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Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

Eccentric Existence 7 (our everyday context)

The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.

He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.

Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.

“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)

Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.

Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.

1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology

The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.

“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)

Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.

So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.

“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)

The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.

2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology

I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.

3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence

Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.

This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.

The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.

We need to be more materialistic

Here’s a great quote from Rowan Williams on why our culture needs to be mo materialistic than it is.

It’s been said often enough but it bears repeating, that in some ways – so far from being a materialist culture, we are a culture that is resentful about material reality, hungry for anything and everything that distances us from the constraints of being a physical animal subject to temporal processes, to uncontrollable changes and to sheer accident.

Rowan Williams, Ethics, Economics and Global Justice (HT Nothing New under the Sun)