This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year. The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics. This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play. Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues. The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference: http://www.e-ccet.org/
Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell). The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being. Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).
Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory). Persons are persons, not individuals. They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals. Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them. From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with. It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both. We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences. This is the safeguard against simple collectivism. I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.
Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive. My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being. In fact, they are coterminous realities. My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived. There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.
The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State. (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails). A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present. If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person? How can I be really myself? And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?
While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live. We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless. Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings. But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.
The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person. Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology, I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God. Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique. MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea. Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).
The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways. It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier. But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God. It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.
And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities. For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me. But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time. Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost. My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.
We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves. God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent. I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not. What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”
But can God, or would God do this? Perhaps the second question first. Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.” Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”? This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.
The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it? Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy? Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way? Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God? Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way? If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.
It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons. This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.
Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image). If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image. Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth? One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation. If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other. But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology. If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.
Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things. Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole. Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.” And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.
 John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.
 We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.
 George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.
 Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.