Perspectives on the Study of Eastern and Western Personhood

Matti Kotiranta & Antti Raunio

Philosophers (117) by Mikhail Nesterov. 
Depicting Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov
Philosophers (1917) by Mikhail Nesterov

A commonly held view is that the Western world perceives human beings as being individualistic. ‘Individualism’ may be understood in many ways, but the main question is whether the Western view of human beings is as strongly individualistic as it is often thought (or claimed) to be. This is an interesting question because the assumed individualism influences the Western cultures’ relations with, for example, Eastern Orthodox cultures.


The Christian tradition has contributed to the conception of the human being by introducing the term ‘person’, which was first used to describe the Christian understanding of the triune God. The Christian idea of a person combines Platonic, Stoic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences. Even though the relations between Western theological and philosophical notions of the person have been discussed in many contexts, the topic has not been investigated comprehensively.


Historical sources (e.g. Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Luther) indicate that the Western views of a human being need not be interpreted solely from an individualistic sense. A more accurate view is to see the human being as a relational substance. Both the Eastern and Western conceptions are relational, but in the Eastern thought, humanity as a substance or essence is built on relations, whereas in the Western tradition, relationality is based on the unity of a substance. If this holds true, then there is a difference between the viewpoints; however, the issue is not primarily a question about alternatives between individuality and communality, but the ways in which these two aspects have been combined with each other.


As part of contemporary Orthodox contributions to the discussions on East and West, theologians such as Christoph Yannaras and John Zizioulas have given personhood a primary status from which notions of social issues, the nature of Orthodox theology and practice, and the Orthodox view of the West are drawn. However, the challenge is to formulate modern Orthodox anthropology in its own terms. Since both theologians have studied in the West, their work can be seen as constructing the Eastern Orthodox identity and personhood within what is pre-eminently a Westernised culture. Both Yannaras and Zizioulas have not shied away from Western discourses and challenges, while still adhering to shared convictions of neo-patristic and neo-Palamist theology.


In an investigation on the conceptions of human personhood, one should also consider the viewpoint of the natural sciences. The encounters between theology and sciences often reveal two fundamentally different approaches: an idealistic, theological personalism on the one side and a reductive physicalism or naturalism on the other. Theological personalism characterises the human person only by its ability to transcend its natural condition and ignores the biological aspect of human nature and the continuity between humans, non-human animals and non-living nature. Conversely, reductive physicalism shuns human uniqueness and disregards the moral and spiritual dimensions of human personhood. According to the reductive viewpoint, humans are merely biological machines determined by evolutionary history, and all mental phenomena can be explained in biological terms. However, in the discussion about the human person in the philosophy of mind, the recent trend has been towards non-reductive physicalism, where the mind is treated as an emergent property of the brain, connected with neural activity but still separate from it.


In sum, this kind of research analyses the basic presuppositions and deep structures of Europe’s Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant cultures. The conception of person may emphasise either communality or individuality. In the discussion, the alternatives have often been presented as exclusive. However, historical sources suggest that this view cannot be considered adequate. Therefore, a more thorough analysis of the existing conceptions of individuality and communality is needed.


The described analysis contains, for example, an investigation of the different versions of Western Catholic and Protestant conceptions of good personal life or life according to ethical standards from the point of view of communality and individuality. Comparable to it is the analysis of the Eastern Orthodox conception of the person and of the relation between individuality and communality in good life as a human person.


The main question leads to additional questions: What are the theological aspects underlying Western conceptions of a person’s individuality and communality? How can we define the theological principles of the Eastern model of good personal life as aspects of communality? How do the discovered theological aspects possibly change the Western notion of a human being?


By investigating Eastern and Western European conceptions of human person, theological research can contribute to the discussion on deep cultural, ethical and religious presuppositions and their implications for the social life and cooperation between the representatives of both traditions.

Matti Kotiranta, Professor of Eastern Church History, University of Eastern Finland. His areas of interest are the history of Russian ideas and church-state relations in Europe.

Antti Raunio, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Eastern Finland. He specializes in Reformation theology, theological social ethics, and ecumenism.

Where East Meets West

East Meets West

Heta Hurskainen

I welcome you to read our blog, “East Meets West”!  The blog’s hub is the School of Theology at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF). Despite the word “Eastern” in the name of the university, our School of Theology offers both Orthodox and Western theology to study and research. East meets West at this university – it’s especially true in this blog!

The particularity of the blog and its writers are that they represent both Eastern and Western theological orientations and have worked and researched topics together, not just side by side, but together in a creative and critical manner. During the blog’s first year, writers of the blog are affiliated with the School of Theology at the UEF, and the blog aims to bring the particularities of this special hub and its research to a wider conscience.

Joensuu, situated in North Karelia in Finland, is an excellent place to research questions relating to religious and cultural exchanges between the East and West. Today, Karelia is an area situated on both sides of the Finnish-Russian border. Christianity came to Finland at the beginning of the 12th century – from the East in its Orthodox form and from the West in its Catholic form. The two forms met in the part of Karelia that now belongs to Finland. Throughout our history, encounters between the two have not always been peaceful or easy. The political order and societal situations have changed; in fact, even the main form of Western Christianity has changed from Catholicism to Lutheranism, and the Orthodox jurisdiction here has changed from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ecumenical patriarchate. However, history has also brought with it ways to understand and respect each other.

Joensuu’s city planning itself cements the encounters: At the south end of the street, called “Kirkkokatu” (Church Street), stands a Lutheran church belonging to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, which represents 68% of Finns, but at the north end of the same street is the Orthodox Church, belonging to the Orthodox Church of Finland and representing 1% of the Finnish population. Both churches are “state churches”.  Joensuu’s city planning exemplifies how things we expect to be in the East or West are also found in other geographical dimensions. East and West are not just geographically constructed dimensions; they are also, and especially in this blog, fluid dimensions of thinking and creating. Within Western Christianity, culture or religion, you can find Eastern thinking and vice versa.

The School of Theology as part of the UEF belongs to the state university, which makes the researchers independent but not isolated from the society and environment around it. East Meets West is not only about the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. It is a wider concept under which religions and their connections to the diversity of life can be studied. The focus is on the specifics of East and West connections and the various types of encounters. These encounters take place in the fields of culture, society, history, doctrine, migration, education, politics and their interactions.

The start of our blog takes place at a time when researchers are asking whether we are going into or might even be in a new Cold War era. Instead of encounters, it seems that the different barriers and borders are drawn and demarcated. One example of finding new encounters and drawing new lines is found in Ukraine. The country struggles with itself and with its Eastern (Russia) and Western (EU) neighbours about its political and cultural belonging. At the same time, and already for centuries, its Christianity, mainly Orthodox, has been in the middle of “meet” or “encounters” or “border” of East and West. Orthodoxy is vibrant in the country but not uniform.

In Ukraine, several churches call themselves Orthodox. Ukraine’s orthodoxy is also a platform for juxtaposing between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Just a week before publishing this post, the Ecumenical Patriarchate Bartholomew visited Ukraine. He met with hierarchs and people from the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU), to which the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly, full independence, at the beginning of 2019. The Moscow Patriarchate, who had previously reacted to every visit made by the Ecumenical Patriarch to Ukraine, ignored the visit completely. To study the problem more deeply, The School of Theology at the UEF organizes its first “East Meets West” conference, “Ukraine and Russia: always together – always in separation” on 4 October. Our next blog post will also take a closer look at Ukraine, and soon we will also launch a mainly Finnish speaking podcast, “Idän ja Lännen kohtaamisia”, which starts with the focus on Ukraine.

After this focus on Ukraine, the blog will explore other academic aspects of “East Meets West”, while the podcast will continue with themes and approaches for those who want to get acquainted with why and how “East Meets West” matters.

This is a journey on which I welcome you to join. Welcome to our blog!

Author: Heta Hurskainen, blog editor

Hurskainen, ThD is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the UEF. Her research interests are in ecumenical relations of Orthodox and Lutheran churches, questions of Orthodox migrants, and in Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, as well as their relations with politics.

heta.hurskainen(at)uef.fi