Review of Idealism and Christianity, 2 volumes, edited by Farris, Hamilton, Cowan, and Spiegel

April 11, 2017

Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton (eds.). Idealism and Christian Theology. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 256, $100, hardback.

Steven Cowan and James Spiegel (eds.). Idealism and Christian Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 224, $100, hardback.

idealism-and-christianity-vol-1What does idealism have to do with Christianity? In Bloomsbury’s two-volume series, editors Joshua Farris, Mark Hamilton, Steven Cowan, and James Spiegel set out to answer this question. Reflection upon Edwardsean and Berkeleyan idealism has lead them to advocate for a reevaluation of idealism’s compatibility with Christian theology. Together they have assembled a wide array of scholars whose personal commitment to idealism varies, but nevertheless each endorses a particular virtue of idealism.

idealism-and-philosophySince space forbids a detailed interaction with each chapter of this series, I have instead opted for a thematic summary and a meta-criticism concerning the enterprise of Christian idealism. The summary might also serve as a recommended reading plan of the two volumes, reorganized according to what I take to be the major contribution from each author. Many of these chapters do a refreshingly excellent job of writing historically informed analytic theology or philosophy, which was a chief aim of the editors of volume one. Consequently, my classification of prolegomena, historical theology, systematic theology, and philosophy does not always reflect the genre intention of the authors. My hope is that this review will serve potential readers by helping them enter into Christian idealism by connecting the unique insights from ‘Idealism and Christianity’ with the potential interests of future readers.

Prolegomena For those who are novices with the subject of idealism in general, I recommend beginning with Cowan and Spiegel’s introduction. Here the editors lucidly and succinctly lay out the essential thesis of Berkeleyan idealism: esse est percipi aut percipere or “to be is to be perceived or to be a perceiver” (II.intro). On the other hand, Farris and Hamilton’s introduction adds the exotic thinking of Edwardsean idealism alongside a series of questions that commends the relevance of these two modern minds, Berkeley and Edwards, for knotty theological issues today (I.intro). Both introductions have exhaustive chapter previews that should be reviewed by those who wish to have a more detailed summary than what can be provided here. Finally, Spiegel’s chapter (II.1) on the idealism and reasonableness of theistic belief shows how the former enhances the latter by looking at some of Berkeley’s apologetic contributions. Unlike much of the analytic philosophy genre today, these prolegomena essays are accessible and assume no prior knowledge on the part of the reader.

Historical theology Because contemporary monism often comes packaged in a materialistic box rather than an idealist box, Christians have rightly been wary of considering idealism as a plausible metaphysic scheme. Many of the historical chapters in this series argue that while this concern might be legitimate for non-theistic philosophers, the commitments of George Berkeley and Jonathan Edwards are much more complex and faithful to Christian theology. Some of these chapters defend the orthodoxy of Berkeley’s doctrine of creation (Spiegel, I.1) and Edwards’s Christology (Crisp, I.8 and Tan, I.9). Crisp and Tan’s essays represent the only competing perspectives in this series, and their differences could be made more explicit. However, if readers want more from that discussion, they should consult Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation and Tan’s Fullness Received and Returned: Trinity and Participation in Jonathan Edwards with an eye towards the importance that dispositional ontology plays in the interpretation of Edwards’s idealism. William Wainwright shows readers that Christian idealism lends itself to many creative variations by comparing the account of knowledge of God in Berkeley and Edwards and putting forward philosophical nuances that might otherwise be missed. (I.2) While Keith Yandell’s chapter also defends a Berkeleyan account of creation (I.4), his primary contribution to the volume is historical; he places the Anglican divine in the context of the atheistic thinkers of the 17th century, which sheds light on why Berkeley made the philosophical moves he did. The same virtue is present in Timo Airaksinen’s chapter on Berkeley’s ethics (I.11), whose moral philosophy was meant to curb the spread of unbelief while also providing a path to godly happiness.

Systematic theology Most of the chapters between these two volumes offer immediate resources to contemporary systematic theology, albeit remaining heavily indebted to both Edwards and Berkeley. Benjamin Arbour’s chapter, “God, Idealism, and Time,” is one of the most demanding arguments to follow, but it rewards the reader by bringing idealism right into present-day debates in analytic theology regarding God’s relationship to time (II.7). In keeping with the significant consequences that idealism has for the Creator-creature distinction, two essays reevaluate popular suspicions surrounding idealistic panentheism. Jordan Wessling provides an Edwards-styled defense (I.3) and Adam Groza adds a Berkeleyan defense (II.6) in which a “weak” mode of panentheism is rendered consistent with Christian orthodoxy. Several other essays address or construct what might be called “idealist anthropology” by replacing substance-dualism with theological monism (Farris I.5) or by replacing the primacy of the material world with that of the mind (Taliaferro II.5). Mark Hamilton pushes some of these conclusions further up field by showing how the simplicity of metaphysical idealism can better account for sin’s corrupting effects upon the body than the traditional Reformed approach (I.6). Although Marc Cortez’s chapter is primarily dedicated to spelling out the implications of Edwards’s immaterialism for the resurrection, it overlaps with these anthropological discussions quite a bit as well (I.7).

There are also a number of worthwhile integrations of idealism into other doctrines. James Arcadi makes a creative and novel case for an idealist account of the Eucharist (I.10). Mark Hight writes what, for many, will be a controversial take on miracles within idealistic parameters, warranting consideration even if it does not represent Berkeley’s own opinions (II.9). Lastly, Keith Ward contends that idealism’s priority of the mind helps ground the moral life (II.10) Each of these articles is uniquely creative and offers a fresh look at old issues.

Philosophy While every chapter is philosophically informed, there are three essays in particular that are noteworthy for their interaction with non-theistic philosophy. Gregory Trickett, for example, deals with Bertrand Russell’s rejection of Berkeleyan idealism by showing how theism can uphold a realist (and correspondence) theory of truth (II.2). His essay might serve future discussions about how Christian idealism can ward off charges of anti-realism. At the end of Howard Robinson’s “Idealism and Perception: Why Berkeleyan Idealism is Not as Counterintuitive as it Seems,” idealism is provocatively suggested to provide a better ontological fit with current quantum theory than the supposed “common sense” of scientific realism (II.4). Douglas Blount’s use of Thomas Kuhn in his chapter on science is also an ambitious employment of idealism (II.8), which I will say more about below, along with Steven Cowan’s excellent explanation of idealism and particulars (II.3).

Before moving on to constructive criticism, the contributors are to be commended for the corrective they offer to many mistaken notions about idealism, which is a great service to Berkeley’s legacy. Additionally, a great deal of complexity is showcased regarding the types of idealism that are viable for Christians. Since no monolithic scheme dominates the book (e.g. Edwards’s occasionalism and theological determinism are not shared by Berkeley), it should encourage further creativity. Moreover, there is a rhythmic unity to many of these arguments that proceeds from (1) the exposition of a dilemma that realism or “matterism” fails to solve to (2) an elaboration of how idealism relates to the aforementioned dilemma more cogently to finally, (3) the exchange of matter or substance with the divine or human mind as a theoretical explanation. Obviously this type of argument prizes parsimony or simplicity since almost every case involves a removal of some middle substance between God and creation. Furthermore, the immediacy with which idealists place agents (both God and humans) in proximity to their causes appears to require a high view of Providence, which will lead to correlated concerns about the problem of evil or the authorship of sin. Many authors acknowledge this point, rebutting potential concerns with a “no-worse-off” defense, which involves a demonstration of how objections to panentheism from the problem of evil are “no-worse-off” than traditional theistic defenses. Whether or not parsimony and the “no-worse-off” defense are theological virtues will depend upon the convictions of the reader, but since they appear to be inherent within Christian idealism, it would be prudent to explore their value in greater detail.

My meta-criticism for the project of Christian idealism is twofold – part metaphysics and part historiography. The first part is that the editors and some of the contributors undersell their claims, likely out of respect for the reader and a desire to avoid a dogmatic tone. Nevertheless, ontology (defined as the study of reality) is a comprehensive field with major implications for every theological and philosophical issue addressed in these volumes. Consequently, the “mere suggesting,” “worth considering,” the “elasticity and adaptability… [and] the appeal” of idealism (I.intro), and other similar idioms understate the commitment the reader must make when switching their understanding of ontology from, say, Common Sense Realism to Berkeleyan idealism. If one pictures theology as a web of interrelated beliefs, ontology is a strand that upholds the center spiral and every successive thread. One cannot, for example, be a consistent idealist with regards to the Eucharist and a substance realist with regards to creation. So while the tone of each contributor is appreciated, the stakes of their recommendations are often much higher than they set.

The second criticism is primarily a question of historiography: why did Berkeley – and to a lesser extent, Edwards – fade from the consciousness of Western philosophy? Why did their influence not persist? Unfortunately, despite the frequent laments by authors in these volumes, this important background question is not explored in any great detail. One would think that if an apparently worthwhile philosophical system ceased to be considered, it would be important to locate the cause of its extinction. Now, I am not suggesting that the meager legacy of modern Anglophone idealism ipso facto demonstrates its falsity; rather I am requesting that some explanation be given for this lamentable phenomenon in order to ensure that better ontologies did not come along and replace Berkeley. Fredrick Copleston’s story – representing perhaps the majority report – is relatively straightforward: Berkeley’s metaphysical philosophy was neglected while his empirical elements, especially his phenomenalistic analysis, were picked up and taken in a more skeptical direction by Hume. Hume in turn connects us to the second, more famous half of the story in which he interrupts Kant’s dogmatic slumber, sending Kant in a completely different direction in speculative philosophy – namely into transcendental idealism. This Kantian variation of idealism became immensely popular and produced scores of Continental offspring that have come back around to deeply influence the commitments of Anglophone theologians. Readers who wish to look into this more would do well to consult Garry Dorrien’s magnificent work, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology, which is now the authoritative treatment of the legacy Kantian transcendental idealism. German idealism has so overshadowed its English counterpart that only in 2011 was the first historical survey on the subject ever written (by W. J. Meander: British Idealism: A History.) In short, in terms of legacy, Kant dwarfs Berkeley and Christian idealists ought to ask why this is so.

But, one might object, why should a group of Christian analytic theologians and philosophers be concerned with the waxing and waning of historical preferences when the good bishop himself reminds us that “[t]ruth is the cry of all, but the game of a few” (Siris 368)? The short answer: some arguments made by Kant and other moderns need to be answered by Christian idealists, and this is especially relevant to Cowan and Blount’s essays. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes that Berkeley’s “dogmatic idealism… declares space, together with all the things to which it is attached as an inseparable condition, to be something that is impossible in itself, and… therefore declares things in space to be merely imaginary” (KrV B274). Kant says that Berkeley’s unintended conclusion is unavoidable because he “regards space as a property that is to pertain to the things in themselves; for then it, along with everything for which it serves as a condition, is a non-entity” before going on to state that he has already undermined this type of idealism in the Transcendental Aesthetic (Ibid.). Cowan touches upon the role that space plays in distinguishing objects only tangentially when he considers the problem of bundle theory, but he gives no constructive account of space from the Berkeleyan perspective. Kant might press Cowan (and Berkeley) on this point, by asking whether or not space (and time) was a property bundled to sensible objects that we perceive rather than an a priori form of intuition. If the bundle theory of sensible objects is true, must a Berkeleyan regard space and time as properties of that object, empirically derived? If so, what does this account look like? The issue here is over how the mind determines the character of experience and whether the mind brings space and time, so to speak, to the discernment of objects or if those are attributes derived empirically. For those who wish to pursue this further, I recommend Ralph C. S. Walker’s chapter, ‘Idealism: Kant and Berkeley’ in Essays on Berkeley.

Elsewhere in the Prolegomena to any future metaphysics that will be able to come forward as science, Kant again objects to Berkeley’s supposition that the noumenal – things-in-themselves – realm can be knowable from the divine Mind to the human mind through a type of intuitive notion. Berkeley’s notional knowledge was not empirical, and therefore it transgressed the categories necessary for the type of science that Kant wanted to uphold. Blount’s chapter does not relate as directly on Kant’s objections as Cowan’s does, but it is the place where the most extrapolation needs to happen. If Berkeley’s phenomenalist account of the sciences is right and (especially if occasionalism is true) scientists are actually studying patterns of God’s action rather than “so-called natural laws,” then both science and theology must undergo major revisions in light of this ontology. Science will have to pull up its realist foundations and scale back its sphere of claims while theology begins to move in and renovate science. Kant would vehemently object to this for a number of reasons, and Christian idealists should think about what they are committing to if such relationship between science and idealism goes forward. Nonetheless I am anxious to see more interaction between the philosophy of science and Christian idealism in the future.

The ‘Idealism and Christianity’ series is the first of its kind, an inauguration of a rich conversation in metaphysics that manages to be coherent, insightful, and accessible to students and professors alike. At the present moment, accessibility seems to be the most pressing attribute. Many of the questions and conversations at the Idealism and Christian Philosophy book panel of the 2016 ETS annual meeting revealed that the primary obstacle to a renaissance of Christian idealism were caricatures or truncated versions of Berkeleyanism. A step towards correcting this situation would be to encourage interested metaphysicians, students, and theologians to obtain these volumes by Bloomsbury while also procuring the works of Berkeley and Edwards. Reading the primary sources of these modern idealists will circumvent many of the problems that appear in secondary literature or in the writings of poor historians of philosophy who act as de facto gatekeepers. In the meantime, readers should also be on the lookout for similar volumes on idealism from these authors in the future.

So what does idealism have to do with Christianity? Currently among the evangelical academy, the answer is very little. These volumes take a step in the right direction towards rectifying this problem.

C. Layne Hancock

Yale Divinity School

Wrap Up