Christos Yannaras: The Freedom of Morality

Yannaras’ The Freedom of Morality is not for the average reader. One needs a decent grounding in both philosophy and theology. But if one can patiently come to grips with the point of the first chapter (“The Masks of Morality and the Ethos of the Person”), and its reinforcements in the next two, the remaining nine chapters will deepen and broaden one’s thinking on Christian morals and anthropology.

At the risk of oversimplification, the theme of the book can be encapsulated in this passage:

In the life of the Church, God reveals Himself as the hypostasis of being, the personal hypostasis of eternal life. The personal existence of God is the comprehensive and exhaustive expression of the truth of being. It is not the essence or the energy of God which constitutes being, but His personal mode of existence: God as person is the hypostasis of being. (p. 16)

and the following:

The identification of being with the personal existence of God–an indentification with vital consequences for the truth of man and human morality–explains the revelation of the God of the Church, who is one and at the same time, trinitarian. The one God is not one divine nature or essence, but primarily one person: the person of God the Father. The personal existence of God (the Father) constitutes His essence or being, making it into “hypostases”: freely and from love He beget the Son and causes the Holy Spirit to proceed. Consequently, being stems not from the essence, which would make it an ontological necessity, but from the person and the freedom if its love which “hypostasizes” being into a personal and trinitarian communion. God the Father’s mode of being constitutes existence and life as a fact of love and personal communion. (p. 17-18)

It is here that one must start: God, in whose image and likeness man and woman were created. Yannaros continues:

. . . In the light of the truth about the trinitarian hypostasis of being, the Church is enabled to shed light on the mystery of human existence, and to give an ontological foundation to human morality.

Created “in the image” of God in Trinity, man himself is one in essence according to his nature, and in many hypostases according to his persons. Each man is a unique, distinct and unrepeatable person; he is an existential distinctiveness. All men have a common nature or essence, but this has not existence except as personal distinctiveness, as freedom and transcendence of their own natural predeterminations and natural necessity. The person is the hypostasis of the human essence or nature. He sums up in his existence the universality of human nature, but at the same time surpasses it, because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness. (p. 19)

This is expanded by the following:

. . . Man’s nature in general–mankind as a whole, as a biological species–can be defined objectively: it possess will, reason, intellect, etc. But each human person exercises his will and converses and thinks in a way that is unique, distinct and unrepeatable.

Consequently, the person is not an individual, a segment or subdivision of human nature as a whole. He represents, not the relationship of a part to the whole, but the possibility of summing up the whole in a distinctiveness of relationship, in an act of self-transcendence. (p. 21)

Humankind, therefore, is not merely biological, nor merely spiritual. But as the Incarnation teaches us is a hypostasis of spirit and flesh. We are not relegated to our mere biology. We are greater than our genes. But because we are enfleshed souls, we are greater than mere spirit as well. We are greater because the particular combination of body and soul (or spirit) which constitutes who we are is so constituted by love, and therefore by koinonia. We are sums greater than our parts.

There is hope here: the alcoholic may transcend his disease, the deeply sexual being may similarly be chaste, the powerfully spiritual need not be lost to chaos but may be grounded in the depth of God’s love through the very body which gives it sustenance and which it also sustains.

We find that we need not be weighed down by the incessant demands of the flesh, nor that we must be cut loose from this world by the powerful call of the spirit. Instead, called into unique existence by God we can obey that which seems impossible: sexual acts may be limited by God’s obligatory call yielding the freedom of holiness; the yearning ache for holiness can be instantiated by respect and loyalty to our forebears, living and dead.

This basic paradigm, this basis patristic doctrine of humankind, is fleshed out and enspirited in the ethoi of the “Fools for Christ,” the Liturgy, the Eucharist and the sacraments, asceticism and virtue, ecclesiology and the canons, and, not least, iconography.

There are some weaknesses to Yannaras’ work. His take on Protestant pietism, while true in the main, succumbs to mere polemic in some of the specifics. There are times when his Trinitarian anthropology sounds a bit too much like Heidegger and bit less than it should like St. Paul. But when kept within the clear paramaters of the anthropology he explicates from the Fathers and the Scriptures, these weaknesses can be seen for what they are and illustrate ways we may avoid the dangers of which Yannaras warns us.

These weaknesses may also be balanced by two other works in the same series: John D. Zizioulas’ Being as Communion and Panayiotas Nellas’ Deification in Christ. Indeed, these three works in themselves provide perhaps the most complete foundation in Christian thinking on Christ, salvation, the Church and humankind one can get from a mere handful of books.