Monday, May 23, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10"

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"; Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

Section of text: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10"

Pages: 281-308

Guest reflection by Steve Wright:

Kelsey turns to consider how the human creature is personal. He reserves the notion of "person" for humans alone within the present consideration. In part this is out of a concern to avoid conflating trinitarian doctrine with anthropology through a univocal use of the language of "person" (pp. 286-87). This purely anthropological theology of personhood covers areas usually treated under the topic of the imago Dei. Kelsey has not eschewed the imago Dei, but has chosen to defer its presentation until later in the work. Likewise theology will be wary of uncritically adopting the dominant Western story of the human person, which often results in predicating "non-person" of human beings who do not fit within this narrative (p. 288-89).

In the previous chapter Kelsey read the story of Job's birth given in Job 10 in two ways: as the story of his being born with human DNA, and as the story of his being given a body which he is to regulate within its context of relation to God and other creatures. It is these two stories told contemporaneously which are the truth of human embodiment, the narrative of actual living human bodies. This unity is the "integrity" of the human narrative. But this integrity is frail and prone to dis-integration when either story is stressed at the cost of the other (p. 282). A human person's integrity is "frail through and through" and upheld only by the creative relating of God (pp. 283-86). The implication to be drawn from the previous chapter is that God's creative relating is the only condition of living bodies, without such a relation there simply is no life. This is not to say that God is then obligated to endlessly uphold these lives, Kelsey attempts to maintain God's transcendent freedom: "God creates dying life" (p. 284).

The uniquely personal aspect of the human creature, Kelsey argues, is not a quality or ability such as rationality or speech — though this latter ability has its place. It is, according to Kelsey's idiom, the human creature's ultimate context which makes one personal: God's relating. The relating by which God makes humans into persons is not identical to creative relating. God's creative relating is unmediated — this, Kelsey asserts, is the point of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo — but God makes a human personal through the mediation of language (p. 291-93). "God, as it were, talks human living bodies into being personal" (p. 293). These two modes of relating are not entirely discrete, for God creates personal bodies, without which humans could not be persons (note the distinction between "personal" and "person" with the logical priority of the former). Being personal, then, is not our choice, though "it is a status out of which one may or may not intentionally live" (p. 296).

Making God’s relation to humanity the ground of the human “person” protects from the instrumentality of upholding human dignity simply for the sake of the common social good. This occurs through the marriage of classificatory and evaluative use of “person”. When the common good dictates that a certain subset of humans are detrimental to the ongoing life of the community they are stripped of their status as “persons” (p. 290). Rather than this, it is God’s address that makes us persons; we are persons because God relates to us as such.

There is also a distinction to be drawn between actual persons and perfect persons. Perfection is not required for personal actuality, but neither can it be discounted if Jesus was a personal human body (p. 297). Perfection here is not a created state, but how one relates to God. The correlate relation — to other creatures — is read through the so-called "mandate of dominion." This is a royal role, Kelsey explains, which arises from the intractable link to other creatures and entails their well-being (p. 305). Anthropocentrism is correct only so far as the human is "qualified by the remainder" and recognised as "the first among equals" (p. 305). That is, the actual personal living human body carries a vocation to promote the fecundity of creaturely existence.


Is Kelsey's distinction between creative relating and the making of persons sufficiently delineated by the use of language, given that the primary mode of God's creative activity through theology tradition has been that of speech?

Is "person" utterly equivocal predicated of humans and of the divine persons? Is there nothing to learn about one from the other?

What are we to make of the status of death given Kelsey’s affirmation that “God makes dying life”? Is death finally a rival of life?

Do you think that Kelsey's use of the phrase "first among equals" helps or hinders his argument for the nature of the relation of human persons to non-human creation?

Is it just me, or is this discussion of personal bodies lacking some somatic weight?

Next reading: Chapter 8: "Faith: Flourishing on Borrowed Breath," pages 309-332

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