Spiegel on Berkeley and Orthodoxy
March 8, 2017 — 12:04

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The first paper in Idealism and Christian Theology is James Spiegel’s “The Theological Orthodoxy of Berkeley’s Immaterialism.” This piece was originally published in Faith and Philosophy in 1996, though I must confess that I had not read it before today. I found the essay rather odd, partly because I have some confusion about the nature of its project. Contrary to my expectations, it does not really address any of the questions I outlined in my last post. On the whole, I think the essay makes problematic unexamined assumptions about Berkeley’s religion, and it relies on a controversial characterization of Berkeley’s analysis of body with which I disagree, but it emphasizes the role of divine language in a way I find helpful and also makes some interesting and original points about this topic. I will address each of these in turn.

Berkeley and Orthodoxy

Spiegel does not really address the question of what Berkeley might have meant by ‘orthodoxy’. At one point (endnote 26) Spiegel defines ‘theological orthodoxy’ as adherence to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, but this clearly isn’t really what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ since these creeds play no further role in his examination of Berkeley’s ‘orthodoxy’. Rather, as is quite clear beginning at the first page of the article, what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ is consistency with the Bible. The creeds do not come into it at all. Having defended Berkeley’s orthodoxy (in this sense), Spiegel goes on to say that Berkeley’s ultimate conclusions “would undoubtedly please a theologically conservative Anglican so sensitive to heresy” (27). The trouble is, Spiegel’s characterization of Berkeley as a theologically conservative Anglican is (in the historical context) inconsistent with Spiegel’s assumptions about what ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ mean for Berkeley. A defining feature of conservative (‘high church’) Anglicanism in Berkeley’s time was adherence to tradition, in both faith and practice. For a conservative Anglican, ‘heresy’ would be departure from the creeds and the tradition. A conservative Anglican would not just interpret Scripture however he or she pleased, in the ‘just the text’ fashion Spiegel employs. If Berkeley really was a theologically conservative Anglican, then he ought to be far more worried about how immaterialism can be rendered consistent with, for instance, the Chalcedonian Definition, but neither Berkeley nor Spiegel addresses this. This is an inauspicious start to a book purporting to deal with issues in Christian theology: Spiegel characterizes Berkeley as a conservative Anglican, but (implicitly) ascribes to him a Baptist conception of orthodoxy.

Having been a little hard on Spiegel in the preceding paragraph, let me make two more conciliatory points on this subject. First, Spiegel’s question of the consistency of Berkeley’s philosophy with Scripture is certainly an intrinsically interesting question and one that mattered a lot to Berkeley. Second, Spiegel primary mistake here is his characterization of Berkeley as a theological conservative, which occurs in a passing remark on the last page of the paper. In fact, the approach Spiegel employs in the article is not as far off the mark as it would be if Berkeley were a theological conservative. Let me expand on this last point.

It seems pretty clear to me that Berkeley is a latitudinarian Anglican and a religious populist. The term ‘latitudinarian’ is one that was in use in Berkeley’s lifetime and it is a description I believe Berkeley would be happy to accept (though I know of no text in which he applies the term to himself). Latitudinarians supported the status of the Anglican church as ‘established’ (i.e., state-supported), though most of them (including Berkeley) also supported toleration for dissenting Christians. They thought that the established church was important for social unity and the promotion of individual virtue, as well as (of course) for the spiritual salvation of their fellow citizens. Latitudinarians believed that the best way for the church to accomplish this was to keep doctrinal requirements to a minimum—that is, to allow broad latitude in individual belief. But not unlimited latitude. The established church was still to be a specifically Christian church, holding to the Bible and to Christian distinctives like the Trinity and the Incarnation. This perspective is in evidence, in particular, throughout Berkeley’s Alciphron.

Berkeley’s latitudinarianism is closely connected with his religious populism, that is, his view that “the Christian religion is … an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talents … of speculative men … [so that] our notions about faith … [must be] taken from the commerce of the world, and practice of mankind, rather than from the peculiar systems of refiners” (Alicphron, sect. 7.13). If the main justification for the established church is the moral and spiritual health of the nation, then the religion taught by the established church had better be a religion that benefits the ordinary people of the nation, and not only ‘speculative men’.

Now, to Spiegel’s credit, he quotes in full, on p. 13, Berkeley’s notebook entry 405: “All things in Scripture wch side with the Vulgar against the Learned side with me also. I side in all things with the Mob.” This entry makes clear what Berkeley is doing in the discussions of Scripture in the Three Dialogues Spiegel addresses later: he’s resisting the importation of metaphysical subtleties into the text of Scripture. Scripture, Philonous insists, never talks about material substrata (which Berkeley rejects). Instead, it talks about “the sun, moon, and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals” (Luce and Jessop, p. 250). Berkeley believes in all of these things. So Berkeley’s view is that if we set aside “the peculiar systems of refiners”—i.e., traditional systems of metaphysics and philosophical theology, such as that of Thomas Aquinas—and read Scripture as speaking in plain language to plain people, then we will see that it is not only consistent with but actually deeply harmonious with immaterialism. But actual conservative Anglicans in the 18th century, such as Peter Browne, would hardly call this ‘theological orthodoxy’.

So in the end my complaint here is that Spiegel has characterized Berkeley’s theological orientation in a way that is deeply flawed relative to Berkeley’s historical context. Berkeley would certainly count as theologically conservative relative to the Anglican churches of England, Ireland, and North America today, but in his own time he was not a conservative. If he had been a conservative, the entire approach Spiegel takes in his essay would be deeply flawed. However, because Spiegel is wrong about this particular point, much of the rest of what he says is actually correct. In general, though, the essay would have benefitted from a more careful characterization of Berkeley’s view of theology and Scripture. This would also have helped at the end of the essay, where I think Spiegel underplays the extent to which Berkeley takes his philosophy to be useful for the promotion of virtue, and not merely cold intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.

Bodies and Divine Ideas

I’ll be brief here. In his discussion of Berkeley’s treatment of creation, Spiegel interprets Berkeley as identifying bodies with divine ideas. Following Dancy, he takes these ideas to be of two kinds, private archetypes and public ectypes. The ectypal ideas are immediately perceived by us. While Spiegel is not the only one who interprets Berkeley this way, I am far from convinced that Berkeley holds that the ideas we perceive are numerically identical to ideas perceived by God. Further, I am not convinced that this reading of the divine archetypes avoids collapsing into a form of representative realism (how can I know that the idea I experience corresponds to the archetype?). I develop a very different interpretation of Berkeley on bodies in my book. Of course nothing one could have said on this point would have been uncontroversial, but this controversial interpretation plays a large role in this paper.

Divine Language

The strongest point of the article is its emphasis on divine language, and the extent to which Berkeley takes literally, or almost literally, the large number of Biblical passages that talk about God speaking things into existence. For on Berkeley’s view the perceived world just is God’s speech. I think Spiegel is correct that Berkeley sees this as a key point where his views are more consonant with Scripture than materialist views. Further, Spiegel suggests that Berkeley might regard our capacity for language as very important in the interpretation of the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God. This is an interesting and original point that’s well worth consideration.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)