March 3, 2017

Idealism and Christian Theology: Introduction

I have been asked to review Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton's Idealism and Christian Theology for Faith and Philosophy. In accord with a previous practice I have found useful, I will be blogging through the book, one post per chapter, in preparation to write the review. This post will be not so much a discussion of the book's introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.

The fundamental paradox of theological anthropology in the Abrahamic tradition is the understanding of the human being as the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth (see Genesis 2:7). The philosophical/theological task is to unpack or spell out this evocative metaphor. It is widely believed in the broader culture (and perhaps also to a large extent among Christian analytic philosophers) that the Christian view (or, often, more generally the 'religious' view) of the human person is substance dualism: the breath of God is to be understood as an immaterial soul, and the dust of the earth as a physical body. The human person is an embodied soul. Yet, historically, this has not (at least in its straightforward Platonic/Cartesian version) been the dominant view in Christian philosophy and theology, and has often been regarded with suspicion by Christian philosophers and theologians. The reason for this is that the substance dualist has difficulty explaining how the human being can be a genuine unity of body and soul (or, indeed, how body and soul could be in any sense united). The breath of God must be taken to dwell in the dust of the earth; we must hold, as Descartes said, "that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship" (Sixth Meditation). The human being, the tradition has held, is a unity of mind and body. The true self is not to be identified with the mind or soul rather than the body, but with the unity of both. The human being is formed from the dust of the earth. Contrary to Plato, I am not an immaterial soul trapped in a body. I am fundamental a corporeal being.*

This has broader theological consequences. For the Abrahamic tradition generally, it has been connected with the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The majority of this tradition holds that disembodied existence is possible but bad for human beings, and that we exist in a disembodied state after death only temporarily: in the end, we will again be embodied beings. There are also specifically Christian concerns following from our understanding of embodiment: the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of the Eucharist.**

Now, metaphysical idealism—particularly the Berkeleian sort—has often been thought of as a doctrine friendly to religion. After all, its chief proponent went on to become a bishop, and he himself sold the doctrine in large part as an aid to religion, since it supports the existence of God and the natural immortality of the human soul. All of this can be seen as an affirmation of the human person as the breath of God, an affirmation that was crucial for defenders of traditional religion at a time when Descartes's 'beast machine' was gradually developing into La Mettrie's 'man machine'. Yet there is reason to fear that Berkeley, like many other modern Christians, in his zeal to defend the status of the human person as the breath of God has fallen into heresy by denying that the human person is also the dust of the earth.

This particular heresy, the denial of the fundamentally bodily nature of the human person, is usually considered a form of Gnosticism, and in fact Berkeley's last (and strangest) major philosophical work, Siris (1744) explicitly connects his philosophy to the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism (and especially Ralph Cudworth). Though this tradition has some exponents whose orthodoxy is unquestionable (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine),*** it has also often veered into Gnosticism.

So there is reason for suspicion about the theological orthodoxy of Berkeleian idealism. But Berkeley himself is of course not unaware of these issues, and he insists at length, especially in Three Dialogues, that his view preserves the reality of bodies and, indeed, does so better than materialist competitors. Just as the theological orthodoxy of Descartes's dualism depends on the success of his (virtually non-existent) account of the union of mind and body, the theological orthodoxy of Berkeley's idealism depends on the success of his defense of the reality of body. Further, the resulting view needs to be able to accommodate the specific religious doctrines mentioned above.

We now come, finally, to the present book. This is the first of two volumes in Bloomsbury's Idealism and Christianity series edited by James Spiegel. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, ed. Steven Cowan and James Spiegel, is already out. Volume 1 contains two previously published essays and nine new essays addressing theological questions arising from Berkeley's idealism and the similar idealism of Jonathan Edwards. Judging from the introduction and table of contents, it appears that every one of the issues I have outlined above will be addressed. Over the next month or two, I will record my thoughts on each of the essays in the volume, so stay tuned!


* Since one of the main aims of Descartes's Meditations is to make mechanical philosophy (science) acceptable to the Catholic Church, he repeatedly affirms this. I am not denying that a substance dualist can affirm this, but only observing that philosophers and theologians have sometimes been suspicious of the dualist's ability to do so. In Descartes's particular case, for reasons noted by Elisabeth of Bohemia, no account has been given (or, I think, can be give) of how the soul is united to the body.

** Even for traditions that reject the Real Presence (e.g., Zwinglian or Calvinist interpretations) there remains the question of why such a bodily act as eating should be an appropriate form of worship.

*** The orthodoxy of a creative and original philosopher or theologian is never unquestionable in his/her own lifetime; it becomes unquestionable only when later generations come to regard that thinker as to some extent definitive of orthodoxy, as is the case with both Gregory (one of the architects of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity) and Augustine.


(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

Posted by Kenny at March 3, 2017 1:09 PM
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Wessling on 'Idealistic Panentheism'
Excerpt: The third essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is "Idealistic Panentheism: Reflections on Jonathan Edwards's Account of the God-World Relation" by Jordan Wessling. The essay is avowedly not interpretive, but rather aims at an evaluation of a certai...
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