Theology

Rethinking Patristic Categories? A Response to Petre Maican

Published on: December 6, 2019
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by Fr. David G. Bissias

Terry Schiavo

If it were not well-intentioned, Petre Maican’s article “Image and Likeness and Profound Cognitive Disability: Rethinking Patristic Categories” (published on Public Orthodoxy, July 2, 2019), could be offensive. In the final analysis, it is simply misguided due to several failures: of coherency, doctrinal perspective, and a failure to grasp the full “spectrum of human existence” for which he rightly expresses concern.

Maican’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. It is summarized in a few sentences from his opening paragraph:

Is it useful to speak about image and likeness in the cases of persons with profound intellectual disabilities? I think not. Especially, when the main requirement for attaining likeness is ethical freedom. As I will point out further, since the movement from image to likeness is dependent on the use of freedom, persons with profound cognitive disabilities are excluded from attaining the goal of their own existence, perfection in Christ.[1]

Maican properly believes a “robust” Orthodox anthropology must affirm why any person, including the profoundly disabled, “should live” and why such a life is “worth it.” In his view, a reliance on the “image-likeness” language is a “weak” argument because for some persons, “attainment” of the “likeness of God” (achieving “purpose,” “fulfillment,” and “perfection in Christ”) is impossible. It is a theological dead-end he wishes to avoid so as to not appear to exclude them. Another means of description is required to safeguard their inclusion in Christ.

I think not. The dead-end is inevitable only due to his presuppositions. Space precludes a detailed critique here, but three interrelated premises are profoundly deficient: his understanding of consciousness, freedom, and the concept of God’s “likeness” (or “assimilation,” or “similarity to” God) itself.

Maican describes a most extreme example of a girl who, due to being in what would appear to be a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS), does not demonstrate “self-consciousness.”[2] By this he can only mean consciousness in general. This is a problem.

Unable to communicate, the girl’s internal awareness of self or of external stimuli cannot be ascertained. Of course, observable responsiveness to stimuli is not the only definition of consciousness. There is no need to cede this ground to those who argue otherwise. Even so, persons in PVS often respond to some stimuli (pain, light, touch, etc.). In any case, Maican’s argument is based on a fragile conjecture because we simply cannot know what Kelly’s thought and awareness (consciousness) might be. Orthodox anthropology should accept a psychosomatic perspective of the mind/brain nexus, as Maican implies, but it cannot presume that brain damage or defect means anything more than damage or defectiveness; elimination of the mind or consciousness is an unnecessary conclusion.

Maican then commits a significant error when he asserts that “ethical freedom” is “the necessary condition for the attainment of perfect assimilation to God” (quoting Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 119-120). Lacking “consciousness,” the girl is incapable of exercising this “ethical freedom” and therefore cannot “attain likeness.” This conclusion is not only based on a deficient understanding of consciousness, but also on a misunderstanding of Lossky, who only mentions “freedom” in the full sentence here partially quoted, not “ethical freedom” as Maican states.

Maican is very wrong when he claims that in the diverse patristic tradition, “What remained undisputed was that the only way to attain likeness was through the ethical use of freedom.” Ethical freedom refers to the ability to choose between good and bad. Contrary to Maican, it is precisely the identification of freedom with ethical choice that the patristic tradition rejects, as Lossky goes on to explain in the work cited. If likeness to God indicates a mode of existence similar to God’s being, freedom cannot be simply equated with choice. God’s freedom is expressed by God’s will, but God does not choose between good and bad! More specifically, Lossky points out that for Saint Maximos the Confessor, “This freedom of choice is already a sign of imperfection, a limitation of our true freedom” (125).  Lossky also refers to both the Cappadocian Gregories on this point. (In similar fashion, [Metropolitan] John Zizioulas highlights the same point made by Lossky on the true nature of freedom in several works spanning decades, with reference to Maximos and the Cappadocians.)

Following this error, Maican makes an astounding, reductionistic claim: “Although it is uncertain what constitutes our similarity with God, we know that to attain it we have to pray, fast, help our neighbor, and attend the liturgy.” If he is uncertain, it seems rather odd to make such a certain claim. Of course, he omits love from this list, without which everything else is useless according to Saint Paul.

Maican also states, “Likeness might be a gift, but it cannot be attained without cooperation.” By definition, one does not “attain” or earn a “gift.” It is a contradiction. One should also not accept uncritically the assertion that “Orthodox theology” stresses “that there is a direct proportionality between human effort and God’s grace.” Cooperation, yes; direct proportionality, no. The divine-human relationship is definitely asymmetrical.

In any case, Maican should be reminded that numerous saints of the Church have been “perfected” in Christ without meeting his criteria, especially numerous martyred infants, not to mention those who were martyred immediately upon conversion. It is not only those with profound intellectual disability who would be unable to “attain” the likeness of God according to Maican’s standard, but many others including the preborn, infants and toddlers, the mentally ill, and the comatose, not to mention those with less than profound intellectual disabilities.

In the end, he fails to recognize that, by God’s grace, there are many ways to grow into, or live in the likeness of Christ. More importantly, he fails to note that the “attaining” of perfect similarity (or complete communion, meaning “common existence”) with Christ is something that can be fully realized only in the resurrection of the age to come. Until then, every mortal person struggles with some type of deficiency, profound or mild.

Maican’s proposal is unnecessary. Even Maican admits that this doctrinal theme he prefers to avoid is but one element of an Orthodox anthropology. There are others to account for the frailties, tragedies, incapacities, disabilities, passions, and mortality of human life. There is no need to discard such an important doctrinal point as found in Genesis (1:26-27) that undergirds the sanctity of human life and relatedness to our Creator in all forms, for no matter how variously interpreted through the ages, it is this relationship the doctrine ensures for all human beings regardless of their current condition and state.

As an Orthodox pastor, and as a parent of a non-verbal son with a severe intellectual disability, I have never had any issue understanding that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God. By outward appearance, my son does not “choose” to pray, fast, help others or even go to Church, yet he is often more “Christ-like” than many. His disability does not permit us to know much about his relationship with our Lord. Do I need to be able to articulate it, beyond faith in the grace and love of Jesus Christ for my son, in the inherent dignity and sacredness of his life and how he may now and shall come to experience “ever-well being” (Maximos Confessor) in the Kingdom and in the likeness of God?  I think not.


[1] Cognitive disability and intellectual disability refer to the same condition, rated on a scale of profound, severe, moderate, and mild (“intellectual disability” is now preferable in most English medical literature, and Maican uses both interchangeably).

[2] PVS is now also named “Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome.” Maican lifts this example from another author.


Father David G. Bissias is the Parish Priest of the Saint Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church of Hammond, IN, and the father of a child born with Down’s Syndrome which resulted in a congenital heart defect and severe intellectual disability, in addition to a diagnosis of autism.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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