Sunday 13 January 2008

Robert Jenson and the question of being

In case you hadn’t heard, Robert Jenson happens to be one of the two or three best theologians in the world today. And here’s why:

“So what is it to be? … To be God is to anticipate a future self by an inexhaustible interpretive relation to an other that God himself is; to be a creature is to anticipate a future self, by a finite interpretive relation to an other that the creature is not…. Being is interpretive relatedness across time; that is, to be is to rise from the dead. Such is the description of reality that coheres with trinitarian doctrine of God.”

—Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), p. 182.


βασίλης ψύλλης said...

your last two posts (this and the previous one) set me thinking what is your aspect on Incarnation. do you not really see any problem with those (post-)structuralistic views (you referred about nature and being)in relation with the mystery of Incarnation?


Phil Sumpter said...

I don't fully grasp what this quote is about, but it makes my mouth water anyway.

I'm writing my doctorate on the canonical approach. That means first and foremost, getting my head around B.S. Childs and K. Barth, and secondly getting my head round C. Seitz and his favorite theologian, R. Jenson. Your blog has just made it into my 'favorites' list. Would you consider posting on the canonical approach at some point, or the aforementioned exegetes, given their close relation to the systematic theologians that interest you?

Anonymous said...

And who are the other best theologians in the world?

Drew Tatusko said...

This is a fascinating concept:

"Being is interpretive relatedness across time"

I would be interested in pursuing the nature of this interpretation further. The dialectic he presents in terms of relatedness is quite Barthian and almost sounds perichoretic - the nature of the Trinity as an eternal relationship which is where the understanding of mystery in the patristics finds its focus.

Bryan L said...

What does it mean? Can you translate it or flesh it out for those of us less used to speaking theologianeese? ; )

Bryan L

Bryan L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan Barrett said...

While insightful, I can hardly imagine explaining this to a layperson. I'm not sure if that's a criticism from my side or an admittance of inability. Either way, I'd be interested how such a thing would look

Anonymous said...

Phil Sumpter,
If you want to get a grasp of B.S. Childs read James Barr.

Phil Sumpter said...

R.O. Flyer,

I would so love to discuss why that would help me, but this isn't the place. Feel free to tell me where Barr could have helped me on my blog, where I regularly post on such topics.

Anonymous said...

I've read it twice and still don't have the faintest idea what he's going on about.

Anonymous said...

As I was telling our paperboy only this morning: "Johnny, in a proper theological thick description of ego-ontology, the self is exocentric (extra nos), relational (in Christo) - I'd use the word "perichoretic", but it is open to misunderstanding when deployed anthropologically - and anastatic-pneumatogenic."

He replied, "Gee, Mr. Fabricius, Duh!"

Joshua said...

if opaque and philosophically incoherent is a sign of a great theologian than i suppose jenson is america's greatest. (at least in this quote)

a few queries
1. how does God anticipate a future self that is in fact Godself? does not that make the future self the present self. why then doesn't God as eternal and without time make more philosophical sense than this? see here Tanner
2. what does interpretive relation mean in the context of this quote, particularly in God's being?
3. to be is to rise from the dead? so ontology is resurrection. fine, but what does that get Jenson?

Ben Myers said...

Well, Jenson not only explains this to a layperson — he explains it to his 8-year-old granddaughter in Conversations with Poppi about God (2006). Here are some excerpts from a much longer conversation:

"Don't you suppose that God is livelier than anybody? ... God's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is God's liveliness.... Now, there is another point, and this is the complicated one. If I am lively, my liveliness is not itself a person. But in God's case, his liveliness is God all over again.... And when we say that someone is lively, we mean they are looking forward, that there are things that they are interested in. Being lively is being directed to the future. So God as the Spirit is God's own future that he is looking forward to." (pp. 38-42).

Anyway, the reason I think Jenson is so important is that he tries to rethink everything — God, eternity, time, space, being — from the standpoint of Jesus' resurrection. Whether or not he succeeds is another question. But he's one of the few theologians today who really sees clearly the massive, comprehensive task which the resurrection poses for theology. (Another theologian who sees this clearly is Pannenberg.)

Bryan L said...

"And when we say that someone is lively, we mean they are looking forward, that there are things that they are interested in... Being lively is being directed to the future."

I don't say or think that. In fact I tend to think people who live in the future never enjoy the present and thus never enjoy life. I think most people in society probably think the same thing (at least in America) when you consider all of those movies where you have the kid or college student working hard for the future, always studying and missing out on life and then you have the rebellious kid or college student come and teach them how to live in the present and enjoy life. In fact that seems like on of the most overused storylines in movies.

So in my mind to be lively is to enjoy life in the present. But that's jusrt me and I don't know if that has anything to do with what Jenson is getting at.

Thanks for the reference to that book. I'll have to go look it up.

Bryan L

Anonymous said...

"when we say that someone is lively, we mean they are looking forward, that there are things that they are interested in. Being lively is being directed to the future."

Well, the late, great Stanley Unwin was lively, and Jenson's quote is just about as comprehensible as Stanley in full flow . . .

Rory Shiner said...

Lucy: To answer your question, I reckon Ben would say David Bentley Hart and Wolfhart Pannenberg would bring to completion the list of the 'three best living theologians in the world today'. That's my guess anyway.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Rory. And don't forget Jüngel.

Anonymous said...

... and the two former Lady Margaret Professors Williams and Webster.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim, I think we should have a guest posting from your paper boy Johnny. A bit of working class wisdom is bound to show up these blokes who prefix their names with 'lady margaret'.

bgeorge77 said...

Well, I don't expect anyone is reading this post anymore, but I would like to take a shot at a layman's interpretation of what Jenson is saying. This works out well, because I was already going to give this talk to some kids.

Ok, so imagine yourself and think about the things that really move your spirit, the things that when you look at them seem to glow, "aaaahh!"

New laptop. New car. Law degree. Tooth whitening gel.

As humans, as creatures, those things that we move our spirit upon are the things that become our story. We TAKE meaning from things-- the meaning that those things have is written into our body and soul, the change our life. (How different is my life because of the internet? Very.) We're asking those things to promise a future for us, a better one. Even to say "I just live for the now" is to let your spirit be moved by that idea, and to ask that idea to promise a future good story. When we die, story over.

God the Father, being creator, is different from us: that which his Spirit moves upon is GIVEN meaning. The Father's Spirit is poured out on the Son. When the Son dies, the Father's story-giving Spirit says, "No, the story's not done!" and thus the Resurrection.

If we let out spirit be moved to creaturely things, then we are writing into our story things that will eventually crumble into not-being.

If we make our spirits move only to Christ, then we have as our own story the story of him whose story does not end. We have let our spirits take their meaning from the God who gives all meaning, from the God who will-be. His resurrection story becomes ours. His will-be is our will-be.

To be is to be resurrected, because all other being is simply soon-not-being.

Torage said...


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