Idealism and Christian Theology: Concluding Thoughts and Table of Posts
April 24, 2017 — 15:48

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

Having finished commenting on every chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology, allow me here to offer some concluding thoughts on the book and its aims and scope.

First, some comments regarding scope. The title ‘idealism and Christian theology’ allows for a very wide scope. In the design of a volume like this, a judgment must be made about how broadly or narrowly the title is to be interpreted. Here, the title bears a relatively narrow interpretation in two respects, only one of which is explicit in the introduction. The explicit restriction of scope is that the volume considers only Berkeleian and Edwardsian idealisms and not, e.g., Kantian or post-Kantian idealisms (p. 3). The implicit restriction is that the Christian theology is confined exclusively to conservative/traditional Protestant theology.

By my count, three of the essays focus primarily on Berkeley and five focus primarily on Edwards. Of the three essays remaining, one (Wainwright) is primarily concerned with comparison and contrast between Berkeley and Edwards, and the other two (Wessling and Arcadi) focus on the theological consequences of idealism without engaging in significant exegesis of either Berkeley or Edwards (though Wessling connects his version of idealism with Edwards and Arcadi connects his with Berkeley).

While I’m tabulating things, here are some facts about the authors: four work primarily in philosophy, seven in theology. All eleven authors are male. Six of the seven theologians are affiliated with Christian institutions (colleges or seminaries), all of which have a conservative Protestant orientation. Three authors are affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary. By contrast, all four of the philosophers (and the one remaining theologian) are affiliated with secular universities. All of the Berkeley essays (and the one comparative essay) are by philosophers, while all of the Edwards essays are by theologians.

These facts are likely connected with a point of contrast between the Berkeley essays and the Edwards essays, which I have been noting as I go along: the Edwards essays pretty much universally pay careful attention to Edwards’ own theological commitments, and the way Edwards himself connects his idealism with his theology. The authors writing about Edwards generally seem sympathetic to Edwards’ theology, as well as his idealism. By contrast, Airaksinen is the only author to pay significant attention to Berkeley’s theological commitments. The other authors writing about Berkeley are generally concerned with how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with certain theological claims they (the authors) take to be important. This observation is not necessarily a criticism; it’s another choice about scope. The two questions (how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with his own theological commitments; how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with our theological commitments) are both perfectly legitimate, provided we distinguish them from one another. However, it is a little odd, and perhaps unfortunate, that all the Berkeley essays are on one side and all the Edwards essays on the other. This probably has to do with the disciplinary divide: the fact that all the Berkeley essays are by philosophers and all the Edwards essays are by theologians (with one comparative essay by a philosopher).

Second, some comments regarding the aims of the volume. In my introductory post, I wrote: “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.” However, there turned out to be a degree of mismatch between my conception of the connection between idealism and Christian theology and the conception that animates this volume. My own account had primarily to do with a certain cluster of problems faced by the Christian idealist, which might be placed under the general heading ‘theology of the body.’ The body has significant importance to Christian theology, and idealism might be accused of running into Gnosticism by devaluing the body. To be sure, these sorts of issues do crop up in several places in the volume, and in some cases are addressed quite insightfully. (See especially the essays by Hamilton, Cortez, and Arcadi.) However, as the editors emphasize in the introduction (p. 3), this volume is more concerned with the value of idealism for constructive theological work than with the compatibility of idealism with basic points of orthodoxy. Of course, the orthodox theologian can use idealism constructively only if it is compatible with orthodoxy, and this is the reason that my question (the compatibility of idealism with ecumenical orthodoxy regarding the theology of the body) does come up in a number of places. But this is not the central focus.*

Finally, an overall evaluation. This volume must be understood as a defence of the harmony (not mere logical compatibility) of Berkeleian/Edwardsian idealism with traditional/conservative Protestant theology. Read in this way, all of the eleven essays are good, and at least six are excellent. The book is important and timely insofar as it stands at the intersection of two trends: the increasing seriousness with which idealism is taken in analytic philosophy, and the increasing engagement between analytic philosophy and theology. I, for one, think both of these trends are positive developments, and I therefore hope that this book will help to solidify both of them and also to begin a larger conversation about the relevance of metaphysical idealism to Christian theology.

Table of Posts

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


* Thanks to Joshua Farris for helpful correspondence on these points.

Tan on Edwards’ Christology
April 11, 2017 — 12:45

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

Chapter 9 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards Dynamic Idealism and Cosmic Christology” by Seng-Kong Tan. The article addresses the relevance of Edwards’ idealism to his accounts of the two central mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Whereas most of the articles in this volume are primarily philosophical and deal with Christian theological commitments only at a rather basic level, this essay dives deep into the theology. Anyone not steeped in the history of these doctrines is likely to find it difficult to follow. I found it quite challenging myself, and will here only attempt to summarize the picture of Edwards’ Christology presented by Tan.

Orthodox Christology involves a sort of two-stage model. As the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed has it, Christ was “begotten of the Father before all worlds” but, at a particular, identifiable point in history, “came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Thus our Christology must address two distinct points: the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was eternally begotten of the Father, and subsequently became incarnate forming (as the tradition has it) a hypostatic union with a complete human nature, so that there was one individual person who was at once divine and human.

Tan argues that Edwards’ accounts of both stages are intimately connected to his idealism. Edwards, according to Tan, adopts two Augustinian analogies: he speaks of the Son as the divine intellect and the Spirit as the divine will, and he also speaks of the Spirit as identified with the mutual love between the Father and the Son. The relevance of idealism here is that the Son and the Spirit are, like everything in Edwards’ system, identified as ideas. The Son is ‘begotten’ through the Father’s self-contemplation. As on the Thomistic picture, God is thought to know all possible creatures by knowing Godself (to know what creatures are possible is to know what God can create). This idea that God has of Godself is the Son, begotten in an eternal act of self-contemplation. The Holy Spirit is the act or operation of mutual love between the Father and the Son which arises necessarily and eternally from the act of self-contemplation whereby the Son is begotten. Thus the Son is intellect, knowledge, contemplation, while the Spirit is act or will (178).

For Edwards (according to Tan), creation is a Trinitarian act of the continual communication of ideas. These ideas are ultimately to be found in the Logos, the Son, and communicated by the Spirit. This amounts to a continuous creation. (I’m not totally clear on what’s meant by ‘communication’ here—in fact I’ve had some confusion about that in some previous chapters as well.) A feature of Edwards’ particular brand of continuous creation that is important to the understanding of the Incarnation is that the identity of objects over time is effectively a matter of divine fiat (183). It apparently follows from this that a created human nature can be united with the Logos by mere fiat, without any fancy metaphysics (185). Edwards has more to say about the kind of communion or indwelling that exists between Christ’s human nature and the Logos but curiously it seems that, at least on Tan’s telling, this isn’t really required for hypostatic union, since unity/identity are in general created by arbitrary divine fiat. On the other hand, as Tan is at pains to emphasize (183-4), the fiat is not arbitrary in the sense of capricious, but only in the sense of being a free choice shaped only by divine wisdom, so Edwards may think it would have been somehow unfitting for God to decree such unity in the absence of communication or indwelling.

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

Crisp on Edwards on the Incarnation
April 6, 2017 — 6:03

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

Chapter 8 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards, Idealism, and Christology” by Oliver Crisp. This is the second of the two previously published essays, having appeared in another edited volume in 2011.

The first part of the essay provides an admirably clear overview of Edwards’ distinctive metaphysical views, particularly as they relate to God and creation. Crisp then goes on to draw out some consequences for Christology and defend the orthodoxy of Edwards’ position.

Crisp enumerates 11 Edwardsian positions he takes to be relevant, but it seems to me that there are really just three that are of central relevance to the question of the Incarnation. Using slightly different terminology than Crisp (in order to sum things up more briefly), we may call these; immaterialism, stage theory, and occasionalism. Each of these doctrines is important primarily for what it denies, not for what it affirms. Immaterialism denies the existence of mind-independent extended substances; stage theory denies that created objects persist over time in any metaphysically significant sense; and occasionalism denies that created objects are ever efficient causes. In all three cases, Edwards, like most other proponents of these views, tries to soften the blow of these denials: immaterialism doesn’t deny that there are bodies, but merely denies that bodies are mind-independent material substrata; stage theory doesn’t deny that there is some relation between the apple this morning and the apple this afternoon which makes us call it ‘the same apple,’ it just denies that this relation is, in truth and strictness, identity; finally, occasionalism doesn’t deny that one event happens because of another, it merely says that, in the oomphy ‘anti-Humean’ sense God, and only God, is responsible for making the events happen in this order.

Each of these theories, Crisp suggests, might be thought to cause problems for the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. First and most obviously, Christian theology holds that the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on a body—in reality and not appearance only—and this might well be thought to conflict with immaterialism. Second, orthodox Christology holds that Christ became incarnate just once, in apparent conflict with stage theory which would have Christ bearing some relation to a series of human body-stages. Third and finally, the Third Council of Constantinople affirmed that Christ possessed a human will (faculty of willing) distinct from the divine will. Presumably the Council meant to affirm that Christ’s ordinary human actions were undertaken by ordinary human willing. But Edwards (unlike many other early modern occasionalists) makes no exception to his occasionalism for human minds/wills. Like Malebranche (the most extreme of occasionalists), he holds that when we will to move our arm God moves it for us. In what sense, then, can Christ’s actions be said to be undertaken pursuant to a human will?

Crisp’s answer to all three of these objections is fundamentally the same: the key point affirmed by the Chalcedonian Definition (in connection with Christ’s humanity) is that Christ is “perfect in humanity … consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects, except for sin” (quoted on p. 158). In other words, orthodox Christology is fundamentally committed to the claim that Christ became a human being like other human beings. It is not fundamentally committed to a particular metaphysical conception of human beings. Thus Edwards can say that Christ has a human body just like we do (which is to say, he was associated in a special way with certain divine ideas); that this body persists through time just like our bodies do (which is to say, it doesn’t really persist at all, but is preceded and succeeded by certain suitably related bodies); and that Christ undertakes voluntary actions in the body just like we do (which is to say, he wills certain actions and on the occasion of his willing God makes the actions occur).

This, I think, is all convincing. The real question becomes, can Edwards’ metaphysics make sense of all the things it needs to make sense of? But insofar as the challenge is to make sense of the ordinary case (and not the extraordinary case of the Incarnation), this is a question about the viability of his metaphysics, not a question of its theological orthodoxy. If Edwards can indeed make sense of the ordinary everyday cases, then he can do at least as well as the dualist in making sense of the Incarnation.

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

Cortez on Edwards on the Resurrection
April 1, 2017 — 4:33

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

Chapter 7 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealism and the Resurrection” by Marc Cortez. Like the preceding article by Hamilton, this is an excellent piece of work directly addressed to the central issues of this volume. Cortez begins by noting that idealism, from the perspective of Christian theology, faces the problem of explaining the reality and importance of the body, and a particular example of this is the claim that there will be a bodily resurrection in the eschaton. In this respect, Cortez observes, Jonathan Edwards is a particularly interesting case since he is an idealist but also places a great deal of emphasis on the bodily nature of the afterlife. (This contrasts with Berkeley, who occasionally mentions bodily resurrection and says that his idealism is consistent with it, but can hardly be said to emphasize the importance of embodiment in the afterlife.) Unfortunately, Cortez observes, Edwards never directly brings his idealism and his eschatology together. The interpreter is therefore left to reconstruct Edwards’ thought on the matter and his reasons for (apparently) taking his idealism to be consistent with bodily resurrection.

Cortez argues that Edwards’ idealism is indeed consistent with bodily resurrection (since idealism does not deny the existence of bodies but rather reduces them to mental phenomena) but threatens to undermine the importance of bodily resurrection. According to Cortez, Edwards makes some progress to preserving the latter by taking the human being to be naturally both spiritual and bodily and arguing that bodily resurrection will allow both natures (spirit and body) to enjoy vision of God, in their different ways.* This is superior to the (disembodied) intermediate state in which the blessed enjoy only spiritual, and not bodily, vision of God. (Bodily vision of God is said to be ‘mediated’ and seems to be a matter of appreciating God’s bodily creation and thereby apprehending God’s greatness.) According to Cortez, this is sufficient to explain why, given that humans are mind-body composites, bodily resurrection is better for us than disembodied existence. However, it does not explain why God should create such mind-body composites at all.

It is not clear to me that this last point is a serious problem. A standard response in the tradition is to appeal to a principle of plenitude: God created some bodily natures, and some spiritual natures, and the ‘mixed’ human nature because it was better that creation as a whole should exhibit this kind of diversity. Especially when this is combined with Edwards claims, quoted by Cortez, that God’s bodily creation would be in vain without some created consciousness to appreciate its beauty (132), this seems like an adequate explanation. (At least, as adequate as any human explanation of God’s purposes could ever be!)

In any event, Cortez concludes (136-137) by suggesting that Edwards could endorse either of two strategies to strengthen his case for the importance of bodily resurrection: he could argue that the ‘mediate’ vision of God that requires embodiment somehow adds something of value which could not be had with ‘immediate’ spiritual vision alone, or he could argue that metaphysically necessary conditions for personal identity restrict how much ‘immediate’ vision one can have while remaining a distinct person. (The latter strategy is suggested by some of Edwards’ own remarks, though he does not apply them in the eschatological context.)

On the whole, this is an excellent essay and is recommended to anyone interested in the compatibility of idealism with Christian (or, more broadly, Abrahamic) eschatology, or in the unity of Edwards’ thought.

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


* Note that the move Cortez makes here requires him to construe Edwards as a mind-body dualist in Hamilton’s sense.

Mark Hamilton on Idealism and Fallenness
March 30, 2017 — 4:52

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

Chapter 6 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “On the Corruption of the Body: A Theological Argument for Metaphysical Idealism” by S. Mark Hamilton. This is easily the best essay in the collection so far, and the most directly focused on the central issues the volume purports to address.

Hamilton provides a carefully documented account of the ways in which mind-body dualism is presupposed by theologies of our post-lapsarian state of corruption in Reformed dogmatics from Calvin to the early 20th century. Jonathan Edwards, he shows, is an outlier with respect to this tradition. Hamilton enumerates a number of theological claims about our state of corruption and explicitly connects them to particular presuppositions about the metaphysics of the human person. He then argues that Edwards’ idealism captures what is important in this theology while avoiding certain metaphysical problems to which the opposing dualist view falls prey.

Like his co-editor Farris, Hamilton lumps together a variety of different views under the heading ‘mind-body dualism’. However, where Farris had done this somewhat sloppily and in a way that I think vitiated some of his arguments, Hamilton has done it carefully, identifying a genuine point of agreement between a number of different views and staying focused on that particular point. What Hamilton calls ‘mind-body dualism’ is simply the view that the mind and body are numerically distinct and the human person is some kind of composite of mind and body (108-109). Thus substance dualism, hylomorphism, and various forms of non-reductive physicalism all count as mind-body dualisms, in Hamilton’s sense.

All of these views can say very similar things about the corruption of post-lapsarian human persons. Hamilton interprets Reformed theologians as holding that the person is naturally a mind-body composite, but can exist in the absence of a body, although union with a body is required for “an immaterial soul’s proper function in a material world” (110). Given such a view (regardless of the metaphysical details) one can go on to say that post-lapsarian corruption is the corruption of the whole person (body and mind), but the primary locus of corruption is in the mind (soul), and in particular in “a disordered desire for things that are not God” (111). If, however, the corruption is to be a corruption of the whole person, it is inadequate to hold that the body and mind each separately or independently suffer corruption. The mind-body dualist (in Hamilton’s broad sense) will, Hamilton suggests, want to account for this in terms of a teleo-functional relationship between mental corruption and physical corruption. In other words, the mental (spiritual) corruption of the fallen person is such that it has certain natural physical consequences. The nature of this mental state is to be (mis)directed toward bodily sins. (I note in passing that Hamilton does not discuss the view—suggested by Augustine and emphasized by Malebranche—that fallenness/corruption consists in a disordered relation between mind and body. I do not know whether this view has defenders in the tradition of Reformed dogmatics.)

Hamilton asserts that Edwards is not, in his sense, a mind-body dualist. Edwards holds, according to Hamilton, “that human persons are essentially minds whose bodies are merely ideas or a collection of ideas in the divine mind” (117). According to Hamilton’s definition, this is not a form of dualism, even though it involves a distinction between mind and body, since it identifies the human person with the mind to the exclusion of the body. However, it seems to me that Hamilton is not totally consistent in attributing such a monism to Edwards since Hamilton’s definition of ‘mind-body dualism’ is in fact so broad that it could be accommodated within Edwards’ idealism: if Edwards thought that the human was somehow composed of mind and body this would make Edwards a dualist in Hamilton’s sense, even though bodies are just collections of mind-dependent ideas. Hamilton sometimes seems to attribute this view to Edwards.

This, however, does not vitiate what I take to be Hamilton’s central point, which is that the doctrine of fallenness as the Reformed tradition (and Augustinianism more broadly) has understood it is located right at the nexus between mind and body. Following the well-known arguments of Jaegwon Kim, Hamilton argues that, even on his broad definition, any form of mind-body dualism will face an interaction problem similar to the one famously faced by substance dualism. This despite the fact that mind-body dualism, so construed, is consistent with physicalism. If this is right, then our ability to spell out, and make sense of, the doctrine of fallenness or corruption depends on our ability to solve the notoriously difficult interaction problem. Edwards’ idealism, on the other hand, does better. According to this view, the corrupt features of the body (and the perceived world more generally), such as “disease, decay, and death” (122), just are corrupt states of mind. This, Hamilton says, provides a superior account of the corrupt fallen state of the human person.

The only point I have to make in response to this is that the Edwardsian view has an advantage over its competitors only if it takes states of bodily corruption to be numerically identical to mental states (or composites thereof). If non-reductive physicalism is coherent, then one could equally develop non-reductive idealisms. (Indeed, my interpretation of Berkeley could perhaps be described this way.) However, if Kim is right that non-reductive physicalisms have an interaction problem, then presumably non-reductive idealisms will as well. Accordingly, Hamilton needs to attribute to Edwards a fairly simplistic version of idealism, and such a simplistic idealism may face difficulties elsewhere.

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

Farris on Edwards on the Imago Dei
March 27, 2017 — 4:22

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

Chapter 5 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Edwardsian Idealism, Imago Dei, and Contemporary Theology” by Joshua Farris. This is an interesting article that directly and constructively addresses one of the central theological issues raised by metaphysical idealism of the Berkeley/Edwards variety. However, I was left with some confusion about what the paper’s overall lesson was meant to be.

Farris frames the central question here as how, given Edwards’ idealism, he can understand the imago dei doctrine in a way that does not devalue the body. Edwards is said to be drawing on but ‘reconceiving’ the prior tradition of Reformed theological anthropology. This prior tradition is said to rely on substance dualism. However, at one point substance dualism is defined as “the belief that humans are soul-body units” and ‘hylomorphic dualism’ is said to be another name for this same view (85). In the present context, the difference between substance dualism, which holds that the human soul and body are separate substances somehow connected to one another, and hylomorphic dualism, which denies that the soul and body are separate substances and holds instead that a complete substance is made only by their union, is quite important. Substance dualism has often been criticized for making the body a kind of optional appendage to the human person: we would still be what we are if we were disembodied. The hylomorphic view, on the other hand, takes the union of soul and body as primary. Accordingly, even if (as on the view Farris attributes to the prior Reformed tradition) the imago dei is primarily a matter of the possession of certain mental attributes, nevertheless what possesses these attributes is a substance whose nature is to be embodied. The embodiment is not accidental, nor is it bad. The hylomorphic view provides a better explanation than the substance dualist view of the sense in which the human person may be the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth. For this reason, it matters whether Edwards is compared with substance dualism or hylomorphic dualism. Farris calls the view he is comparing Edwards against ‘substance dualism’, but recognizes no distinction between this and hylomorphic dualism.

In any event, on Farris’s interpretation of Edwards, everything is just divine ideas, and the distinctive feature of human beings which makes them the image of God is that they have ideas that represent God. This provides a straightforward sense of ‘image’—humans are in fact representations of or about God. Similarly, it provides a straightforward sense in which humans can be said to reflect God’s glory. It also provides a straightforward sense in which we can talk about the image of God being defaced but not destroyed by the Fall, and ultimately restored in the eschaton.

But I see two problems here. First, I’m again worried that this is just Spinoza. Farris recognizes this problem in note 52 (p. 103), where he writes, “One might still argue that Edwards’ unusual brand of idealism-constant creation-panentheism collapses into Spinoza’s pantheism, but the manner in which Edwards defines the substances would not reduce to pantheism because created minds retain individual properties distinguishing them from the Creator-God.” But this does not distinguish Edwards from Spinoza, for Spinoza holds that modes of God may possess modes of their own, at least in some sense. After all, even though the ball is round and the ball is a mode of God, it’s not really correct to say God is round. So Farris is getting Spinoza wrong here. Now, one could simply respond, on Edwards’ behalf, that a Christian can actually take on board large parts of Spinoza’s metaphysics of the relationship of God to finite beings, and the differences with Spinoza will be found elsewhere (perhaps in the affirmation of divine freedom in creation and divine goodness in a moral sense). It would be interesting to see that case made, but it is not made here.

The second problem is that this seems to attribute hardly any importance to the body. Despite setting this issue up as one of his key concerns, in the end all Farris says about it is that those who charge Edwardsian idealism with denigrating the body have not made a case for why this should be so (97-98). But this is a strange thing for Farris to say, since he has just given an account of the imago dei that says so little about the body, or how the mind/soul is joined to it. Perhaps the problem is supposed to be solved by giving some role to the physical in communicating the image of God to human beings, or helping us to gain deeper union with God (as suggested on p. 93), but this is not spelled out.

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

Wessling on ‘Idealistic Panentheism’
March 18, 2017 — 14:59

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

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 certain view in philosophical theology, dubbed ‘idealistic panentheism,’ which has been attributed to Edwards. This view takes the whole created world—including human minds—to be ideas in the mind of God. It is idealistic insofar as it takes reality to be fundamentally mental. It is panentheistic in a literal and straightforward sense: the created world exists in God’s mind. However, it is not pantheistic since those ideas that make up the created world are not all there is to God. This makes creation, as Wessling puts it in one place, “a proper part of God” (57).

Wessling says this view recommends itself as highly parsimonious and as providing compelling accounts of some of the divine attributes, especially omnipresence. He the considers three objections: (1) that the view runs counter to tradition; (2) that the view implies theological determinism and so undermines responses to the problem of evil; and (3) that the view literally locates evil in God, making God morally imperfect. I will only discuss the first of these here.

Wessling essentially dismisses this worry with the remark that panentheism is an avowedly revisionary conception of God, and yet has many adherents today. In light of the fact that his essay is not intended to be historical or interpretive, this seems to me a legitimate response: although some philosophers and theologians may be inclined to reject the view because it is revisionary, the view will still be of interest to many, since panentheism is already taken seriously in theology.

Nevertheless, this response left me with questions (perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of contemporary theology, or perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of Edwards). How exactly is this Edwardsian idealistic panentheism different from Spinoza? Presumably Edwards wanted it to be, and in fact I’d be surprised if he didn’t address this explicitly. Spinoza likewise takes our minds to be God’s ideas. Further, Wessling interprets Edwards as holding that “Human persons, for example, are what we might call ‘attenuated substances.’ … We might say that, for Edwards, humans (as well as other created minds) are only proximate bearers of properties, but God alone is the ultimate bearer of these properties” (56-57). Again, this sounds very similar to Spinoza. In addition to the fact that the historical Edwards presumably wouldn’t have liked this, it raises the question of whether this sort of panentheism can ultimately be distinguished from pantheism. The fact that there is more to God than these ideas is supposed to do the work of distinguishing it from pantheism. But this is not spelled out. If God somehow had a choice as to which of God’s ideas were ‘real’ created objects, and other ideas were mere possibilia, this would help. But exactly how this works, exactly what makes for that difference, is not explored here.

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

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)