Wainwright on Berkeley and Edwards
March 16, 2017 — 5:39

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

The second essay in Idealism and Christian Theology is “Berkeley, Edwards, Idealism, and the Knowledge of God” by William J. Wainwright. The aim of this article is to explore and explain similarities between Berkeley and Edwards in terms of the religious and cultural context in which they wrote, particularly the threat of deism and freethinking to these (relatively) traditional religious thinkers. This is an extremely interesting project, and it is for the most part well-executed, though the brevity of a single paper necessitates glossing over certain details, leaving some points underdeveloped, and so forth.

Wainwright’s central contention, I take it, is that Berkeley and Edwards share a concern with the ways in which God is coming to seem distant in a world governed by mechanistic science. The world is, increasingly, viewed as a grand machine that keeps rolling along without any outside assistance. Berkeley and Edwards regard it as insufficient to reason (as, for instance, Leibniz and Paley do) that behind a great machine there must be a great Engineer, for this may secure the existence of God, but it will not secure the nearness of God to the believer, or God’s immanence in the world. I am not very familiar with Edwards, but Wainwright’s account of Berkeley’s motivations and concerns is certainly sound. For instance, in the conclusion of the Principles Berkeley writes, “to an unbiassed and attentive mind, nothing can be more plainly legible, than the intimate presence of an all-wise Spirit, who fashions, regulates, and sustains the whole system of being” (sect. 151, my boldface) and that God “is present and conscious to our innermost thoughts” (sect. 155). Further, Berkeley tells us that “the main drift and design of [his] labours” was (among other things) to “inspire [his] readers with a pious sense of the presence of God” (sect. 156). Thus, for Berkeley, the mere existence of God is not enough. Similarly, in Alciphron it is said that the divine language argument “proves, not a Creator merely, but a provident Governor, actually and intimately present, and attentive to all our interests and motions, who watches over our conduct, and takes care of our minutest actions and designs throughout the whole course of our lives, informing, admonishing, and directing incessantly, in a most evident and sensible manner” (sect. 4.14). So Wainwright seems to be on firm ground (at least with respect to Berkeley) when he identifies the nearness of God as a key object of concern, and it is easy to see how the Berkeley-Edwards brand of idealism might be thought to do that. This paper is, in my view, quite a welcome addition to the literature. Too often, Berkeley’s religious motivations are treated as an embarrassment, as though the ‘real’ philosophy has been encumbered with a lot of nonsense from which we must separate it if we are to get the value out. Perhaps that may, in the end, turn out to be the case with respect to present-day philosophical value, but if we don’t see Berkeley’s religious vision clearly we’ll never understand his philosophy in the first place and our ‘disentanglement’ will go awry.

Of course, there are also differences between Berkeley and Edwards. Wainwright makes an interesting and plausible suggestion about the source of these differences: Calvinism. (Of course, Calvinism is always at the forefront with Edwards!) Now, I think Wainwright is a little oversimplistic here when he says that “Because Anglicans, like Berkeley, were not [theological determinists], he may have assumed that humanity’s contra-causal freedom required the existence of relatively independent and autonomous choosing substances” (41). Berkeley says almost nothing about human freedom, and what he does say (e.g., in the later sections of Alciphron 7) is pretty ambiguous. The theological debate between Calvinists and Arminians does not exactly track the metaphysical debate between compatibilists and libertarians (though it does track fairly closely), and not all Anglicans were Arminians. Indeed, prior to the Laudian reforms of the 1630s Calvinism had been the dominant view, and Archbishop James Ussher, the primate of Ireland at the time, had vigorously opposed the attempt to impose Arminianism. What was actually going on (several decades later) in the post-Restoration Anglican Communion was more that folks were keeping pretty quiet about the issues in the hope of keeping it from blowing up again. (Civil wars are not fun.) In my previous post I claimed that Berkeley was a latitudinarian. If so, that would explain why he is so carefully ambiguous on these points: part of the latitudinarian strategy was to try to make room for Calvinists and Arminians within the same church.

Nevertheless, Berkeley, while denying the existence of inanimate secondary causes and attributing the causation of sensory ideas to God, tries to carve out some room for genuine, autonomous human agency. Wainwright provides documentation that Edwards (unsurprisingly, for a radical Calvinist) has no such concerns. Indeed, in emphasizing our dependence on God, Edwards (in the quotes provided by Wainwright) appears driven nearly to Spinozism. I expect this issue regarding Edwards will be addressed further in some of the later essays.

An additional interesting point from Wainwright’s essay has to do with the theory of the world as divine language found in both Berkeley and Edwards. I don’t think Wainwright gets Berkeley’s version of that theory quite exactly right, but this is one of my pet issues and I’ll refrain from nitpicking about it here. More importantly: Wainwright notes that Berkeley believes that the status of the world as a language can be established by empirical and philosophical reasoning, and the fact that the world is a language shows that it must have a speaker. Hence the divine language can be used to establish the existence of God. Edwards, on the other hand, seems to take as a starting point a “two books” theology and a principle of typological interpretation. Thus the world, like the Bible, is a communication from God in the form of types and figures in which the presence of Christ must be discerned. This is justified primarily theologically.

I will conclude with one nitpick: Wainwright says that “Recent scholars agree that Berkeley and Edwards arrived at their idealism separately” (48n2). This claim is meant, I suppose, to underline the importance of identifying common contextual factors in order to explain the similar views of Berkeley and Edwards. In support of this claim, Wainwright cites the introduction to the science and philosophy volume of Edwards’ Works. Now this edition of Edwards’ Works was published from 1957–2008 and Wainwright does not indicate when this particular volume was released, so it is not clear what’s meant by “recent.” In any event, Edwards was taught philosophy at Yale by Berkeley’s disciple Samuel Johnson. (Based on the extant correspondence between Berkeley and Johnson, I do not think ‘disciple’ is too strong a word.) I don’t know what the state of the evidence is regarding whether Edwards actually read Berkeley’s works, but there is certainly a vector for indirect influence, at least. In places I took Wainwright to be implying that if we couldn’t uncover some shared contextual factors explaining the similarity of Berkeley’s and Edwards’ views that similarity would have to be regarded as sheer coincidence, and this is much too strong. Nevertheless, this point does nothing to detract from Edwards’ status as an original thinker, or from the interest of Wainwright’s analysis of Edwards’ similarities and differences from Berkeley.

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

Idealism and Christian Theology: Introduction
March 3, 2017 — 13:13

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

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 blog.kennypearce.net)