Zizioulas: Personhood as Gift

Zizioulas: Personhood as Gift

Published: Jan 17, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

A series on Zizioulas and Ethics, the first of which is here.

[quote=Aristotle Papanikolaou]<p> “In the process of healing the abused victim is also moving toward personhood as a gifted event. In the same way that depersonalization, “nonpersonhood”, happens in and through a set of relations, albeit violent, destructive and oppressive, personalization, the coming to personhood, being a person happens in relations of love and freedom. It is only in such relations, which presuppose the kenotic, and hence, ekstatic movement toward the other, that the abused victim is rendered a unique, free and unrepeatable being, a person. In relations of love and freedom, the precondition for which is a kenosis, a self-emptying in order to receive the other, the effects of nonpersonhood are reversed. Even though fear itself is not emptied in God’s trinitarian life, the analogy still holds between the uncreated and the created insofar as existence itself results from movements of self-destitution and receiving. All this suggests that personhood is not an inherent quality, but a gifted reality, a gifted event. We cannot claim personhood; we are gifted personhood. It is a gift which is truly an “excess” that is not only unable to be contained in thought, but which results in an overflow of additional gifts of personhood.”</p>

And a relevant footnote:

“In conversation on this point, it was asked of me whether a newborn baby abandoned in the fields is then still a person. The answer is yes and no. No in the sense that such an abandonment renders this baby a nonperson, and to deny this is not to take seriously the reality of dehumanization. The only hope for a baby to still be person is the fact that s/he is always loved by God. Humans in this sense are not inherently persons, as if they can claim such a dignity for themselves or as part of their essence, but always in relation to the eternal love of God.”1


Personhood as a gift is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, each and every person is assured of their unique, irreducible personhood because they are creations of a God who, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, relates to each and every one of us. The other edge however, is the possibility that personhood is not given. While it is the mercy of God that we are gifted with personhood regardless of our qualities or capacities, it is not necessarily a mercy granted by our fellow human beings. We deny personhood by reducing someone to merely qualities or capacities, or even denying them their unique combination of qualities or capacities. The possibility that we might not grant to one another full personhood is a danger of a relational ontology in which uniqueness is only discovered in and through relationship. This way of thinking about personhood, about granting or refusing the humanity of another, flips on its head typical human rights logic which posits a full human being who, by virtue of their full humanity (or, for Christian human rights theorists, the status as imago dei) has a right to basic needs. The person before us, the face before us, is a person only if we treat them as such. Refusal to do so, whether by denying basic needs, or denying their particular capacities or uniqueness, denies them their personhood, their full humanity. It dehumanizes them. This a failure not of meeting the already existing rights of another, but a failure of our obligation to recognize, and thus fail to ‘realize,’ their humanity. In short, failure to grant full personhood to another is a failure of our own imago dei (or for the persnickety Orthodox readers, a failure to enact in our likeness), a failure to do unto others as we would have them do to us, see us as full persons.

While there may be comfort in the fact that God grants this gift to all creation, this does not lessen the consequences of our failure of responsibility. As human beings we are given an awesome power, the ability to grant humanity to another. This is the ultimate dependance on the other for our own ‘otherness.’ We are not autonomous human beings, we are frighteningly dependent. Anyone whose love has been abused or rejected, or anyone who cannot attain food or clothing because of a humanly-created social circumstances, knows this. We may want it to be otherwise, especially if we are steeped in Western notions of autonomy. Indeed, it is appropriate at times to remove oneself from situations of dangerous dependance, such as an abusive relationship. However is not a sign of autonomy, but a failure of love in the midst of dependance which is often only overcome by engaging in ‘healthy’ dependance. Wanting autonomy and being autonomous are two different things.

The significance of personhood as a “gifted event” in the context of a discussion about whether or not “ethics” has a place in Orthodox thought is central. If, via relationship, we can deny one another personhood, is not ethics the discipline which helps us think carefully about how we relate to one another in ways that best recognize their otherness? To engage the other in a manner that denies our responsibility to grant them personhood is, to use a simple category, bad. It is a failure of our responsibility to the other, which is precisely what Levinas, whom Zizioulas believes is closer to patristic understandings of otherness than is Buber, Husserl, Heidegger or Sartre,2 calls ethics. So, why is Zizioulas so resistant to “ethics” and with what does he replace it?

To be continued:

Zizioulas on an “ascetic ethos” and a feminist critique.


1 Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Person, Kenosis and Abuse: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Feminist Theologies in Conversation,” Modern Theology 19, no. 1 (2003):, 56-57.

2 Ibid., 56-57 and n. 100.