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.

the weakness of the word :: the great task

“The Word’s power is veiled in weakness. If the Word came in full, unveiled power, that would be the final judgment day. The great task of recognizing the limits of their mission is given to the disciples. But when the Word is misused, it will turn against them.” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 173]

As the Body of Christ, the Church is called to speak God’s Word in its entirety (not verbatim scripture!) to the whole world. The Church is called and constituted by Word and sacrament as Christ’s body. This is a great mystery. But the one thing that it does not do, is transform the Church into an entity that in itself transcends the limits of earthly life. Christ’s body is a human body like yours and like mine. Just so, the Church’s proclamation is a human word, formed by human thought, and set loose by a human tongue. It is subject to the weakness of human words; it is ambiguous, it is subject to misuse and misunderstanding, it is subject to circumspection and ridicule. As those who speak of God, to God, and for God, Christians do well to remember two things: one, their place in a body larger than themselves; and two, their own doubt, insecurity, and weakness. The Word of God is spoken on earth within the limits of being human (simul iustus et peccator), not by transcending them.

For all that, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church’s Word is no less than Christ’s Word, freely spoken. Lord, have mercy on us all.

personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)

The last entry thinking about the creeds focused on the relationship between the creeds and scripture. As normative confession, the creeds guide the boundaries of our interpretation of scripture in order to enable us to read scripture well. The creeds stand as a history lesson about God’s people reading God’s word; they are our opportunity to hear and understand the thought of those Christians who down through the generations have passed on the gospel and put the scripture in our hands. We disregard their advice at our own hazard. We cannot even touch scripture until someone gives it to us – and that event (taking the book into our hands) links us to a long chain that reaches back to the roots of our tradition. Any loss of memory constitutes a crisis of identity, but especially an intentional ignorance with regard to tradition.

In this entry however, I’d like to dig into questions about the normative influence of the creeds within the church today – look at how we relate to these ancient documents, and how we are to look at them. How do creeds function within our communities? What do communities that move away from creeds replace them with? Continue reading “personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)”

words matter :: physicality and meaning

We think of words as non-physical things, unattached and uncommitted to location or time. Words are transient, the same word may pop up on a dozen different tongues and refer to a dozen different things.

Our common-sense way of thinking about words misses out on an important aspect of word-iness. There is no such thing as a pure word without physical mediation.

Think about it, we never meet words except where we meet them in the context of meeting something (or someone) physical. Whether that mediation comes in the form of a computer screen, a sheet of paper, a friend’s face, or a loudspeaker, words are always intrinsically rooted in tangible encounters. Spoken words rely on the vibration of molecules, written words rely on their arrangement in some opaque surface, and even the words in your mind are inseparable from the firing of little neurons in complex networks. Where there is no matter, there are no words. Continue reading “words matter :: physicality and meaning”

Auden and Bonhoeffer :: scientists and theologians

Art is compatible with polytheism and with Christianity, but not with philosophical materialism; science is compatible with philosophical materialism and with Chritianity, but not with polythesim. No artist or scientist, however, can feel comfortable as a Christian; every artist who happens also to be a Christian wishes he could be a polytheist; every scientist in the same position what he could be a philosophical materialist. And with good reason. In a polytheist society, the artists are its theologians; in a materialist society, its theologians are the scientists. To a Christian, unfortunately, both art and science are secular activities, that is to say, small beer.
— W.H. Auden

Continue reading “Auden and Bonhoeffer :: scientists and theologians”

of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

I admit that I would leave this poem to stand alone on its own merit, or the hope that someone might be enticed to get acquainted with Hopkins (I can hardly recommend this strongly enough!). But I’m inclined to add a few words of my own to Hopkins’, if nothing else, to set this poem in the context of his thought as a whole.

Hopkins, a 19th century British convert to Catholicism and a member of the Jesuit order, was convinced that God’s assumption of human nature in Jesus Christ was profoundly good news. He recognized the significance of God-become-human in far deeper ways than most of us ever encounter. He thought (I’ll attempt a paraphrase – and hope not to embarrass him), “If God shows up in a manger in Bethlehem, why, he might show up anywhere!” Hopkins expected to see, and saw, Jesus show up through lots of particulars in his forty-four short years of life (see the poems: “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “The blessed virgin as compared to the air we breathe,” and his lengthy masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland“).

Hopkins saw that if God valued a particular moment, a particular body, a particular place enough to plant himself there – then all moment, bodies, and places must be tremendously valuable. God must be quite excited about all the particularities, intricacies, and anomalies that he has spun out into the world. This is the main theme of “Kingfishers”; each created thing has its own existence as a gift, be it a bell, piano string (“tucked” to make its own particular tone), or stone dropped to “plunk” uniquely in a well. Each is uniquely valued in God’s eyes. Each flame and flower announces to the world, “Here I am! I am here to be what God has made me for.” Far from being a faceless speck – only one anonymous bit of carbon amongst a vast sea of faceless “others,” the good news of God’s becoming human is that he plays in ten thousand places. That means that all of those ten thousand places (or ten million) are wonderfully dignified.

I’ve been told that Christians are the people who ignore the realities of this present world, preferring instead to stare off into the clouds and sing pretty hallelujahs. There may be some empirical truth behind the accusation. But if Hopkins is right about the meaning of the events by which we recognized God-among-us, Christians are the ones looking to find Jesus wherever he might be found today (see the poem Ribblesdale). Continue reading “of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell”