Orthodox and Free: John Zizioulas on Freedom in Modernity

The story of modernity in the sphere of Western culture is a story of individualism. This creates tensions, challenges, changes that many notice and discuss. Celebrated orthodox theologian John Zizioulas goes beyond mere problem analysis and provides a directed response to this story of individualism. His ontology of freedom and conception of personhood is helpful in understanding ‘The I in We’ (to use Frankfurt School philosopher Axel Honneth’s notion)  and in finding new sources of community, connection and solidarity in the fragmented world of our day. Let’s take a look at some of his writing…

The very first lines of John Zizioulas’ 1985 book Being as Communion reiterate his ontological point of departure: the ecclesial community of the Church and personal communion with God. The church for Zizioulas is not just a visible institution, but a ‘way of being.’ In his view ecclesiology and ontology are deeply intertwined. ‘The mystery of the Church […] is deeply bound to the being of man, to the being of the world and to the very being of God.’ Any ethical inquiry into the question of the good life therefore is not an inquiry into moral attainment as in ‘something that man accomplishes.’ Rather it is an inquiry into relationships and the event of communion which can never be realized by a individual that understand itself as structurally separate from and existentially different than other personal entities. For Zizioulas true relationship and communion with God can only be realized by ecclesial being—by being in communion.

Tied to the relational understanding of being is a relational understanding of theology: ‘the being of God could be known only through personal relationships and personal love. Being means life, and life means communion.’ In fact, Zizioulas understands relationship and community to be the constitutive content of God: ‘The substance of God, “God,” has no ontological content, no true being, apart from communion.’ The communion Zizioulas has in mind is neither ‘a relationship understood for its own sake’ or a structure imposed by necessity or some type of ‘impersonal and incommunicable’ substance. The communion Zizioulas has in mind is relationship and community with the person of God caused by the personhood of the Father.

Zizioulas establishes that God is caused by the will of the Father. So God does not exist out of necessity, but out of freedom. God is not constrained to God’s substance, and communion is not a constraining structure for God. Communion as caused by the Father is the willful, loving relationship of the Holy Trinity which Zizioulas understands as a ‘primordial ontological concept and not a notion which is added to the divine substance.’ Participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity through ecclesial being is the purpose and destination of human beings: ‘From the fact that a human being is a member of the Church, he becomes an ‘image of God,’ he exists as God Himself exists, he takes on God’s “way of being.”‘

To understand the loving communion of the Holy Trinity, for Zizioulas, also means to understand a path to loving communion in human relationships. Both ontology and ethics are to be constructed around the pillars of love, freedom, personhood and communion: ‘True being comes only from the free person, from the person who loves freely – that I, who freely affirms his being, his identity, by means of an event of communion with other persons.’ This interpretation of ontology makes Zizioulas’ anthropological intentions very clear. He wants to move away from an alienating, modern understanding of the individual and move towards a structurally interconnected, communicative understanding of individual beings as persons. He explicitly states: ‘There is no true being without communion. Nothing exists as an “individual,” conceivable in itself.’

Zizioulas’ ontology of freedom is an ontology of personhood. Zizioulas rejects traditional Hellenistic theology that talks of God’s nature and substance. Zizioulas prefers to speak of hypostasis and person: ‘Communion which does not come from a “hypostasis,” that is, a concrete and free person, and which does not lead to “hypostases,” that is concrete and free persons, is not an ‘image’ of the being of God.’ This ontological consideration has strong ethical implications for Zizioulas: The person cannot exist without communion. Therefore ‘every form of communion which denies or suppresses the person, is inadmissible.’

The analogies of creaturely and uncreated being found in Zizioulas’ theology should not tempt us to equate God’s being with human being – between the two remains a ‘gulf of creaturehood.’ By creaturehood Zizioulas means the following: ‘the being of each human person is given to him; consequently, the human person is not able to free himself absolutely from his “nature” or from his “substance,” from what biological laws dictate to him, without bringing about his annihilation.’ Every form of love and social and political life that draws its being merely from the created individual is submitted to natural and social realities that relativize creaturely freedom. True freedom for the creature can only be attained in the ecclesial event of communion with the Holy Trinity: ‘The demand of the person for absolute freedom involves a “new birth,” a birth “from on high,” a baptism.’

John Zizioulas identifies respect for personal identity as one of the most important ideals of our time. With his account of personhood Zizioulas responds to the detachment of theology and the concept of human dignity in contemporary discourse: ‘although the person and “personal identity” are widely discussed nowadays as a supreme ideal, nobody seems to recognize that historically as well as existentially the concept of the person is indissolubly bound up with theology.’ The following paragraphs will show how Zizioulas’ reconstructs the genealogy of personhood originating in theology and ecclesiology as core elements to his ontology of the personal freedom.

The person, Zizioulas says, is a product of patristic thought responding to a controversy in ancient Greek thought. While Platonic philosophy emphasizes abstract ideas as the ground of concrete being and the abstract as the justification of the individual, Aristotelian philosophy emphasizes the concrete as an individual being in its own right. In Platonic philosophy the concept of person is ‘ontologically impossible, because the soul, which ensures man’s continuity, is not united permanently with the concrete, “individual” man.’ Aristotle’s ontology seems more promising: Because of its emphasis on the concrete Zizioulas does see a certain basis for a concept of personhood in Aristotelian philosophy. However, ‘the inability of this philosophy to provide permanence, some kind of continuity and “eternal life,” for the total psychosomatic entity of man renders impossible the union of the person with the ‘substance’ of man, that is with true ontology.’

Both Aristotle and Plato fail to provide sufficient basis for an absolute concept of the person as Zizioulas sees patristic thought construct it, that is as hypostasis with strong ontological content. Plato loses the meaning of individuality by stressing the abstractness of the soul. Aristotle loses the permanence of the soul by confining it to the concrete individual. In the times of the ancient Greeks “person” as prosopon was a term used for the actor’s mask in the tragic drama. It was understood as devoid of ontological content. But since theater and tragedy in particular were understood as ‘the setting in which the conflicts between human freedom and the rational necessity of a harmonious world […] are worked out in dramatic form.’ This is what Greek thought called cosmos—the harmonious relationship and order of existent things amongst themselves.

This understanding of the cosmos did not allow for ‘the unforeseen to happen or for freedom to operate as an absolute and unrestricted claim to existence.’ Whatever threatens the harmony of the cosmos and the rational unity of the logos was rejected and condemned. So even though person as the actor’s mask in Greek tragedy was devoid of ontological content, it acquired a moment of rebellion and ‘a certain taste of freedom, a certain specific “hypostasis,” a certain identity, which the rational and moral harmony of the world […] denies.’ In the rebellion of the tragic drama the actor, and with him the spectator, becomes ‘a person, albeit for a brief period, and has learned what it is to exist as a free, unique and unrepeatable entity.’ But it took many centuries until this brief taste of freedom in the tragic personhood of the actor was fully realized in the ontological concept of the personhood as hypostasis.

Similar to the Greek interpretation of prosopon the Roman tradition understood persona as an ‘adjunct to to concrete ontological being; something which permits […] the same man to enact more than one prosopa, to play many different roles.’ So persona meant the role an individual played in social and legal relationships. When Roman antiquity speaks of moral and legal persons ‘either collectively or individually [it] has nothing to do with the ontology of the person.’ This is deeply rooted in antique Roman thought which is ‘fundamentally organizational and social’ and concerned not with the being of man, but with his relationship with others. It is concerned with ‘his ability to form associations, to enter into contracts, to set up collegia, to organize human life in a state.’

So when and how was personhood redefined as hypostasis with strong ontological content? Zizioulas examines two developments brought about by the biblical outlook of Christianity and ontological considerations in Greek thought. The biblical world view brought a radical change in cosmology that freed the world and man from ontological necessity. Greek ontology laid the foundation for ‘an ontological view of man which would unite the person with the being of man, with his permanent and enduring existence, with his genuine and absolute identity.’ And the Greek church fathers were ‘precisely those who could unite the two.’ Resisting the ontological necessity of the world  postulated by ancient philosophy the Greek church fathers traced the world to an ontology outside of the world: to God. Using the biblical notion of creation ex nihilo—creation out of free, loving will of the Father—they revolutionized the ‘closed ontology of the Greeks’ and ‘made being—the existence of the world, existent things—a product of freedom.’ For Zizioulas this is the most important contribution of Christian intelligentsia.

So the connection of person and hypostasis as it was made by the church fathers is of truly revolutionary nature: ‘Entities no longer trace their being to being itself […] but to the person, to precisely that which constitutes being, that is, enables entities to be entities.’ From an adjunct to being the person has developed into the constitutive element of beings. The act of creation ex nihilo through the loving, free will of God’s person as caused by God, the Father, and the constitution of the human being as an ecclesial being is what enables created being to live in communion with the Holy Trinity and therefore realize its destiny as a free person in the image of God. The ‘rare creativity’ of the church fathers, as Zizioulas puts it, ‘gave history the concept of the person with an absoluteness which still moves modern man even though he has fundamentally abandoned their spirit.’ It is this ontological connection of freedom and communion in the concept of personhood that is the cornerstone of Zizioulas’ highly original and truly meaningful response to hyper-individualized modernity with its alienating tendencies, fragmented realities and, most importantly, its yearning for connection. Thank you, John.


Jonas makes contributions at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonas-bedfordstrohm/