[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]
Throughout this work, Kelsey has emphasized the open-endedness of being human – we are finite, contingent, mysterious, and (in our fallen state) sinfully ambiguous. At the same time, Kelsey has consistently pointed to the fact that we are beings summoned into relationship by God and called (despite the ambiguities) to live faithfully in our everyday realities. As we discussed in the last post, this means that although our action in the world is both important and necessary, any particular actions is wrapped in its own ambiguity. For Kelsey, the confidence that grounds human action lies not in our certainty that a particular action is indeed the “right” thing to do or that it will foster the growth of the Kingdom in the, but in a “joyous hope” that looks to the inbreaking of the Kingdom. For Kelsey, human life in this world seems best described as living faithfully in the midst of an inherently ambiguous world through a joyous hope that God will redeem human action in its ambiguous faithfulness and accomplish his eschatological purposes.
What is “Joyous Hopefulness”?
Kelsey begins his discussion with the following definition of hope:
hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized. (501-2)
The hope that Kelsey has in mind, then, is directed both toward God as its object and ground (ultimate context) and the world in which this hope is lived out and fulfilled (proximate context). Any hope that focuses on just one of these two poles will ultimately lapse into something that is sub-Christian and unable to ground meaningful human living.
And, Kelsey further defines Christian hope as that which expresses hope in joy. This “joyous hopefulness” corresponds to the “doxological gratitude” that is the only appropriate and faithful response to the divine summons that constitutes personal identity (see here).
The Public Nature of Hope
The twofold context of joyous hopefulness means that hope must always be public. Kelsey is keen to emphasize that joyous hopefulness cannot be understood merely as “a mode of subjective inwardness” (502). It is not merely a feeling or attitude. Instead, joyous hopefulness is “a disposition to enact certain types of practices publicly” (502). And, by “disposition” he does not mean some kind of inner attitude that simply motivates human action. That still bifurcates hope from public practice in a way that Kelsey finds unsatisfying. Instead, he argues:
[E]nactments of eschatological hope cannot be defined without reference to the hope they enact. As appropriate response to the public eschatological mission Dei, eschatological hope is best defined as a personal bodies’ orientation that disposes them for enactments of certain practices in public proximate contexts….Joyous hopefulness is a settled and long-lasting attitude. It orients personal bodies in their quotidian contexts as agents, disposing them across extended periods of time to engage in certain types of socially established cooperative human action. (503)
Joyous Hope in an Ambiguous World
But, Kelsey wants to emphasize (yet again) that we live in an inherently ambiguous world and that this means that the possibility of hope does not lie in anything that we see in the world itself, but in the promise-keeping nature of God himself. Hope must always be grounded in our ultimate context or it will co-opted by the finite and sinful social structures and practices of the current age. For Kelsey, “the possibility of such hope lies solely in the actuality of God keeping God’s promise” (504), and never in our attempt to discern the “progress” that we think is taking place around us.
To a large degree, of course, this is because we live in a sinfully broken world. And, short of the eschatological culmination of God’s purposes, our proximate context will always remain sinfully ambiguous. Joyous hope in this age, then, “is a disposition to act hopefully in tyrannical and oppressive circumstances of excessive social and cultural control that appear to offer little possibility for individual human well-being” (504-5).
But, Kelsey also wants to remind us that much of the ambiguity lies in our creaturely finitude.
Hence, eschatological hope is not in the first instance hope despite sin and evil. The disposition to act hopefully is a disposition to act in creaturely quotidian circumstances in ways hopeful of their flourishing in eschatological blessing even when the quotidian happens to be neither chaotic nor especially oppressive, even were it, contrary to fact, not at all distorted by sin and bound in evil. (505)
Joyous hope, then, is a disposition to act publicly in the world, seeking the flourishing of all of God’s creation in faithful response to God’s call and the hopeful expectation “that eschatological blessing will be fully actualized in and upon our proximate contexts” (506). This does not rob human action of meaning, though it does relocate our source of confidence in the meaning of human action.
What does joyous hope look like?
Kelsey, of course, argues that it is impossible to provide a systematic schematization of joyous hopefulness. But, he does argue that it is possible to comment on its general shape.
we must say that in response to God relating to draw them to eschatological consummation, personal bodies’ practices of joyous hopefulness consist of socially established cooperative actions of personal bodies in community that exemplify, however incompletely, the quality of common life that constitutes personal bodies’ eschatological glory. (512)
So, joyous hopefulness finds expression in “socially established cooperative actions…in community” that seek to model in our everyday realities (to the extent possible) the kind of life that will be characteristic of eschatological glory, which he summarizes briefly as being mysterious, cosmic, finite, contingent, marked by growth and development and by aspects that are both individualistic and communal.
And, though he refuses to describe specific practices since the details need to be worked out by each community in their quotidian, he does offer seven guidelines for such practices:
- They should be “utterly realistic” about our quotidian worlds.
- They should be holistic, orienting the “entire array of personal bodies’ powers” and shaping them toward eschatologically hopeful practices.
- They should cultivate the intellectual disciplines – critical reflection will be necessary to shape and guide these practices in an ambiguous world.
- They should discipline the affections – orienting our emotions (affections directed toward some object) in eschatologically hopeful ways.
- They should help us learn to be open to the “gift of help” – recognizing our contingency and dependence.
- They should direct us toward healthy dependence on others.
- They should discipline our “imaginative powers” – seeing the world in ways shaped by eschatological hope.
Again, though, it’s important to emphasize that for Kelsey a practice grounded in joyous hope, and therefore shaped in these seven ways, is not aimed at achieving the liberation of the world and the inbreaking of the Kingdom. We simply can’t accomplish these things and were never intended to. The Kingdom always breaks into the world from “outside” and is always a divine act, a gift. Joyously hopeful practices, on the other hand, are ways of modeling lives shaped by eschatological hope in the midst of finite and sinful ambiguity.
[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]
In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?
The Meaning of Human Action
According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.
Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)
At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.
The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action
If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.
First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.
Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.
Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).
The Missio Dei
At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.
the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)
Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.
apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)
We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).
God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.
Grace and Judgment
At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.
At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy. “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.
This is from a couple of weeks ago, but somehow I missed it. In case you did as well, here you go.
ABC news did a story on “The New Face of American Evangelicalism,” using a panel discussion with “five young Christians.” The discussion begins with the fact that all of them affirm that the “death of Christian America” is actually a good thing for the church because it frees us from the distractions of power and privilege, allowing us to be the church.
The more interesting part of the discussion comes after the moderator asks, “What are the biggest say 3 or 4 issues in American life that you all have on your minds.” For the next six or seven minutes, the panelists discussed the following:
- health care
- violent human conflict
- climate change and environmental stewardship
Now, the panel was far from representative. Each of the panelists represented an organization that has social justice as a primary purpose. So, of course the discussion was going to be skewed in that direction. But still, it was an interesting representation of a certain strand of contemporary evangelicalism.
Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).
Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)
Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.
I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.
The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)
This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.
But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.
If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)
So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).
And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.
However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.
Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.
And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.
But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.
- Here’s another review of Wright’s After Virtue, this time from Michael Horton.
- I commented the other day on Piper’s affirmation of a Sailhammerian view of creation. In case your not sure what exactly that means, here’s a good summary of Sailhammer’s position.
- Time magazine has an interesting article on Evangelicals and social action and another one on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that is particularly helpful for understanding the difficulties involved in issuing any kind of meaningful papal apology.
- EvangelicalOutpoust offers some great comments on Hellboy as a story of redemption.
- I had intended to ignore this completely, but I finally caved and decided to post a link to it in case you’re interested and haven’t seen this yet. So, Ted Haggard is doing stuff. That’s about all I’m going to say.
- And, apparently George W. Bush has a Facebook page now. I’m sure he’d appreciate it if you’d drop him a note.
Those of us in the Th.M. program here at Western have been talking for a while now about getting together on occasion to discuss some issue of biblical, theological, or ministerial significance. (In other words, we’ve been looking for an excuse to hang out for an evening and talk.) Well, Pat Roach has finally decided to make it happen. So, he has invited us all over to his house on Thursday evening, May 27th.
We’ll be discussing James Davison Hunter’s new book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. This is a book that Jesus Creed predicts will be perhaps “one of the more influential studies of this decade.” So, it should be an interesting disucssion.
If you haven’t read the book and if you don’t anticipated being able to read it before the 27th, don’t worry. We’re not expecting you to. Rather than skip the discussion just because you don’t have time to read the book, check out CT’s interview with Hunter and one or two of the following reviews/reactions: Chuck Colson, Christopher Benson, Kevin DeYoung, Andy Crouch, and Jesus Creed. That will give you enough of the book’s basic subject matter and argument to be able to participate in the conversation. (If you want, you can also read the table of contents and the first few chapters at Google Books.) Pat will lead the discussion and it should be a great opportunity for us all to reflect on the nature of “cultural engagement” in the modern world.
If you even think that you might be able to come, please email Billy Cash or leave a comment on this post. Billy will be contacting everyone who is interested to figure out the best starting time. We’ll also send information on how to get to Pat’s house.