“Communion and Otherness”1
John Zizoulas, “Communion and Otherness,” at www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/john_zizioulas_communion_otherness.html.
In ancient Creation mythology, Creation was conditional and had to be renewed in cyclic time every year. The mythological act of Creation also involved a cosmic battle of the gods, who ultimately possessed the created order or were possessed by it.
On the other hand, in the Genesis account —
1. God creates unconditionally in linear or historical time, so that Creation is not cyclically renewed as in the ancient myths.
2. Creation is the consequence of God’s own command rather than being the result of cosmic controversy. Thus, “ . . . [H]e spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:9).
3. The Creator is emphatically distinguished from his Creation. God does not aggressively possess or dispossess the created order. Furthermore, he is not submissively possessed or dispossessed by the created order. Rather, God and Creation rest in covenantal relationship or communion with each “other.”
Communion and Otherness
“Communion and otherness — how can these two be reconciled? Are they not mutually exclusive and incompatible with each other? Is it not true that by definition the other is my enemy and my ‘original sin,’ to recall the words of Jean-Paul Sartre?
“Our western culture seems to subscribe to this view in many ways. Individualism is present in the very foundations of this culture. Ever since Boethius [ca. 480-526 CE] . . . identified the person with the individual (‘Person is an individual substance of a rational nature’), and St. Augustine emphasized the importance of self-consciousness in the understanding of personhood, western thought never ceased to build itself and its culture on this basis. . . .
“All this implies that in our culture protection from the other is a fundamental necessity. We feel more and more threatened by the presence of the other. We are forced and even encouraged to consider the other as our enemy before we can treat him or her as a friend. Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness.
Otherness and the “Fall”
“There is no doubt that this is a direct result of what in theological language we call the ‘Fall of Man.’ There is a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.
“This is a result of the rejection of the Other par excellence, our Creator, by the first man, Adam. . . .
“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘other.’
“The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that, even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves. . . .
Otherness and Personhood
“[Although the fear of all otherness is universal, otherness is constitutive of human personhood.] The Person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The Person is an identity that emerges through relationship . . . ; it is an ‘I’ that can exist only as long as it relates to a ‘Thou’ which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the ‘I’ from the ‘Thou,’ we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it simply cannot be without the other. This is what distinguishes the person from the individual. . . .
“Personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. . . . [F]reedom is not freedom from the other but freedom for the other. . . .
“The other is a condition of our freedom. Freedom is not from but for something other than ourselves.”3
“Everyone talks about alienation. But the worst alienation is not to be dispossessed by the other but to be dispossessed of the other — that is to say, to have to produce the other in his absence and thus to be continuously referred back to oneself and to one’s image. . . . In fact, the paradoxical limit of alienation is to take oneself as a focal point [comme point de mire], as an object of care, of desire, of suffering, and of communication.”4
Human personhood is in bondage through fear and alienation from otherness. It can be emancipated only through freedom for the other. Therefore, we must further address both the consequences of the “Fall” and God’s redemptive action in restoring human freedom for his Otherness.
- Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, “Communion and Otherness,” at www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/john_zizioulas_communion_otherness.html. This is a shortened version of a lecture given at the European Orthodox Congress in October 1999. The full text is available from the Apostle Andreas Press, de Vrièrestraat 19, B-8301 Knokke-Heist, Belgium. (go back)
- See “‘In the Beginning,’” Outlook (Prequel 2001.1). See also Scott Hahn, “Salvation History: One Holy Family,” at zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~vgg/rc/aplgtc/hahn/m2/slvhst1.html. (go back)
- Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness.” (go back)
- Jean Baudrillard, “Plastic Surgery for the Other,” at ctheory.net/ctheory_wp/plastic-surgery-for-the-other/. We would have preferred the use of relational rather than possessive terminology. Nevertheless, the loss of “otherness” is catastrophic to our humanness. (go back)