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Personhood, Relationship, and Being

Christos Yannaras is relatively unknown among Christian readers in the West. He writes and lectures exclusively in Greek and only a handful of his works have been translated into English. He is most known for The Freedom of Morality (1984), an extraordinary work that, among other things, challenges the Western understanding of morality as pietistic and individualistic. While we might agree with the West’s resulting behaviors, Yannaras argues that legal and deontological codes of conduct are instruments of restriction and miss the whole point of freedom in Christ. To understand his definition of freedom, we must first explore the groundbreaking element of his work: relational ontology.

Yannaras is strongly influenced by the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, who challenged the philosophical status quo by demanding we stop taking existence as an epistemological given and start asking — what is is? What do we mean by existence? In one of Heidegger’s famous examples, he asks us to consider the hammer. Sitting on a workbench, we could come up with all sorts of descriptions of the hammer. It is wood and iron. It is hard and smooth. All of these would be correct, at as descriptions, but it doesn’t address what the hammer is. We know the purpose of the hammer, we know its essence, by picking it up and attacking nails. Then we understand the purpose of its materials and balance. We understand its essence through our experience.

Yannaras builds on this and baptizes it, acknowledging that the only way any human being knows anything at all is through personal experience. Existence, being, can only be known through an object’s mode, or how its essence is hypostasized (made existentially real). Yannaras argues that for God and man, the mode of existence is personhood. He is quick to repeat the etymology of person, which is to turn one’s face toward something/someone. A person, therefore, is relation. Relation is what makes us existentially real. We can’t know God apart from our experience of him.

Yannaras supports his position with a convincing use of Scripture (beginning with the personal encounter of Abram with God in Genesis 15) and the church fathers. We only know God through the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. There is no “stuff” of God that precedes personhood. In other words, God’s essence isn’t something that we can think on apart from his personhood. There is no essence of God apart from personhood, or at least it is not knowable apart from personhood. God’s mode of existence is love. That is not to say that God possesses the highest expression of love but that God is love. Love is his existence.

St. Augustine had real insight into this ontology when he wrote that if God is love, then he must exist in a Trinity of persons: Lover, Beloved, and Love. God chooses to exist because of love and he chooses to create because of love. He is not bound by his nature to do any of this, including existing. This, for Yannaras, would not be freedom. Freedom is existence without any precondition from nature. The glory of humankind is that we were created out of love for love. The distinctive mark of humanity, the part that is made in God’s image, is the capacity for freedom, to transcend the limits of our nature by choosing (or rejecting) God’s love. Our mode of existence is relation.

I have tremendous respect for and interest in Yannaras because I think understanding existence as relation has potential in reframing the abortion conversation, which is undeniably deadlocked through fear, caricature, and distrust. In our debates about personhood, we are potentially making the same mistake that Yannaras (and Heidegger before him) accused the school of philosophy of committing — taking for granted the definition of existence. Definitions of personhood all seem to focus on accidents, or ontics, and not fundamental essence. The result is our definitions are moving, inconsistent, and — with respect — ultimately grounded in what is expedient. Yannaras, for instance, asks: How can we define personhood by self-awareness when self-awareness is by definition subjective? Can we objectively define what is subjective?

What makes a person is relation. Other created entities use relation for life. Relationships are used for security, shelter, and reproduction. Persons are unique in that we are called to use relation for life as relation. We discover the fullness of our personhood not in survival, but in relation. We are made from and for the love of God. Our existence is the result of sexual union of mother and father (this adds commentary to Jonathan Mitchican’s critique of IVF). We are nurtured through the relation of mother and womb.

Our stages from conception to birth are physical and mental development of a personhood that is not tied to ability or cognition. Made in the image of God, we are called to transcend all of those limits and know life in Jesus Christ, or theosis. The clearest image of this is the Annunciation. The incarnation of the Word of God followed the assent to relation by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Word was made flesh at the moment she said yes. The child in the womb is the result of relation and will flourish thanks to relation, or not. She was created by God for freedom to choose his love or to choose a path without it. To circumvent that opportunity, at a most ontological level, seems anti-choice.

Not to press this point too far, and Yannaras doesn’t say this, but relational ontology can be found in the most fundamental elements of the physical world — the atom. The basic building block of matter is the trinitarian union of neutron, proton, and electron. It should not be lost on us that the most destructive force we have ever known is the intentional severance of that structure in the atomic bomb. We are not going to agree on an ontic definition of personhood, and we see this clearly in the messiness of state legislation since Dobbs v. Jackson. With relational ontology in mind, perhaps we should instead look within the experience of ourselves. What does it mean for my personhood if I actively seek to sever relation? And I’m not just talking about embryos. What did J. Robert Oppenheimer quote from the Bhagavad Gita? “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” At what point do I, through my choices, become a biological entity and not a person? That is the most pressing question.

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