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.
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.
David Hart has a great piece at First Things today, “The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library,” responding to the movie Agora and its depiction of Christians burning the library in Alexandria and murdering Hypatia, a non-Christian woman philosopher. Hart argues that there are problems with both parts of the story, beginning with the fact that the first never happened.
The tale of a Christian destruction of the Great Library—so often told, so perniciously persistent—is a tale about something that never happened. By this, I do not mean that there is some divergence of learned opinion on the issue, or that the original sources leave us in some doubt as to the nature of the event. I mean that nothing of the sort ever occurred.
He goes on to point out that the library was likely destroyed much earlier and that you find no evidence for Christian involvement in its destruction until the 18th century.
With respect to Hypatia, there is no denying that she was brutally murdered and that Christians did it. That absolutely remains a black spot on the record of early Christianity. But, Hart helpfully points out that she was killed for the reasons identified in the movie or in popular imagination. In other words, she wasn’t killed because she was a woman (female teachers being common in Alexandria), because she was a scientist of philosopher (both well supported by Alexandrian Christians), or because she was an enemy of the faith (she had a number of prominent Christian friends). No, Hart argues that she was murdered because she unfortunately got caught in a power struggle between Cyril of Alexandria and the city’s imperial prefect. So, he concludes:
In the end, the true story of Hypatia—which no one will ever make into a film—tells us very little about ancient religion, or about the relation between ancient Christianity and the sciences, and absolutely nothing about some alleged perennial conflict between Christianity and science; but it does tell us a great deal about social class in the late Hellenistic world.
The post is well worth reading, as are some of the comments, if you’d like to understand these events a bit better.