The “Kairos” of the Late Metropolitan of Pergamon John D. Zizioulas

Published on: February 16, 2023
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by Pantelis Kalaitzidis | Русский

Originally published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, a publication of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies

Chronos (chronological or sequential time) is imbued with meaning by kairos (the opportune time), and kairos is nothing more than a stop, a way station, from which we can survey the past and look out onto the future. Without kairos, time (chronos) flows on without meaning, sunk in death, and nothing that happens within it survives. In all of creation, only the human being can change time into kairos. The prerogative and responsibility of the freedom given to him or to her by the Creator is to enter through time, even if only briefly (as happens in the Divine Liturgy), into the presence and foretaste of the Eschaton, that which will not be lost together with all the useless things we carry around with us in this life.”

With these words, the late Elder Metropolitan of Pergamon John D. Zizioulas began his response to the Academic Laudatio and the honors bestowed to him during his reception as Fellow and Honorary Member of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, on October 28-30, 2011. With these words, which remind us of the importance of “Kairos” and how it gives meaning to time, allow me to begin, in my turn, on behalf of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, the present essay of honor, respect and love to the late hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the greatest of Orthodox theologians of our time, according to many authoritative opinions.

There are three main themes and axes that define the work of the late hierarch: Personhood, Eucharist and Eschatology or Kingdom of God. It is probably known to everyone that the Metropolitan of Pergamon, not unjustly, has been called the preeminent theologian of personhood in Orthodox theology, but also in Christian theology in its entirety. He is the one who, interpreting the patristic tradition in a fruitful and original way, gave modern Christian theology a comprehensive proposal for personhood, as he managed to establish in an ontological perspective a theological account of personhood which, based on the personal mode of existence of the Triune God, is realized historically in the person of Christ, and is offered at the church event, as a foretaste of the eschatological fulfillment in the Kingdom. For Metropolitan John, personhood is the most valuable contribution of patristic theology to human’s modern quest for authentic existence.

It is also known that the place where the human being can preemptively anticipate the personal way of being is, for the late Metropolitan of Pergamon, the Eucharist, where the human being as a member of the Church and an image of God participates in the very life of the Triune God. Zizioulas, already as a layman and from a very early age, highlights the centrality of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist for the life of the ancient Church, but also for the life of today’s world. The Eucharist, for the Metropolitan of Pergamon, is the heart of the Church and not a peripheral aspect of it.

Loyal to the fundamental theological orientations of his teacher Fr. Georges Florovsky, and aware, as few in the Greek and wider Orthodox context, of the international theological debate, the Metropolitan of Pergamon will give special importance and priority to the eschatological perspective which ultimately permeates his work as a whole. Personhood, Eucharist, and the Kingdom of God are inseparably linked in his thought.

For Zizioulas, the Eucharist is an image of the coming Kingdom, an image of the eschaton, while the Church as a eucharistic community constitutes a reality that comes from the future, as the Eucharist is a foretaste of the eschaton that invades history. That is why the Church is defined as an eschatological community, which moves through history and through time, without identifying itself with history and which experiences the dialectical tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”

The eschatological interpretation of the Eucharist that he suggests, in contrast to the protological/past-centered, commemorative one that prevailed mainly due to Western influences, literally means that the identity of the Church is not in the past, in what was given to it or in what it is now, but in the future, in that which shall be at the End. Such a perspective radically distances theology from any kind of absolutization of protology, from the tendency to consider that the genuine and authentic is always placed in the beginning, in a timeless ahistorical flight to a distant ideal past, and that salvation is nothing more than a return to an initial ideal state. This view, which is nothing more than Platonism in disguise, constitutes the permanent temptation of theology in the past as well as today.

The ramifications of the above are crucial. The eschatological orientation of Metropolitan John’s theology protected his work from symptoms that are permanent temptations of modern Orthodox theology, even in its most elaborate versions: a) the idealization of the past and the conservatism that follows; b) the sanctification and worship of the nation and the people; and c) helleno-centrism and anti-Westernism, which today is synonymous with anti-Europeanism. In contrast to the above, the late Metropolitan of Pergamon will not hesitate to assert that in the first centuries after Christ:

“Orthodoxy became then the future of Hellenism because it was not a return, but a creative synthesis. So also today, Orthodoxy, in an effort to bring Greek identity into the light, must not simply be a return to past forms, a nostalgic ‘love (eros) of Orthodoxy’ that bypasses contemporary realities. And the reality today for Greece is Europe. Hellenism must be refashioned into its basic components, without losing its Hellenicity, in order to engage the new European reality.”

The question that naturally arises is why an eminent hierarch, a profound and informed theologian like Metropolitan John, insisted so much on the importance and centrality of eschatology for the life and theology of the Church, when indeed eschatology inevitably leads to repentance for the past and to the liberation of the future? Is it possible that he did not understand that the eschatological perspective would inevitably lead to painful revisions on difficult issues such as those of otherness, gender, anthropology, or ethics, when, for example, he wrote as early as 1968 on the controversial issue of women’s ordination that “Orthodox theologians could find no theological reasons against such an ordination. Yet the entire matter is so deeply tied up with their tradition that they would find it difficult in their majority to endorse without reservations the rather enthusiastic statements of the paper”? In the light, then, of this eschatological orientation, we can better understand the position he expressed from the podium of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, in February 2001, regarding the consequences of the eschatological ethos of the Church, and more specifically his opinion that the future is not determined by the past, but that on the contrary the future liberates from the past, just as in Christian thought and life we travel back in time: from the future to the present and the past, and therefore the future is the cause—not the effect—of the past, since the world was created for the eschatological Christ who will come at the eschaton as the union of the created and the uncreated, while the eschaton give entity to the first, and eschatology to protology. As a natural consequence of the above, Zizioulas argued that the

“Church is not what it is or what it was, but what it will be [at the eschaton],” just as the sinner, in turn, “is not defined ontologically by what was, but by what will be [at the eschaton].” That is why he pointed out that “the secularization of the Church involves not only institutional questions (such as the relationship between the Church and the state, or the Church and society, and more), but also ethical issues. […] The Church must not adopt society’s attitudes toward ethical matters; rather, it must spread throughout society the spirit of forgiveness and love, which allows the future to release human beings from the past. An unforgiving Church is a secularized Church, because unwillingness to forgive is a characteristic of this world and worldly ethics.”

With his attitude and life, with his tolerance and patience, with his forbearance and paternal trust in the younger generation of scholars, even when he disagreed with our actions, ideas, or choices or when he thought we were wrong, the late hierarch gave examples in practice of this eschatologically inspired forgiving and liberating ethos of the Church. By legitimizing, among other things, serious criticism and by restoring to its genuine dimensions the intra-theological dialogue that is the oxygen and the necessary condition of a healthy church life, Metropolitan John proved that the great theologians are not afraid of dialogue and criticism, but that on the contrary they pursue it, because they know that this critical function is inherent to theologizing, and that without it we can expect nothing but a theology of repetition and praises that so often flourish, as we all know, in our ecclesiastical and theological environments.

In conclusion, reading the work of the Metropolitan of Pergamon and studying his theological thought, which is characterized by its eschatological orientation, its eucharistic character and its creative participation in the ecumenical theological debate, helped us the theologians in Greece and also the wider Orthodox world, to move from a cultural, to a theological hermeneutic per se, and from a generally and vaguely “spiritual” one, to a Christocentric and sacramental perspective. If in the last two decades theology in our country took some timid steps in the direction of overcoming its introversion, theological provincialism and isolationism, as well as the narcissistic theological anti-Westernism, it is certain that to a large extent this is also due to his own presence and discourse.

Elder John of Pergamon, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what you have offered to the Church and theology; for the paths you have opened in theological research and in the necessary dialogue of the Church with the world, with literature, arts, and sciences; for this comforting and philanthropic version of Orthodoxy that you embodied and that we need so much, especially today; for the forgiving/liberating ethos of the Church that you taught us, and that should finally teach us Greeks and Orthodox in general about our relationship with Christians of other traditions and the believers of other religions; because with your books, papers and courses you accompanied our theological concerns and searches and paved a new path for us to follow; because you knew how to respect our diversity or even our disagreement with your opinions and positions, without excluding us or making us feel “ex-communicated”; for you continued until the end to produce theology and to think and act as a true theologian. 

Rest well, our beloved teacher, in the armful of the Triune God, whom you so loved and served with your ministry, celebration, word and pen.

Kali Anastasi/Until the General Resurrection!

The present article is the English translation of the Eulogy of Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, given at the funeral of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas, at the Cathedral church of Athens, Saturday, February 4, 2023. Dr. Kalaitzidis is director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Volos, Greece.

Translated by Dr. Nikolaos Asproulis

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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