March 26, 2017

Yandell on Berkeley and Creation

The fourth chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology is "Berkeley, Realism, Idealism, and Creation" by Keith Yandell. This is an interesting paper on Berkeley which, unless I missed something, did not turn out to be about Christian theology at all.

I say purposely that it did not turn out to be about Christian theology, because it sounds at the beginning as if it is going to be. Yandell begins by noting that Berkeley's position is rare among Christian thinkers (p. 73), and discussing a particular threat to Christianity from those who take the creation of matter to be impossible (p. 73-74). He also briefly discusses the problem of how Berkeley can accommodate certain core Christian doctrines, such as creation and Incarnation, within his idealism (p. 78-79). Now, this paper is a mere 8 pages in length (plus endnotes), so I just mentioned over half of the pages as having something to do with Christian theology. Nevertheless, the paper does not seem to me to be about Christian theology in any significant sense, because the theology (and especially the specifically Christian elements of that theology) are totally inessential to the paper's central point. Here's why: Berkeley's own response to the question of the compatibility of his view with divine creation is, essentially, that the Bible says God created the sun and the moon and the earth and plants and animals and so forth, but it doesn't say that God created material substrata. So, in other words, there is not special theological problem here: if Berkeley has an adequate analysis of the real existence of ordinary objects, then he can preserve divine creation.* Yandell also mentions the Incarnation, but he says one might worry about how, on Berkeley's view, we can say that "the Second Person of the Trinity [became] fully human as well as being fully divine, and thus being embodied, crucified, buried, and resurrected" (78). It sounds like what Yandell is worried about here is docetism, the heresy which holds that Christ merely appeared to be embodied and to suffer. But, again, if Berkeley can preserve the claim that human beings are really embodied—or, if you like, that human bodies are real—then it seems there is no special theological problem. (The case would be totally different if we were worried about avoiding Apollinarianism or Nestorianism or something; there might be special theological problems for Berkeley there.)

Indeed, Yandell does not treat these as special theological problems, for when his paper comes to solve them we are merely treated to an account of the existence of objects unperceived by humans. This account, of course, involves God, but it doesn't seem to me to involve Christian theology in any interesting way. (Yandell goes for a sophisticated version of the divine idea theory somewhat similar to the 'single-idea' interpretation proposed by Marc Hight.)

This paper seems to me to be a missed opportunity, in terms of exploration of idealism and Christian theology. Most importantly, Yandell never discusses what looked at the beginning like it was going to be the central issue: why did many philosophers regard the creation of matter by God as a serious problem, and how can Berkeley's immaterialism be seen as responding to this problem? In response to this, Yandell simply notes that most theists held that God was able to create matter (and had created matter). What reason is there to be dissatisfied with this view? Yandell gives Berkeley's reasons for being dissatisfied with this view, which is that matter is (according to him) conceptually impossible. But Yandell quotes Berkeley saying that many of his predecessors had thought the creation of matter by God to be impossible, despite believing in matter (and, in some cases, also in God)! The opponents (according to Berkeley) take matter to exist eternally, since it can't be created. Why do they think so, and how is Berkeley responding? This is not explored.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

* The objection raised by Lady Percival, which first led Berkeley to address this problem, was a more serious worry: how can God be said to have created inanimate objects before creating human beings? But that is not the problem of creation discussed by Yandell.

Posted by Kenny at March 26, 2017 4:17 PM
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