Being as Communion, Book Review, God as Person, God is Love, Identity, John Zizioulas, Love as God's supreme nature, Person in Relation, Personhood, Subject Object & Reciprocation, Trinity, Triune God, What Language Shall I Borrow?
Respect for man’s “personal identity” is perhaps the most important ideal of our time.
Thus begins the chapter, Personhood and Being in John D. Zizioulas‘ excellent book, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. It resonates with a theme to which I have been writing: our identity is best found in, and most profoundly defined by the One who made us for Himself. In Q in an Age of Discovery, I wrote:
The point I am trying to make in discussions around identity is that we are probably all “Q” in the age of discovery – in that we are questioning what we are and who we are. It might be said that this is one of the essential journeys of what it means to be human.
Personhood, Zizioulas takes delight in uncovering, is best understood in relation – for we are created in God’s image; God’s being is communion, and He invites us into this hyper-relationality of the Trinity (Triune communion).
God is Love
Zizioulas notes that when the Apostle John writes, “God is Love” (I John 4:16), we recognize that God is person and not merely a philosophical idea. Love is not a property of God, “it is constitutive of His nature – it is that which makes God what He is, the one God.” God is Love – naturally implies subject, object, and reciprocation. In other words, love is not treated as a philosophical idea or ideal, but as the substance of relationship, and it makes no sense outside of this relationally.
Love is the supreme ontological predicate. Love as God’s mode of existence “hypostasizes” (personalizes) God, [it] constitutes His being.
What it means to be a Person:
What it means for us to be a person is rooted entirely in what it means for God to be a person; for we inherit – or we obtain the spiritual genetic material of personhood from the Triune God who Himself is Person – that is to say – Person in Relation – or – Being as Communion.
Death for a person means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis (concrete personhood), which is affirmed and maintained by love…
The mystery of the person… consists in the fact that love can endow something with uniqueness, with absolute identity and name. It is precisely this which is revealed by the term “eternal life,” which for this very reason signifies that the person is able to raise up to personal value and live… as part of a loving relationship.
(For more on the mystery of the Trinity see: What Language Shall I Borrow)
It is no wonder then that Augustine would understand this so early on in Christian thought:
“In loving me, you made me lovable.
It is a powerful and beautiful summary of all that is best in Christian spirituality, and it is the experience of all those who come to God in Christ: the experience that His love is redemptive; that we become lovable both in the sense of being able to love, and be able to be loved.
Person In Relation
Professor James M. Houston has had a lot to say about the confusion between what it means to “be a person” versus what it means “to be an individual.” He notes that Carl Rogers could only describe the process of becoming a self-creating “individual,” but that he had “no grounds to differentiate the ‘person’ from the ‘individual.’ In fact the ‘therapeutic self,’ argues Christopher Lasch, ends up as ‘the minimal self’ in a culture of survivalism” (The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood, p. 113ff).
Houston notes that “professionalism and specialization are forms of abstraction that tend toward the reduction of the “personal” to being merely an “individual.” He notes how Jean-Francios Lyotard “explores the inhumanity of the institutions of modernity, as well as the ways in which the soul is held hostage within oneself by self-possessiveness… What Lyotard is calling ‘in-human’ is being ‘the individual,’ the inwardness of self-enclosure” (from Lyotard’s essay: The Inhuman: Reflections on Time).
Thus Houston states:
When philosophers define ‘the person’ as an ethical issue, they are distinguishing what is a human being from either a fetus or some other material concept. The human person remains unresolved as a questionable issue, scientifically inaccessible, and indefinable. The human can only be a question mark. It is only in the theological analogy drawn between persons – human and divine – that theological anthropology begins to make sense as defining us a persons-in-relation-with-God.
Zizioulas affirms this when he summarizes:
To be and to be in relation becomes identitical. For someone or something to be, two things are simultaneously needed: being itself (hypostasis) and being in relation (i.e. being a person).
What it means to be a person is a profound mystery.
It is not merely about one’s personal struggle to be a unique individual by stringing together accomplishments and experiences in a feeble attempt to reduce personhood to a resume. Personhood is found in relation with the One who made us for Himself.
In the words of Jesus, He is the gate through which we come in and go out to a wider wonder world.
This is more enigma than dogma.