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.)

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)