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Musings on God's 'Solidarity' in the Ecumenical Thought of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-06-29 12:48:51
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Communion and Otherness by John D. Zizioulas. Edited by Paul McPartlan (2006): A Review-Essay.


Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon John D. Zizioulas

“…This book is in effect, a systematic theology, though it is not structured like one. But it is also a work of apologetics in its way. Zizioulas mounts a formidable challenge to atheism by affirming very simply that it is meaningless to discuss ‘whether or not’ God exists in abstraction from the question of ‘how’ God exists. To ask whether God exists is really to ask about what the relations that you can recognize yourself as involved in—because God is irreducibly a living complex of relation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But this ‘complex’ is not just a given plurality, it is the work of freedom—the Father’s personal liberty and love generate the inseparable Other, the eternal Son, and ‘breathe out’ the eternal Spirit. The Father is never alone, nor is the Father simply one among three divine beings alongside each other; it is his absolute freedom to be completely for an in the Other that is the root and rationale of Trinitarian life. And this utter freedom for the Other becomes the insight that allows us to make sense of the freedom of creation, with all that this implies…Christian ethics is not essentially about awarding merit points on the grounds of someone’s behavior or habits; it is founded upon the basic respect for and joy in the otherness of the world and, above all, of the personal other, free and mysterious, which is drawn out by the indwelling of the Spirit within the communion of Christ’s people….Zizioulas engages boldly with different strands of modern philosophy, refuting most effectively the idea that he is simply recycling some kind of existentialism or secular personalism, and offering a deeply suggestive reading and correction of Levinas on the Other as fundamental for Ethics…A great book and a converting one, which reintroduces us to the essential Christian conviction that there is no life without relation with God, as God is himself eternally alive…”

      --Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (excerpted from the forward to Communion and Otherness)


Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas as he lectures

Life is indeed full of surprises. Recently I retrieved a bulky envelope from my snail mail box. It turned out to be from a good friend of mine who from time to time pens perceptive and insightful comments under my contributions. I opened it low and behold, I soon realized that it held a veritable treasure throve of philosophical and theological thought by one who is presently considered one of the most brilliant minds in the Greek Orthodox Church: Metropolitan archbishop John D. Sizioulas. It had extensive excerpts from two of his various books: Being and Communion (1985),and Communion and Otherness (2007), the latter a complementary book to the former. I have read those excerpts with great interest wondering why I had not picked up this book any sooner. I intend to read both books in their entirety. Before I do so, however, I’d like to share my friend’s gift, with the Ovi readership by way of some musings on the latter book.   

First some preliminary biographical notes on John Zizioulas: he is the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon, Chairman of the academy of Athens; a noted theologian with extensive philosophical and theological studies at the University of Thessalonika and Athens in the 50s, receiving a doctorate in 1955 from the University of Athens in Byzantine studies and then publishing his dissertation in Greek. Afterwards most of his books are published either in English, French, German or Italian and have received wide publication coming to the attention of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper who has praised the latest publication by Zizioulas. He became an Assistant Professor of Church History in 1964 till 1970. Thereafter he was Professor of Patristics at the University of Edinburgh (1970-1973), then the University of Gloscow with a chair in systematic theology (1973-1987), a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London, and from 1986 on he taught at Thessalonika School of Theology as Professor of Dogmatics. He is currently recognized as the most brilliant and outstanding theologian of the Orthodox Church. The great theologian Ives Congar considers Zizioulas “one of the most original and profound theologians of our epoch presenting a penetrating and coherent reading of the tradition of the Greek Fathers.”


Communion & Otherness by John D. Zizioulas

And now a few comments on the book itself. As its very title implies, it seeks to answer the urgent question in intercultural dialogues and discussions: How can Communion and Otherness be reconciled? They appear at first sight to be mutually exclusive. Many cultural unions are being proposed nowadays but what is usually lacking in them is a center that holds and truly unifies. The unifying glue is sought in economic, military, power driven alliances, trade agreements, technological and scientific prowess, systematic efficiency, political systems and constitutions galore, even the banality of soccer games conceived as a unifying centrifugal cultural center, mostly aiming at pleasure, “happiness” (understood as fun and distraction from boredom and drudgery rather than the Aristotelian “eidaimonia”), profits, entrepreneurship and ultimately, material economic prosperity, devoid of any real existential meaning. If spirituality is even considered it is usually considered a means to an end, a sort of cultural frosting on the cake. One can detect this in the very pages of our magazine for time to time. In effect the cart has been put before the horse. First we seek prosperity and then, almost as an after-thought, we seek solidarity or in more religious terms, communion, something that we suspect is sorely lacking in our vain attempts at union and solidarity. Those attempts are in fact doomed to failure if respect for the Other is not held as a social value and practiced. The current plight of the EU is a case in point. Becoming a mega-nation of nations is not the original vision of the EU founding fathers who were mostly men of gravitas and faith. Levinas, with whom I began my philosophical musings in Ovi, warned about this some time ago, but alas, like the voice of Cassandra, it fell on deaf ears.


Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
dialoguing with Cardinals of the Catholic Church on Ecumenism

To the contrary, Zizioulas, argues for communion, or solidarity in today’s parlance, as the basis for true otherness and identity, not only in the ecclesiological sense but in the anthropological sense also. He sees no dichotomy between the two. Zizioulas is constantly aware throughout this fascinating book of the deepest existential questions of today’s philosophy, especially that of Buber, Heidegger and  Levinas, showing how those concerns were already present in the writings of the Greek fathers and the definitions of the early ecumenical councils. As Z. himself points out in chapter 1, p. 13: “The problem of the Other has been central to the philosophy of our time. In the twentieth century, it particularly preoccupied the philosophical schools of phenomenology and existentialism, culminating in the thought of philosophers such as Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas, who made the idea of the Other a key subject of philosophical discourse.” But then Zizioulas goes further to challenge our easy assumptions and premises leading us back to the most significant aspects of Christian thought, often caricatured and trivialized. He defends the freedom to be other as an intrinsic characteristic of personhood which is fulfilled only by communion. In effect John Zizioulas is inviting us to rediscover our faith in its richest traditional form.


Simply to convey to the reader the scope and horizon of Zizioulas’ book let me simply mention here the titles of the seven chapters it contains: chapter 1: On Being Other; chapter two: On Being a Person; chapter 3: The Father as Cause; chapter 4: The Trinity and Personhood; chapter 5: Pneumatology and the Importance of the Person; chapter 6: Human Capacity and Human Incapacity; chapter 7: Created and Uncreated.


Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas embracing Pope Bendedict XVI

And here, as an appetizer of sort, are some insightful passages from the first chapter of the book (On Being Other) where Buber, Heidegger and Levinas are mentioned repeatedly and challenged in some fashion or other, thus attesting to the philosophical depth and breath of Zizioulas’ Mind:

If the world is based simply on its own nature, it is bound to perish, for it is part of its nature to be perishable, having come out of nothing (Athanasius). Had it been imperishable by nature, (a) it would have come not out of nothing but out of an imperishable something: (b) its being would be due to necessity, not freedom; and (c) it would not be ontologically ‘other’, since its being would be essentially and ultimately identical with the nature from which it has come forth. Its end would have been like the beginning by necessity to nothing, whereas if its beginning was ‘something’, it would return by necessity to that ‘something’ from which it came forth. Being would then have to be cyclical if it were to survive, as was in fact conceived by the ancient Greeks. In that case, ontology would be ‘totalitarian’, recalling Levinas’ accusation against Greek philosophy. (p. 18-19)

…As Levinas demonstrated in an impressive way in his Totalitè et Infini, a gnoseological ontology is inevitably a ‘totalitarian’ ontology (hence his rejection of all ontology on the—wrong- assumption that ontology cannot be gnoseological…. Maximus the Confessor is keen to distinguish between diaphora (difference) and diairesis (division). For him, diaphora is an ontological characteristic because each being has its logos which gives it its particular identity, without which it would cease to be itself and thus be at all. Without diaphora there is no being, for there is no being apart from beings. This is an ontology applied also to Trinitarian theology, as well as to Christology and to cosmology. How does Maximus manage to avoid a ‘totalitarian’ or monistic ontology, so deeply feared by Levinas, in God’s relation with creation? How can communion and otherness coincide in ontology? (pp. 22-23)

…The priority of the self over the other has dominated Western philosophy almost from its beginning. When Parmenides declared ‘being’ to be identical with ‘knowing’, ontology and epistemology (gnoseology) became dependent on each other. This led ancient Greek philosophy to what Levinas called the idea of ‘sameness’ which he described as totalitarian ontology. It was thus inevitable for Levinas to reject ontology altogether and seek the content of metaphysics elsewhere. Yet the assumption that ontology must necessarily be tied up with comprehension and ‘knowledge’ is by no means an inevitable one. My aim in these essays is to question such an assumption. (pp.43-44)

The Other is conditioned by the intermediary of the world; he forms part of the ‘panoramic’ nature of existence. This ‘panoramic’ view of existence leads Levinas to observe that Heidegger places the particular being within the horizon of Being, forcing us to identify it always with reference to the universal, and in this way ultimately to reduce the Other to the Same. [footnote 91: On Heidegger views, see his Being and Time, 1962, esp. pp. 14. Levinas regards Heidegger’s ontology as enslaved to comprehension and subjectivity, see Totalité et Infini, p. 15] (p. 45).

A departure from the consciousness-centered philosophy of western thought is observable in two modern western philosophers of Jewish descent [Buber and Levinas], and it is with them that the ‘Other’ is brought to the centre of philosophy as a primary concept, and not as one deriving from the Self. We must pay some special attention to their thought, and relate it to understanding of otherness in the light of patristic thought…(p.47)

…Neverthless, as Levinas admits, ‘transcendence is a transcendence of an I. Only an I can respond to the injunction of a face. All this raises the question of the eschatology of otherness in Levinas’ thought. Is the Other the ultimate destination of Desire? Levinas would seem to answer this in the negative: ‘the Other is not a term: he does not stop the movement of Desire. ‘The Other that Desire desires is again Desire.’ In sharp contrast with St. Maximus, for whom the movement of Desire or eros finds its ‘rest’ in the Other, for Levinas the ultimate destination of Desire is not the Other but the Desire of the Other. (p. 50)

… In giving thanks for creation we do not simply utter words of gratitude for the Creator. We take creation in our hands and offer it to the Creator and to our fellow human beings as our own personal gift, as our own creation. Thus the Eucharistic way of being involves an act of dedication or ‘setting apart’, a sacralization of creation. This is not because of some sacred quality inherent in the nature of creation itself.

Such an attitude to creation not only protects us falling into paganism (an understanding of creation as sacred in its own nature) but also protects creation itself from being conceived in immanent biological or ‘natural’ terms, as something possessing its own powers and qualities to be unlocked, transformed and used. The Eucharistic ethos is oncompatible with any treatment of nature as an object be decontextualized, analyzed and reduced to its primary qualities, even to sheer energy, ultimately beyond human control. The Eucharistic ethos involves an attitude of respect for the diversity of creation as it is realized and manifested in the specific body of each created being; in Heidegger’s terminology, a Bestand, a ‘standing reserve’ to be incorporated into a technological and economic system. [footnote 222: see Heidegger (The Question Concerning Technology p. 18. From a sociological perspective, J. Ellul, too, in his The Technological Society comes to a similar conclusion.] (pp. 93-94)

I could go and on with more quotes but I trust that these musings and direct excerpts from the book itself will be sufficient to motivate readers to pick up and delve into the book. It may well further motivate them, as it motivated me, to return to the journey of self-discovery and the exploration of a faith taken for granted, caricaturized, trivialized and forgotten. A faith that may restore some meaning to one’s distracted listless lives where the material and the economic seem to be the only dominant value. In other words, this book may turn out to be a wonderful surprise and wonderful gift to one’s Self. I remain grateful of course to my good friend and colleague who made me aware of it in the first place, and thank him also on behalf of all appreciative Ovi readers.  Many thanks James!

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JamesWoodbury2014-06-29 23:19:38
Dear Emanuel.
Thank you(!)very much for your grateful and outstandingly well-constructed response to my "contribution". I do, happily, get the feeling that you are genuinely impressed with the man, Metropolita John Zizioulas, and his work.
Incidentally, before receiving your "Ovi" article, I had no notion of his personal appearance! Thank you for that as well as for your enthusiastic and ingenious response. More, as they say, will follow later.
James W.

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