers. To the non-believer we have only been commanded to offer Christ. Creation and its relationship to personhood requires its grounding in the personal God – otherwise people become the servants of temporality – indeed of a temporality that will itself cease to exists except as it exists in God. This earth is headed for a collision with the Sun (if not with something lesser, earlier). To make of it definer of our actions is to worship the creature rather than the Creator. Already and increasingly, the political world will offer us the opportunity to make of creation a god. Like all false gods it will be cruel and the killer of mankind. There is nothing new in this.
As Christians, we offer the world the only truth that is both new and older than all temporal existence: personal life in relationship with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All life comes from Him and all life belongs to Him. It is only in Him that we will find ourselves as persons and that we will be able to share in His movement of creation towards the final end of union with Him.