Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

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.

Section of text: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Pages: 1-11

Summary: Kelsey intentionally weaves two different projected aims into this single work, one for broad constructive suggestions for more general theological digestion ("A" chapters), and one for more detailed, fine-tuned arguments with the technical literature ("B" chapters). The former are generally shorter and in normal size print, while the latter are much longer and in smaller print. Thus, given that this opening salvo is an "A" chapter and that it is the introductory chapter explaining the project's overriding questions and interests, this summary will be able to follow the thread of thought much more closely than what will often be the case.

Effectively, Kelsey proposes three primary anthropological questions: What are we? How ought we to be? and Who am I and who are we? (pp. 1-2). The one asking belongs to the particular tradition of Christian faith and theology (pp. 2-3; Kelsey himself being "a North American white male Presbyterian" [p. 6]). Communities of the Christian tradition have always resided amongst and alongside other communities and traditions as well, and these include and/or influence both proximate and ultimate contexts of life, the former being "the physical and social worlds in which we live" and the latter the "most fundamental and decisive regarding what, who, and how we are" (p. 4). From a Christian perspective, God relates to humanity trinitarianly: as creator, as eschatos, and as reconciler (my terms, not Kelsey's). The entire project is an attempt to discover, given Christian theology's slim (that is, inconsistent and varied) anthropological history, whether there really is anything ineradicably central to a Christian articulation of the human.

Kelsey's thesis is "that the claims about human being that are nonnegotiable for Christian faith are claims about how God relates to human beings," which are fittingly threefold: that God creates human beings, "draw[s] them to eschatological consummation," and "reconcile[s] them when they are alienated from God" (p. 8). The chief question called forth for a Christian anthropology is what implications follow from these claims.

Finally, Kelsey states that he assumes, effectively (though with greater conceptual clarity than here stated), that there exist identifiable Christian communities in the world, that their ordering normative text is the Bible, and that they have (and employ) a capacity for self-criticism (pp. 9-10). In light of these basic assumptions, Eccentric Existence might be construed "as a set of remarks regarding three types of anthropological questions ... that are made as enactments of the communal practice of secondary theology," which "is enacted when the adequacy or appropriateness of the received conceptualizations and formulations themselves come into question" (p. 10). Kelsey hypothesizes "that there are now a lot of reasons to reexamine the adequacy of received theological anthropological formulations used in current primary theology" (p. 10).

The author hopes that by the end, the work will "hold together as a systematically unsystematic whole in which [the three parts] are related to one another in a triple helix as facets of the way in which human beings are imagers of the image of God, Jesus Christ" (p. 11).

Reflection: Little to say here; it sounds good to me. I'm a bit curious about Kelsey's felt need to defend his anthropology being Christian -- it might be required by the field, or by his surroundings, or it may be something more personal for which he feels compelled to answer. I thought it a bit odd, however, given the nature of the work. The questions and the thesis seem to me, however, to be wonderful overriding questions with which to be wrestling for the next year; and I am especially happy to see the explicitly Trinitarian approach at the outset.

Quote: "Simply put, a bridge requires two abutments, and I was clearer about the content of the abutment consisting of the anthropological wisdom of certain atheological conversation partners than I was about the content of the abutment consisting of specifically Christian anthropological wisdom. The historical evidence seemed to be that Christians in every age have largely appropriated the best anthropological wisdom of their host culture. .... My question became, 'Does Christian faith bring with it any convictions about human being that are so rock bottom for it that they are, so to speak, nonnegotiable in intellectual exchange with anthropologies shaped by other traditions?' " (p. 7)

Questions: Is understanding God in a Trinitarian way equivalent to recognizing God as creator, redeemer, and reconciler? What authorial or theological influences do we already find in Kelsey from the beginning? What received wisdom do we assume Kelsey is going to find wanting? What anthropological claims has the Christian tradition generally carried over and held close to the heart from one time and place to the next? What else stands out about this first chapter, and/or the structure of the work as a whole?

Next week: Chapter 1B, pages 12-45

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