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HeyJ LII (2011), pp. 672–683




Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, USA

The present article examines the theology of John Zizioulas with a view to understanding its coherence and viability for ecclesiology. Instead of treating his trinitarian theology, or his historical claims, I focus upon the basic themes of his personalistic ontology, especially the relationship between the ‘hypostasis’ and its ‘nature.’ I argue that Zizioulas’s central concept of freedom rests upon an equivocation: he affirms both that freedom and being are identical, and that they are mutually exclusive. In conversation with the philosophy of Levinas, I further argue that Zizioulas’s proposal, as an ontology of communion, falls prey to the same reduction of being to thought that forms the central tenet of Western conceptions of subjectivity. In conclusion, I argue that both of these problems trade on a basic inability to account for grace as the fundamental reality of communion. Throughout my basic concern is to inquire into just what function the category of ‘being’ has in Zizioulas’s theology, and to point out its surprising obscurity.

In the languishing ecumenical task, constructing a eucharistic theology of ecclesial communion or koinonia is a laudable and necessary goal; however, it should not be particularly controversial to point out that, as rhetorically compelling or imaginatively evocative as the notion of ‘communion’ might be as a category to rejuvenate ecclesiology, it cannot get far without a clearly articulated idea of ‘person’ to give it content. This is something John Zizioulas knows well, for his ontology of communion is based upon a theory of ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis.’ A hypostasis is characterized by its freedom to enter into a constitutive relation of communion with its other, a freedom of relation that is grounded in the communion of the hypostases of the Trinity that eventuates from God’s free self- constitution in relation. Zizioulas states his central insight succinctly in one representative passage:

We are interested in discovering not the what of humanity, its nature or substance, but its how, that is, its way of relating to God and other beings. By making the human being emerge as a

particularity in creation through the divine call, we are defining it as a being distinguished

way of relationship to God and the rest of creation, that is, by its freedom. The human being emerges as other or particular vis-a`-vis God and the other creatures only by way of relationship. 1


The opposition stated in this passage, ‘the what’ (nature) of humanity versus its ‘how’ (freedom) is one that is fundamental to Zizioulas’s development of the idea of the hypostasis as a category of communion or being-in-relation. Nature is conflictual and tragic in a biological hypostasis, but overcome in an ecclesial hypostasis, on the basis of freedom, which is the sine qua non of the concept of the person: 2 just as the divine persons freely participate in the communion of love that is the Trinity, so human persons are



constituted by their freedom for participation in koinonia. Personhood, Zizioulas argues, is a category of the individuation of a nature, the ‘how’ or tropos huparxeo¯s by which a human person exists in freedom, insofar as that person exists in finding identity in loving relation with the other. In short, a person is an existential individuation of being that has its being in ekstasis or self-transcendence toward the other, which ekstasis constitutes its own selfhood in a mutual relation of love. As such, the primordial ontological situation is that of a particular existent in its communion with other existents. Entailed in this proposal is a twofold rejection of what Zizioulas considers to be Western-Augustinian modes of articulating personhood: in his ontology, on the one hand, he argues that personhood is an ontological realization of the nature-hypostasis relationship, not an ethical or psychological category as it is in the West; on the other hand, for Zizioulas the realization of personhood qua hypostasis belongs to freedom, not to nature, for the latter considers personhood as reducible to substance. To define an existent by nature (their ‘what’) rather than according to their personhood (their ‘how’) is to subject them to ontological necessity: person is to substance as freedom is to necessity. 3 Communion is analytic with hypostatic personhood, which is the freedom of a person to enter into relations of love; in fact, freedom just is the hypostasis of a nature. Zizioulas’s aversion to all things Western (or perceived as Western), which he shares with Florovsky, Lossky, Yannaras, Romanides, and others of the 20 th century Orthodox diaspora, 4 is well- known. Particularly in recent work that is explicit in its attempt to engage Western thought (or at least deploy it as a foil), I don’t think it would be overreaching to say that, at times, Zizioulas simply uses the idea of the ‘West’ as a rhetorical cipher that embodies whatever happens to be the opposite of the Orthodox position, even if that means his critiques are occasionally inconsistent with each other. The above accusation is one such paradox: on the one hand, the Western grammar of personhood is said to be substantialistic, and thus bound to necessity and nature – all being and no freedom, as it were. On the other, it is to be faulted for repairing to categories of ethics and psychology instead of ontology – all freedom and no being. The disjunction in this pair of accusations proves useful for purposes of this article, because it helps to isolate a surprising instability in Zizioulas’s thought. In order to examine the viability of an ontology of communion, I will examine Zizioulas’s account of the person here; in particular, I would like to test one of the primary legitimating principles of that account, namely the opposition of ‘nature’ on the one hand, and ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’ on the other, as well as the essential link he makes between the latter and freedom as the realization of a hypostasis. The article will commence by analyzing the twofold delimitation of ‘nature’ and ‘freedom,’ or alternatively, the two iterations of the category hypostasis – ‘biological’ and ‘ecclesial.’ The central issue here, I will argue, is the fundamental equivocation of the category of being in Zizioulas’s ontology: his constructive proposal requires him both to collapse being and freedom, and to set them in opposition to one another. To illuminate this contradiction, I will focus upon the disjunction just named, ‘nature’ versus ‘freedom.’ Following this, I will discuss Levinas’s critique of ontology and freedom in order to clarify some of the problems that emerge from this opposition. Finally, I will thematize the central weakness in Zizioulas’s ecclesiological proposal: his articulation of the logic of grace. Before commencing, I hasten to state that this article operates from a position of respect for Zizioulas’s contribution, and with a shared enthusiasm for the importance of relational articulations of personhood; that I affirm Zizioulas’s intentions makes it all the more important, in my view, that we arrive at some clarity on the place of ontology in ecclesiology and theological anthropology.



It is remarkable that, for all the emphasis on ontology in Being as Communion and Communion and Otherness, Zizioulas nowhere actually defines just what ontology is – nor what he means by ‘being.’ We are told repeatedly that freedom and communion are ontological realities, but what this claim actually means is rather opaque, no matter how many times it appears in italics. It is worthwhile taking a moment to try to explicate this point, because I believe it proves very important for making a judgment as to the sustainability of Zizioulas’s personalistic ontology, and thereby, his communion ecclesiology. Furthermore, given other comments that reveal an assumption that ‘substance’ or ‘nature’ is determined by necessity and is identical with the biology of the human species, 5 the category of being grows increasingly vague as one probes its function in his theology. The point I will make here is simply stated: in Zizioulas’s thought, being seems to be both nature, the overcoming of which constitutes freedom and communion; and being also appears to be freedom, the overcoming of nature. This, it seems to me, is a potential equivocation of serious magnitude. We have already noted that Zizioulas opposes hypostasis and nature sharply. Nature is bound to individuation and death, is determined by necessity, and is characterized by the impersonality of ‘substance.’ By definition in his system, a person is a free existent released from the thing-like necessity of nature and existing in freedom to self-transcend in relation. But this claim is weakened when we recall that for Zizioulas communion must be integral to being, and thus part of the nature or substance of a person. This follows by virtue of Zizioulas’s stress on creatio ex nihilo and his emphasis on the analogical link between the Father’s personal origination of the world and the capacity of created being to be personal. 6

If God’s being is by nature relational, and if it can be signified by the word ‘substance,’ can we not then conclude almost inevitably that, given the ultimate character of God’s being for all ontology, substance, inasmuch as it signifies the ultimate character of being, can be conceived only as communion? 7

Furthermore, Zizioulas states that ‘by attributing divine being to a personal cause rather than substance, we elevate particularity and otherness to a primary ontological status.’ 8 It is inherent to God’s being (‘by nature’) that God is relational; thus, it would seem to follow, the created being is by nature relational. But this sits ill at ease with Zizioulas’s claim that person belongs to a different category than nature, indeed that a sharp contradiction obtains between the two as just noted. 9 The polemic against the notion of ‘substance,’ which was important to Being as Communion, is even more central in Communion and Otherness. As is the case with his failure to adequately define ontology, so far as I know Zizioulas gives no description of just what a ‘substance metaphysics’ entails, or why it is exclusive of his notion of a person. 10 It seems clear, however, that much of his polemic against the concept rests on the construal of substance as the underlying ‘stuff’ of an existent (the meaning of the Greek hypokeimenon), rather than the more accurate use of the term in Western thought as the logical descriptor of the general nature of a being. 11 By equating substance with hypokeimenon, Zizioulas avails himself of the charge, oft-repeated at least since Rahner, that the Augustinian tradition’s (purported) stress on the unity of the divine substance virtually makes ‘substance’ a fourth person in the Trinity, a charge that rests on the confusion of the latter sense (ousia) with the former (hypokeimenon). 12



Even if we read Zizioulas charitably to mean ousia by substance, such that substance means the general nature or essence of a being in terms of the clarification just made, the claim that nature ¼ necessity does not follow as a matter of course. Zizioulas wants to oppose nature, characterized by certain essential capacities, to freedom, the emergence of the human being in communion with the other. In fact, he even implies that a person as substance and not yet hypostasis is a mere ‘thing,’ not even truly being, for being as such is constituted by its hypostatic character. 13 However, we return here to the contradiction:

freedom for Zizioulas is either the realization of a nature, or else it is freedom from nature. Freedom is either being as such (nature), or it is the transcendence of being as nature. As Lucian Turcescu has noted, Zizioulas wants to affirm that personhood is not the sum or combination of a set of individuating properties in a subsistent, but rather the freedom of ekstasis that constitutes being as communion. 14 This ensures that a hypostasis is a response to the call of the other – overflowing its nature in freedom toward that other. But if a person is to be the modality of a nature (a tropos huparxeo¯s, a ‘how’ of being) existent in freedom for communion, then it is difficult to see how, as an ontological relation, the particular ‘how’ of a nature does not require a certain potency or capacity on the part of the ‘what:’ if the hypostasis is the ‘how’ of substance, then this implies that substance must have some inherent potency for hypostatization. Hypostatization is an individuating property of the human substance. Put differently, if freedom is the characteristic mark of a person or hypostasis, as opposed to necessity which is inherent in its nature, it is problematic to articulate how freedom is not a ‘quality’ in potentiality of that substance. The irony here is that Zizioulas’s position seems to require something like the very human capacity for hypostatization that he rejects. But if such a capacity inheres in a nature, freedom is part of the essence of a person as a subject. For if the realization of communion is a product of the freedom of a hypostasis, the product of difference instead of the division of individualization, 15 then what else is communion other than a capacity of the hypostasis? The upshot of this is that the concept of freedom by which a person is characterized, and that is essential to communion, remains underdetermined. Indeed, if freedom is the realization of the nature of a hypostasis, a nature that obtains because of the analogy

between God’s being and created being, then Zizioulas is in fact embracing a classical notion of substance. This conception of a subject as the realization of its nature is precisely how Zizioulas portrays Western misunderstandings of personhood: they are alike in ‘understand[ing] man [sic] by looking introspectively at him either as an autonomous

or as a substance possessing

ethical agent

certain potencies.’ 16 The common thread here is viewing human nature via its particular qualities – the connection between the hypostatic and the substantial that I have suggested is tacitly assumed by Zizioulas above. On the other hand, Zizioulas’s alternative, the disjunction between nature and freedom, ends up looking very much like the ‘ethics and psychology’ of Western personhood he earlier execrated, a modality of subjectivity disconnected from any ontological bearings. Zizioulas argues strongly that Western equations of ‘being’ with ‘act’ obfuscate the Cappadocian assignation of communion to ontology, asserting that the West has tended to reduce love – the essential characteristic of communion – to a ‘moral’ or ‘psychological’ category. 17 Zizioulas consistently claims that the Augustinian tradition is bound to a substantialistic, moral and psychological conception of personhood, and his claim that this eventuates in a thoroughgoing individualism is one of the central tenets of his authorship. In a sweeping narrative, he enlists Levinas (among a few others, notably Buber

or as the Ego of a psychological complex


and Macmurray) in the service of this critique, but it is just on this point that a serious flaw begins to emerge in his ontology beyond the equivocations just described. Understanding the Levinasian option for the ethical over the ontological will help to see this more clearly.


The obvious riposte to my argument thus far – that freedom in Zizioulas is either arbitrary dirempton from one’s nature, or the realization of the capacity of a nature – is to point out that Zizioulas understands freedom as the gift of the other: it is the call of the other that evokes my freedom to be a particular, a hypostasis. The problem is that Zizioulas wants to think this ontologically, such that communion inheres in being as such as created by the freedom of the Father. What his considered but still swift dismissal of Levinas in Communion and Otherness misses is that Levinas’s central contention focuses on just this consideration of the call of the other as an ontological category. 18 For it is precisely a disrupting of the one in light of the many, a privileging of the particular over the same, and an assiduous striving after the possibility of a truly relational conception of personhood that drives Levinas’s critique of ontology. As Zizioulas well knows, 19 Levinas’s charge, particularly against Heidegger, is that ontology is finally totalistic: ‘to comprehend the particular being is already to place oneself beyond the particular.’ 20 But Levinas’s critique of ‘comprehension’ as the fundamental ontological relation is not simply, as Zizioulas thinks, its function as a category of individualistic (‘Augustinian’) introspection. For Levinas, the overarching rubric of ontology is the drive to subsume all being under the comprehensive and comprehending eye of a masterful subjectivity; ontology inscribes being under a totalizing logic. Introspection is a function of the comprehension of being by a subject, such that thought and being are coterminous; the other of being is known in its identity with a knowing subject by virtue of thought’s reduction of the otherness of the other to the same. This panopticism is operative when the relation of the same and the other is subjected to an overarching generic or neuter concept – when, in other words, it is comprehended within a general ontology of ekstasis, hypostasis, or communion as a participation in that ontological schematic. Ontology, even an ontology of communion, even one which Zizioulas claims is not gnoseological in orientation, is comprehension for Levinas, ‘a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being.’ 21 Thus ontology is concerned with gnosis by definition, the comprehension of being under a concept; in this case, it is comprehension of what should be an unrepresentable social relation under an ontological rubric of relationality: ‘before any participation in a common content by comprehension, it [viz. the relationship with the other] consists in the intuition of sociality by a relation that is consequently irreducible to comprehension. The relation with the other is not therefore ontology.’ 22 In an ontology of communion, the other is, can only be, pure abstraction, an ontological function in the algebra of being. Only insofar as the idea of the other overflows the thought that thinks it is the other not reduced to the same – but as Levinas’s entire authorship makes abundantly clear, this is not ontology. Communion cannot be a category of being for Levinas; the social relation always takes place beyond being. In his terms, the ‘Other’ can be truly other only in an ethical relation, that relation where the other is not the mode of a hypostasis’s self-realization 23 but is a hypostasis’s interlocutor in the call to responsibility. Anything else, on Levinas’s terms,



refuses to heed the face of that other, that face which commands us not to kill her – and that refusal is the reduction to the same, or in other words, murder, dissolution of the other’s singularity. In fact, for Levinas freedom itself is a reduction of the other to the same, for it is a totalizing exercise of the ego and the actualization of the subject’s capacities: even as freedom for another, it preserves and realizes an ego’s nature through an autonomy that reduces the other to the same just in the fact that the relation with the other is subordinated to a relation to being, its mediation through a third neuter term which is not a being but the concept being 24 – such as a general ontology of communion. Ultimately, Levinas argues, to have my selfhood constituted in relation with the other is the grossest narcissism: it is only in responsibility to that other, grasped insofar as the call of the other interpellates me prior to my own self-relation and dispossesses that relation, it is only therefore in the priority of the ethical that anything like relationality or communion is possible. This is the point, it bears remembering, of Levinas’s opposition of desire to need: 25 the latter entails possession or comprehension of the other for the realization of the self, whereas desire is characterized by the fact that the infinite appears in the face of the other, such that my traversal toward the other is endless – I never arrive at the other, for this arrival implies mastery of the other, as well as the possibility of a return to myself such that the other was simply the instrumentality or mediation of my own self-positing. Need is finite, for it arrives at its end. Desire is for the infinite, the epektasis of the call of the other. A further irony of this ontological reduction of relation is that the same-other relationship in a philosophy or theology of communion ends up instantiating its own oppositional concept, individualism. This is because relation, independent of the persons who stand in relation, is a purely abstract concept: it has content only through those particular persons. No one relates to a relation. But this means that this vacuous idea of relation ends up stressing individuals as pure functions; all one is left with is particulars as individuals. 26 It is worth pointing out just how precisely the ontological schematic Zizioulas offers fulfils the canons of modern liberalism, which is constituted by the zero- sum relation of competing freedoms, a system of adjudicating the conflictual boundaries where my freedom meets and infringes upon the freedom and rights of the other. This is a system premised on a self realizing itself, a totalizing of the same right up to the limit of the other, such that the other serves that realization. Zizioulas may invert this system, but precisely in doing so offers its apotheosis: this is an economy of self-transcendence in an objectification of relation. Hence, to return to the theme of the ‘how’-‘what’ opposition, a problem arises here for Zizioulas: if a hypostasis is a particular, a how of a what or general nature (all of which may be true as far as it goes), then it is nothing but a species of a genus, or a particular instance of a general category. But positing the many as multiple instances of the one does nothing to break up the totality of the one. As Levinas says,

[consists] in existing without having a genus, without being the individuation

of a concept. The ipseity of the I consists in remaining outside the distinction between the individual

and general. The refusal of the concept is not a resistance to generalization by the tode ti, which is on the same plane of the concept – and by which the concept is defined, as by an antithetical term. 27

The unicity of the I

So in light of this ontological problematic, in returning to my concerns above about Zizioulas’s conception of freedom, it becomes clear that articulating personhood via the opposition person-nature or particular-general does nothing to upset a substantialistic understanding of personhood. Rather, it exemplifies it: a particular hypostasis of a general


nature is nothing more than an instance, a copy or iteration with accidental variations. Personhood conceived ontologically is personhood understood in terms of a general concept – in terms, in other words, of a general essence, nature, or substance. On this view freedom, in constituting personhood, is simply the fulfillment or realization of a being’s nature: freedom is a capacity of a substance in its particular hypostasis. Or, if it is not this, it must be a modern Western voluntarist autonomy, an arbitrary self-determination, even if that determination is for communion. For a subsistent to realize itself in its how in a way that is not determined by the what of its nature, so far as I can see in Zizioulas’s terms, it can only sever its determination by its nature. Levinas’s alternative, which would be to think more than it can think, to act in disproportion to its ability with reference to the alterity of the other, goes unnoticed. The problem with an ontological articulation of communion is thus, at this stage, twofold. First, it trades on an equivocation concerning the very nature of ‘being’ in question, for it is premised both on the creative agency of God bequeathing to being as such the capacity for communion, and on the self-transcendence of a hypostasis in contradiction of its being. Second, Levinas encourages us to ask just what the category of ‘being’ is doing here at all. What he suggests is that being, by virtue of its reduction to (and therefore equivalence with) thought in the comprehension of a knowing subject, is as such constrained by necessity. This necessity is that of a self-positing subject, the Ego who posits himself in the knowledge of himself in his other. What ontology supplies here is a reference to an abstract order, Levinas’s il y a, that is the context of intelligibility for that relation. The unrepresentable and singular social relation, once understood ontologically, is mediated by an abstract term outside itself. Althusser called this ideology; Foucault, pouvoir-savoir. 28 Levinas, in a critique far more radical than that of Zizioulas, isolated it as the very essence of Western thought. It would be ironic indeed if Zizioulas ended up exemplifying the object of his critique.


At this point, I will transition to the basic constructive claim I would like to propose, at least in sketch form. It pushes beyond the critique just made to ask a final round of questions of Zizioulas’s proposal, and to suggest alternative ways in which ecclesiology might proceed in articulating its basic fact of sociality. The upshot of the argument thus far is that, if communion is not an ontological category, than communion is not dependent upon our realization of our personhood. To talk about communion is to talk about our deification by grace: communion is the gift of God, and our fulfillment of our hypostatic absoluteness cannot be a precondition for it or correlate of it. If that freedom is to be graced, which it must be insofar as it is participation in the hypostasis of the Son, freedom cannot be a realization of a nature or an autonomous self-determination. The trouble with Zizioulas’s alternatives – the disjunction of being and freedom, or their equation – is that they founder on the horns of a dilemma that go back, ironically enough, to the time of Augustine. The radical disjunction of nature and freedom, on the one hand, seems to reduce creation to Manichean nihility. 29 To correct for the dilemma which emerges when communion is grounded simply in an analogical relationship with the triune communion inherent to creation itself, Zizioulas claims that existents have no capability for hypostatization and communion apart from grace at all. If communion is inherent to nature, which, I argued above, ends up equating freedom and substance by making a



hypostasis simply a bearer of a particular nature, 30 then grace seems to be a meaningless addition to this dynamic. Therefore, Zizioulas seems forced to deny any created capacity for relation at all in order to ensure that communion is a question of grace. But this has uncomfortable implications for a doctrine of creation: created beings are oriented to division and death by nature, he states, having no integrity of their own qua creatures. In this case, the moribund nature of a biological hypostasis has the peculiarity of having been created destined for individualized death – created, that is, to fail to realize its own nature. On the other hand, in the position more regularly maintained by Zizioulas, creation seems to possess its capacity for hypostatization simply by virtue of its existence. A hypostasis is a self-realized, self-transcendent exemplification of a capacity that belongs to its created being, on analogy with the triune communion. But as I have taken some pains to show, this simply means that communion is an autonomous realization of a hypostasis’s nature. The avoidance of Manichaeism eventuates in Pelagianism. If the first is a kind of denial of creation, then the second is its premature divinization; but both reduce to the same problem, namely that creation has no integrity of its own, just as creation. Thus this quasi-Pelagian alternative is no more preferable, for it can only result in what the West early rejected as an inadequate way of understanding our capacity for God. In this case, the theological account of communion becomes merely superfluous: if relationality is simply something that obtains in the nature of a hypostasis, then it is hard to explain just what a trinitarian ontology contributes to the point. After all, Macmurray, Buber, and Levinas all proffered cogently articulated accounts of relational personhood in complete independence from the doctrine of the Trinity. The point here in the invocation of Pelagianism is not to invoke authority, engage in ad hominem criticism, or, especially, indulge in ecclesial partisanship; the issue, rather, lies with a speculative problem for which Pelagianism offers a deeply flawed answer, and which I am suggesting that Zizioulas recapitulates. If the idea of communion as the idea of persons constituted in their relationality and love is to be a meaningful model for how theology conceives the church, that idea will have to be able to account for the true particularity of persons in some other way than via an ontology. For communion is finally something realized in the performance of grace that is deification, the love for the other that is the love of God the Spirit. I have argued that Zizioulas’s relational ontology eventuates in an erasure of personal particularity and primordial relationality just by emphasizing categories of communion and person taken as descriptors of ontological relation. On the other hand, the communion that constitutes the church as the totus christus, the whole Christ as a corporate personality convoked by the gathering of the community in the Spirit, cannot be subject to ontological description, nor does it generate an ontology of communion as such. What constitutes the church, rather, is the fact that it is united in the bond of love when it takes Eucharist together: when it participates in breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine, when the ecclesial body shows itself to be in unity with the Eucharistic body that is the sacrament of the glorified body of Christ. But this is not an ontology, just because it has no being apart from the particular gathering when the church becomes the whole Christ, which is an event beyond the capacities of created being and is absolutely singular. This is a performative encounter with the risen Christ through his Spirit, a participation in the self-giving of the Father in Jesus, which self-giving just is the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit. My resistance here is to a proposal which draws upon a conception of the church as a mediating category, or a legitimating concept, from which the social relation takes its


meaning. Levinas’s talk about the subjectivity of comprehension, the equation of being and thought which reduces a social relation to the neutrality of the il y a, is talk about mediation: the notion that the social relation is significant only with reference to an abstract bearer of meaning beyond its own particular singularity. Instead, what I am arguing for is a conception of church that is more strictly focused upon its being as witness – the church exists because it witnesses to the fact that grace has been given, 31 grace that is known only insofar as it is performed in love of the neighbor. In this case, the church does not exist to mediate the hypostatic; it is witness to the fact that the gift of grace is always prior to its being, and such grace is encountered in the singularity of my neighbor’s face. If we take up the question of ecclesiology in this manner, then we shall have to reconsider the very attempt to ground personhood analogically in the doctrine of the Trinity. Intrinsic to the argument here is the conviction that it is a fundamental misunderstanding to proceed in trinitarian discourse as if revelation granted a knowledge of God such that we can extrapolate from the nature of God analogically to the nature of the church or personhood – this would in fact be a kind of positivism of revelation, to echo a misunderstood criticism of Barth, one that treated revelation as a mode of knowledge like any other, impersonal and not self-involving. The flaw in this structure of analogy is the assumption that divine personhood is construed independently (via revelation, philosophical-ontological analysis, etc.) of the mode of human participation in that personhood. The claim that one can give a theology of divine personhood and communion, and then and on that basis construct a model of human personhood and communion, is far too facile. The problem is this: knowledge of God is self-involving knowledge, and the only God of which we can speak is a God we stand in relationship to. Moreover, that relationship must be explicitly thematized in speaking of God. The mode of human knowledge of God is, if not identical, at least in unity with the mode of construction of the human subject. To speak of God as person (and to consider the personhood of the trinitarian hypostases) is to make a claim about the manner in which human beings relate to God: personally, in a manner for which the best analogy we have is the way in which we relate to other persons, and which implies that the source of our knowledge and our love in their unity is personal. 32 In other words, we speak of the trinitarian hypostases as ‘persons’ insofar as, in relating to God, we are formed as persons, and in so doing, formed in the image of God. Beyond this, however, language must fall silent. 33 By the strict apophatic logic of Zizioulas’s own tradition, to say any more is dangerously anthropomorphic. 34 In fact, the anthropomorphism of Zizioulas’s account of the analogy of personhood reveals a curious reversal in the assumption that divine personhood-in-community somehow provides the model for human personhood-in- community: it conceals (or represses) this very dynamic of participation with its apophatic reserve, which is the epistemological safeguard that prevents projections of human personhood upon the Trinity, and thereby de-authorizes the anthropomorphic move- ment. 35 For revelation, if it is to be, as it must, the self-communication of God in grace, will necessarily be self-involving or performative from the beginning: that is, we cannot speak of God without speaking at the same time of our encounter with God (or more accurately, God’s encounter with us). Trinitarian theology, understood accordingly, is that discourse whereby the church seeks to understand its encounter with God in the divinizing relation. This would refuse two alternatives, equally misleading: first, the theological description of a trinitarian God abstracted from our knowledge of God in order to ground a structure of analogy between trinitarian ‘communion’ and ecclesial



communion; second, the projection onto this God of the determinations of the religious self-consciousness. The dynamic of the knowledge of God is rather more complicated: knowledge of God, which animates the church, is an enactment of the love of God that is inscribed into the very nature of graced subjectivity, simultaneously dispossession of the subject’s self- relation and the construction of that subject as an ecclesial being. It is here that Levinas helps us: the ethical is that call to responsibility in the encounter with the face of the other (or in the late Levinas, in the non-encounter with the trace of the other 36 ). This call to responsibility is precisely the nature of the gift of the Spirit: if God is love, and if the gift of the Spirit is thereby the gift of the inmost nature of God in its utter interiority to the world, a transcendence that transcends by dwelling in deepest intimacy, then the gift of grace is only actualized in the encounter with the neighbor. The call of responsibility convokes the Christian subject into being as a vocation to discipleship, a care for the neighbor that is simultaneously the ascent to God in partaking of the body of Christ together. A Christian account of subjectivity opens onto an ineluctable aporia in the subject’s self-constitution, not an ekstasis but an incurvatus in se transcended only in the gift of grace which is identical to the call to responsibility to the neighbor. But this cannot be the subject of an ontology: it can only a performative, ‘evental’ reality, something we simply do. We hear and respond in an irreducible relation to this neighbor and this enemy, in a manner which cannot be determined in advance in a general account of being. My neighbor is not a concept of communion; she is a face that calls me to infinite responsibility, a responsibility which is the devastation of my ekstasis. Our most urgent ecclesiological need, at this time in history, is not to articulate an ontology of communion at all, because the important ecclesiological category is not freedom, but responsibility, just as the important ecumenical issue is not an ontology of trinitarian derivation but the question of how to practice our divinization as pilgrim people. The theological exigency incumbent upon us is, simply, to be deified: that is, to be those persons who participate in the event of communion in Christ, through the Spirit that is, or might someday be, the church.


1 Communion and Otherness: Further Studies on Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (New York: T & T

Clark, 2006), p. 42. Emphasis original, here and throughout.

2 On this, see esp. Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: 1985), pp. 50ff.

3 E.g. Communion and Otherness, p. 195.

4 I use this phrase loosely, noting Maria Ha¨mmerli’s recent objection to its usefulness; see , ‘Orthodox Diaspora: A

Sociological and Theological Problematisation of a Stock Phrase,’ International Journal for the Study of the Christian

Church 10, nos. 2 & 3 (May 2010), pp. 97–115.

5 In a note to the above cited passage (n1), Zizioulas mocks the ‘fundamentalistic use’ of patristic texts to ground

freedom (the autoexousion) of humanity in human nature, which ‘would lead us to the absurdity of looking for freedom

in human genes!’ Communion and Otherness, p. 42n53.

6 I have argued elsewhere that the manner in which Zizioulas legitimates the analogical relationship between divine

and human relationality is seriously hindered by an equivocation between grounding that analogy in the creation of the

Father and mediating it through the Logos. See Travis E. Ables, ‘Being Church: A Critique of Zizioulas’ Communion

Ecclesiology,’ in Ecumenical Ecclesiology: Unity, Diversity and Otherness in a Fragmented World, ed. Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (New York: T & T Clark, 2009), pp. 115–27.

7 Being as Communion, p. 84.

8 Communion and Otherness, p. 35.

9 Communion and Otherness, pp. 277f, where the assumption mentioned above, that nature is bound by definition

to necessity, is made clear. 10 Indeed, there is no real contradiction in imagining a nature whose essence is defined by its capacity for self- determination, whether or not that nature happens to coincide with what we know as human nature.


11 The latter is more precisely defined in the Aristotelian distinction of ousia, in terms of deutera ousia, the essential

nature that makes an individual a substance, and prote ousia, an individual bearer of an essence and properties. Prote ousia is a rather precise equivalent of the Greek hypostasis.

12 For a helpful discussion of the matter, see William P. Alston, ‘Substance and the Trinity,’ in Stephen T. Davis,

Daniel Kendall, SJ, and Gerald O’Collins, SJ, eds., The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 179–201; the distinction between primary and secondary substance in Aristotle is discussed on p. 185. It is worth pointing out that Augustine explicitly rejects the understanding of the divine

‘substance’ as a kind of substrate in De Trinitate 7.4.7–6.11 (cf. 15.23.43) and Epistle 120.3.13. See further on this point Travis E. Ables, A Pneumatology of Christian Knowledge: The Holy Spirit and the Performance of the Mystery of God in Augustine and Barth, Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2010, esp. pp. 63–67.

13 Communion and Otherness, p. 213. Cf. ibid., p. 107: ‘if we wish to build the particular into ontology we need to

introduce relationship into substance itself, to make being relational.’

14 Lucian Turcescu, ‘‘‘Person’’ versus ‘‘Individual,’’ and Other Modern Misreadings of Gregory of Nyssa,’ Modern

Theology 18, no. 4 (2002), p. 528, quoting ‘Human Capacity and Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood,’ now in Communion and Otherness.

15 Turcescu, ‘‘‘Person’’ versus ‘‘Individual,’’’ p. 529n13.

16 Communion and Otherness, p. 210.

17 This charge applies to divine being as well as human: Zizioulas claims that the Latin translation of the creedal

pantokrato¯r (omnipotens) confuses the Cappadocian understanding of ‘almighty’ as the ‘capacity to embrace and contain, that is, to establish a relationship of communion and love’ rather than the ‘typically Western fashion as the power to act (action has always been equal to, if not identical with, being in Western thought).’ Communion and Otherness, p. 116, emphasis removed. As to human personhood: ‘the concept of personhood, if it is viewed in the image

of divine personhood, is, as I have insisted in my writings, not a ‘‘collection of properties’’ of either a natural or a moral

of ontological constitutiveness.’ Ibid., p. 173, by way of reply

kind. It is only a ‘‘mode of being’’ comprising relations to Turcescu; cf. p. 215n51.

18 Communion and Otherness, pp. 43–52.

19 Communion and Otherness, p. 45.

20 ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’ in Emmanuel Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak,

Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 5.

21 Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 43.

22 Levinas, ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’, p. 7.

23 That this structure – the Hegelian master-slave dialectic – obtains in Zizioulas is unavoidable, for if my

particularity and uniqueness obtains in the call of the other, then it is still my identity that is constituted in relation with the other. The other serves the production of my identity. On this, see Ables, A Pneumatology of Christian Knowledge, pp. 116–132; 269–293.

24 Totality and Infinity, p. 42; cf. Levinas, ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinity,’ Collected Philosophical Papers,

trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), pp. 48, 52.

25 A point of strong critique for Zizioulas; see Communion and Otherness, pp. 49–51.

26 That this is so is clear from an ironic development in modern trinitarian theology: the greater the ‘sociality’ of the

Trinity is stressed, the more autonomous the trinitarian hypostases become, such that various versions of the social

Trinity imagine the unity of the divinity to be akin to that of a community, family, or committee. This is a point Zizioulas grasps with respect to Martin Buber’s ‘between’ in Communion and Otherness, p. 47; but he does not see that the problem of the vacuous ‘between’ is inherent in thinking the social relation ontologically.

27 Totality and Infinity, pp. 117–18. This is in fact an argument for the interiority of the I which con-

stitutes happiness in enjoyment; but for Levinas, enjoyment precisely assumes exteriority and the call of the Other. The point in this context is that the subject as the aftershock of the social relation is ‘an exaltation, an ‘‘above being,’’’ p. 119.

28 See Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays,

trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 127–88. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge:

Selected Interviews and Other Writings 19721977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

29 On this paragraph, see again Ables, ‘Being Church,’ p. 119, with references in Zizioulas.

30 This is integral to his position that the biological hypostasis is moribund by nature, e.g. Communion and

Otherness, p. 257.

31 Something like this I take to be the gist of Matthew Myer Boulton’s important God against Religion: Rethinking

Christian Theology through Worship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008).

32 See esp. Nicholas Lash, Easter in Ordinary: Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (Notre

Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 275–80.

33 This is the point of Augustine’s much-maligned reticence to attach too much importance to the language of

‘persons’ in the Trinity. See also Richard Cross, ‘Quid tres? On What Precisely Augustine Professes Not to Understand in De Trinitate 5 and 7,’ Harvard Theological Review 100, no. 2 (2007), pp. 215–32.

34 Zizioulas can aver, jumping across all apophatic boundaries, that ‘the notion of person, if properly understood,

[is] perhaps the only notion that can be applied to God without the danger of anthropomorphism,’ Communion and Otherness, p. 224. By making this critique, I am disagreeing with Aristotle Papanikolaou, who avers that Zizioulas, contra Lossky, ‘is not negating the importance of apophaticism for theology, but affirming the priority of ontology



over apophaticism.’ See Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion (Notre Dame:

University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), p. 92. I would argue that this confuses the relation of ontological and apophatic speech, the latter of which marks the limit of ontology, for apophatic predication is language of that which is beyond being. Zizioulas is not a critic of ‘ontotheology’ – precisely the opposite, pace Papanikolaou, p. 93.

35 For some helpful points, see Karen Kilby, ‘Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the

Trinity,’ New Blackfriars 81, no. 956 (Oct. 2000), pp. 432–45. I cannot, however, follow Kilby in her Lindbeckian

construal of trinitarian ‘grammar’; see also Matthew Levering, ‘Friendship and Trinitarian Theology: Response to Karen Kilby,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no. 1 (Jan. 2007), pp. 39–54.

36 Otherwise than Being: Or, Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,