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The Relational Ontology of Christos Yannaras: The Hesychast Influence on

the Understanding of the Person in the Thought of Christos Yannaras


Fr. Daniel P. Payne, Ph.D.
Introduction
It has been stated that Christos Yannaras (b. 1935) is one of the pre-eminent Orthodox thinkers of
our time. Being a part of the 1960s generation of theologians and the prominent leader of what
became known as the Neo-Orthodox Movement in Greece, Yannaras is a prolific writer with over
twenty books published and translated into several languages. His influence is known throughout
Greece and the Orthodox world. He is chiefly known in both the East and the West as an astute
philosopher, theologian, and social commentator with an anti-Western polemic.
Yannarass relational theology of the person has been likened to the philosophy of
Levinas.1 The importance of a relational understanding of truth and personhood dominates the
thought of Yannaras. But rather than Levinas having an influence on Yannaras, two other sources
have had a dominant influence on his thought: the Orthodox patristic tradition and Heidegger.
The link that he found with Heidegger was in his understanding of the concept of being that he
had recovered from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Herakleitos. Having lost this concept of
being, according to Heidegger, the West had drifted away from ontological truth. Yannaras
concurred, for he had identified this concept of being with the Orthodox theological and
ascetic tradition that had inherited it from the pre-Socratic philosophers.2
Following Heideggers critique of the West, Yannaras argues that the rise of Nietzschean
nihilism is due to the loss of the relational understanding of being. Consequently, he believes that
the source of this problem is the post-Augustinian philosophical tradition which transformed
1

Andrew Louth, Introduction, in Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God:
Heidegger and the Areopagite (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 8.
2
Louth, Introduction, 3.

logos into ratio. The Greek concept of logos implies a relational, experiential understanding of
the truth. Western ratio, however, comes to mean the individual capacity to arrive at a
comprehensive exhaustive understanding of truth. According to Yannaras, this is because of the
analogia entis where the human mind is understood as being a copy of the divine mind at a lesser
level.3 What, this does, then, for the understanding of God is that God becomes an object of the
mind, rather, than a personal reality. God becomes the product or result of a cognitive selfsufficiency, guaranteed for the subject by ratio, outside or beyond the experience of reality or
life, where everything is the experience of relationship. Nietzsche realized what Descartes had
accomplished: logical proof for the existence of God refutes God as an objective, real
presence.4 Because the human mind is able to construct the existence of God by logic, there is
no necessity for Gods existence. However, by positing this power on the part of the human
being, he is superior to God, thus he becomes the Superman.
While this critique of the Western philosophical tradition is dependent upon the
philosophy of Heidegger, Yannaras desires not to follow his path for the answer taken from
Nietzsche: existential nihilism. Rather, Yannaras turns to the patristic and ascetic tradition of the
East to answer the existential problem of contemporary Western man: ecclesial being. Here the
hesychast and neptic tradition of the Fathers influences the thought of Yannaras.
In this essay I will explore the influence of the hesychast and neptic tradition of the
Orthodox East on the thought of Yannaras, particularly his understanding of the person. I will
first enter into a discussion of the theological achievement of Gregory Palamas, whereby he
articulates the patristic understanding of the distinction in God between the essence and the
energies and how this is understood in a personalist manner. I will then take up Yannarass
3

Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God: Heidegger and the Areopagite (London:
T&T Clark, 2005), 23.
4
Ibid., 24.

thought in regards to the importance of this distinction for understanding the person. In doing so,
I will also examine Yannarass epistemology. Furthermore, I will look at how Yannaras
understands freedom as developed by the patristic tradition.
The Essence and Energies Distinction in Gregory Palamas
Gregory Palamas, in his debates with Barlaam the Calabrian, argued that a positive knowledge of
God was possible. The experience of God is possible outside of the natural means of knowing,
that is, beyond the senses and the intellect. 5 Barlaam believed that all knowledge comes only
through the senses. The revelation of God, consequently, was apprehended through the natural
senses. Thus, he placed an emphasis on philosophical knowledge of creation. However, Gregory
refutes this position by arguing that the experience of God, bringing about the positive
knowledge of God, occurs outside of creation and the natural means of knowing. He states,
Do you now understand that in place of the intellect, the eyes and ears, they [the
hesychasts] acquire the incomprehensible Spirit and by Him hear, see and comprehend?
For if all their intellectual activity has stopped, how could the angels and angelic men see
God except by the power of the Spirit? This is why their vision is not a sensation, since
they do not receive it through the senses; nor is it intellection, since they do not find it
through thought or the knowledge that comes thereby, but after the cessation of all mental
activity. It is not, therefore, the product of either imagination or reason; it is neither an
opinion nor a conclusion reached by syllogistic argument.6
Additionally, this experience of God is not a participation in the divine essence. However, the
union of God the Cause of all with those worthy transcends that light. God, while remaining
entirely in Himself, dwells entirely in us by His superessential power; and communicates to us
not His nature, but His proper glory and splendour.7
The Sixth Ecumenical Council established the Christology of St. Maximus the Confessor
that every nature must have a will or energy. This teaching safeguarded the two natures and two
wills of Jesus Christ, human and divine. Without this teaching, salvation was understood to be in
5

John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: The Faith Press, 1964), 206-07.
St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ed. John Meyendorff (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 35.
7
Ibid., 39.
6

jeopardy, for how could the human nature exist without a will or energy? Furthermore, in the
doctrine of the hypostatic union, the human nature is united to the divine hypostasis, that is, it is
a personal union, not an essential union. In this manner, the human nature, according to the
teaching of Leontius of Byzantium, is enhypostasized in the divine hypostasis of the Second
Person of the Trinity. The human nature then participates in the energy of the divine hypostasis
bringing about its deification. Human beings, united to the human nature of Christ participate in
that deifying energy of the divine hypostasis not by an essentialist union with the human nature,
but a hypostatic union in and through the human energy, allowing then for a participation in the
deifying energy of the person of Christ. If an essentialist union is held, whereby the human
nature is united to the divine hypostasis by nature, then the possibility exists for a
polyhypostatization of the divinity.8 Instead of a Trinity of three hypostases, a Poly-Unity would
exist leading to pantheism.9
Gregorys theology is a continuation of the teachings of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. If
God has a divine nature, then he must also have a divine energy, otherwise God would not exist,
and we would have no experience or knowledge of His existence. The divine energy allows
creation to experience God. However, if creation experiences God in and through the divine
essence, then Gods transcendence would be obliterated, and the result would be pantheism and
the loss of personal existence. But since the basis of Palamass thought is the positive experience
of God through the practice of hesychasm, then that real experience of God must be on the basis
of the divine energy. John Meyendorff comments, It is the real experience of God which is the
best proof of his existence, for it touches that existence itself: Contemplation surpassing
8

See Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, 183-84. See also, Christos Yannaras, The Distinction
Between Essence and Energies and Its Importance for Theology, St. Vladimirs Theological Quarterly 19 (summer
1975): 232-45.
9
Daniel P. Payne, The Revival of Political Hesychasm in Contemporary Orthodox Thought: The Political
Hesychasm of John S. Romanides and Christos Yannaras (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 93-94.

intellectual activities is the only means, the plainest means, the means par excellence to show the
real existence of God and the fact that he transcends beings. For how could the essence of God
not exist, since the glory of that divine nature makes itself seen by men? 10 The knowability of
God is firmly rooted in a free divine gift of revelation. This revelation is in and through the
divine energy of God.11
This self-communication of the divine Being is not an essentialist relationship, but rather
a personal communion between humanity and divinity. In this experience of God, Gods personal
Being is communicated to the human person. In understanding this communication, Palamas
conceives his greatest theological understanding: The essence, he writes, is necessarily being,
but being is not necessarily essence. This distinction provides the opening for participation in
Gods Being without participation in his essence. The problem with Barlaams theology is that he
maintains an essentialist understanding of the divine Being. Such an understanding logically
prevents a distinction between essence and energy, for it violates the logical principle of the
simplicity of God. Yet, Gregory maintains the doctrine of divine simplicity while making a
distinction between the divine essence and energies. For Palamas the divine simplicity is able to
be defended through a personalist or hypostatic understanding of God.12
In his theology Palamas teaches the personalist nature of the divine energy. He
emphasizes that the divine energy is not a hypostasis; rather it is always enhypostasized in the
divine Persons. This is a very important theological point, for if the divine energy was not
enhypostasized, then the experience of God in and through the divine energy would be through
another hypostasis creating a Tetrarchy in place of a Trinity. Such an understanding would

10

Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, 211.


Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 94.
12
Ibid.
11

violate divine simplicity and would lead to pantheism, once again. Instead, the enhypostatization
of the divine energy allows for the participation of persons in the divine Son of God.13
Furthermore, Hussey stresses the importance of Palamass emphasis on the singularity of
the divine energy that is common to all three Persons in the Trinity. In this Palamas follows
Maximuss important argument that energy or will follows nature not hypostasis. If energy were
to follow hypostasis, then the unity of the Trinity would be obliterated through the existence of
three divine natures adhering to each of the divine Persons, resulting in tritheism. The divine
energy, then, must be common to all three Persons of the Trinity, allowing for a perichoresis of
personhood in the Trinity.14
Additionally, Palamas argues that the divine simplicity is protected through the divisible
indivisibility of the divine energy. He writes,
The divine transcendent being is never named in the plural. But the divine and uncreated
grace and energy of God is divided indivisibly according to the image of the suns ray
which gives warmth, light, life and increase, and sends its own radiance to those who are
illuminated and manifests itself to the eyes of those who see. In this way, in the manner
of an obscure image, the divine energy of God is called not only one but also many by the
theologians.15
He continues, Therefore the powers and energies of the divine Spirit are uncreated and because
theology speaks of them in the plural they are indivisibly distinct from the one and altogether
indivisible substance of the Spirit.16
Gregory articulates the essence-energies distinction because of his concern to protect the
radical transcendence of God on the one hand, and on the other hand, to allow for a real
participation of the human being in the glory of God that leads to a real deification of the person.
13

Ibid.
M. Edmund Hussey, The Persons-Energy Structure in the Theology of St. Gregory Palamas, St.
Vladimirs Theological Quarterly 18 (fall 1974): 22-43.
15
St. Gregory Palamas, One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, tr. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Toronto: Pontifical
Institute of Medieval Studies, 1988), 163.
16
Ibid.
14

Thus, Gregory understands the essence-energies distinction to be the means by which God
relates with creation. Meyendorff comments that Gregory is very familiar with the patristic view
that to beget is the property of nature, and to create that of energy. The divine nature of the
Father is the source for the procession of the Spirit and the generation of the Son, not the divine
will or energy. The common divine energy, however, through the divine will creates. This sharing
of the divine energy and will allows through the perichoretic relationship that exists among the
Divine Hypostases, all three Persons to participate in the creative act proper to each hypostasis.
This distinction protects the divinity of the Son and Spirit, for if they were products of the divine
will or energy, then they would be creatures and not divine. Meyendorff argues that Gregorys
(and the patristic) distinction between begetting and creating manifest in the divine nature
and the divine will respectively, is an attempt to steer between Eunomianism on the one hand and
Sabellianism on the other. Gregory does not want to maintain with Eunomius that creation
participates in the divine essence, which is pantheism, or with Sabellius that the Son and Spirit
are subordinate to the Father, leading to their creaturehood a la Arius. If there is no distinction
between nature and will, essence and energy, then Akindynos and Gregoras are correct, and
creation, then subsists within God, leading to pantheism. Gregorys theology, then, protects
against pantheism on the one hand, while allowing for a real participation in the Being of God by
creation on the other hand.17
Furthermore, the essence-energies distinction protects the freedom of God. If God creates
by virtue of his divine nature, then creation is a natural act whereby God is determined by his
very nature to create. It is not a free act that God chooses to do; rather, creation becomes more
like a Plotinian emanation from the divine essence, giving it at least a semi-divine existence.
However, if God creates by virtue of his will or energy, then creation is a free act on the part of
17

Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, 221-22; Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 95-96.

God that does not affect the divine simplicity nor lead to pantheism, but rather a dependence
upon the Creator for its sustenance. Furthermore, the distinction allows for both the existence of
God outside of time while he creates within time.18
Thus, Gregory, by holding to a personalist understanding of the Being of God, escapes
the philosophical problems associated with an essentialist understanding. 19 His interlocutors,
Barlaam, Akindynos, and Gregoras, all held essentialist positions, unable to reconcile their
understanding of God with that which the hesychast monks understood through their religious
experience as well as their reading of the theology of the ascetic tradition. Neoplatonic
understandings of God, either derived from Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius or Augustine, in the
case of Barlaam, were unable to accept the distinction that Gregory made in his understanding of
the Being of God. With their theological positions based on an essentialist understanding of the
divinity, Gregorys opponents had no ability to articulate a theology of experience, which
Gregorys theology presupposed.20 This foray into the theology of Gregory Palamas is important
to gain an understanding of how the essence and energies distinction is utilized by Yannaras in
his understanding of the person.
The Essence-Energies Distinction as the Possibility for the Knowledge of God
In an article published in 1975, Yannaras critiques a work by Fr. Juan-Miguel Garrigues
examining the divine energies in the thought of Maximus the Confessor. Yannaras writes in
regards to the importance of this article, The acceptance or rejection of this distinction [between
the essence and energies] will determine either the abstract or the real character of theological
knowledge, the attribution of theological truths to either rational theology or existential
experience.21 As we have seen, Yannaras believes that truth is to be understood in a relational
18

Ibid., 222-23.
Ibid., 223.
20
Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 96.
21
Yannaras, The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and Its Importance for Theology, 232.
19

manner. He argues that the Greek philosophical tradition from the pre-Socratics to the fourteenth
century remains free from subordination to theories of atomic individualism. It stays rooted in
the social verification of knowledge: the linguistic signifiers are verified when they refer to a
signified experience that is shared in common. That which is shared is true; that which is
possessed privately is false.22 He continues,
The social criterion for the verification of knowledge links the mode by which we know
with the mode by which we exist, and the topos of this linking is the struggle to attain
relation, or communion. Truth is that knowledge that is assured by the knowledge of each
person (his or her relation with reality) and that is confirmed by a testimony, or a verbal
expression, in which all persons coincide through which all are brought into a relation
among themselves and with reality.23
Knowledge and existence are linked together through the social verification of knowledge,
which links truth with democracy and ecclesia; it links truth with the common struggle to attain
the relations that enable us to share in life. 24 Thus, [r]elation is knowledge as immediate
experiential assurance, the mode by which we recognize reality. 25
What this then leads to is an apophatic approach to the knowledge of truth. According to
Yannaras, apophaticism is
(1) the denial that we exhaust knowledge in its formulation; (2) the refusal to identify the
understanding of the signifiers with the knowledge of what is signified; and (3) the
symbolic character of every epistemic expression: its role in bringing together atomic
experiences and embracing them within a common semantic boundary marker, a process
which allows epistemic experience to be shared and once shared to be verified.26
In regards to the knowledge of God, he states that theological apophaticism would lead to
agnosticism and the distance between God and the world would remain an enigma, if the
experience of the Church did not insist uncompromisingly on the personal mode of Gods

22

Christos Yannaras, Relational Ontology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2011), 8.
Ibid.
24
Ibid., 9.
25
Ibid.
26
Ibid.
23

existence.27 We do not know what God is, yet we have a personal experience of who God is.
This mode in which he exists is revealed in the personal energies of God.28
Returning to Yannarass response to Fr. Garrigues in regards to the essence and energies
distinction, he states, In Orthodox theologythe problem of the energies is put exclusively in
terms of existential experience. The experience of the Church is the knowledge of God as an
event of personal relationship, and the question raised is one of witness to and defense of that
event, the question of how we come to know God, who is neither intelligible nor sensible, nor at
all a being among the other beings.29 He continues, The knowledge of God as an event of
personal relationship reveals the priority of the truth of the person in the realm of theological
knowledge.30
This personal knowledge of God is made possible in and through the energies of the
person. It is not possible to know God by objective definitions, analogical correlations or
conceptual assessments.31

Yannaras writes, God is known and participated through his

uncreated energies, which are beyond the reach of the intellect, while in his essence he remains
unknown and unparticipated. That is to say, God is known only as personal disclosure, as a
triadic communion of persons, as an ecstatic self-offering of erotic goodness.32 Every person is a
unique unrepeatable existential reality. What makes a person distinctive cannot be defined but
can only be experienced as fact, that is, as unique, dissimilar and unrepeatable relation.33 He
27

Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 78.


Ibid.
29
Yannaras, The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and Its Importance for Theology, 234-35.
30
Ibid., 235.
31
Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 78. Yannaras writes, Thus beings, as results of the
divine will that is active outside the divine essence, do not have any absolute reference to the divine essence
itself, and for that reason knowledge of God is impossible on the basis of the analogy of being (analogia entis).
(79). David Bentley Hart has argued for an Eastern Christian appropriation, expressly using the theology of Gregory
of Nyssa, for the analogy of being in place of the onto-theology of Heidegger in his work The Beauty of the Infinite:
The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003). Yannaras develops
his critique of the analogia entis in Person and Eros (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007), 201-16.
32
Christos Yannaras, Person and Eros, 64.
33
Ibid., 17.
28

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states, Our existential otherness becomes known and participated in only in the immediacy of
relationship. Not only the Person of God, but also any kind of human person, is known only as
we realize a relationship with it. And we realize a relationship through the energies of the
person.34
Again, Yannaras asserts that the starting point for the knowledge of God is the essenceenergies distinction of the patristic tradition. We cannot know the essence of God; yet, we can
know the mode of existence, and thus, come to the knowledge of who God is in and through
participation in the energies of the divine nature. These energies of God allow for a real
participation in the personal mode of existence of God. For in Him we live, and move and have
our being (Acts 17:28). He writes, Our participation and communion in the energies of God
acquaints us with the otherness of the three personal Hypostases. 35 Through the divine energies,
God discloses himself personally, uniting himself to us. The divine energies reveal to us the
personal existence and otherness of the living God they make the Person of God accessible to
human experience, without abolishing the inconceivable abyss of the essential distance that
separates us from God.36
34

Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 78.


Ibid., 84.
36
Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 85. Metropolitan John Zizioulas argues that the
chasm between creation and God has been overcome through the hypostasis of the Son rather than the divine
energies. He states, [The idea that the energies are the means by which God enters into relationship with creation]
can be accepted, however, only if it means that it is ultimately personhood, the hypostasis of the Logos, and not
divine energies, that bridges the gulf between God and the world. Therefore, maximizing the role of divine
energies may obscure the decisive significance of personhood for the God-world relationship and this is, in fact,
the case with many modern Orthodox theologians. It is extremely important not to forget or overlook the fact that
the God-world relationship is primarily hypostatic, that is, in and through one person of the Trinity, and not through
an aspect of Gods being that belongs to all three of the Trinitarian Persons, such as the divine energies. John D.
Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 30. Aristotle Papanikolaou provides an
interesting discussion on Zizioulass critique of the divine energies and Palamite theology, particularly as maintained
by Vladimir Lossky, in his work Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 106-27. Papanikolaou argues that for Zizioulas, the distinction
between the essence and energies of God is simply superfluous. He states that Zizioulas is revolutionizing Orthodox
Trinitarian thought by divorcing itself from the essence-energies distinction. David Bentley Hart, too, argues that
the distinction is unnecessary and, polemically, pious nonsense, maintaining that it violates the simplicity of God.
See The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics after Nicaea, in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, ed. Aristotle
Papanikolaou and George E. Demacopoulos (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2008), 191-226. David
Bradshaw responds to Hart defending the distinction in the thought of Maximus and the other fathers in Augustine
35

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Love and the Freedom of the Person


The personal mode of existence in which God expresses the divine energy is erotic love. 37 This
erotic love is expressed in the inner working of the perichoretic relationship between the Persons
of the Trinity as well as the ecstatic relationship that God has with the world. But erotic love is
not just an attribute of God, it is his mode of being. 38 The Evangelist John writes, God is love
(I Jn 4:16). Yannaras states, God exists in love, and because he loves; existence and love, love
and freedom are identical in the case of divine Persons. And this ecstatic, existential self-offering
is the name of God, eros, unifying the existence and the life of the Trinitarian God.39
As God is love, he manifests this self-offering within the divine life of the Trinity. The
Father begets the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeds out of love. Consequently, being stems not
from the essence, which would make it an ontological necessity, but from the person and the
freedom of its love which hypostasizes being into a personal and trinitarian communion. God
the Fathers mode of being constitutes existence and life as a fact of love and personal
communion.40 Love, then, is the ontological content and mode of existence of who God is.41
Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, human beings express this
image through erotic self-transcendence in the personal mode of existence, which is love.42
The reason for this, Yannaras writes, is that human existence derives its ontological substance
from the fact of divine love, the only love which gives substance to being. Human beings are
created out of love, not out of divine necessity.43 As God is love and manifests himself as
personal distinctiveness and freedom, so do human beings created in the image of God.44 Man
the Metaphysician, in Orthodox Readings of Augustine, 227-51.
37
Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 100.
38
Ibid.
39
Ibid., 101.
40
Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1996), 18.
41
Ibid.
42
Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, 101.
43
Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, 19.
44
Ibid.

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constitutes, he states, an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and
natural necessity.45
This existential fact of freedom, however, presupposes the ontological reality of the
simultaneous natural identity and existential otherness of the person of the personal otherness
and common-natural properties of each single individual existence. 46 The natural properties of
the human nature do not determine the mode of existence of the person, but are preconditions
for its disclosure. Consequently, when human beings do not actualize their individuality through
self-offering to the other in love, the natural properties do become the determinants of the mode
of existence. Hereby the person becomes enslaved to the natural properties of the human nature.
The objective properties of nature are proved then to be passions of existential individuality,
unnatural energies of individual nature.47
Yannaras contrasts the person to the individual. Human beings are not atomic individuals
as understood in Western Enlightenment thought following Descartes. Hypostasis [or person]
signifies the dynamic reality and wholeness of personal existence in its ecstatic mutual
perichoresis and total communion, the antithesis of the distantiality of atomic selfcontainedness.48 Therefore, as Yannaras states, Man is an existential fact of relationship and
communion. He is a person, [prosopon], which signifies, both etymologically and in practice,
that he has his face [ops] towards [pros] someone or something: that he is opposite (in relation to
or in connection with) someone or something. 49 Each human being, then, exists in relationship,
but not as an individual, rather as a person, who sums up the entirety of human nature in himself
through his personal distinctiveness and freedom. 50 Personal distinctiveness and freedom are
45

Ibid.
Yannaras, Person and Eros, 236.
47
Ibid.
48
Ibid., 255.
49
Yannaras, Freedom of Morality, 20.
50
Ibid., 21.
46

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expressed thusly in relationship, in the context of erotic love. 51 Personal freedom, he states, is
a fact of love, and love is the existential ground of freedom.52
But if, as we have stated, the human being decides out of freedom to become enslaved to
the natural energies or passions, he has recourse to the freedom offered to him through the
ecclesial and ascetic tradition of the Church. Releasing the individual from the enslavement to
the passions allows for the person to be manifested in freedom in its existential integrity.
Yannaras writes, The existential integrity of the person signifies the fullness of a personal erotic
relationship with creation and God.53 Freedom, then, means the salvation of the person, which
means to make whole (son), to restore humankind to its existential integrity, to the fullness of
life.54 Through asceticism and the sacramental life of the church, the individual is set free from
the passions that bind him. The Church, then, does not simply represent a sociological or moral
fact or a religious manifestation of fallen humanity. The Church is an ontological reality, the
existential fact of a new human nature, which communes wholly with the Godhead, or which
realizes an existential impulse opposite to that of the Fall. It realizes existence as love and eros,
not as survival as an atomic individual. 55 The Church creates the existential change in human
being from atomic individualism and enslavement to the passions to personhood and freedom
manifest in self-offering and relationship.56 He continues, The whole meaning of the Christian
ascetic practice and mystical life is summed up in the dynamics of this existential change. 57 We
become ecclesial beings in relationship with God and creation.

51

Ibid., 23.
Yannaras, Person and Eros, 239.
53
Ibid., 237.
54
Ibid.
55
Ibid., 270.
56
Ibid.
57
Ibid.
52

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Not only do we become ecclesial beings, but also political beings in the fullest sense of
the word. In a short explanatory article written in 1983, Yannaras articulates what an Orthodox
understanding of politics might be: I mean by this a political theory and action that is not
limited merely to social utility or to the conventional rules of human relations even if these are
more efficient but has as its goal the truth of man and the authenticity of his existence.58
Politics and theology are inseparable, for both pertain to the meaning of human being and how
he or she relates to corporate society. Indeed, Politics can be considered a chapter of theology
a true political theology when it takes upon itself serving man according to his nature and his
truth; and consequently serving the political nature of humanity i.e., the power of love, which
is at the heart of existence and which is the condition of the true communion of persons, the true
city, the true [polis].59 For Yannaras, the true city or polis is the ecclesia. Political theology is
simply a description of ecclesial being. It is in and through the Church that the personal
distinctiveness of the human being is recognized.60
In and through the Church the personal mode of existence is manifested as love. He
states, For the Church is not a religion, it is not a school of spirituality, but a place where we are
invited to transform our existence into being as relationship. We are invited to a meal, to a
banquet and a banquet is a way of practicing life as communion. 61 In the eucharistic meal, the
gathered people of God are transformed into the reality of the Body of Christ through the action
of the Holy Spirit. The eating and drinking of Christs flesh and blood changes individuals into
members of a unified body, and individual survival into communion of life and unity of life that unity which exists among the members of the body, and between them and the head. The
58
Christos Yannaras, A Note on Political Theology, St. Vladimirs Theological Quarterly 27 (spring
1983): 54, emphasis added.
59
Ibid.
60
Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 240-41.
61
Christos Yannaras, The Church: A Mode of Being That Can Conquer Death, Sourozh 49 (August
1992): 24.

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unity of life in the context of personal communion is the Church. 62 In this transformative event
of the heavenly banquet that the Church is invited to partake, the realization of the image of God
in man takes place. As Yannaras states, The eucharist unifies the life of persons in the
community of Christs theanthropic nature, and thus restores the image of Gods ethos, of the
fullness of trinitarian personal communion, to mans being or mode of existence it manifests
the existential and at the same time theological character of ethical perfection in man. 63
Together, those who are united into the Body of Christ become the Kingdom of God, the New
Israel, here on earth.64 In this communal mode of existence, the person is able to live in loving
communion with God and the Church. It is here that the person experiences ontological
freedom.65
Consequently, political society should not be about the moral improvement of society
or man, but rather it should be about the securing of human freedom through the recognition of
the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each person.66 Attempts to produce more just societies or
more virtuous citizens fail to take account of the fullness of personal distinctiveness and human
failure. What is at stake is the personal truth of who the human being is. Yannaras concludes,
We live in a world where planned living is increasingly replacing the immediacy of life,
where freedom is sought among the objective premises of corporate existence; a world
where the individual intellect is the strongest weapon for survival, and individual
preference the only criterion for happiness. In such a world, the witness of the ecclesial
ethos looks like a kind of anarchist theory to overthrow established customs in the way
it concentrates the universality of life once again in the sphere of personal freedom, and
personal freedom in asceticism of bodily self-denial. Yet this anarchic transference of
the axis of life to the sphere of the truth of the person, is the only humane, reassuring
response to our insatiable thirst for the immediacy of life and freedom, although it
certainly does overthrow efficient and rigid structures, and also programs for general
happiness.67
62

Yannaras, Freedom of Morality, 81.


Ibid., 82.
64
Ibid., 82-83.
65
Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 244-45.
66
Yannaras, Freedom of Morality, 217.
67
Ibid., 269-70.
63

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Conclusion
What, then, does Yannaras propose as an alternative to modern democratic society which
he understands to falsely promote true human existence? He argues for the retrieval of the
Byzantine autonomous communities that developed toward the end of the Ottoman Empire. The
life of these communities was centered around the life of the Church or monastery found in its
midst. These communities, he comments, continued the ancient patristic ethos of apophatic
knowledge and the accompanying cultural and social institutions that allowed for the experience
of communal truth. Furthermore, the Byzantine tradition affirmed the identity of the person as
person, that is, not as an individual, but within the context of community and relationship.68
The ecclesial life becomes the basis for human society. Particularly, the monastic
hesychast life provides the model for human society. He states,
Monasticism will be revealed as a dynamic and real witness and reminder of the
separation of Church from the world, of the exodus of the Church from the imposition
of the world. The ecclesiastical consciousness will recognize in the monastic life the lost
truth of the charismatic union and the real confession of faith: The distinction of the
Church from the world will transpose progressively in the separation of the monks from
the worldly Christians. Finally, the entire clergy, without denying its obedience to the
worldly-political hierarchy, will be clothed in the dress of the monks, enlarging the chasm
and its objective difference from the popular or worldly Christians.69
For Yannaras, apophaticism as a way of knowledge allows for the full expression of the
person since the person is not construed as an object of knowledge that can be comprehended,
but as a subject that can be known through ecstasy and love. Only through a return to the
ecclesial community, the true polis, as a way of life according to truth, can authentic human
existence be achieved. For Yannaras that community is none other than the Orthodox Church.70

68

Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 252.


Christos Yannaras, The NeoHellenic Identity, 3rd ed. (Athens: Gregory, 1989), 204.
70
Payne, Revival of Political Hesychasm, 253.
69

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