Aristotle Papanikolaou, Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion
Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006
As I’ve suggested in some earlier book sketches, I think Protestants like myself have a lot to gain by learning from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the ways I’ve grown the most by listening to the Orthodox voice is the way I think about salvation. The way I typically heard the story growing up made salvation a matter of alignment, like applying for membership in the right club, and then a lifetime’s work trying not to get kicked out. And salvation was taught this way because of our underlying theological assumptions. Now, I’m not saying this is completely wrong, but I do think there’s some serious gaps and even errors in that way of thinking.
At the core of Papanikolaou’s Being With God is the view of salvation in terms of divine-human communion. Among other things this frames salvation as a process where humans become more like God in the depths of our being by “communion” with him. This view of salvation has an underlying theology too, and this book is concerned with that theology.
If you’ve ever jumped in on a conversation halfway through, then you’ll know what it’s like to read this book, except that it’s like jumping in on several conversations midstream. There is the conversation between two seminal Orthodox thinkers: Vladimir Lossky and John Zizioulas, which is a conversation within the Eastern Church itself. There is the conversation between Eastern and Western Christian theologies. And there is the conversation begun a long time ago about the idea of the trinity, which has its own established, often technical, vocabulary. That’s a little bit what reading this book is like, but if you don’t mind being lost and disoriented a little bit, and asking a lot of questions (to yourself I suppose), then you’ll catch on soon enough.
This book focuses on the ways in which human beings come to know and become like (but not the same as) God. So there are questions about what we can know about God and how we can know that. There are questions about what we mean when we call God ‘Trinity’ and in what way God is three-and-one, unique yet utterly unified. And there are questions about the way in which our understanding of the Trinity affects how we come into relationship with such a God. All of this is discussed by comparing the theologies of Lossky and Zizioulas. By presenting and analyzing their thought, Papanikolaou does more than just offer summaries, his criticisms of both thinkers offer hopeful ways forward for all these difficult questions.
At the end of the day this book is a great example of why precision and accuracy are important not just for ivory tower theology, but for each of us in our ordinary life and language. Papanikolaou helpfully shows how certain erroneous ways of thinking and talking about God have decisive consequences for how we think and talk about ourselves and our world, and even how we live and behave.
One interesting idea that surfaced in this book was that God is a person (Anthropos). This is not to say that God is a human, but rather a way of saying that God is, in essence, personal and relational. An important consequence of this understanding is that ‘person’ is not equivalent to ‘nature’. In this respect God does not have a nature to which he is bound, but rather God is a person who possesses a nature. We might summarize this by saying that God is not good because he could not be otherwise, but rather that God, as an absolutely free person, eternally chooses the good. If humans are made in that same image and likeness, then ultimately we are not bound by any nature either. Indeed it is our task not to reject or cast aside our nature so much as to have our nature transfigured in God.
This has important consequences for our everyday understanding of ourselves and our behavior. It means that who we “are” in our essence is to be found when we are transfigured in Christ. Whatever might seem to be our “nature” or “natural” to us in our present state is not to be our fate. We are to become something similar yet also something profoundly different, and wonder-full. As such we are called to do the kinds of things that allow us to become transfigured. Sometimes that means resisting what seems natural by voluntarily giving up what seems good for us at present for a fundamentally more glorious good that is wrapped up in the life of God. I’ll let you work out the details on your own with that one.
The two theologians identify as the heart and center of all theological discourse the realism of divine-human communion, which is often understood in terms of the familiar Orthodox concept of theosis, or divinization. The Incarnation, according to Lossky and Zizioulas, is the event of a real divine-human communion which is made accessible to all; God has become hman so that all may participate fully in the divine life. (2)
In modern theological discourse, epistemology usually precedes ontology and usually determines whether so-called ontological questions are relevant. For Vladimir Lossky and John Zizioulas, however, the reverse is the case; an ontology of divine-human communion is the basis for their understandings of theological epistemology. (9)
Humans cannot know God unless God allows such knowledge to be possible. . . . As such, the Incarnation is the starting point of all theology, but also the telos of all theological discourse. The Incarnation makes possible a theology that does not simply state facts, but expresses a mystery in order to lead one toward a deeper union with God as Trinity. (12)
The eucharist as the event of the Body of Christ does not signify, according to Zizioulas, a merely moral identity. It is not the Body of Christ by virtue of the gathering together in Christ’s name people who work together in unity as the various parts of a body. The eucharist is the Body of Christ for Zizioulas in an ontological sense. (32)
A person then is not a quality that can be defined and contained within a totality; it is a someone excessive to thought. . . . Person then is a certain freedom from nature. Lossky might even say that person is the ekstasis of nature. (57)
For Lossky, the rationalization of theology precludes an ascent toward union with God insofar as the truth of God is defined in terms of concepts and propositions and not in terms of union with the living God. (69)
The important thing for the Cappadocians was to emphasize the distinctiveness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without destroying the notion of the One God, which is demanded on soteriological grounds. (80)
Kenosis refers to both the actual assumption of human nature on the part of the Son, which implies a renunciation of the eternally blissful Trinitarian communion in the realm of theologia; it also refers to a renunciation of some kind of personal will which finds its fulfillment in submitting to the other, who is the Father. (109)
A person is not a nature but freedom from nature, and a human person must be someone who is free from the limitations of nature. (115)
“The person, that is to say, the image of God in man, is then man’s freedom with regard to his nature…and his dignity consists in being able to liberate himself from his nature, not by consuming it or abandoning it to itself, like the ancient or oriental sage, but by transfiguring it in God.” To be a human person is not only, however, freedom and love, but kenosis. Given the fallen state of individualism, in order to be person one must reject one’s own will, both natural and gnomic, and be united to God’s will. This human kenosis mirrors the kenosis of Christ who was obedient to the Father even unto death. . . . “This is the root principle of asceticism; a free renunciation of one’s own will, of the mere simulacrum of individual liberty, in order to recover the true liberty, that of the person which is the image of God in each one.” (116)
Person is, for Zizioulas, “otherness in communion and communion in otherness.” He adds that communion without otherness is nothing but “an arrangement for careful coexistence,” while otherness without communion is non-existent. What both theologians seem to be implying is that love and communion are the precondition for otherness and difference. It is only in loving communion with others that true difference is not simply respected, but constituted. (138)
The important point here, however, is that Zizioulas isolates in human existence a fundamental ‘longing’ for personhood, for an existence that is free, unique, and unrepeatable. Such a longing is, in the end, a longing to escape death. . . . Either there is a God who fulfills this ‘longing’ for personhood and gives meaning to life; or there is death which envelopes all existence, and the only way to affirm one’s personhood, one’s freedom from the given, is to commit suicide, which, however, negates the very freedom one seeks in committing the act. (144)
I try to strike a balance between more and less accessible books here. This book falls in the ‘less accessible’ category. It’s a work of theology, and not the kind that stoners love to talk about in coffee shops. It follows complex lines of arguments with obscure vocabulary and is wrapped up in the baggage of a historical discussion of issues that is not always plain to see.
Yet I think at the end of the day that there is a great reward if anyone is willing to put some time and effort into a book like this. That may involve having a dictionary at hand and a few discussions with one’s local minister or theologian. The ideas that this book works through are too important to be relegated to the academy. It is profitable to anyone and everyone to have an understanding of the ways in which God works and is working to envelop us all in his Trinitarian communion.