To Be or Not to Be

METROPOLITAN JOHN ZIZIOULAS (Memory Eternal!) has this great line in Being as Communion, “to be and to be in communion are the same thing”. It’s not an exact quote. I pulled it out and wrapped it into my final presentation to be graduated from CIIS in 2002. The argument continues – as I understood it – that since it is in Christ, and more specifically in His Church, that we find the fullest expression of communion, it is there, in the Church, that a Human Being can come into his fullest beingness. I wasn’t too far off, actually, despite being a new convert to Orthodoxy at that time (I entered the Church only a couple of months earlier). Reading a blurb for a book about his theology, I find:

Zizioulas has argued that the Church Fathers represent a profound account of freedom and community that represents a radical challenge to modern accounts of the person. Zizioulas uses the work of the Fathers to make an important distinction between the person, who is defined by a community, and the individual who defines himself in isolation from others, and who sees community as a threat to his freedom. Zizioulas argues that God is the origin of freedom and community, and that the Christian Church is the place in which the person and freedom come into being.

The Theology of John Zizioulas: Personhood and the Church Gracious! $41 for the Kindle edition?!?!?! Someone buy me books? NEway…

I’ve been on this for a while, especially since COVID. This all came back into my brain recently over some really amazing margaritas with a friend who said that this was the exact reason he rejected Zizioulas. And then, one day later, listening to the audio version of The Orthodox Way, I heard Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (Memory Eternal!) say the same thing in another way:

First, a “person” is not the same as an “individual”. Isolated, self-dependent, none of us is an authentic person but merely an individual, a bare unit as recorded in a census. Egocentricity is the death of true personhood. [p. 28]
He [the Holy Spirit] transforms individuals into persons. [p. 95]
Ignorance and sin are characteristic of isolated individuals. Only in the unity of the Church do we find the defects overcome. Man finds his true self in the Church alone: not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation but in the strength of his communion with his brothers and with his Saviour. [p. 108]

This is stated by King David in the Psalms (Ps 49:20): “a man with honor without understanding is like the beasts that perish.” To sin is to forego understanding, to become like a beast – to step away from our humanity into which God always calls us deeper, to become more of what we are, not less.

Then finally yesterday, on a phone call with one of my brother Knights, I commented that so many Christians are terrified of preaching the Gospel. What caused the Church to go from 12 guys to thousands in Jerusalem in only a few months? They spread city to city – and not always by the “official routes” of the Apostles. What was happening that carried this message even faster than feet?

We take it for granted now, but Christianity carried personhood as we understand it, out from the Jewish teachings where it begins in Genesis 1 with the image and likeness of God to the rest of the world. It was possible to enter into full, personal, salvific communion with the God who made everything and yet wanted you – fully, personally, you – to be his Son or Daughter by adoption and grace. This came to you no matter who you were – Jew, Greek, Scythian, Barbarian, Slave, Free, Man or Woman. You mattered: not just data as a census number or a member of a social hierarchy invented to keep the same hierarchy in place. You were a real, loved, person who could enter into loving relationships with other real persons on an equal footing. And those relationships would last forever – because the one relationship that made them possible between you and God would last forever as well.

This Gospel swept the world and changed the world. We come into the modern world thinking of persons exactly as the Church has taught, “endowed by their creator”. Ironically, the idea that “you are important in God” has been turned into “I am God” and, lo: we’re all data points again. We are turned into isolated individuals who live in perpetual fear that our personal self-definition will be shattered by someone using the wrong pronouns for us. Metropolitan Kallistos is right to call this “self-dependent”. We might add to that, “self-debted”. When I am subtracted, I will be no more. If I am not around to make me, I won’t be made.

A beast that perishes.

We are afraid of a Gospel that demands a full change of thinking, a full rejection of the disorder that the world calls “normal”. There is no way, apart from God, to know who you are. Rejection of even the possibility of that truth makes for meaninglessness and lived nihilism.

Eternal life is possible. Lived in unchanging truth; turning away from the foolish idea that you define yourself, that you are making yourself. Let God make you. Let others love you as he is making you – not because of what you have or what you can do or what you can imagine but because you are the very icon of God. Become the You God made you to be – in the body God gave you used according not to your feelings but to the owner’s manual… Enter into communion with God and others who seek him. “Become who God made you to be and you will set the world on fire” (St Catherine) and “the Glory of God is a living human being” (St Ignatius).

Come in. Be a real person.

Updated here 4/17/2023