Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Section of text: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Pages: 1-11

Summary: Kelsey intentionally weaves two different projected aims into this single work, one for broad constructive suggestions for more general theological digestion ("A" chapters), and one for more detailed, fine-tuned arguments with the technical literature ("B" chapters). The former are generally shorter and in normal size print, while the latter are much longer and in smaller print. Thus, given that this opening salvo is an "A" chapter and that it is the introductory chapter explaining the project's overriding questions and interests, this summary will be able to follow the thread of thought much more closely than what will often be the case.

Effectively, Kelsey proposes three primary anthropological questions: What are we? How ought we to be? and Who am I and who are we? (pp. 1-2). The one asking belongs to the particular tradition of Christian faith and theology (pp. 2-3; Kelsey himself being "a North American white male Presbyterian" [p. 6]). Communities of the Christian tradition have always resided amongst and alongside other communities and traditions as well, and these include and/or influence both proximate and ultimate contexts of life, the former being "the physical and social worlds in which we live" and the latter the "most fundamental and decisive regarding what, who, and how we are" (p. 4). From a Christian perspective, God relates to humanity trinitarianly: as creator, as eschatos, and as reconciler (my terms, not Kelsey's). The entire project is an attempt to discover, given Christian theology's slim (that is, inconsistent and varied) anthropological history, whether there really is anything ineradicably central to a Christian articulation of the human.

Kelsey's thesis is "that the claims about human being that are nonnegotiable for Christian faith are claims about how God relates to human beings," which are fittingly threefold: that God creates human beings, "draw[s] them to eschatological consummation," and "reconcile[s] them when they are alienated from God" (p. 8). The chief question called forth for a Christian anthropology is what implications follow from these claims.

Finally, Kelsey states that he assumes, effectively (though with greater conceptual clarity than here stated), that there exist identifiable Christian communities in the world, that their ordering normative text is the Bible, and that they have (and employ) a capacity for self-criticism (pp. 9-10). In light of these basic assumptions, Eccentric Existence might be construed "as a set of remarks regarding three types of anthropological questions ... that are made as enactments of the communal practice of secondary theology," which "is enacted when the adequacy or appropriateness of the received conceptualizations and formulations themselves come into question" (p. 10). Kelsey hypothesizes "that there are now a lot of reasons to reexamine the adequacy of received theological anthropological formulations used in current primary theology" (p. 10).

The author hopes that by the end, the work will "hold together as a systematically unsystematic whole in which [the three parts] are related to one another in a triple helix as facets of the way in which human beings are imagers of the image of God, Jesus Christ" (p. 11).

Reflection: Little to say here; it sounds good to me. I'm a bit curious about Kelsey's felt need to defend his anthropology being Christian -- it might be required by the field, or by his surroundings, or it may be something more personal for which he feels compelled to answer. I thought it a bit odd, however, given the nature of the work. The questions and the thesis seem to me, however, to be wonderful overriding questions with which to be wrestling for the next year; and I am especially happy to see the explicitly Trinitarian approach at the outset.

Quote: "Simply put, a bridge requires two abutments, and I was clearer about the content of the abutment consisting of the anthropological wisdom of certain atheological conversation partners than I was about the content of the abutment consisting of specifically Christian anthropological wisdom. The historical evidence seemed to be that Christians in every age have largely appropriated the best anthropological wisdom of their host culture. .... My question became, 'Does Christian faith bring with it any convictions about human being that are so rock bottom for it that they are, so to speak, nonnegotiable in intellectual exchange with anthropologies shaped by other traditions?' " (p. 7)

Questions: Is understanding God in a Trinitarian way equivalent to recognizing God as creator, redeemer, and reconciler? What authorial or theological influences do we already find in Kelsey from the beginning? What received wisdom do we assume Kelsey is going to find wanting? What anthropological claims has the Christian tradition generally carried over and held close to the heart from one time and place to the next? What else stands out about this first chapter, and/or the structure of the work as a whole?

Next week: Chapter 1B, pages 12-45


  1. Brad –

    You raise some good questions here. Just to start the ball rolling a bit -- I think that the way Kelsey frames his conversation as one he's having with other traditions, while simultaneously coming coming to it from the particularity of the Christian confession, gives us a glimpse of how one might answer the question about Trinitarianism. It seems to me that if one sees God as Trinitarian then this entails (at least if we’re following the basic contours of the Gospel) that God is seen as the creator, redeemer, and reconciler. But, that one can see God as the creator, redeemer, and reconciler without necessarily seeing God as Trinitarian. I can't help wondering if this is something of the framework through which Kelsey will unfold the work -- thus, his brief mention of the similarly shared background context between Jews, Christians, and Muslims (seeing “the reality of God and God actively relating to us to be our ultimate context”, (5)) might find cohesion around an understanding God as the creator, redeemer, and reconciler, without seeing God as Trinitarian. I could be over-reading things there (as he doesn't mention anything about a drama of salvation), but regardless, perhaps we might say that the God who creates, redeems, and reconciles need not be equivalent to the Triune God, but that the Triune God should be equivalent to the one who creates, redeems, and reconciles?

    I wonder, Brad, could you say a bit more about your curiosity in terms of Kelsey's defense of a Christian anthropology?

  2. Daniel,

    I certainly agree about the economic Trinity, and I think your way of putting it is helpful. I was more challenging the way Kelsey puts it; or, perhaps, I am hoping for much more expansion as the work goes along.

    About his defense, my question mainly has to do with why one feels the need to defend a Christian anthropology at all. It seems, rhetorically and tonally, to be somewhat "defensive," rather than merely explication or explanation. Perhaps I'm reading too much into things -- or just looking for things to say in a recap... -- but the tone did strike me as a bit curious. No slight, just an observation.

  3. I don't remember where he comments on it but he mentions that he first considered doing a "christian" anthropology on top of cultural one but later deciding that it might have been giving too much away. That might explain his reasons for being defensive towards doing a Christian anthropology.

  4. Hi Brad,

    I hope you don't mind if I read along with you. You can never have enough Australians on your blog.

    From this early introduction, I'm not ready to make a call on Kelsey and the Trinity. He stresses these three ways that God relates to humans, but as Daniel points out, this need not be a trinitarian affirmation. I'll wait and see.

    I'm also not sure what to make of his preference for speaking of Christian traditions, rather than a Christian tradition (p.4). Surely his use of "Christian" to specify even these varying traditions speaks of some unifying character, namely, their relation to Christ. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but choosing "traditions" seems to emphasise the fractured human state of the varying interpretations of the gospel, whereas speaking of a "tradition" would place the emphasis on unity under God and the gospel. I am not sure that we need to choose between the two. Speaking of a singular Christian tradition seems to me a perfectly reasonable theological affirmation, so long as it is inclusive the many and disparate Christian communities. There is both the one Christian tradition, and its many traditions.

    Regardless, I'm keen to see where this goes.

  5. Steve,

    Thanks for commenting. Really, all of my questions in this first post were mostly reaching for something to start a conversation, so for much of it I'm in the same boat: wait and see.

    I'm curious to see where the tradition/s issue goes as well. I appreciate recognizing the fractured state of things, and I suspect the unifying factor will be God and God's relation to all that is not God, rather than anything internal to created life or humanity. But nice catch there.

  6. Steve -- you've hit on a good point there, as it seems that much of what Kelsey wants to do is articulate a theology "on the ground", so to speak, from the concrete particularities of location, vantage point, etc. I am also interested in how he is going to go about doing that while also holding in tension continuities and common places amidst the tradition.

    Brad -- Thanks for the clarification - it's always hard figuring out what's at stake at the beginning of a work, but I think the questions you've asked do a nice job of at least opening up possible points of interest!

    Even if its not his primary focus, I'm also interested to see how he sketches out his understanding of the Trinity -- his choice to order things creation, eschatological consummation, reconciliation certainly points towards some of the ways he might (possibly) unfold the relation between the Immanent and Economic Trinity in regards to election, and the relation between Jesus of Nazareth and the identity of God, but I look forward to seeing how he actually does that.

  7. Daniel - I also noticed that ordering of the triune roles and wondered if it will play a significant part in the sections to come.

    We seem to have common questions, I guess we should not be too surprised that an anthropology would be conducted "from below".

    I look forward to discussing the next section with you guys.