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

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

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.

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.)