“The resurrection is always beyond speech, and beyond touch, while death is always mute, tangible, and objective”

There, on the unseen transformation of nature into relation, we pin our hope of immortality. There, on love.

The distinction of nature from person is not an intellectual definition. It is the experience of love: the revelation of the uniqueness of the Beloved which is not susceptible to definition. Definitions are only nature, signifiers of a common understanding. They define the objective, the common denominator. The erotic revelation remains unbounded, it shines in the otherness of the person, in his or her freedom. Unbounded, that is, inaccessible to touch.

The transformation of nature into relation is a change of the mode of existence, from necessity to freedom. We move out of necessity, and we move into freedom. How much death does the transformation contain? Death of that which is bounded, the objective, the finite, our circumscribed mortality. Leaving behind individuality, emptying the self of the demand of nature, annihilating egocentric resistance. And resurrection of the person in his or her erotic otherness. “Life in another form.”

Definitions are useless, faltering speech inadequate to the expression of meaning. Love does not translate into language. That is why the resurrection seeks to find us, hidden in the inadequacy of what we cannot express or prove. Language conveys fear, or the disguising of fear, about the loss of language that comes with death, the absolute aloneness of the unrelated and inexplicable. The resurrection is always beyond speech, and beyond touch, while death is always mute, tangible, and objective. A stone blocking our way. “At the door” of desire.

“Who will roll away the stone for us,” the stone of objective death. Who will teach us about our own death, the transformation of nature into relation? Only love seems to have the ability to convince us about the undemonstrable.

. . .

Life freed from death. What does this phrase really refer to? It seems like a conceptual cloak to cover the nakedness of our ignorance. And yet in love’s fragmentary moments ignorance is revealed as “beyond all knowledge.” It is then that we gain a foretaste of immortality. A foretaste in respect of the gift of our soul which we have shared our freely, trampling on our shattered ego.

To share out your soul freely, that is what metanoia (a change of mind, or repentance) really refers to: a mental product of love. A change of mind, or love for the indemonstrable. And you throw off every conceptual cloak of self-defense, you give up the fleshly resistance of your ego. Repentance has nothing to do with self-regarding sorrow for legal transgressions. It is an ecstatic erotic self-emptying. A change of mind about the mode of thinking and being.

Our nature is, exists, with itself as its own object of thought, with the natural logic of self-finality. It automatically aims at pleasure, the created sweetness of life-in-itself. That is why repentance is deranged (ekphron). It transfers the logic of desire, beyond the sweetness of life-in-itself, which is bounded by death. Beyond natural life, to the life given by grace, to the grace of love.

The trampoline of repentance is the knowledge of sin. Sin and repentance come from a highly charged vocabulary, whose power “religious” misuse has neutralized. Sin is not a transgression of law, but failure, going astray, missing the mark, falling short of the goal of unlimited life. It is not easy for a person actively to acknowledge the failure of his or her natural existence, nor is this acknowledgement simply a detached intellectual exercise. Repentance is a change of mind, a complete change of outlook, transforming the way in which human beings think and organize their existence. A broadening of freedom beyond natural logic, to the indemonstrable reality of erotic Grace.

So real is the change that comes with repentance that everything in the life of the person who is really in love is changed. Everything. Even the need for food and water. For glory and power. The person in love thirsts only for reciprocity. And the more it is given to him or her, the more widely love spreads. Like the small pebble cast into a pool sends out ever-expanding ripples.

We fall in love not only with the person of the Other, but with everything that is his, and with everything that is related to him. Whatever he makes and whatever he touches, with the music he loves, the streets he walks, the landscapes we have looked at together. If you happen to have fallen in love with God himself, even for a fraction of a second, the quivering of yearning remains in every cool drop of spring rain, in the snow which covers the grey lace of the shadbush, in the shimmering blue sky of a summer afternoon, and in the smell of autumn. Every aspect of beauty, every skillful artifact is a gift of erotic joy granted to you.

Christos Yannaras

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6 Responses to “The resurrection is always beyond speech, and beyond touch, while death is always mute, tangible, and objective”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have a question or two for Brian (and those others who are acquainted with Yannaras’s work):

    1) What does Yannaras mean by “nature” and “person”? Would you elaborate upon this for me and for others.

    2). When I read Yannaras he sometimes seems to be saying that the immortal life of which he speaks is a personal achievement, something that happens to us as we empty ourselves. I suspect that is a misreading of him. He is, after all, clear that nature cannot achieve eternal life. Again, would you mind elaborating a bit on this for us.

    Thanks!

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    • Jonathan says:

      Father, I’m not really qualified to answer your questions, but maybe if I ramble a bit something helpful will turn up.

      I think nature for Yannaras is rather Hobbesian. He’s certainly not celebrating Wordsworth’s benevolent creation that “never did betray the heart that loved her.” (Which, by the way, is nowhere as naive as the fashionably disenchanted make it out to be. The case could be made that certain romantics like Wordsworth are Western sophiologists. But I digress…) Yannaras’ nature is the world of competition, death, the sovereign and autonomous monad who is of course not really sovereign and autonomous, because in reality subject to death and the necessity of killing or depriving or dominating something else in order to satiate its ultimately unquenchable needs. The person, on the other hand, is a node in a network of relations and as such enjoys the true autonomy (or freedom) and satiety of reciprocity and participation. Most of the great archetypes, from the Herculean hero to the bourgeois individual, including the visionary genius along the way, would seem to be exemplars of nature rather than personhood, on this model. With Yannaras, I sometimes lose sight of categories like existential authenticity and whatever good kind of individuality we think there might be. For sure, we can never in this life completely put aside our naturalness.

      Death comes to look like liberation, but a liberation that is experienced in different ways contingent upon what we have made of our bondage. I take it that for Yannaras, that part of the human being survives death which attains to true personhood in this life. The rest, being natural, which is to say defined in terms of negation, simply has no real, positive existence. Whatever defines itself by way of negation, by way of the over against, is illusory, so when the final tally is made, ‘there is no there there.’ At the core of the individual there is a kind of nothing. But this same nothing, in the person, is relation. It’s like a mirror in an empty room. It reflects nothing. But put another mirror in there facing the first mirror, then add a third mirror, and a fourth. . . With man this is not possible, but with God all things are possible, even something from nothing.

      When Yannaras is speaking of love between people, which is ultimately a manifestation of the divine life, I feel like I can follow him somewhat. When I try to apply his ideas of nature and immortality elsewhere, they work less well for me. I’m not sure how he retains the experience of what we normally call the natural world as beautiful, unless it is by loving God and thus no longer seeing that world as natural, i.e. necessary, at all (I suppose this is what he means by the perspectival shift of metanoia, but the next question is what does this practically entail?). I’m not sure how he would valorize any form of ambition, even if this is understood as the craving for knowledge and the creative urge of the artist. Eros, one of his master terms, just is not all kenotic, there is a something to it, a something that wants to be itself. Isn’t there? There are ways in which Yannaras’ thinking, rooted in the reciprocity of personhood, is helpful in understanding an artistic or intellectual tradition. There are ways in which this thinking resembles (in a more affirmative register) the postmodern idea of the ‘death of the author,’ replacing him with a sort of historical nexus of cultural forces and processes. Does Yannaras have anything to say about Kierkegaard? They seem like polar opposites, and yet I feel like Kiekegaard ends up saying some things, especially in later books like Practice in Christianity and Works of Love, that expound the Gospel ethos in ways Yannaras would recognize and approve. It may be helpful to look at the two thinkers as coincidentia oppositorum.

      Yannaras can say some stuff that I find very wrong. Or at least potentially very wrong, depending on what he really means. For an example from the above excerpt: “Love does not translate into language.” I just don’t understand how someone who has such a sensibility for the poetic, and whose native language calls the Second Person of the Trinity a word that means, among other things, language, can make such a remark. Other things he says that sound absurd really do make sense and are true, for example the exalted penultimate paragraph.

      But ultimately I don’t feel I’ve been successful in understanding Yannaras. I find some of his work extremely intriguing and suggestive. It elicits some kind of response from me, even if ‘understanding’ is not exactly the right word for it!

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    • brian says:

      Father,

      As you know, my day job is getting in the way of my real interests. I hate to answer briefly and without proper time to give a considered reply. Nonetheless, here is my sense of it. Yannaras seems to me to distinguish between nature and person in an existentialist manner. He is not using nature the way Aquinas would. Thomas would say that grace completes nature, but Yannaras is setting up an opposition. In his terms, nature is an objective reality of the “same.” Each member of a species is by nature an Aristotelian instance — but uniqueness, singularity, as I like to say, is bound up in the unrepeatable, in what is fragile, historical, part of the passing and what may appear purely adventitious apart from any sense of providence. The personal is encountered in these “relational” events that one cannot quantify or chart by any index of nature.

      Now, I think one need not abandon metaphysics in the way Yannaras implicitly does, but I still think his emphasis on relation and the existential is important. (I wrote this and then read Jonathan’s post. Jonathan is right, I think, to see a kind of modern, Hobbesian view of nature in Yannaras, but on the other hand, I think his personalism is actually designed to implicitly raise nature — his vision is not lacking in a truly cosmic dimension.) Hence, Yannaras’ claim that love cannot be captured in language is connected to his apophaticism. I don’t think Yannaras is engaged in any kind of titanism with regards to the resurrection. In fact, I love the ending of Variations which is a kind of open, apophatic hope. What I think Yannaras is really saying is that the completion of our loves is simply beyond our imaginative or cognitive capacities, but he refuses to diminish the import of bodily attraction or momentary connection or the joyous radiance of the flesh. A false spiritualism tends to dismiss all that as a fading eros bound to die with nature. Yannaras connects it to the mystery of the person. How all that will flourish in eternity is unknown to us, but whatever it is, it will be a completion, not a betrayal, or a forgetting, or a loss of potential for erotic surprise. Further, one should not narrowly understand eros. It includes the wonder of the child and the outward reach of the artist towards the entire universe.

      I do agree with Jonathan that one can affirm all this with a more positive sense of the potential for language and poetics.

      In all this, Yannaras is pretty much on an island. I haven’t seen many philosophers or theologians follow him, but there is a much more generous scope to his hope than one finds in most elucidations of the gospel.

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  2. 407kwac says:

    I find echoes of St Isaac the Syrian in that last paragraph, which is beautiful.

    Jonathan, if I may, “love doesn’t translate into language” is manifestly true in that “the Word became flesh”, was born of the Virgin, lived, died and was resurrected in order to save us. Only the incarnation of the Word into the communion of the Church fully reveals love. I also like the line from a poem by C.S. Lewis that is a meditation on the egotistical natural state of man: “I talk of love (a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek), but, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.”

    Karen

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    • Jonathan says:

      I agree that the Word did not become only human words, the Word became flesh. Without that you don’t have Christianity, you have something closer to Islam. Perhaps it is the case that “only the incarnation of the Word into the communion of the Church fully reveals love,” although this is not something I believe. But even if that is the case, it’s hardly the same as stating point-blank that “Love doesn’t translate into language.”

      Of course love translates into language. But it’s complicated, I get that. In one sense, language (broadly conceived so as to include iconography or any other symbolism, music, mathematics, but most typical in its verbal form) is that in which we live and move and have our being. In another sense, reality is supra-lingual and nature in some parts sub-lingual. In this case, Yannaras seems to here be using “language” to mean “definition” and “expression.” This is a narrow view of language and I don’t know why he’s using it. Of course one does not use language to “express” transcendent meaning. With meaning of this kind, the language *is* the meaning. If this were not the case, there could be no such thing as lectio divina or its equivalent in other religious traditions (definitely present in Islam and Buddhism, maybe others I’m less familiar with). There would also be no need to ever give any consideration to aesthetic form. What Yannaras is calling “language” I would sooner write as “notation” or “code.” And in that case his point hardly seems worth making.

      I wouldn’t make such a splash about this except that I happen to believe that bad things happen to culture — and to cult — when the transcendent aspect of language is lost sight of. As moderns, we very easily fall into the habit of regarding language as purely referential and descriptive. In fact, in its most potent registers, language is active, creative, inherently metaphorical and transcendent. We still sometimes acknowledge this in forensic matters. But for various reasons we’ve largely lost sight of transcendent language in art and religion, where it’s most necessary. For Yannaras, language seems to be part of what he calls nature. I guess I just disagree with that, and always have, since long before I could articulate it: Language is supernatural.

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  3. danaames says:

    When I want to understand Yannaras, I have to go back to “Freedom of Morality” – “Elements of Faith” helps, too. What I think he means by “nature” is pretty much how we would describe the “essence of humanity” (essence in its Greek theological sense) – that about us which makes us human. Because it is a created nature it has no means in and of itself to sustain its own life and transcend the limits imposed simply by being mortal, but also by being mortal and concerned with self-preservation it cannot transcend itself and achieve the way of being (Y’s “mode” – I think of this as like switching “modes” on my TV remote) that is the self-giving love of God. In the state we are in now, our nature is confused and seeks existence on its own terms, rather than communion with God and other persons in self-giving love, which is the source of life.

    “Person” seems to always be linked to hypostasis, and can often be read as the same as.

    From “Freedom of Morality”:
    on the Fall:
    His [man’s] personal existence is not destroyed, because it is precisely this that presupposes his freedom to experience existential alienation. But his personal distinctiveness ceases to sum up the possibilities of human nature in the existential fact of a relationship and communion which transcends nature and frees existence from natural necessity. Personal distinctiveness is confined within nature, as an individual autonomy which confronts the autonomy of others, thus fragmenting nature. Human nature is fragmented into individual wills expressing the individual being’s need and effort to survive in his natural self-sufficiency: existence is identifed with the instinctive, natural need for independent survival. The natural needs of the individual being, such as nourishment, self-perpetuation and self-preservation, become an end in themselves; they dominate man, and end up as “passions”, causes of anguish and the utmost pain, and ultimately the cause of death. (30-31)

    From “Elements of Faith”:
    Man has been endowed by God with the gift of being a person, with personhood, which is to exist in the same mode in which God exists. What constitutes the divinity of God is His personal Existence, the Trinity of Personal Hypostases which make up the divine Being, the divine Nature or Essence, in a life of love, which is a life of freedom from any necessity. God is God since he is a Person, that is, since his Existence does not depend on anything, not even his Nature or Essence. As a Person – that is freely – he constitutes his Essence or Nature; it is not his Nature or Essence which makes his Existence obligatory. He exists, since he freely *wills* to exist, and this willing is actualized as love, as a triadic communion. Therefore God is love (1Jn4.16), his own Being is love.

    And God has imprinted this same possibility of *personal* existence on human nature. Human nature is created, a given; it is not the personal freedom of man which constitutes his *being*, which makes up his essence or nature. But this created nature exists only as a *personal* hypostasis of life; each one is a *personal* existence which can hypostasize life as love, that is as freedom from the limitations of his created nature, as freedom from every necessity – just like the uncreated God… The difference of natures, the difference of uncreated and created, can be transcended at the level of the common mode of existence, the mode of personal existence – and this truth has been revealed to us by the incarnation of God, by the Person of Jesus Christ. For man to be an image of God means that each one can realize [make real] life as love, as freedom and not as natural necessity. Each can realize [make real] his existence as a person, like the Persons of the triadic Divinity. Consequently man can realize [is able to make real] his existence as eternity and incorruptibility, just as the divine life of triadic co-inherence and communion is eternal and incorruptible. (58-59)

    So it’s not that – in our present condition – we can achieve immortal life; we don’t have that kind of nature, since ours is created. But by means of self-giving love – the impetus for which is eros – and because of the Incarnation and Resurrection, we are really, truly able, with ascetic effort (which is ultimately repentance/turning + gratitude – thank you Fr Stephen!) to open ourselves to becoming the human Persons we were meant to be: who are capable – as created in the Image of God and as we are sustained in life by God – of coming to an existence in love and freedom that is not restricted by the needs of our bare humanity or our individualized drive for survival at the expense of everyone else. Asceticism is teeny-tiny bits of practicing having life not according to the dictates of our nature (food, sleep, need for reproduction, etc.). The Incarnation has united the nature of God with the nature of humanity, so that we can never be ultimately “outside of communion with God.” The Resurrection has destroyed the finality of corruption/non-existence. Nothing stands in the way any more of our Persons being made real/actual/healed in the life of self-giving love – which is “eternal life”, the Life of the Age to Come.

    Sometimes there is difficulty with translation in what I have read of Yannaras. What I have put in brackets is what I think the Greek is trying to convey, insofar as I understand it in the English context and Orthodox theology, rather than what our English-speaking/American-cultured minds think when we read those words.

    Dana

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