Douglas Knight reflects on the life and work of his friend Metropolitan John Zizioulas
John Zizioulas, who died recently, brought modern philosophical thought into conversation with the experience and teaching of the early Church. Though this may sound like a modest project, Zizioulas was a very significant thinker who set out fundamental issues of human dignity with unrivalled clarity. The Fathers of the early Church, Zizioulas suggested, discovered a very rich conception of human being, which Western churches had not managed to transmit in its entirety. The witness of Western churches was handicapped by philosophical presuppositions that do not serve the gospel. The result was that a richer theological account of human dignity disintegrated, so that we have inherited only a much poorer account of human being that is unable to support our hopes of freedom, dignity and social life. Modern and secular thought are the result of poor transmission of a once rich theological inheritance.
The Christian theological concept of person insists on the sheer openness, unpredictability and futurity of every human being. Human existence is not a matter of fate imposed on us, but is open and unpredictable. Every human being is destined to become the bearer of freedom. Every person is intended to become the presence of God within creation, and the permanent counter-party of God.
Zizioulas realised that the three thinkers in particular, the Cappadocians Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory Nyssa, had given expression to a metaphysical revolution. In order to pursue the implications of the Christian doctrine of God they adopted the concept of the person, the living agent who is related to other agents in freedom.
But this revolution was not fully taken up by the Western Church, creating a deficit which continues to this day. As a result, behind so much recent ostensibly Christian thought, there lurks the metaphysics of fate. Without this breakthrough, thinkers both ancient and modern inevitably conceive what is living in terms of what is dead, and attempt to understand each human being first as an isolated unit, and only then as a more or less social being. Each of us has to struggle to free ourselves from all the relationships necessarily imposed on us. Society and our own bodies are enemies to our own self-realisation. Without the Christian doctrine of God, all relationships impose themselves on us as remorselessly as fate; we may attempt to break free from them, but cannot. All life is struggle against what is imposed on us.
Zizioulas suggested that Westerners should not limit themselves to the tradition we associate with St Augustine, for whom the fall and sin entirely defined man. His account leaves man looking only for a restoration and a return to an origin. Other teachers suggested that man was from the beginning intended to grow up into a much vaster status, in which each of us is related by love to all other beings, and is called to receive a greater glory. Following Irenaeus and Maximus the Confessor, Zizioulas insisted that man, though in his beginning immature, could grow to maturity and so become more than he was. The meaning and significance of all things is decided not by what they once were, but by what they may become, and so by their eventual consummation. It is not their starting point, but the end and goal that determines the permanence and so the identity of all things. The existence, the truth and the freedom all come to us from God, and so from our future. The truth of our existence is to be reckoned from that future. Sin is simply delay and refusal to move towards our completion. Man’s destiny is not simply to return to a restoration of what was lost by sin, but to grow up into his full estate in order to be the representative of God and God’s presence in creation.
It is not as the tradition that followed Augustine taught that the interaction of God and man was not necessitated by man’s fall. The result of such an assumption is that man’s relationship with God is ultimately impossible, and as a result man’s relationship with his fellows is impossible too, and human society is constantly in crisis. Each generation finds social life to be an impossibility and seeks new ways to express its revulsion at its predicament. As a result we have sectarian identities, gender wars, with the result that family, reproduction and the responsibility of one generation to the next are denied. Can any society survive that is based in such an antagonistic account of human existence?
Modernity cannot sustain any account of human beings – it cannot do so because it separates itself first from God, the source and underwriter of relationship as such. It has decided that is God a monolith, that exists prior to all relationship and ultimately without it. When God is as the protological Western secular theology asserts, nothing other than God is possible, so there can be no creation and no human being. Then man makes himself God, but cannot come to terms with his fellow man, but attempts to assert himself as this man’s god, and make every man his creature and worshipper. Then, when the individual has asserted his complete aloneness, then there is only complete breakup of relationship, nihilism and then nothing.
The Cappadocians realised that it is not possible to talk about God prior to his relationships, or consequently about everyone else apart from their relationships, for relationship is (love is as fundamental as ‘being’). God is intrinsically the Father of the Son, so there is no monad God behind the Father.
Zizioulas’ thought is without clutter. He simply did not follow as the crowd down each conceptual or ethical dead-end. Instead, as Metropolitan (archbishop) of Pergamon, Zizioulas spent his career encouraging orthodox churches to understand themselves as the one Church, and by giving up their ethnic rivalries and insecurities, to witness to the universality of the truth. He encouraged Western churches to discover this vanished common inheritance, so that we not continue to be riven by concepts of the fall and sin that derive from metaphysics that are pagan and fatalistic. Such unbaptised concepts only allow us to see all relationships as suffocating, so that we are antagonistic individual units our life’s work is to free ourselves from others. It is this that tempts our contemporaries to relationship of men and women as forever locked in conflict. Western churches and their societies struggle with a series of heresies, that is, of inadequate views of man, that result from failing to receive the whole theology of man with God once comprehensively set out by the Greek Fathers. Without this larger Greek and Byzantine theological context, man is only ever a fractured being, endlessly refracturing. When substance is understood as prior to relationship, even love can be understood as a threat, and conflict is built in.
It is a paradox that a man who insists on speaking from the Church, whose own personal self-deprecation is legendary, and who insisted that he is simply describing what the Christian tradition gives us, was the most innovative and creative thinker of all. Much of the reception of his work has been hasty, lazy and hostile. But for those willing, Zizioulas is the guide most able to lead us back into the deepest part of the tradition in which we can discover the grandeur of the Christian theology of man, the chief creature of God.
Douglas H. Knight teaches theology and farms. He is the author of The Theology of John Zizioulas: Personhood and the Church (Routledge, 2007), and writes on systematic theology, Scripture, Christian doctrine, biblical hermeneutics and some contemporary theologians. www.douglasknight.org
John Zizioulas (10 January 1931-2 February 2023), Greek Orthodox bishop and Metropolitan of Pergamon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1986, died in Athens on the Feast of Candlemas at the age of 92. He was Professor of Patristics at the New College in Edinburgh from 1970 until 1973, then to the University of Glasgow to teach systematic theology, during which time he was also was a visiting Professor at the Research Institute in Systematic Theology of King’s College, London. In 1986 he returned to Greece and taught full-time as Professor of Dogmatics at the Thessaloniki University School of Theology.