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Eccentric Existence 10 (personal identity)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.] Kelsey moves on in the next chapter to discuss the nature of personal identity. He begins by addressing several common ways of understanding personal identity, arguing that each of them actually addresses a subtly different issue than the “Who” question he is interested in. He contends that this question can only be answered buy understanding humans as those who are constituted as God’s creatures by the divine address. This brings with it two implications.

First, that we are constituted by the divine address means that

we are finite creatures empowered by God to be and to act, to give and to receive in our own places and times, creatures whose personal identities are defined by our responsive trust in God. (338)

And second, it means that “we are finite creatures called by God to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian” (338). This is our vocation, and it is a vocation that fundamentally shapes our identity. Thus, the personal identity of human beings is grounded in its ultimate context (addressed by God as his creature) and its proximate context (the quotidian).

From here, Kelsey move into a discussion of our “existential hows” – i.e. the ways in which we live out (or fail to express) our identity in the world. These existential hows should be expressions of “doxological gratitude” as we respond in faith to God’s glorious presence.

Consistent with his emphases elsewhere, Kelsey rejects any attempt to identify normative hows for every context. Instead, he argues that we need to learn how to practice wonder, delight, and persevere through a series of formative practices (disciplines), in community, and in everyday life. I won’t take the time to unpack everything that he says here. But I did appreciate his argument that expressing doxological gratitude toward God includes learning how to attend carefully to God’s creation and express wonder  at our fellow creatures. This is more than idle curiosity or technological study. This kind of wonder requires a commitment to see our fellows creatures in their own particularities, attending to their uniqueness and individual splendor. And, this attention is not simply instrumental, a practice that leads to worshiping God, but is itself a liturgical practice.

I also found his emphasis on perseverance to be helpful. Our identity is grounded in our vocation to seek the flourishing of ourselves and all creation. But, we live in a broken world filled with alienation and ambiguity. Thus, the fulfillment of our identity through vocation will often be filled with frustration and failure. But, this is where it becomes important to see that our identity is primarily in our status as creatures called by God. Despite the apparent failure of our vocation, we persevere in our identity by faithfully maintaining our trust in God.

Perseverance is doxological gratitude’s loyalty to God’s call to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian; and therein it is loyalty to and trust in the triune God’s loyalty to God’s creative project despite God’s apparent indifference to, or even apparent abandonment of, the project. (353)

Who am I? For Kelsey, this question cannot be answered exhaustively. But, he contends that one answer must precede and ground all others. I am a creature summoned by God and gifted with the vocation of serving with and for my fellow creatures to see that all of creation flourishes and manifests the glory of God. This identity is difficult to maintain in a fallen world where God’s presence, faithfulness, and even existence seem to come into question with every starving child, broken home, and betrayed trust. But, I persevere in hope, holding on to the faithful God who will not abandon us.

Eccentric Existence 8 (humans as living bodies)

Up to this point, Kelsey hasn’t really addressed the question of what exactly it means to be human. He has argued strongly that we can only understand the human in light of the threefold narrative (creation, redemption, restoration) and the three persons of the Trinity. He then moved on to argue that we need to view the human person in light of two basic contexts: the ultimate context (Creator/creature) and the proximate context (everyday life). But, he has yet to tell us what he thinks a human is. That by itself should tell you that for Kelsey being human is far more about relationship and function than it is about ontology. Nonetheless, he recognizes that ontology is an important category for theological anthropology.

1. Scientific Perspectives

Since the human person is a creaturely being, it can and must be understood scientifically as well as theologically. And, from a scientific perspective, Kelsey argues that we should be viewed as physical beings who are “self-regulating sets of energy systems” (i.e. “living”). And, he contends that we need to take seriously what science tells us about the death, predation, and evolution as necessary for the health of a living system.

He also argues that the best scientific definition of a human person through DNA. If you have human DNA, you’re human. If not, you’re not. Nice and simple.

Of course, these scientific perspectives don’t cover everything that needs to be said about the human person. But, Kelsey does think that theological anthropology cannot ignore or downplay these perspectives. So, though his anthropology will transcend these basic scientific descriptions, they will remain important aspects of his overall picture.

2. The Nine Core Themes of a Wisdom Anthropology

Kelsey continues to argue that our anthropology should be normed by the creation perspective of the wisdom literature. And, here he identifies nine normative themes for theological anthropology:

“What God creates in a human being’s having been born is a living body that is (1) a gift; (2) actual (in contradistinction to ‘possible’ or ‘potential’); (3) related to creatively by God in ways appropriate to its distinctively creaturely powers, but on par with God’s relating to every other kind of creature in regard to the freedom and intimacy of God’s creative relating; (4) classified as ‘human’ by its genetic structure; (5) constantly changing and developing; (6) inherently a center of a variety of powers; (7) finite in its powers; (8) inherently ‘mysterious’ in the sense of being inexhaustibly complex both epistemically and ontologically; and (9) by virtue of God’s creative relating, ‘good’.” (250)

It would take too long to unpack all of these, so I’ll highlight a couple of things I liked. First, he did a good job of unpacking the way that God accommodates to humanity’s creaturely capacity and identifying humanity as both unique in creation (by virtue of humanity’s particular relationship to the Creator) and yet still fully a part of creation. I also liked his discussion of “mystery.” He was careful not to let this get out of hand. But he did a nice job pointing out that if our anthropology is going to have a Trinitarian structure, there will be a necessary element of mystery. And, I liked the fact that the “good” of humanity lay in God’s creative relationship to humanity, rather than some inherent quality of human nature.

3. Actuality

Probably my main objection in this section was his discussion of the human being as “actual” in contradistinction to “potential.” He rightly points out that we should not talk in terms of “potential” or “possible” human beings. Something either is or is not human. So, we don’t properly talk about an unfertilized egg and a sperm as a potential human being. Sure, there’s a sense in which the potentiality is there, but in actuality they are an egg and a sperm, not a human being.

The question, then, is when is it appropriate to speak about the existence of a human being? And Kelsey’s answer is that according to the wisdom literature a human being exists when it is “created as an actual living human body able to live apart from the body of its mother, although not apart from a complex physical and social network that is the newborn, newly created human being’s necessary life support system” (255). So, the idea of “having been born” along with the presence of human DNA is what constitutes an actual human person:

Apart from it shaving been born, it has not yet been created, although other creatures with human DNA may have been created – tissues of living human cells, an actual zygote, an actual embryo, an actual fetus – that were the potentialities of an actual living human body having been born. (264)

“’Having been born’ is the marker by which actual living human creatures are distinguishable from potential living human creatures” (264).

I’ll set aside for a second that I don’t agree with him on when we should talk about the existence of an actual (vs. potential) human person. My main criticism is that I’m not clear on how this argument fits within his own framework. Everything up to this point has suggested that he defines a human primarily in terms of (1) the Creator/creature relationship; (2) quotidian relationships; and (3) embodiment and DNA. All three of these would seem to be present well before the fetus emerges from the womb. It is true that the “unborn” human does not exercise all the capacities of a fully developed human being, but many that we would want to call “actual” human persons also do not display these capacities (newborns, disabled, unconscious, etc.). So, it would seem that the framework he’s presented would actually provide more support for seeing an actual human being before that human being emerges from the womb.

So, why doesn’t he? I think it’s because of the limiting framework of the wisdom literature he’s operating in. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s understood the wisdom literature correctly. We really should be surprised that literature focused on “everyday life” emphasizes the human person as a being at work in the world. But I think this is another example of the way in which the creation narrative is subtly twisted by its location within another narrative – here a narrative of the quotidian.