Monday, May 16, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

[Unfortunately, this series has taken a three-month break, what with finishing my thesis, hearing back from doctoral programs, graduating, and preparing to move. Along with others, I have kept up the reading, but have not been able to post about it. The post below and next week's are by a guest writer; after that I will likely trim the format to largely scattered reflections on broader sections and arguments in Kelsey's work. If you have a piece or your own thoughts you would like to contribute, by all means email me and I'll put it up.]

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"; Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"; Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us"

Section of text: Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

Pages: 242-280

Guest reflection by Steve Wright:

Kelsey’s goal in this chapter is to reflect on the human as a creature. He chooses to do this by putting forward a theology of birth. This reflection starts from a reading of Job 10. Job’s lament is that he has been born, that he exists at all. For Kelsey birth is the manner by which a human person comes into existence. Birth need not entail the passage of a baby through the birth canal. A human can be born without the thinning of the cervix at all. Job employs metaphors for gestation according to the science of his day: “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” – a reflection on the hardening of semen into a human body. God is the primary agent in this pastoral process, and the ancient metaphors were amendable to this divine role. Contemporary science need not banish such reflections on God’s creative work in human birth, but now the story is of “molecular exchanges among biochemical energy systems” (p. 248).

Utilising scientific insight, Kelsey explains, we can begin to refine our understanding of birth and embodiment. The boundary of a living body is not demarcated by the largest organ, but a living body can only be understood in its environment; biology and ecology together form our understanding of living bodies (p. 248, 265-270). This is the “proximate context” of human embodiment. Moreover, a body does not cede to entropy, but preserves homeostasis. Thus a body has a telos which interacts with its environment. A being has life to the extent that it participates in this interaction. This disallows the possibility of disembodied life which transcends all temporal and spatial conditioning. Such a being is as dead as a rock (p. 249). A body is “the singular manifestation” of life. This teleonomy includes fact that there is no physiological necessity for death. A body is resistant to thermodynamic decay, so the best explanation for death is evolutionary. An environment would need infinite resources and energy to sustain an eternal population.

So far for bodies in general, but what makes a creature human? Kelsey focuses on the DNA of the human creature as the point of identification and human continuity. This is not to say that all creatures comprised of human DNA are human bodies. But the DNA of a skin shaving or an embryo, while itself not a complete human being, holds the potentiality of a human being. Here is the centre of Kelsey’s argument: the actuality of a living human body comes of being born. (p. 254). It is God taking that potentiality and being the agent of its actuality. Theological anthropology has to do with such “actual living human bodies”, even though potentiality is a sort of actuality. This focus on DNA and birth, Kelsey argues, safeguards the content of anthropology against developments such as the possibility of machine or extraterrestrial intelligence (p. 259). Theologically, God creates at the point of birth, and what is created is simply a “newly born actual human living body” (p. 264).

There is a second story of birth to be told. One does not only “is” a body, but “has” a body. Because Job can protest his birth, he is distinguishable from his body (p. 271). Job does not tell the story of a dualist anthropology, but he has been entrusted to care for and regulate the body which he is in relation to God and other creatures. Just so he both has and is a body. This relation of the body to God, rather than interior individuality, forms the basis of the “unsubstitutability of human persons” (pp. 273-75). Kelsey describes this as a “theologically appropriate individualism”, by which he means that we are responsible for the way we respond to God’s creative relating, not as atomised individuals, but as members of social networks and proximate contexts. That God creates us within social contexts and neighbourly relations is the basis of our respect for the dignity of others (p. 279). Response to God’s creative action and upholding neighbourly dignity form a singular horizon in the Christian world.


Do you think that Kelsey’s attempts to protect anthropology from the potential discoveries of machine intelligence or extraterrestrial intelligence by emphasising DNA and birth are adequate in the face of technological developments such as wetware and the prognostications of futurists that a human intelligence will soon be transferable to a computer system?

For a theological theory of embodiment, the major contextual theologies of body are conspicuously absent. What might Kelsey’s theology of birth gain from a more robust engagement with gender theory or black theology?

Kelsey’s definition of birth as a “temporally extended process” (p. 247) beginning with the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm and culminating in the ability to live independently of its mother is complicated by the fact that a sperm is no longer necessary for the fertilisation of an egg, and the moment of independent existence is exceedingly hard to identify in the case of a premature birth. And yet he stakes a large theological claim on this definition. Is Kelsey’s definition unambiguous enough to be theologically decisive in the way he intends?

Next reading: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10," pages 281-308

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