Eccentric Existence: A Conference in Honor of David Kelsey's Theological Anthropology

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M. Div.

David Kelsey, the Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology Emeritus at Yale Divinity School, is what many would call a ‘heavyweight’ theologian—meaning that his work and influence has had a far-reaching effect not only at YDS but also within academic theology at-large.  Less than two years ago, with Westminster John Knox Press, this heavyweight theologian published a heavyweight theological tome.

Kelsey DiscussionThe latest book from Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, is not only massive in length—two volumes and over 1500 pages—but is also, in the words of YDS colleague Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, “one of the best books in theology in the past 50 years” and “an extraordinary achievement, imaginative, stringent, faithful to the tradition and the contemporary at the same time.”   The achievement comes at no small cost, as Kelsey worked on the book off and on for almost 20 years.

Recognizing, on the one hand, the influence that Kelsey has already had, and, on the other hand, the influence that Eccentric Existence is likely to have (the reputable publication Modern Theology has already dedicated an entire issue to it), YDS joined with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture to host “Eccentric Existence: A Conference in Honor of David Kelsey's Theological Anthropology.”

Volf, who is currently teaching a seminar on Kelsey’s work, largely orchestrated the event, which took place Feb. 25-26. Volf said his intention was “to have a public event where younger and up-and-coming thinkers would engage David’s work and stimulate our own engagement.” Such younger thinkers included Shelly Rambo of Boston University, J. Kameron Carter of Duke University, and Andrew Chignell of Cornell University. Each scholar presented a paper engaging a specific dimension of Eccentric Existence, and at the end of the conference a roundtable discussion was held during which Kelsey offered responses.

In her presentation, Rambo focused on the place of the resurrected body in Kelsey’s eschatology and in her own work. Her discussion focused on the question: What can we say about resurrected bodies? Kelsey, Rambo asserted, tries to shun ‘a-theological perspectives’ on the matter, while she believes it appropriate to bring in perspectives from “outside”— in her case, from trauma literature and postmodern critical theory.

She also took aim at what she said is Kelsey’s tendency to discuss resurrected bodies in ways that emphasize vague Pauline notions of spiritually resurrected bodies at the expense of grappling with living bodies and quotidian existence.

By contrast, Rambo said, what Kelsey shuns lies close to her understanding of Jesus’ resurrected body in John’s Gospel. If the risen Christ is paradigmatic for what it means to be a resurrected body, asked Rambo, what does this imply about Christ’s wounds? For Rambo, that which could be dismissed as supernatural, fantastic, or ghostly aspects of the resurrected Christ need to be taken seriously theologically because they give dynamism to the here-and-now, pointing us toward our living bodies—because Christ is still marked by the wounds of the cross, the wounds of the past, the wounds of trauma.

In this way, the resurrected body does not erase the traumatic scars of the past but, rather, suggests the boundaries between past, present, and future, between the self and other, are liminal instead of distinct.  The wounds of Christ’s resurrected body, argued Rambo, spark the religious imagination to respond to wounded bodies in our present theological contexts, providing a therapeutic meditation on the nature of redemption and the eschatological promise of healing wounded bodies.

J. Kameron Carter, author of the highly acclaimed book Race: A Theological Account, approached Kelsey’s work from a post-colonial perspective, centering on the question: If theological anthropology has been intertwined with imperialism and colonialism, then can the discourse provide lines of retreat or “loopholes for escape?”

Carter produced an impressive genealogy describing how anthropological unevenness of the human is mainly racial and ethnic, and he identified how, since Columbus, there have been theological foundations that encourage this unevenness. “White and superior is part of the machine of theological anthropology without even having to name what it’s doing,” insisted Cater. “It forges a colonial order.” He praised Kelsey’s idea of ‘genres’ and his Bonhoeffer-like understanding of the Trinity as anthropological moves that could confront the violence of colonialism. At the same time, however, Carter expressed frustration that, in his opinion, Eccentric Existence does not do enough to address the links between theological anthropology and colonialist attitudes.

Kelsey PanelAndrew Chignell, the final presenter, graduated from Yale in 2003 with a joint Ph.D. in religious studies and philosophy. Standing in the room where he had once served as teacher’s assistant, Chignell took a decidedly philosophical approach to Kelsey’s work.  Specifically, he questioned whether Kelsey’s confidence in the actuality of the eschatological promise of the Gospel message leaves room for one of its essential elements: hope.

 “I have certainty that consummation is going to occur, but I’m still hoping for it,” sounds logically off, noted Chignell. Kelsey’s confidence in the actuality of the eschatological promise and the inevitability of God’s coming consummation makes Kelsey’s hope look more like a “joyous certitude,” argued Chignell, who observed after the conference, “Yale is unusual in that philosophers of religion are welcome among theologians and they talk to one another and learn from one another. And in David’s work you can see a philosophical sophistication going on that needs to be engaged.”

In response to the critiques, Kelsey acknowledged the scholarship and seriousness of the young scholars’ questions and clarified his positions on the matters they had introduced. During a reception following Kelsey’s final reflections, he expressed enthusiasm about the event.  “It was a lot of fun,” said Kelsey. “I thought the presentations were really good. I was happy about their variety—they came from different angles and asked important questions.”

For Kelsey, one of the nicest aspects of the conference was seeing how his work has been incorporated into the work of each of the young scholars.  “That was fun to see,” said Kelsey, “seeing how they could engage it and appropriate it in some way.”

Posted: 03/07/2011