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Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 February 2009

J. D. Zizioulas
Affiliation:
Department of Divinity, The University, Glasgow

Extract

Theology, unlike other disciplines dealing with man, is faced with a fundamental methodological problem in its attempt to understand the human being. This problem is due to the Christian view of the Fall. Whatever we may wish to mean by the Fall, the fact remains that there is something which can be called ‘sin’, and which gives rise to the question: is man that which we know and experience as ‘man’? If we answer the question in the affirmative, then we are bound to imply that sin is not an anthropological problem and redemption from sin does not essentially alter our view of man; in fact if we follow up the consequence of this position, we are bound to say that unfallen man or man restored by redemption is not properly speaking ‘man’ but something of a super-man. If, on the other hand, we do not approach man from the angle of his actual sinful situation, how can we approach him? Is there another angle from which to look at man except from that of what we actually see as man?

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 1975

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References

page 402 note 1 See on this point the pertinent remarks of Archbishop Anthony Bloom in his God and Man, 1971, p. 30f.

page 403 note 1 Greek thought in all its variations (Platonic, Aristotelian etc.) always operated with what we may call a closed ontology. As E. L. Mascall puts it, ‘for both (Platonic and Aristotelian thought) every being had a nicely rounded-off nature which contained implicitly everything that the being could ever become. … What Greek thought could not have tolerated … would have been the idea that a being could become more perfect in its kind by acquiring some characteristic which was not implicit in its nature before’. (The Openness of Being, 1971, p. 246f). The ‘dualism’ between the intelligible and the sensible, which characterises the development of Platonic thought, is not to be taken as an ontological dualism. Between the ideas and the mind there is an ontological syggeneia. This preserves ultimately the unity of being in one whole, while everything which falls outside this unity is to be regarded as non-being. This applies even to Neoplatonism as shown by de Vogel, C. J., Philosophia I. Studies in Greek Philosophy (Philosophical Texts and Studies, 19) I, 1970, pp. 397416.Google Scholar See also Kremer, K., Die neuplatonische Seinsphilosophic und ihre Wirkung auf Thomas von Aquin, 1966 (1971), pp. 7gf.Google Scholar

page 403 note 2 Ever since Parmenides the unity between einai and noein was the ultimate concern for classical Greek thought (Fragm. 5d 7; Plato, Parmenides 128b). For Aristotle the ousia of beings was the ultimate object of all ontology. (See e.g., Mackinnon, D. M. ‘Aristotle's Conception of Substance’ in Bambrough, R. (ed.), New Essays on Plato and Aristotle, 1965, pp. 97ff.Google Scholar).

page 404 note 1 An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1959, p. 13f.

page 405 note 1 On the basis of Boethius' definition of Person as naturae rationabilis individua substantia (Contra Eutych. et Nest. 3).

page 406 note 1 Augustine's Confessions stand out as a decisive contribution to this psychological approach to Person.

page 406 note 2 Western thought on the whole has operated with this concept of the Person for a long time. We can see this even in some remarkable studies of our time, as, for example, Webb, C. C. J., God and Personality, 1918;Google ScholarWalgrave, J. H., Person and Society, 1965Google Scholar and more explicitly in his recent article ‘Godservaring door het geweten’ in Tijdschrift voor Theologie, 12 (1972) 377–95. P. F. Strawson in his Individuals simply assumes the definition of Person in terms of consciousness. For examples of a different approach in our time see p. 408, n. 1.

page 406 note 3 By becoming an individuum definable by its own substance and especially its intellectual capacities, man has managed to isolate himself from creation, to which he naturally belongs, and having developed an indifference to the sensitivity and life of creation has reached the point of polluting and destroying it to an alarming degree. The American historian Lynn White in examining the historical roots of our ecological crisis (Machina ex Deo. Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture, 1968, pp. 75–94) is quite categorical in attributing this to the Western intellectual tradition with its rationalistic image of man. But theology must also share the blame. One has simply to look at the predominant forms of Christian worship and spirituality or at the prevailing theories of the atonement and the sacraments: in all cases the cosmic dimension of man is missing; man in his relation to God singles himself out from nature as the autonomous self, as if his capacities and incapacities had nothing to do with those of the entire cosmos.

page 406 note 4 Vol. I, 1898, p. 193.

page 407 note 1 This discussion is now published in Kenny, A. J. P., Longuet-Higgins, H. C., Lucas, J. R. and Waddington, C. H., The Nature of Mind, Edinburgh, 1972.Google Scholar

page 408 note 1 Even if we understand person in terms of consciousness, as P. F. Strawson, arguing from a logical point of view, has shown: ‘One can ascribe states of consciousness to oneself only if one can ascribe them to others. One can ascribe them to others only if one can identify other subjects of experience. And one cannot identify others if one can identify them only as subjects of experience, possessors of states of consciousness’. (Individuals, 1964, p. 100).

The understanding of the person as a relational category in our time has marked a sharp contrast with the Boethian individualistic tradition. Some representative examples of this trend are to be found in M. Buber's I and Thou, J. Macmurray's Persons in Relation and The Self as Agent, W. Pannenberg's important article ‘Person’ in R.G.G. (3rd ed.), V, pp. 230–5 etc. David Jenkins' studies on Man move also along similar lines (e.g., The Glory of Man, 1967; What is Man?, 1970, and Living with Questions, 1969).

page 408 note 2 The term ek-stasis in this sense is known today mainly through the Philosophy of M. Heidegger. Yet, long before him, this term was used in the mystical writings of the Greek Fathers (Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus, etc.) in basically the same sense. C. Yannaras (The Ontological Content of the Theological Notion of Person, 1970—in Greek) makes a remarkable attempt to utilize Heidegger's philosophy for a re-interpretation of Eastern Orthodox theology today. In spite of fundamental reservations that one may have concerning the possibility of such a use of Heidegger, Yannaras' work remains extremely helpful.

page 408 note 3 That in every human person we see not part but the totality of human nature is essential to the Biblical anthropology of ‘Adam’—both the first and the last one (Christ). Such an understanding of the person also helps us to make sense of the so-called ‘corporate personality’ idea which Biblical scholars regard as a central Biblical theme ever since the works of H. Wheeler Robinson (The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality, 1936) and A. R. Johnson (The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God, 1942). There is no need to say how important, indeed how indispensable, such a concept of person is for Trinitarian Theology and especially for Christology (Christ as a ‘catholic’ man) to which reference will be made later.

page 410 note 1 This of course calls for an understanding of freedom and love not in moral but in ontological terms—an understanding which still has to be worked out and to find the place it deserves in Philosophy and Theology. Such an ontology of love is, for example, the only way to understand the view of the Greek Fathers (e.g., Athanasius in his De Incarn.) that a break of communion with God means the return of the world to non-being.

page 410 note 2 I am aware of the fact that God's being, his ultimate ontological identity, is often, or rather normally, understood in terms of ‘substance’. This is so because the shift of hypostasis from ousia to personhood during the Trinitarian discussion of the fourth century has not yet been fully understood and applied in Western Theology. For those who made this shift at that time, however, the ontological identity of God and the unity of his being were not to be found in divine ‘substance’ but in the hypostasis of the Father. This has been a major difference between East and West, as it is noted today by Karl Rahner who argues in his Trinity for a return to the Greek Patristic and Biblical identification of God's being with the Father rather than the divine ousia.

page 412 note 1 ‘C'est le commencement d'un monde’, to use the profound observation of Paul Valéry with regard to music (Œuvres, I, 1957, p. 1327).

page 413 note 1 It was after struggling to express these thoughts that I came across the following words of W. Pannenberg, which, I find, express the same thing in a clearer way: ‘Human beings are persons by the very fact that they are not wholly and completely existent for us in their reality, but are characterised by freedom and as a result remain concealed and beyond control in the totality of their existence. A person whose being we could survey and whose every moment we could anticipate would thereby cease to be a person for us, and where human beings are falsely taken to be existent beings and treated as such, then their personality is treated with contempt. This is unfortunately possible, because human beings are in fact also existent beings. Their being as persons takes shape in their present bodily reality, and yet it remains invisible to one whose vision—unlike the vision of love or even that of hatred—looks only at what is existent in man’. (Basic Questions in Theology, vol. III, 1973, p. 112).

page 414 note 1 Maximus the Confessor puts his finger on this crucial issue by raising the question: does God know his creatures according to their own nature? The answer he gives is most interesting: no! God does not know (or recognize) beings in accordance with their nature but ‘as the concrete results of his will’ (‘idia thelēmata’. See esp. Amb. 91. Migne P. G., 91, 1085 A-B). From the angle of Personhood, which is God's way of being, to recognize beings in accordance with their nature would amount to a compulsory recognition. The implications of this for theological epistemology are far-reaching and their proper treatment would demand a special study outside the limited space of this paper.

page 415 note 1 The main difficulty created by Professor Strawson's view is that particularity—and for that matter ontology as a whole, since, as he rightly insists, there is no ontology without particularity—inevitably requires a ‘body’ and hence a space and time context (op. cit. p. 126). Needless to say that for Theology such a view would inevitably lead to the dilemma: either God's particularity is also one determined by space and time (by a ‘body’), or it is impossible to attribute particularity to God at all, in which case it is also impossible to attribute ontology to him; we are simply forced to say that he is not. The only way out of such a dilemma—which if I am not mistaken is the difficulty in which theology constantly finds itself—is to admit the possibility of a particularity which is not determined by space and time, i.e., by circumscribability or, in other words, by individuality. My argument in this paper relates precisely to this crucial problem. My thesis consists in trying to show that not only is it possible to speak of such a particularity but it is indeed only such a kind of particularity that expresses the particularity of a person; even when it is determined by a body (as in the case of man) the person is particular only when its presence is constituted in freedom from its boundaries as a being which is particular because it is unique and indispensable in the context of communion.

page 415 note 2 Mannheim, Karl in his Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (ed. by Kecskemeti, P., 1952, p. 50f.Google Scholar) points, I think, in the same direction as my presence-in-absence argument here, when he speaks in connection with Art of an ‘aesthetic space’ which is determined neither by the space of the object (‘this slab of marble’) nor by the mere experience of the subject, but which nonetheless has its own ‘objectivity’—or, as I would prefer to say, its own ontological content.

page 417 note 1 Ad Serap. I, 26; III, 4.

page 417 note 2 The notion of beginning is tied up inseparably with that of distance, individualisation, fragmentation, etc., and because of that finally with the possibility of absence, of decomposition and death. Creaturehood, being based, by definition, on beginning, cannot purely and simply be; non-being constantly conditions its ontology. In this respect Heidegger's idea of ‘being-into-death’ faithfully describes the ontology of the world. It is another matter, as we shall see in a moment, that such an ontology cannot stand on its own feet, but depends on the possibility of ‘being-into-life’, of a presence, that is, without absence.

page 418 note 1 The fact that in the Bible the Parousia is so persistently—almost to the point of obsession—removed from historical causality (the Kingdom does not come through observation; the Lord will come as a thief in the night, etc.) shows that we must apply to history exactly the same observations as we applied to creativity: ‘presence’ is not ultimately determined by a compelling ontology which implies causality, but depends on freedom and love. It has been rightly observed (by W. Pannenberg) that the idea of history develops out of Israel's doctrine of creation. I should like to add that all evolutionary ideas of history—detectable even in modern ‘theologies of hope’—remain impossible as long as such a doctrine of creation is maintained. The Greek mind could not entertain the possibility of a ‘creatio ex nihilo’ for the very same reason that it could not avoid looking for causality in historical events (a characteristic theme of Greek tragedy as well as of Greek historiography). It is, therefore, no wonder that interpretations of history in terms of a linear ‘Heilsgeschichte’, such as that developed by O. Cullmann, appear in the end as identical with the Greek idea of history, as it is shown so convincingly by Professor John McIntyre's criticism of Cullmann, O. (The Christian Doctrine of History, 1957, p. 42f.Google Scholar)

page 419 note 1 To repeat an important point made by ProfessorMackinnon, D. M. in connection with Kant (The Problem of Metaphysics, 1974, p. 9).Google Scholar

page 420 note 1 The right notion of the Person is of crucial importance for theology. The individualistic and psychological conceptions of personhood which have prevailed throughout the history of Western thought have led inevitably to a rejection of the understanding of God as person (e.g., Fichte, Feuerbach, Tillich, etc.). This is an additional reason why we should seek an understanding of Personhood away from the ideas of individuality and consciousness.

page 420 note 2 See p. 414 n. 1 above.

page 421 note 1 He will have, of course, to tell us where fantasies come from, but this is another, though very relevant, question.

page 422 note 1 This unacceptability of absence must be underlined. Faith as an ingredient of Personhood does not address itself ultimately to some kind of Deus absconditus or to a ‘being-into-death’, but to presence and life. See p. 424 n. 1 below.

page 423 note 1 This may help us to see the connection between the various uses of the word ‘body’, for example in Paul: the body of the risen Christ which is the ‘mode of existence’ of true humanity is a ‘presence’, both in the sense of the ‘Parousia’ and in that of the Eucharist, only in and through communion, i.e., as community (Church). The four connotations of ‘body’ in Paul (Christological, anthropological, ecclesiological and eucharistic) meet and thus make sense because of the ultimate identity between ‘presence’ or life and communion.

page 424 note 1 An ontology which does not ultimately overcome non-being is no ontology at all. What good is existence, argues St. Athanasius in his De Incarn., if death finally overcomes it? A ‘dying being’ is the greatest absurdity that can exist for ontology. It is, of course, a real absurdity and we must appreciate modern existentialist philosophy for waking us up from the dream of pure, positive ontology based on the world as it is (ontological or cosmological arguments, etc.). But the fact that a ‘dying being’ still is a being, for it is there, points, as I have already argued, to the possibility of ultimately overcoming the absurdity. Christian theology by speaking of the Resurrection of Christ fights simultaneously against two opposite schools of thought. It denies the possibility of pure ontology on the basis of the world as it is; and it affirms that there if a possibility of a pure ontology of this world, yet only on the basis of the fact that it will ultimately exist—of the fact, that is, that being is personal and depends on love. An uncritical acceptance of the ‘being-into-death’ ontology by Christian theology is impossible without finally a loss of ‘the ontological content of the person’.

page 424 note 2 Cf. Macquarrie, J., Principles of Christian Theology, 1966, p. 238f.Google Scholar

page 425 note 1 I owe this distinction to the remarkable insight of St. Maximus the Confessor. Apart from this distinction the reader must have already noted the use I have been making here of derivatives of the Greek words stasis and phora for the ontology of the Person. To recapitulate this usage, two basic Greek words for ontology, stasis and phora, are qualified through the notion of Personhood as follows: Stasis (being ‘as it stands’, as it is ‘in itself’) is realised in personhood both as ek-stasis (communion, relatedness) and as hypo-stasis (particularity, uniqueness). In the perverted state of personhood these become apo-stasis and dia-stasis (separateness and individuality). Similarly, phora (the movement of being towards outside itself) leads in personhood to dia-phora (difference, otherness) and to ana-phora (reference or movement towards outside creation). In terms of Personhood, therefore, both stasis and phora are neutral categories, inconceivable in themselves. It is the way they are qualified through the above-mentioned composites that relates being to beings, i.e., to ontology as particularity and as life. Personhood, rightly understood, is precisely about being as particular living beings.

page 426 note 1 Aristotelian Metaphysics can serve as an illustration of this. Aristotle strives through his notion of ‘substance’ to arrive at the very being of a particular thing beyond, so to say, the various qualities and characteristics that characterise the particularity of this thing. And yet even the notion of ‘substance’ remains for him part of his whole complex of categories. Hence the difficulties in understanding the exact role that ‘substance’ plays for Metaphysics in Aristotle, as they are brought out in the discussion of the problem by Professor D. M. Mackinnon (‘Aristotle's Concept of Substance’ op. cit. Cf. also his ‘Substance in Christology—A Crossbench View’ in Sykes, S. W. and Clayton, J. P. (eds.) Christ, Faith and History, 1972, pp. 279300).Google Scholar

page 427 note 1 Summa Theol. Ia 2ae, 4. This in fact goes back to Augustine (De Trin. 10, 1).

page 427 note 2 It is interesting to note that persona or prosopon came to be associated in the classical Greco-Roman world with playing a role in the theatre. Hypocrisy is not unrelated to personhood; it is the state of existence in which the person becomes persona or prosopon in this ‘theatrical’ un-ontological sense. This observation may help us appreciate further the significance for ontology and culture in general of identifying prosopon with hyposiasis by the Greek Fathers (see my earlier remarks on this). Contrast that, however, with modern sociological theories of personhood which tend to remove personhood from ontology again and relate it to the idea of ‘role’.

page 428 note 1 ‘For if necessity in any way was the master of the life of man, the image (of God) would have been falsified in that particular part’ (The Great Catech. 5).

page 428 note 2 As well as the individualisation and fragmentation of being which are inherent in it.

page 428 note 3 One may argue that the possibility of refusing existence implies a choice between two things, thus leading us back to the moral concept of freedom. But the alternative to existence, although it may appear to imply a choice between two possibilities, is not in fact an alternative with an ontological content (since its ‘content’ is non-being); it is not like choosing to go to London or not to do so. Freedom puts to the test the very heart of ontology as a whole. See p. 432 n. 1.

page 430 note 1 This tendency of man to destroy is to be seen against the background of his capacity to create as it were ‘out of nothing’, in a God-like fashion. (Cf. my discussion of this problem earlier on.) Thus it becomes clear why the demonic or fallen existence is tied up not only with freedom but also with the quite legitimate desire of man to be God. It is obvious in this case that the categories of good and evil (moral judgments, etc.) are too posterior ontologically to what is at stake here to be of any applicability to the mystery of freedom.

page 432 note 1 This shows how ontologically irrelevant the notion of freedom becomes when understood primarily in terms of decision. If decision becomes an ultimate proof of freedom, non-existence must be ultimately a possibility for being, since it represents an ‘alternative’ for decision. This would mean that freedom can ultimately be the negation of being. But the possibility of an ultimate negation of being amounts to the very impossibility of ontology: how can we speak of being, if non-being can ultimately overcome it? (cf. my argument earlier about the presence of the presence-in-absence paradox; also p. 424, n. 1). By negating God as the affirmation of existence in spite of the possibility of the choice of nothingness which exists for man, atheistic existentialism is in fact denying existence altogether. In the same way those who project into God the notion of choice (Anselm, Barth and a long series of theologians, including especially modern Process Theology which has created a real monstrosity out of the idea of choice, which it calls ‘God’) imply inevitably that there are ontological possibilities which are confronting God himself, thus giving ultimate ontological content (in the form of a possibility presented to the ultimate Being, God) to being as well as to non-being. But the point emerging from our discussion of freedom here rules out such an ultimacy for choice and decision: if freedom is ultimately a matter of choice and decision then there must be, if it really is ultimate, also a ‘decision’ or ‘choice’ against being, an ultimate possibility of non-being; but if there is an ultimate possibility of non-being, then being is ultimately negated and hence ontology is itself an impossibility. All this points to the conclusion that if we wish to speak of being in a serious way, to push, that is, the ontological question to the ultimacy which it deserves if it is to be ontology at all, we can only do that by making freedom a corollary of love and by regarding love (and its freedom) as the ultimate ontological notions.

page 434 note 1 This ‘beyond-redemption’ kind of Christology is implied for example in Irenaeus' understanding of Adam as a child destined to grow up in communion with God, and it is explicitly stated for the first time by Maximus the Confessor who says that the Christ event would still be realised even if there had not been the Fall.

page 435 note 1 Can the Biblical notion of Adam as the one, for example, in whom ‘the many have died’ or as ‘the one man Jesus Christ’ in whom the ‘many’ will live (cf. Rom. 5–6 and p. 409 n. 1) make any sense to ontology—and not just to homiletics? If so, I do not see how this can be done without so changing our ontology as to allow for the concept of the person as the bearer of the totality or ‘catholicity’ of its nature.

page 435 note 2 The incapacity of human personhood to escape from individualism and become the bearer of human nature in its integrity is due to the antinomies which I discussed extensively in the previous section as inevitable parts of creaturehood. The real issue, therefore, between Antiochene and Alexandrian Christology in the Early Church must be seen against the background of the question: can human personhood be true personhood if taken in itself? The Alexandrians would reject an autonomous humanity in Christ precisely because they would not conceive of man—in his true humanity realised in Christ—apart from communion with God. The key issue, therefore, was personhood (as the capacity for communion) and it is a gross misunderstanding of Alexandrian Christology to speak in terms of a ‘Logos-flesh’ synthesis (e.g. A. Grillmeier etc.); ‘flesh’ without personhood would be absolutely inconceivable for the Alexandrians whose ontology was based on the notion of communion. It is obvious that in such ‘Logos-flesh’ schemes later substantialistic ideas have been read into Alexandrian theology.

page 438 note 1 That this is in fact how the result of Baptism was understood in the Early Church following St. Paul (Gal. 3.27) see: Tertullian, De Bapt. 7–8; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autol. 1, 12; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. 21, 1 etc.

page 438 note 2 De Incarn. 14.

page 439 note 1 Space, Time and Incarnation, 1969, p. 18.

page 439 note 2 It would eventually have nothing to offer to the ontology of this world which is subject to corruption, because the point (which is often forgotten) is that man dies because of and together with the dying of the rest of creation. It follows, therefore, that the resurrection of our bodies will be dependent on the transformation of the entire cosmos and vice-versa.

page 440 note 1 This explains why the idea of theosis has never been really accepted without reservations in Western theology.

page 441 note 1 This juridical approach to death marks in fact the understanding of the relation between sin and death in most of Western theology since Augustine.

page 441 note 2 The reader of this paper will have realised that ‘de-individualization’ does not mean the dissolution of personal particularity but, on the contrary, the condition for the emergence of true personal otherness and identity.

page 441 note 3 This leads to the significance of the Virgin birth doctrine: a human being establishing its identity and particularity through the process of procreation is bound by individualisation—no human being can be a bearer of the totality of its nature (be, that is, a ‘catholic’ man) though this is what personhood drives it towards. A birth ‘of the Spirit’, i.e., an establishment of identity in the way God's personhood is established, can secure for man the great mystery which characterises the Holy Trinity, in whom each Person is a bearer of the totality of divine nature.

page 442 note 1 No wonder, therefore, that the usual, though so obviously unsatisfactory, ways of handling this problem, are mainly either of an ethical kind (relating to Christ through an imitation of his life, obedience to his teaching, etc.) or a sacramental kind (relating to him through media of grace). None of these, however, can make sense for the ontological significance of Baptism as participation in the very being of Christ, in his ‘body’.

page 442 note 2 Baptism relates to personhood in that through it man's person establishes its identity (a) as a relation or communion (b) as the very filial relationship between the Son and the Father and (c) in the very same way in which the Son relates to the Father, ‘in the Spirit’. The meaning of Baptism in the New Testament involves precisely all these three points which we may call respectively: the ecclesiological, the Christological and the Pneumatological.

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