a few words

Month: October, 2009

person and nature in Zizioulas

Is it only a drive to rhetorical clarity that pits person and nature so strongly against one another in the writing of John Zizioulas, or is there something more sinister at work?

Zizioulas’ major ontological theme is the primacy of personhood over nature, over necessity, over essence. Persons are free with respect to their nature—supremely in the case of divine persons and sacramentally in the case of human persons—not determined by them. Thus, God’s being in Trinity is not a fated necessity imposed upon the hypostases by the divine ousia, but represents the freedom of the Father in the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. While human persons are beholden to their natures in their biological personhood, by baptism and the eucharist human persons may be incorporated into the Person of the Son and reborn into a new mode of personhood. Zizioulas marks this transition as the movement from bondage to nature and death to a life of freedom. Nature for Zizioulas is a fundamental limitation; the connection of personhood and nature is the imposition of the necessity of death.

The caricature that Zizioulas is open to (but barely avoids) is an equation of nature with death, that the limitation of finitude is already the necessity of death. This barely-evaded equation would lead him to speak of created persons (as beings in the image of divine personhood) as entrapped within nature and awaiting release. It is clear enough that this is a caricature and that Zizioulas has a more positive view of bodiliness, finitude, and the particularity of being in a certain manner (i.e. according to a nature). But the tension only renders the strength of his anti-nature rhetoric all the more baffling.

The concept “nature” carries a double valence—nature as essence / nature as creation. My fear is that Zizioulas’ vehement differentiation and privileging of personhood finally endangers the positive theological value of both. Of course, there is a destructive and arbitrary privileging of personal freedom over “nature,” in which the power of personhood is excercised upon nature, bending it according to the will— and this is not at all what Zizioulas intends to advocate. But his theology stands open to development in that direction without additional safeguards.

Pace Zizioulas, sacramental grace does not convey a freedom from the limitations of nature, but abolishes death by engulfing its “necessity” in the illimitable communion of God’s love, where it is overwhelmed, judged, and forgotten.

never trust anyone with the first name pseudo

Over the weekend, while reading an excellent book on the reception history of 1 Enoch  (what a life, eh?)[1], I found myself thinking through pseudonymous authorship and the nest of problems that it raises for contemporary readers in a new light. Of course, pseudonymity is an issue with a document that claims to be penned by a character from the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, but it is also an issue when we come to many of the books of Scripture (i.e. 2 Timothy, 2nd/3rd Isaiah, etc.). Posed in its sharpest form, the question that pseudonymity raises might be posed like this: “How can we ascribe the authority of divine revelation (which almost always functions as a guarantee of truth)  to a text that contains an intentional deception about its author?” The standard apology for the practice—which I think is quite a good start—points out the cultural gap between our notions of the book as a finished product resulting from the creative effort of a single person (or discrete collective) and ancient notions of authorship and authority or the challenges of textual transmission.

The piece that Reed added for me was a careful attention to the fluidity and interchange between orality and textuality—something quite remote to our own practices. First of all, the practice of reading in silent solitude (primarily as a visual activity) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ancient reading, even if it was done in solitude—though that would have been much rarer as well—was likely done aloud. Reading was an auditory activity as much as visual.

In addition, the relative rarity and prohibitive cost of books meant that even knowledge that was written down was likely passed on elsewhere as “oral” tradition. Many historians, biblical scholars, and theologians operate with a somewhat romantic notion of oral traditions being passed down through centuries until some enterprising figure has the temerity to put it down in writing, upon which momentous occasion the oral tradition is frozen and becomes a treasured piece of the communities literary legacy. Even stating it reveals it as simplistic. Even with the same stories or teachings, oral traditions and written traditions likely overlapped and were mutually informative. A text is “read” and interpreted even where it is repeated orally, and this “reading” affects the hermeneutical approach of the hearer to all subsequent readings/hearings of any related material.One person might recount a (textual) reading to another in some detail without the benefit of the text for reference. That “reading” may be passed along to several more hearers, before being integrated into another text. Where this is the case,  oral and written traditions are mutually informative.

The role of the author in such a setting is profoundly more ambiguous than our preference for the solitary creative genius. Someone who is compelled to put a narrative or teaching to writing may have heard several versions, deriving from textual recitations and/or oral recitation. She may have a text in front of her that carries most, but not all, of the detail that she considers crucial to understanding and communicating the heart of the message. At any rate, where there is a fluid relationship between orality and textuality, and a concern to collect and pass on what one has received, it is actually an act of profound hubris to name oneself as the author of a text. Where traditions have been passed on in varying degrees of orality and their genealogy is not easily traceable, it is quite reasonable that teachings and stories should coalesce around a major figure, in whose name they are retold. In a context where orality and textuality commingle far more than our own, pseudonymous authorship is less likely a rhetorical ploy on the part of an unimportant author to gain credibility and readership for the text (by the way, this post has been guest-written by Ben Myers), and more likely a recognition that the text itself is only the transmission of a tradition that predates it by far.


[1] Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

h/t to a venerable teacher of my past, Bruce Fisk, for the title of the post.

Karl Rahner’s Anthropocentrism

One unavoidable aspect of attending a Jesuit school is an ever-greater familiarity with the thought of Karl Rahner. While Rahner is not a theological hero or guiding light to me, I am quite glad to have gotten to know him. However, while there is much to appreciate, and much of Rahner’s legacy that has gone unnoticed both by his theological fanclub and by his detractors, I’ve repeatedly found myself coughing at his narrowly anthropocentric approach.

Karl Rahner’s essay “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World” attempts to reconcile Christology and evolution through a narrative of formal necessities that draws parallels between the two, apparently unrelated (or worse, divergent) story lines. The starting point of this extended narrative is the deep interconnection between consciousness (or “spirit”) and matter in the one world. Rahner reflects on what it must mean that matter has come, through the course of evolution, to become self-aware in very complex ways, and thus self-transcendent—human beings wonder at beauty and grapple with expansive questions about life’s meaning. Because the teleology of creation’s self-transcendence points to an ultimate, deeper union between Spirit and matter, and ultimately to the union of matter and spirit with their creator and sustainer, the Hypostatic Union (understood formally as the self-communication of God within creation) fits naturally into “the history of the cosmos,” which is “always basically a spiritual history” (172). His essay concludes by “plugging in” the particulars of Christian faith (e.g. Jesus Christ, Israel, church) to the abstract culmination of evolutionary trajectories in Hypostatic Union and expanding on this narrative by connecting it to the more traditional narrative of sin, alienation, redemption, and reconciliation.

The great strength of Rahner’s essay, and perhaps its deepest contribution to an explicitly ecological theology, is his effort to make the “matter/spirit” binary that pervades Western thought (in many permutations) comprehensible within the theological binary of nature and grace (and particularly the Thomistic understanding thereof). Spirit is an emergent quality of matter that is “really effected by what was there before” and yet represents “the inner increase of being proper to the previous existing reality” (164). Consciousness does not abolish matter, nor should it seek to flee from it, but rather perfects matter. Consciousness is to be understood as the natural “becoming” of matter (166). Rahner points out that even though science presupposes this transcendence, it cannot quite think in these terms (qua science) because science’s approach to consciousness is always to consciousness as an object of study; the observer herself always remains invisible (transcendent!) (169). This connection is fertile ground for ecological thinking because it de-mythologizes detached, instrumental reason and encourages a more organic understanding of the connection between spirit and matter. In humanity, matter has indeed come to reflect upon itself and to radically manipulate matter (both human matter and other kinds) according to its own interests. Yet, if consciousness is the perfection of matter in an inseparable way, then matter (all matter) must be seen as the natural ecosystem of consciousness, and therefore deserving of careful attention and care. Consciousness, in this regard, is not set over-against matter as master to slave, but belongs to it. Human perfection, subsequently, cannot be thought of in isolation from the care of all earthly matter—and provision for the flourishing of all life.

Rahner’s essay, despite efforts to marry consciousness and matter together more closely, falls prey to the critique of anthropocentrism in that he tells both stories, the evolutionary and the soteriological, with the union of matter and spirit in humanity at the center, while matter elsewhere plays a secondary role. Anthropocentric thinking may be inevitable for human beings, but—to be more precise—perhaps anthropological exceptionalism is not. Anthropological exceptionalism is the belief that humanity has a unique vocation and destiny that the remainder of creation does not share (or only shares through humanity’s administration). Rahner employs this sort of thinking when he says, “natural history develops towards man, continues in him as his history, is conserved and surpassed in him and hence reaches its proper goal with and in the history of the human spirit” (168). The created world fades into the background as the shining destiny of humanity comes to the foreground! Rahner’s construal of the culmination of creation’s history in divine self-communication—essentially a verbal metaphor—rather than in divine communion essentially limits the experience of salvation to human beings (or any other creatures capable of “knowing”). This way of telling the story risks making the rest of nature unnecessary as soon as it plays its part in producing humanity through evolution; humanity becomes the central location of redemption. Rahner evidently feels this tension, because he qualifies his account of divine self-communication by saying, “God’s communication of himself does not suddenly become uncosmic—directed merely to an isolated, separate subjectivity—but is given to the human race and is historical” (174). Despite Rahner’s hedges, however, depicting the telos of creation as the immortality of the emergent spirit/consciousness, through divine self-communication (primarily an interchange of knowledge—coming to know and being known) leaves the rest of creation aside. The most ecologically prescient aspect of the concept of self-communication is not the verbal metaphor, but that part implying coming and indwelling—“communication” understood as “transfer”. Humanity might still fruitfully be thought of as the center of creation’s knowledge of God, and even as a mediator of divine blessing, but a more robustly theo-political account of creation’s destiny (i.e. Jubilee, cosmic Sabbath, shalom, Day of the Lord) would depict peace for all of creation as integral to peace for any part of creation.

All paranthetical references are to: Karl Rahner, “Christology within an Evolutionary View,” in Theological Investigations 5, (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966), 157-92.

best intentions unfulfilled :: look elsewhere

As this site languishes in disuse, you might head over to the site of a friend of mine who has some astonishingly thorough research on John Zizioulas, and some wonderful theological projects of his own.