Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

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.

Last week's post: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Section of text: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

Pages: 12-45

Summary: This chapter is, as promised, lengthy, extensive in detail, and relentlessly precise, constructed as one long answer to its titular question, with Kelsey offering at the outset his explicit methodological commitments. To begin, Kelsey names his task as one of "ecclesial theology," a churchly practice whose subject is always "God, and all else as related to by God and as related to God" (p. 14). Churches -- "communities of Christian faith" -- are defined as "a community of response" whose "communal identity ... is formed" from the outside, by God through Scripture and collective practices, and this God is known particularly or especially by reference to Jesus Christ (pp. 14-15).

Kelsey is keen to emphasize the priority of communal practices over against notions of conceptuality, subjectivity, or interiority divorced from socially embedded context and temporal formation. Such practices are inherently and inalterably public, sharing "a single end: to respond appropriately to the distinctive ways in which God relates to all that is not God" (p. 18), some of which are oriented solely to God, some to God and to one another, and some to God as well as to nonhuman creatures (pp 18-19).

"Primary theology" for Kelsey identifies the ordinary ad hoc gospeled thinking internal to the life of ecclesial communities over time, caught up within and indistinguishable from their regular communal practices (pp. 19-20). "Secondary theology," the category to which E.E. belongs, is the second-order discourse at some remove from the constitutive practices of churches, and therefore a practice in and of itself that seeks continually to identify, analyze, confirm, and/or revise beliefs and practices of the community in a self-critical and consistent way (pp. 20-22). Thus: "The overall end or purpose of this project is to commend proposals to ecclesial communities about how best to formulate their claims about what and who human beings are and how they ought to be existentially set into and oriented toward their lived worlds" (p. 22).

The standards of excellence which Kelsey offers for his project are fourfold (and here I quote since we will likely return to these for confirmation of whether Kelsey succeeds by his own standards): proposals about God "must comport with the person of Jesus"; "proposals about the ways in which God relates to all that is not God must comport with Holy Scripture's accounts"; "theological proposals on any topic must either be shown to comport with relevant theological formulations in the communities' theological traditions or be shown to be preferable to them"; and proposals must "provide analyses of the relevant features of the current culture of the ecclesial community's host society that show in what ways and why the former are inadequate in that cultural context" (p. 24). As the latter point suggests, the traditions that constitute communities of Christian faith are unavoidably complex, extremely diverse, and profoundly fallible (pp. 25-26).

The rest of the chapter is devoted to what Kelsey calls "desiderata for a secondary theology anthropology" (p. 27), a significant interaction with the broad premodern strands of agreement in anthropological matters in a process of affirming reception and critical revision. Kelsey is concerned with one primary guiding question, "What is the logic of the beliefs that inform the practices composing the common life of communities of Christian faith?" rather than with "coming to belief" or "the life of Christian believing" (p. 27).

Kelsey identifies four loci of theological anthropological focus in premodern theology, all of which "had in common that their internal logic was theocentric," a value Kelsey heartily and insistently affirms as central to his own project (p. 29). The first locus is "creation" (pp. 29-31), whose positive influence necessitates stressing "that human creatures are bodily public agents," while avoiding the tendency to "rely on invidious comparison and contrast either with other, allegedly lesser creatures, or between human creatures' 'physical' and 'mental' capacities" (not to mention between various hierarchies within human social ordering; p. 31).

The second locus is "salvation" or "redemption" (pp. 31-35), which yields four guiding lessons: that anthropological proposals be truly personal, relate to modern conceptions of psychology, do not imply or suggest that human beings earn their salvation, and "do not logically depend on the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the fall" (p. 35).

The third locus is "eschatological consummation" (pp. 35-39). The basic (less specific) challenge here is to articulate proposals that fit both "modern scientific interpretations of human being" and "canonical Christian Holy Scripture's narratives of God drawing all else, including human creatures, to eschatological consummation" (p. 38). This ambiguity is a result of the ambiguous nature of the eschaton itself, both as event in relation to human/cosmic history and as mysterious End prophesied and poetically performed and richly envisioned but never a-culturally specified (as if it could be) in the biblical texts.

The fourth and last locus is "revelation," which seems not to be its own area of discussion but rather one that relates uniquely to the prior three (p. 39). The fruit of this area is thus less its own than simply a reverting back to the problems and promises of the other three loci.

Finally, Kelsey characterizes E.E. as an exercise in "faith seeking understanding," with his own particular definitions of those terms that emphasize what he is seeking to avoid: any and all interiorization or objectification (p. 42), individualization or de-personalization (p. 43), abstractly enforced cultural/religious uniformity or incommensurable diversity (p. 44) of human being, as well as the mirroring temptations of either de-historicizing or unduly systematizing Christian faith (p. 44). The chapter concludes, appropriately, by calling the work "a project in systematically unsystematic secondary theology" (p. 45).

Reflection: It took a while to find a rhythm with Kelsey's (assumedly intentional) hyper-specific and monotonously repetitive style -- at times I wished he'd go David Foster Wallace on us and just start abbreviating his much-repeated, multiple-lines-long detailed phrases into manageable acronyms. Once I got a grip on it, however, I found the chapter intriguing and helpful as a set-up to the work as a whole.

Kelsey wants to do exactly what he outlined in the first chapter: suggest anthropological proposals for churches that stand in appreciable but critical relation to the tradition and that "make sense" with contemporary scientific and cultural knowledge and assumptions. This chapter is the "how" to that "what." As a reader, I am perhaps most excited about three areas he is sure to address: humanity's relation to the nonhuman creation; how fallenness and sin "fit" in a cosmic and earthly history understood in the light of evolutionary biology; and how biblical language and concepts like "soul" and "spirit" might be construed theologically (if at all) with assumed modern scientific approval.

Quote: "Tradition-as-action is inherent in each of the practices that make up the common life of communities of Christian faith. As responses to the good news -- that is, the gospel -- of the ways in which God relates to all that is not God, ecclesial practices explicitly or implicitly hand over that good news in two ways: by celebrating ways in which God concretely relates to all else and by holding themselves accountable to the concrete ways in which God relates as the standards of the appropriateness of practices as a response.

"Consequently, tradition as action shares the ambiguity and fallibility of the practices that constitute the community's common life. It can go wrong. The Greek word stem for "hand over," as it is used in the New Testament, can mean both the faithful handing over of the good news of the way God relates to estranged humankind to reconcile them in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the treacherous handing over by Judas of Jesus to the authorities for his arrest, trial, and crucifixion." (p. 25)

Questions: Do you agree with Kelsey's anthropological emphasis on "theocentricity"? What do you make of Kelsey's understanding and appraisal of modern cultural forms of knowledge? How are we to understand sin and fallenness without a historical Adam and Eve or discrete "fall" event? How are Christians to use language of "soul" or "spirit" if modern scientific or cultural understanding disallows belief in any such "substance"? Is Christian faith inherently anthropocentric over against the nonhuman creation, and why or why not? What else in Kelsey's methodological proposals or desideratum stimulated theologically, brought forth a delighted "Aha!" or perhaps proved disagreeably wrong-headed?

Next week: Chapter 2A: "The One With Whom We Have To Do," pages 46-79


  1. I also struggled with the rhythm of this section due to the repetition and penchant for unnecessarily precise phrases such as: "all that is not God". I expected to the work to begin with an argument, but it instead opens with an apology. I am no fan of verbose introductions generally, and 160 pages (twice the length of On Thinking the Human!) of introductory apologia is just overkill. I'll stick with it, but this introduction is a short book in its own right.

    I look forward to seeing how he develops the third locus of eschatological consummation from an anthropological perspective without being anthropocentric. Merely positing the restoration of all creation will not suffice, we are quite capable of anthropocentrism in the brilliant diversity of our current surrounds.

    I think that we can imagine at least two types of anthropocentrism: 1) valuing the human to the extent that other creaturely existence is of only passing significance; 2) valuing the human as unique within the splendour of the creaturely realm. While Christian theology has frequently flirted with the first type of anthropocentrism, I think it is the second type that has captured it. So long as theology assigns to humanity some unique (and presumably privileged) role or place within the created order, claims of anthropocentrism will obtain. If this is to be the state of affairs, let us at least have a theocentric anthropocentrism; which is to say: let us have Jesus.

  2. More to add in a bit, but Steve, would you mind sending me your email address (eastbk AT gmail DOT com)? I have emailed fellow readers about a couple things and realized I didn't have your address.

  3. I was also struck by Kelsey's seeming fear or reservation against anything that sounds anthropocentric. For example, he says, “For one thing, by construing the question “What is human being?” as the question “What distinguishes human being form, and makes it superior to, all other creatures?” such anthropologies tend to be anthropocentric in regard to the value of other creatures (30).” It seems as if "anthropocentric" for him is an automatic veto. In my reading, cripture seems to make some implicit comparisons between the two (animals and humans seem to be distinguished in Genesis 1-2 by the fact that humans are made in God’s image). There seems to be an anthropocentrism implicit in the fact that “the creation is waiting in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Here, even salvation seems anthropocentric, for God's rescue of creation is dependent upon his rescue of humanity.

    I am looking forward to his discussion of how anthropological proposals are not dependent on the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. This seems to be right and important to me, but I don't really know how to talk about or conceive of the Fall without imagining it in historical terms.

    Overall, I like what he has had to say so far in his introduction, but I am definately looking forward to getting through these 160 pages and exploring the body of the work.

  4. Steve and Garrett,

    I think you’ve both hit the nail on the head there – there are anthropocentrisms, and then there are anthropocentrisms. The fact that an emphasis on the centrality of humanity in relation to what God does has often led to domination, exploitation, or an attempted flight from the world, doesn’t mean that it must result in this. It all depends on how one lays it out – if anthropology is grounded in Christ (for example), and takes its form concretely from what he is, does, and says, then at least the possibility for a different account of humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation is opened up.

    One question I found myself wondering about throughout this chapter is, what is it that makes us and allows us to be self-critical? I really like the impulse that Kelsey is going for: being attuned to cultural and intellectual currents, responding to the needs of the moment, considering whether or not our thought, speech, and action are actually doing what we think they’re doing or whether in fact they’re inhibiting our faithfulness to God, etc., but so far I haven’t seen a clear case for why Kelsey thinks this is possible or something we should care about (though I could have missed it...). Is it simply the fact that we recognize the historically contingent and limited scope of the church’s life and the need to be aware of and address ourselves to and from this perspective (which, to be fair, is an important recognition!)? In this case this self-criticism would come from something like a “perspectival” demand placed on the church--the church, like everything else, happens in history, so must look at itself accordingly. Or does it proceed from the nature of who God is and who we are in light of God, such that self-criticism comes from a theological commitment? A combination of the two? Something else? Obviously I don't want to break history and theology apart or anything like that, but I'm interested in why
    Kelsey sees that this is important.

  5. I hope to respond soon, but two more questions:

    1) What does it mean that we have salvation in "the life, ministry, death, and resurrection appearances" of Christ? What in the world does it mean to say that it is Christ's resurrection appearances, not the actual resurrection itself, that are salvific?

    2) Does Kelsey suggest that there may be cultural currents or forms of knowledge or assumed worldviews that the church speaks against and disagrees with? Or are all cultural knowledges made equal, and therefore we should endear our theological proposals to them rather than (sometimes) vice versa?

  6. Garrett,

    I think that the anthropocentrism he is critiquing is the sense of human self-importance which eclipses the value of other creatures. I hear this in preaching all the time, when the "resurrection" sounds an awful lot like the persistence of the immortal soul. Anthropocentrism is why so many people imagine heaven in the clouds. It is why pastors break the news to wet-eyed children that their deceased bunny isn't going to heaven, but simply is dead.

    From a theological perspective, this is problematic because it is a function of incurvatus in se. It is an idolatrous claim that we are the centre of meaning in this world. Humans are not at the centre of reality, God is. This acknowledgement relativises our claims for special status. We, like all creatures, are dependent on the Creator. There does seem to be some distinction between humans and other creatures, but if we think that this differentiation indicates hierarchy then we have forgotten that it is the triune God who speaks us into being and fills our nostrils with spirit.

  7. Brad: That is a good point about the resurrection appearances. Is he simply reticent to affirm the resurrection? This is odd; even at the points where Jenson (for example) is reluctant to posit the empty tomb, the appearances were still concrete evidence that a resurrection had taken place. If the weight falls on the appearances and not the resurrection itself, is Kelsey thinking solely of the NT witnesses, or are there ongoing appearances?