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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.

Eccentric Existence 6 (our ultimate context)

According to Kelsey, if we’re going to understand what it means to be humans, we need to understand our context as created beings. As we saw in the last post, Kelsey thinks that the wisdom literature provides the best perspective on a biblical view of creation. So, Kelsey builds his understanding of our creation context primarily through the lens of those books (esp. Proverbs and Job).

Kelsey makes a helpful distinction between our “ultimate” and “proximate” contexts as created beings. Our ultimate context is that we are creatures fundamentally dependent on our Creator, our proximate context is our relationship to the rest of creation. Both are important for understanding what it means to be human.

Our ultimate context is defined by the Creator/creature relationship. And, for Kelsey this is primarily characterized by “hospitable generosity, free delight, and self-determining commitment” (163). “In this delighted freedom and free delighting, God is hospitably generous, giving reality other than God time and space to be itself, genuinely other than God” (165). This means at leats three things.

  1. The Wisdom literature presents a God who relates freely to creation. He is not under any constraint to create, but he is comletely free in his sovereign self-determination. At the same time, he chooses to relate to his creation through the “rhetoric of ‘address'” (166). So, he he expresses his freedom as a freedom to be in relation to the “other” that he has created.
  2. This “other” that he has created is not simply an extension of himself or another expression of himself. Rather, God chooses to create time and space within which creation can be truly “other” to God. This necessarily involves a kind of divine self-limitation, the kind necessary for creation to have real being, capable of signifianct freedom, and able to enter into meaningful relationships.
  3. Because of the Trinity, we understand that the idea of relating-to-another is intrinsic to Godself. “The triune God’s own reality as a life constituted by the dynamic of a self-giving that is productive of the genuinely-other-in-communion is itself the condition of the possibility of God’s relating creatively to reality that is at once other than God (in a different mode of otherness) and in intimate communion” (168).

Kelsey builds a lot of this off of his analysis of Wisdom as “a creature paradigmatic of the triune God’s way of relating to all creatures” (170). The relationship between the triune God and the paradigmatic creature Wisdom, thus, exemplifies God in his free self-giving to creation. And, he also sees in the emphasis on Wisdom and declaration that God relates creatively to the world in an orderly way that renders creation “sufficiently orderly to be a reliable context in which living creatures can adapt themselves to it, sustain themselves in it, and make their way toward enhanced well-being” (172). And, this leads to the second context, which we’ll discuss in the next post.