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Draw near: praying about being as relationship

Lynne Baab • Tuesday February 21 2023

Draw near: praying about being as relationship

John Zizioulas recently died. I imagine many of my readers have no idea who he is, and I certainly didn’t until about ten years ago. He wrote a book that was life-changing for me, or perhaps more accurately a book that enabled me to take a large step on a journey I was already on. Zizioulas (1931-2023) was a Greek Orthodox bishop who wrote many books on theology. The one I read a decade ago is called Being as Communion, and his argument there is not unusual these days: humans are made in the image of a relational God. Therefore to be human is to be in communion with others and with God. He goes a bit further by arguing that relationship isn’t part of who we are but is at the very core of our personhood.

I became a committed Christian fifty years ago because I came to see that the Christian view of reality is the best explanation for what I saw and experienced. My conversion was focused on truth, not relationship with a living God. In those early years as a Christian, I was taught that when we say humans are created in God’s image, we are referring to our ability to think reasonably. Later, when I began to hear the idea that humans reflect the image of a relational God, I slowly began to ponder that idea, then absorb it a bit. Now I see relationship, both with God and humans, as central to what it means to be a Jesus follower, and Bishop Zizioulas helped me grasp that.

I encountered Bishop Zizioulas when I was writing a chapter for an edited book on the topic of developing a theology of the internet. In the chapter, I argue that the internet functions as a place like a library or third place, as a setting for connection with others, and as a place where sin is visible just like our everyday lives. For that second section, I went back to an idea that I learned in my communication studies that fascinated me. The internet began as a place where scientists could share data, but as they sent data winging across the world to each other, they often attached personal notes, because of course these scientists knew each other from conferences, meetings, and previous collaboration. “I heard about that horrible heat wave you recently had. How was it for you?” Or, “How’s your daughter? When I saw you at that meeting last year, she had just gotten a challenging diagnosis.” Human beings by our very nature relate to each other in personal ways even when focused on a task. As Christians, we know that we are relational because God is.

Here’s a quotation from the chapter I wrote where I describe Zizioulas’s work:

Zizioulas cited the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers, such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Amphilachius of Iconium, who lived in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Zizioulas argued that the Cappadocian Fathers help us understand that the image of God in humans does not relate to our nature, because we cannot become God, but to our personhood. This personhood is best understood as mirroring the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. “True personhood arises not from one’s individualistic isolation from others but from love and relationship with others, from communion” (Zizioiulas, 2006, p. 168). Only love, Zizioulas asserted, can generate personhood, and this is true of both God and humans. In fact, relationship is so constitutive of personhood that relationship is not a part of being but is being itself (Zizioulas, 1985, p. 101, and Zizioulas, 1991).

I encourage you to ponder the quotation in the middle of the paragraph, and the concluding sentence that summarizes Zizioulas’s work, and consider the ways those sentences might stimulate your prayers for yourself and others. “True personhood arises not from one’s individualistic isolation from others but from love and relationship with others, from communion.” In fact, relationship is so constitutive of personhood that relationship is not a part of being but is being itself.

We are not alone. God has created us for connection with others and with God. I am so grateful for Zizioulas’s stimulation of forward movement on my journey of actually believing this.

In this time of increasing loneliness and isolation, we can pray for those we know who are lonely, and we can pray for our own experiences of loneliness. We can thank God for the people in our lives and for the settings where we see friends and meet new people. We can thank God for the love we have received, and we can confess our sin for the times we didn’t receive love that was offered or when we refused to love someone God placed in our path. We can pray for faithfulness in existing relationships and guidance into new relationships.

If indeed being is communion, then many, many of our prayers will center on the relationships in our lives.

(Next week: praying about starting, stopping, and finishing. Illustration by Dave Baab: Easter sunrise worship at Warrington Beach, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Lent 2023 has begun. My book on holding grief and gratitude in two hands was originally written for Lent, so I want to recommend it for reading or listening in this season.

Other resources for Lent:

Books cited above:

Zizioulas, J. D. (1985). Being as communion. Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Zizioulas, J. D. (1991). On being a person: Towards an ontology of personhood. In C. Schwobel, and C. E. Gunton (Eds.), Persons, divine and human. Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 33-46.

Zizoulas, J. D. (2006). Communion and otherness. London: T&T Clark.

The chapter where I propose a theology of the internet is here.

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