person and nature in Zizioulas

Is it only a drive to rhetorical clarity that pits person and nature so strongly against one another in the writing of John Zizioulas, or is there something more sinister at work?

Zizioulas’ major ontological theme is the primacy of personhood over nature, over necessity, over essence. Persons are free with respect to their nature—supremely in the case of divine persons and sacramentally in the case of human persons—not determined by them. Thus, God’s being in Trinity is not a fated necessity imposed upon the hypostases by the divine ousia, but represents the freedom of the Father in the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. While human persons are beholden to their natures in their biological personhood, by baptism and the eucharist human persons may be incorporated into the Person of the Son and reborn into a new mode of personhood. Zizioulas marks this transition as the movement from bondage to nature and death to a life of freedom. Nature for Zizioulas is a fundamental limitation; the connection of personhood and nature is the imposition of the necessity of death.

The caricature that Zizioulas is open to (but barely avoids) is an equation of nature with death, that the limitation of finitude is already the necessity of death. This barely-evaded equation would lead him to speak of created persons (as beings in the image of divine personhood) as entrapped within nature and awaiting release. It is clear enough that this is a caricature and that Zizioulas has a more positive view of bodiliness, finitude, and the particularity of being in a certain manner (i.e. according to a nature). But the tension only renders the strength of his anti-nature rhetoric all the more baffling.

The concept “nature” carries a double valence—nature as essence / nature as creation. My fear is that Zizioulas’ vehement differentiation and privileging of personhood finally endangers the positive theological value of both. Of course, there is a destructive and arbitrary privileging of personal freedom over “nature,” in which the power of personhood is excercised upon nature, bending it according to the will— and this is not at all what Zizioulas intends to advocate. But his theology stands open to development in that direction without additional safeguards.

Pace Zizioulas, sacramental grace does not convey a freedom from the limitations of nature, but abolishes death by engulfing its “necessity” in the illimitable communion of God’s love, where it is overwhelmed, judged, and forgotten.

2 Replies to “person and nature in Zizioulas”

  1. Hi Eric,

    I’m glad to be able to participate in your exposure to Metropolitan Zizioulas and wanted to offer a few comments on your concern with regards to his person/nature distinction.

    I too was pretty uncomfortable when I came across this distinction. In many ways, I think one of the keynote issues presented in various forms in our Master’s program was the separation of creation and redemption and the systematic and practical problems this dichotomy has caused in Christian thought ever since. Thus as soon as I catch a whiff of any sort of dualisms or dichotomies, especially in metaphysical terrain, my hackles raise. The question for Zizioulas – and I sense your openness to this in your post – is whether or not he is perpetrating a sort of dichotomy in human metaphysics. Person over nature feels quite a bit like soul over body, etc.

    Other theologians have criticized Zizioulas on the same topic, but perhaps for different reasons. See especially:
    -Turcescu, Lucian. “”Person” Versus “Individual”, and Other Modern Misreadings of –Gregory of Nyssa.” Modern Theology 18, no. 4 (2002): 527–539.
    Behr, John. “The Trinitarian Being of the Church.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2003): 67-88.

    I think a helpful starting point in assessing this (prominent) element in Zizioulas’ thought is to determine whether (1) there may be warrant to privilege the concept of “person” in our theological “moment”, and (2) whether there is warrant to make this move in a wider, contextless sense… i.e. can we imagine this move benefitting the church in the forseeable future, after our particular theological quibbles and woes have faded in the wake of new ones we cannot forsee. It was helpful to read Zizioulas’ interlocutors as this made me more aware (ironically) of some of the good reasons for priviledging personhood in a systematic way. With this charitable posture, I went back to Zizioulas’ writing to see, further, how exactly he performs this, and whether he might be culpable of a theological misconfiguration.

    In the end, I’m with you in some ways, i..e the Jury is out, but I’ve decided to try on Metropolitan Zizioulas for a bit and see what consequences might arise out of such a move. One important thing to note is that most of Zizioulas’ detractors seem to have only read his “Being as Communion,” which may have been forgiveable in past decades, but certainly isn’t anymore. I say this because they assume, as Turcescu does, that Zizioulas is priviledging personhood in a systematic way for pragmatic ecumenical reasons, i.e. an ontological reconfiguration centered around personhood is the consequence of a primarily ecclesiological impulse.

    T suggests, “in many of his articles he emphasizes that person as a category is ontologically prior to substance in the Cappadocian Fathers…” (528)

    Yet Zizioulas proposes an alternative to what he calls the “western” understanding of person. If one were to use the views of the Cappadocian Fathers —Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—and of other Greek Orthodox theologians, one would get the relational, communitarian concept of person which is so much more meaningful today. The relational view of person makes more sense in today’s secular world, as we seem to be more concerned with staying in touch, with respect for each other, in general with better relating to each other, as well as with globalization and protecting the environment. But this view makes sense in the Church also, since Christians share or strive to share the same cup and, in so doing, we want to express our communion with both Christ and our fellow Christians. Zizioulas’s concept of person is a meaningful and seemingly coherent concept, showing his interest in modern issues and his attempts to use ancient insights to address them.

    While Turcescu’s tone is a bit harsh at times, his summary is somewhat accurate. Zizioulas has identified theological anthropology as a key issue of departure between West and East, and I tend to agree with him that the Western tradition has made many painful missteps here. I think we’d both agree that as a result our economy of the Christian life with regards to creation, fall, and redemption and the corresponding dogmatic categories of birth, salvation, sin and death tend towards incoherence (especially with regards to the economy of creation and death, as you’ve written insightfully elsewhere). So what are we to make of this privileging? I think a few clues might be helpful:

    1) Zizioulas is relying strongly here on the anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, detailed helpfully in: Thunberg, Lars. Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. 2nd ed. Chicago: Open Court, 1995. As a result, I think it is safe to infer that many Maximinan insights apply to Zizioulas here (note the regular, if cryptic footnotes by Zizioulas to Maximus and Thunberg’s stufy). This means that body and soul are both created and destined for resurrection – no dualism here.
    2) It is crucially important to probe Zizioulas’ concepts of hypostasis (God’s work in relating beings) and ekstasis (God’s work in giving a gift of uniqueness and differentiation to beings) in order to understand what he is trying to accomplish theologically.

    This is deep terrain and I’ll send along some resources you can read in a few years when you have free time. 🙂 I’ll look forward, hopefully, to a bit of dialogue on this!

    One more source to check out…

    Papanikolaou, Aristotle. “Is John Zizioulas An Existentialist in Disguise? Response to Lucian Turcescu.” Modern Theology 20, no. 4 (2004): doi:doi:10.1111/j.1468-0025.2004.00269.x.

    1. Jeremy,

      Hooray! I was really hoping that you might respond to this one—because of your equal commitment to Zizioulas and to the necessity of a positive contribution from theological thought in grappling with and addressing our ecological irresponsibility. And now I’m glad that you have!

      Unfortunately I don’t have my Zizioulas here with me in Albany (it’s down in the Bronx), so I’ll have to respond more off the cuff and defer ‘real’ citations and quotations for another time.

      That said, I’m more or less entirely on board with the ontological priority of personhood over substance, and I am grateful for Zizioulas as a pioneering voice in reminding us of this aspect of (or possibility within?) the Christian tradition. So, if it comes to a rather flat-footed decision (rather than a genuinely theological development from history, scripture, tradition, etc), I think that “person” is a better theological lens than is “substance” for starting to explore the universe. And that decision no doubt involves many of the moves that Zizioulas makes along the way: e.g. emphasis on freedom, downplaying of essence, questioning of existence considered in a static way, and along with all that, a relaxing of the hold that ‘nature’ has on ‘people’. In the Trinity class with Papanikolaou this week, we struck on a helpful insight (at least for me)—namely, that what philosophy calls ontology or metaphysics, theology works out in the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity (broadly conceived) and the doctrine of creation. This is certainly the case in Zizioulas, and he’s making the argument that it is also the case for the Cappadocians.

      But is the polemic edge that Zizioulas puts on the prioritization of personhood either necessary or helpful? I’m not sure that I’ve read enough yet to decide whether Zizioulas’ somewhat dualistic oppositions (freedom/necessity; person/nature; relation/essence; biology/sacrament) are in the service of rhetorical clarity (and can be read charitably as something of an overstatement) or whether he really intends to oppose person to nature. Regardless, I found his prose to be a bit heavy-handed. Bottom line, the distinction between person and nature allows for transformation, but a dualism of person against nature seems misguided and dangerous—especially since just such a dualism (constructed somewhat differently, admittedly) underlies our tendency to poison our own bodily nature and the “nature” that sustains it, all in the name of personal fulfillment/enjoyment. Minimally, then, as he developed the implications of the priority of persons, I wish that Zizioulas had offered us a few more safeguards against a kind of dualism.

      Relatedly, what conception of person is Zizioulas employing? On occasion the concept “person” seems like a sink of mystery capable of producing any number of effects as needed. I should be careful here without my books in front of me, but I find myself almost as conflicted over his notion of personhood itself as I do over his opposition between person and nature. It’s certainly not the self-constituting individual that he has in mind; one of the great strengths of Zizioulas’ theology is the emphasis on relationality as constitutive of persons (and all being). This is the ecstatic aspect of personhood. The hypostatic aspect of personhood, however, to which Zizioulas attributes freedom from the constraint of nature (eschatologically at least), and above all the person of the Father, seems to bear a striking resemblance to that autonomous enlightenment subject whose will bends being into proper shape. Pulling on the Turcescu quote you offered, is Zizioulas’ understanding of personhood really more than a Western conception of personhood with a new set of relational clothes on, or is it a true alternative?

      Ecologically, that second aspect (the ‘hypostatic’ aspect of personhood as Zizioulas theorizes it) worries me. Though I’m familiar with some of his writings on the subject, I’m not satisfied with Zizioulas attempt to theologize ecological responsibility. Because creation contains no enduring persons—outside of human beings whose biological personhood has died and been raised in sacramental personhood, redemption for creation takes place in and through the hands of human persons in God’s service. Human beings lift nature up, allowing for it’s redemption in and through their personal agency. It’s possible to get some ethical milage out of this eucharistic metaphor, and I think it’s helpful so far as it goes. But the notion that all creation needs us to run it through our hands in order to be properly sanctified strikes me as a disaster. Where the eucharistic metaphor gets traction as more than a metaphor, I’m concerned about the benefit of even the most well-intentioned meddling. What enduring goodness is there in the freedom of created nature?

      Rather than speak of finitude as that which cripples nature with the necessity of death, so that true personhood always aspires to transcend finitude, I’d be more inclined to employ Zizioulas’ relational ontology to speak of the the goodness of the necessity of a rich context for created persons, that persons cannot be transformed without their habitat being renewed. But goodness and necessity overwhelmingly tend to be opposed for Zizioulas. The particular relations that are constitutive of personhood for Zizioulas (and here I am venturing out on a limb that I may not be able to justify textually) are always and only relations to other persons. That assertion, which is not totally foreign draws a hard line between humanity and the rest of creation and invests it with significant theological weight. That assertion negates the necessity of a rich context for created persons. That assertion draws heavily on an analogy between divine and created personhood (without answering how such an analogy might be justified). It’s an open question whether Zizioulas systematic theology is so tightly woven that someone might not be able to develop his relational ontology such that non-personal or quasi-personal relationships can be taken into account. I certainly hope so.

      Further, is the division between humans as persons and other creatures as non-persons as clear in Scripture as it is in Zizioulas? God seems to carry on rich (personal?) relations with many of God’s creatures in Job, in the Psalms, in the Wisdom literature.

      I’ve been quite critical with the hope of challenging your thinking, Jeremy, largely because I think that Zizioulas is a great resource, even if I want to be more selective in my appropriation of his thought. If I’ve been uncharitable in the process, I do hope that you’ll correct me. Thanks as well for the resources. I don’t have any projects on Zizioulas planned in the near future, but I find myself thinking about him fairly often (e.g. parallels to Levinas!), so I might need to turn in that direction one of these days. I’d really enjoy it if this dialogue continued, I hope I’ve been provocative enough to ensure that you’ll feel the need to respond! 🙂

      God’s peace,

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