Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

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.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

Section of text: Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

Pages: 46-79

Summary: This chapter is somewhat of a summary run-through of Trinitarian tradition construed both historically and theologically. Kelsey's stated "aim in this project is to think through the agenda of theological anthropology in a way shaped from beginning to end by the triunity of the God with whom we have to do" (p. 46). Kelsey takes God's triunity for granted, rather than defending it explicitly. His theocentric approach demands that an answer be given to the question about what sort of God it is who relates to all that is not God.

He proceeds in five movements, much of which I need not recount in detail here. The first two consist of explaining the way in which the biblical materials call forth a triadic conception of God's actions (pp. 47-48), and of the historical account of the crises and challenges, especially between Arius and Athanasius, that issued in explicitly Trinitarian articulations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as each to be counted on the "God" side of the Creator/creature ontological line -- all of which centering on the relation of God to the saving story of Jesus (pp. 48-58).

The third movement is an exploration of the creedal formulations climaxing in and extending from Nicaea and Constantinople (pp. 59-66). Regarding this monumental statement on the part of the church, Kelsey says that "the bishops were not merely summarizing Scripture's stories of God's ways of relating to reality other than God," but more, "they were making decisions about how best to construe those stories insofar as they render the identity of God . . . giving broad hermeneutical guidance about how best to interpret Scripture" (p. 61).

The creed has three functions within the life of the church. The first is existential: in naming God as Trinity, Christians "have publicly committed themselves, with others, to a way of understanding to God with whom they believe all humankind to do"; and in so doing, "Christians have shaped, as well as expressed, their personal identities" (p. 62). The second role of the creed is rhetorical, that is, "shaping the rhetoric appropriate God's ways of relating to us" (pp. 62-63). Finally, the creed's third role is methodological: on the one hand, no anthropological proposal or understanding "may contradict or conceptually undercut the implications of God's relating to [humans] as [our] Creator, and vice versa"; on the other hand, though such proposals "will inescapably be indirectly christocentric epistemically, they need not derive their material content from Christology" (p. 64).

Finally, the fourth and fifth moves Kelsey makes with regard to Trinitarian theology is to shift from economic to immanent Trinity, and then to return to implications for the triune God's relation to all else. Kelsey grants the force of the equivalence and simultaneity of the economic and immanent conceptions of the Trinity, but not only does he believe the distinction to be valid, it is necessary lest "the priority of the immanent Trinity in the order of grace [be] denied and the graciousness of the economic Trinity [be] in question" (p. 68).

From here he goes on to a discussion of the Cappadocian innovations in defining ousia and hypostasis and of the nature of the eternal interpersonal life of love, of community-in-communion, that is the triune God -- and this suggesting what human flourishing might look like by analogy (p. 72).

Kelsey's concluding comments consider the issue of "mystery" in relation both to God and to humanity. Two summarizing statements will help conclude our own summary: "In this project, unless otherwise stipulated, 'mystery' will be used in the singular to refer to God's incomprehensibility to human cognitive capacities, to refer to revelation insofar as it is God's faithful communication of Godself precisely as incomprehensible, and in an analogical sense to characterize human beings as related-to by God" (p. 75). And: "The interdependence of its glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, I suggest, constitutes God's life as a 'mystery' " (p. 77). The anthropological implications of these matters, specifically of God's character and of God's triunity, will be dealt with explicitly in Chapter 3A (p. 79).

Reflection: Unfortunately, I am heading out of town for a couple days and have little time to offer substantive reflection. I'll share questions below to provoke conversation, but I'm depending on others to sustain the response in the comments. See you there.

Quote: "In this project, use of 'mystery' will seek to conform to Foster's distinction between 'mystery' on one side, and 'problems' and 'puzzles' on the other. In particular, the use of 'mystery' herein seeks to hold together as least clear features of the community-in-communion that is God's life and help make it incomprehensible to us (although presumably not to God!). First, as reciprocal self-giving out of fullness, not out of need, it is immeasurably rich life, inexhaustible in its resources. That, we may say, is the glory of God's life. Second, in its inexhaustible richness, it cannot be comprehended cognitively. We may apprehend it, but we cannot hope to comprehend it, to get our minds around it. It is impossible exhaustively to map it conceptually or to catch it all up in a net of theory. That, we may say, is the incomprehensibility of God's life. Third, if we think of God's life as God's self-relating, then we must say that in all of these reciprocal relations God is at once radically freely self-determining, so that God's self-giving in love is independent of and never exacted by the creaturely beloved other; and in self-giving God is true to Godself, never compromising divine love. That, we may say, is the holiness of God's life. The interdependence of its glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, I suggest, constitutes God's life as a 'mystery.'

"By just this life humans are engaged when the triune God relates to them. Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery -- that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. Such life can only be analogous to the triune God's eternal life because humans are on the creaturely side of the creature/Creator ontological distinction." (pp. 77-78)

Questions: Does it matter for Christian anthropology that God is triune? Why or why not? Is it important or valid to distinguish between the economic and the immanent Trinity? What is lost or gained thereby? Are the conclusions reached at Nicaea and Constantinople binding on Christians today? What if their philosophical or anthropological or metaphysical working assumptions were misguided or wrong? What of the process that led to the creed's formulation -- how does the politics of its coming-to-be affect our reading of its authority or truth? What do you make of Kelsey's insistence that the incarnation does not necessarily reveal anything to us about human being? Put differently, do you agree with his claim that Christian anthropological proposals "need not derive their material content from Christology" (p. 64)? What were your thoughts on his highly nuanced discussion of "mystery," and how does that topic seem to relate to questions of anthropology?

Next week: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Projects This Isn't," pages 80-119

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Brad, I really appreciate you sharing on this online. It's making me think about reading the book. I am curious about this phrase 'need not derive their material content from Christology'. How can this work if a new and true humanity is created in Christ?