Monday, January 24, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

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.

Last week's post: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"

Section of text: Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"

Pages: 12-45

Summary: This chapter is, as promised, lengthy, extensive in detail, and relentlessly precise, constructed as one long answer to its titular question, with Kelsey offering at the outset his explicit methodological commitments. To begin, Kelsey names his task as one of "ecclesial theology," a churchly practice whose subject is always "God, and all else as related to by God and as related to God" (p. 14). Churches -- "communities of Christian faith" -- are defined as "a community of response" whose "communal identity ... is formed" from the outside, by God through Scripture and collective practices, and this God is known particularly or especially by reference to Jesus Christ (pp. 14-15).

Kelsey is keen to emphasize the priority of communal practices over against notions of conceptuality, subjectivity, or interiority divorced from socially embedded context and temporal formation. Such practices are inherently and inalterably public, sharing "a single end: to respond appropriately to the distinctive ways in which God relates to all that is not God" (p. 18), some of which are oriented solely to God, some to God and to one another, and some to God as well as to nonhuman creatures (pp 18-19).

"Primary theology" for Kelsey identifies the ordinary ad hoc gospeled thinking internal to the life of ecclesial communities over time, caught up within and indistinguishable from their regular communal practices (pp. 19-20). "Secondary theology," the category to which E.E. belongs, is the second-order discourse at some remove from the constitutive practices of churches, and therefore a practice in and of itself that seeks continually to identify, analyze, confirm, and/or revise beliefs and practices of the community in a self-critical and consistent way (pp. 20-22). Thus: "The overall end or purpose of this project is to commend proposals to ecclesial communities about how best to formulate their claims about what and who human beings are and how they ought to be existentially set into and oriented toward their lived worlds" (p. 22).

The standards of excellence which Kelsey offers for his project are fourfold (and here I quote since we will likely return to these for confirmation of whether Kelsey succeeds by his own standards): proposals about God "must comport with the person of Jesus"; "proposals about the ways in which God relates to all that is not God must comport with Holy Scripture's accounts"; "theological proposals on any topic must either be shown to comport with relevant theological formulations in the communities' theological traditions or be shown to be preferable to them"; and proposals must "provide analyses of the relevant features of the current culture of the ecclesial community's host society that show in what ways and why the former are inadequate in that cultural context" (p. 24). As the latter point suggests, the traditions that constitute communities of Christian faith are unavoidably complex, extremely diverse, and profoundly fallible (pp. 25-26).

The rest of the chapter is devoted to what Kelsey calls "desiderata for a secondary theology anthropology" (p. 27), a significant interaction with the broad premodern strands of agreement in anthropological matters in a process of affirming reception and critical revision. Kelsey is concerned with one primary guiding question, "What is the logic of the beliefs that inform the practices composing the common life of communities of Christian faith?" rather than with "coming to belief" or "the life of Christian believing" (p. 27).

Kelsey identifies four loci of theological anthropological focus in premodern theology, all of which "had in common that their internal logic was theocentric," a value Kelsey heartily and insistently affirms as central to his own project (p. 29). The first locus is "creation" (pp. 29-31), whose positive influence necessitates stressing "that human creatures are bodily public agents," while avoiding the tendency to "rely on invidious comparison and contrast either with other, allegedly lesser creatures, or between human creatures' 'physical' and 'mental' capacities" (not to mention between various hierarchies within human social ordering; p. 31).

The second locus is "salvation" or "redemption" (pp. 31-35), which yields four guiding lessons: that anthropological proposals be truly personal, relate to modern conceptions of psychology, do not imply or suggest that human beings earn their salvation, and "do not logically depend on the historicity of Adam, Eve, and the fall" (p. 35).

The third locus is "eschatological consummation" (pp. 35-39). The basic (less specific) challenge here is to articulate proposals that fit both "modern scientific interpretations of human being" and "canonical Christian Holy Scripture's narratives of God drawing all else, including human creatures, to eschatological consummation" (p. 38). This ambiguity is a result of the ambiguous nature of the eschaton itself, both as event in relation to human/cosmic history and as mysterious End prophesied and poetically performed and richly envisioned but never a-culturally specified (as if it could be) in the biblical texts.

The fourth and last locus is "revelation," which seems not to be its own area of discussion but rather one that relates uniquely to the prior three (p. 39). The fruit of this area is thus less its own than simply a reverting back to the problems and promises of the other three loci.

Finally, Kelsey characterizes E.E. as an exercise in "faith seeking understanding," with his own particular definitions of those terms that emphasize what he is seeking to avoid: any and all interiorization or objectification (p. 42), individualization or de-personalization (p. 43), abstractly enforced cultural/religious uniformity or incommensurable diversity (p. 44) of human being, as well as the mirroring temptations of either de-historicizing or unduly systematizing Christian faith (p. 44). The chapter concludes, appropriately, by calling the work "a project in systematically unsystematic secondary theology" (p. 45).

Reflection: It took a while to find a rhythm with Kelsey's (assumedly intentional) hyper-specific and monotonously repetitive style -- at times I wished he'd go David Foster Wallace on us and just start abbreviating his much-repeated, multiple-lines-long detailed phrases into manageable acronyms. Once I got a grip on it, however, I found the chapter intriguing and helpful as a set-up to the work as a whole.

Kelsey wants to do exactly what he outlined in the first chapter: suggest anthropological proposals for churches that stand in appreciable but critical relation to the tradition and that "make sense" with contemporary scientific and cultural knowledge and assumptions. This chapter is the "how" to that "what." As a reader, I am perhaps most excited about three areas he is sure to address: humanity's relation to the nonhuman creation; how fallenness and sin "fit" in a cosmic and earthly history understood in the light of evolutionary biology; and how biblical language and concepts like "soul" and "spirit" might be construed theologically (if at all) with assumed modern scientific approval.

Quote: "Tradition-as-action is inherent in each of the practices that make up the common life of communities of Christian faith. As responses to the good news -- that is, the gospel -- of the ways in which God relates to all that is not God, ecclesial practices explicitly or implicitly hand over that good news in two ways: by celebrating ways in which God concretely relates to all else and by holding themselves accountable to the concrete ways in which God relates as the standards of the appropriateness of practices as a response.

"Consequently, tradition as action shares the ambiguity and fallibility of the practices that constitute the community's common life. It can go wrong. The Greek word stem for "hand over," as it is used in the New Testament, can mean both the faithful handing over of the good news of the way God relates to estranged humankind to reconcile them in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the treacherous handing over by Judas of Jesus to the authorities for his arrest, trial, and crucifixion." (p. 25)

Questions: Do you agree with Kelsey's anthropological emphasis on "theocentricity"? What do you make of Kelsey's understanding and appraisal of modern cultural forms of knowledge? How are we to understand sin and fallenness without a historical Adam and Eve or discrete "fall" event? How are Christians to use language of "soul" or "spirit" if modern scientific or cultural understanding disallows belief in any such "substance"? Is Christian faith inherently anthropocentric over against the nonhuman creation, and why or why not? What else in Kelsey's methodological proposals or desideratum stimulated theologically, brought forth a delighted "Aha!" or perhaps proved disagreeably wrong-headed?

Next week: Chapter 2A: "The One With Whom We Have To Do," pages 46-79

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