Orthodoxy Today
Chaplains Corner: What We Do Is Not Who We Are

Chaplain's Corner
Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California

One of the more unfortunate irrational beliefs held by many is that some individuals are intrinsically evil or good. The assumption prompting this deleterious attitude is that the actions that people do define their 'personhood. In practical terms this means that if a person does good, prosocial, kindly and moral things they are a good person. On the other hand, if a person does evil, villainous, immoral and/or wicked things they not only are bad persons but are considered by many to be non-human. Biologically, humans are of the animal kingdom, but people who engage in especially nefarious acts are pejoratively referred to as "animals," - implying they are subhuman and, frequently, not even worthy of life. The implication of this, as cognitive-behavioral clinical psychologist Albert Ellis[1] (1964) puts it, is that, "They did this 'wrong' act, therefore they are perfectly worthless beings who deserve to be severely punished or killed." (p. 66).

Philosophers and philosophical psychologists have considered the basis of humanness to be "a personhood nested within physical, biological, and sociocultural reality, both historically and ontogenetically[ii]." The distinctiveness and worth of the human person, in contrast to others in the animal kingdom, even extends to those spiritual traditions who do not affirm a personal God. For example, The Council for Secular Humanism affirms: "We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings."[iii]

The concept of the person as having worth reaches its peak in various religious traditions. A contemporary Buddhist scholar Somparn Promta writes: "Buddhism believes that all human beings share a set of psychological properties such as self-love, death-hatred, and willing to have a good future."[iv] For Hinduism, the self (atman) is the essence of human life. The definition of personhood in Hinduism is based on this self. "The Vedas teach that all life is sacred. However, human life is the highest level of consciousness. The divine spark, or soul enters at 120 days (Artma). Hindus also perform a pre-birth ceremony at 7 months when personhood is fully achieved."[v]

Common to the understanding of what it means to be a 'person' among the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the scriptural passage: "And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them." (Gn 1: 27) The Jewish concept of the worth of personhood can be gleaned from a Talmudic discussion on abortion: "if the "greater part" of the fetus has emerged, then its life may not be taken even to save the mother's, "because you cannot choose between one human life and another".[vi] Eastern Church Father Nikitas Stithatos (c. 1005–c. 1090 AD) provides the patristic Christian understanding of the meaning of personhood. An individual "is an image of God manifest in a spiritual, immortal and intelligent soul, an intellect that is the father of . . . consciousness and is consubstantial with the soul. . . and is regal and sovereign."[vii] Islamic scholar Peter Riddell states that there are various interpretations or perspectives on personhood in Islam. One view is that "Islam holds that Man consists of two essential elements, one material which is the body, the other spiritual which is the soul." It would respect the free will of the individual in following Allah's (God's) guidance. On the other hand, "non-formally trained" radical fundamental Islamists would say that "Islamic scripture allows for some humans to change from 'person' to 'non-person'.. . . . because they turn away from the guidance God has given them, and corrupt His word and thus their execution is justified."[viii] The brutal barbaric killings of ISIS so widely publicized in the media would be justified in that they consider that their victims are 'non-persons.'

The closest compatible echo in the secular sphere of the viewpoint of the preponderance of world religions and of clinical psychology is the spirit of the preamble of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which states in part: " . . .whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts [emphasis mine] which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people."[ix] In this regard, we may consider the words of the angel of the Apocalypse who transmits Christ's words to St. John the Evangelist: "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaites[x], which I also hate." (Revelation 2:6). Thus we can strongly disapprove of the nefarious works or actions of others while still maintaining their worth or personhood.


[i] Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.

[ii] Ontogenetics is the sequence of an individual organism growing organically; a psycho-biological development of processes involved in an organism changing gradually from a simple to more complex levels.

[iii] https://www.secularhumani...

[iv] http://www.stc.arts.chula...

[v] http://embryo-ethics.smd....

[vi] Rich, Tracey R (1999). "Abortion". Kosher Sex. Judaism 101. Archived from the original on 17 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-07. & http://en.wikipedia.org/w...

[vii] Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, I IV. London: Faber and Faber. (V.4, p.116)

[viii] http://www.biblicalstudie...

[ix] http://www.un.org/en/docu...

[x] A 1st Century AD heretical Christian group.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: March 1, 2015

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