Monday, February 7, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

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?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"

Section of text: Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

Pages: 80-119

Summary: This chapter is an extraordinarily detailed apology (in the classic sense) for why E.E. is not the sort of project one might expect it to be. Its form consists of close readings and interpretations of influential philosophical systems after the Enlightenment whose paradigms theological anthropologies have adopted after them. Kelsey wants to ward off questions about why his own project does not conform to these prior patterns, and he believes he has good reasons for his decision.

In short, the chapter is an articulation of the differences between theologically assessing the logic of Christian faith as such (Kelsey's project), over against the logic of coming to faith or the life of faith (pp. 80-81). Kelsey believes disaster awaits those who conflate these (quite different) questions, as he seeks not to do, and what follows serves as an extended reflection on the various ways things can go wrong and have gone wrong (at least for Christian anthropological claims) when they have been conflated.

The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to variations on the theme of the modern turn to the subject (pp. 82-86). These consist of explications of Kant and Schleiermacher vis-a-vis, respectively, the moral and the religious subject ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Affirmation"; p. 86-100); of Hegel and Marx vis-a-vis self-critical reason ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Recognition"; pp. 100-108); and of Kierkegaard vis-a-vis the existential center of consciousness ("Subjectivity Constituted by Self-Relating in an Act of Self-Choosing"; pp. 108-113).

Kelsey posits numerous objections to all of these construals in their own right, but that is not his main goal. Rather, his thesis is "that it is a profound conceptual and methodological mistake to conflate any theological project that attempts to answer the question of the logic of Christian beliefs with a theological project that attempts to answer the question of the logic of coming to faith" (p. 113). The approaches above, as appropriated by various theologians in the last two centuries, can prove and have proved helpful in certain respects, especially in the apologetic enterprise. But when they serve to provide "a systematic structure by which to unify anthropology as a single theological locus" (p. 112) they distort the question which E.E. is seeking to explore.

The problems resultant from this distortion are fourfold: "utilitarian and functionalist trivialization of understandings of God and God's ways of relating to human beings, quasi-Manichean theological assessment of nonhuman creatures, anthropocentric and instrumentalist theological views of human beings' proper relations to nonhuman creatures, and an anthropocentric moralizing of accounts of Christian beliefs about human beings" (p. 113). Kelsey spends the rest of the chapter expanding on the particular facets of each of these "serious systematic consequences" for Christian theological anthropology (pp. 113-119).

Reflection: For the philosophically uninitiated, such as myself, this chapter was both the most difficult so far (a description I think will hold for the rest of the book) and the most enlightening. I greatly appreciated Kelsey's consistent commitment to his own clearly delineated scope, and while it can be tedious reading -- it is, after all, part of a 156-page methodological preface to the actual substantive work -- I think it will be immensely helpful once Kelsey begins to make his concrete proposals.

I especially enjoyed the final seven pages, in which we got a hint of what Kelsey is going to be about in the coming chapters. First, he is unwilling to make sin the center of his anthropology, instead insisting on the created goodness of humankind and on God's relationship to creation not as The Great Fixer-Upper. Second, he is equally resistant to belittling the wider creation, such that the drama of God's life with the world includes both creation and eschatological consummation as brackets to reconciliation as well as the nonhuman world within all three of those decisive divine acts. Finally, Kelsey wants nothing to do with anthropocentric anthropology to the exclusion of God or to the detriment of nature, nor does he have any patience for human-centered moralizing. All, in my judgment, excellent things to be wary of.

(Also: This chapter suggests areas in which Kelsey does believe it to be legitimate to reject culturally current forms of knowledge [see p. 117], which the last chapter had left us wondering about and hoping for.)

Quote: "[The following is] an important systematic point about Christian theological anthropology: it is only as we begin to grasp the mystery of theocentric human being that we can also begin to grasp the profundity of human beings' distortion in the human condition.

"Correlatively, when the human condition construed as a problem focuses and structures an account of the logic of coming to faith, God's relating to human beings is systematically construed in terms of its utility in fixing or healing that condition. God's relating is thus understood in terms of God's function of helping human beings cope with their condition. When that happens, God's relating to human beings is construed more as an analgesic or antidote to the human condition than as the ground of the mystery that is human being. When it is framed in that way, God's reality is understood in a fundamentally functionalist and even instrumentalist way."

Questions: Do you agree with Kelsey's crucial distinctions between conversion, faith, and discipleship (coming to faith, content of faith, enactment of faith)? Do you agree with his readings of Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Marx, and/or Kierkegaard? What do you make of his account of those who appropriated these systems in subsequent dogmatics? What is your assessment of the theological problematics he identifies as inherent in the conflation of the three distinct questions? Do you share his concerns about sin, anthropocentricism, ecology, and moralizing? What other thoughts did you have in reading the chapter?

Next week: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us," pages 120-131

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