Thursday, December 14, 2006

Surface Grammar and Logical Form

I am baffled by the tendency I find in theology to place “theological depth” in inverse relationship to rational clarity, consistency and coherency. This surely is not the case in other disciplines. For example, to get deeply into set theory only increases clarity, consistency and coherency. The same is true in chemistry. But, lamentably, it is clearly and consistently not true in theology.

I received an e-mail the other day that displays this theological malady of avoiding precision. The writer was taking issue with something I had written about God. I had said that God’s hiddenness does not entail the rejection of theological realism, semantic realism about God-talk, and the possibility of theophysical causation. In making my point, I had used Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism to the first article of the Apostle’s Creed. Luther writes, “I believe that God has created me and all creatures, that he has given me my body . . . “ My point was simply that Luther presupposed a causal connection between God and the universe.

The e-mail said a rather curious thing. It claims that one ought to read the First Article in light of what it says about human beings, not what it says about God. The e-mail further suggests, I believe, that to make claims about God places human beings in a post-Enlightenment arena where we stand as neutral observers judging God.

I find this all very puzzling. Why are we Lutherans so convinced that we violate the First Commandment when we say anything about God? Of course, I agree that any attempt to map divine ontology is decidedly un-Lutheran. But this is not done, I think, when we say that God’s creating the world entails that God causes the world to be. Logically, saying that human beings have certain properties with respect to the divine entails that the divine has certain properties with respect to us.

Take the following statements:

1) Bob is a creature
2) God created Bob

Many Lutherans want to see (1) and (2) as making quite different statements. While (1) ascribes the monadic property to Bob of being a creature, (2) says that God has a relational property of causing Bob to be. (1) seems true because of deep Lutheran insights about existential-phenomenological-ontological “placedness,” that is, it is true on the basis of human experience. (2), however, seems to be a metaphysical statement about God that is wholly out of place within the Lutheran context. Many Lutherans want to regard (1) as somehow expressing the existentiality of the self, and (2) as declaring a daring metaphysical theophysical causation. (1) is thus admitted, and (2) denied.

But all of this is conceptual confusion. Take the word ‘creature’. If we are to employ the word in a way consistent with its original meaning, it entails ‘being created’. While we can, of course, change the word into meaning something else, the fact remains that the term is likethe word 'creation' in being related to that which creates. Logically, there can be no creation without a creator. In a similar way, there can be no creature without a creator. To use the word ‘creation’ to apply to things not having been created is to violate the ordinary way in which we use words. Similarly, to use ‘creature’ in such a way as not to entail ‘being created’ is to violate the ordinary usage of these terms.

In reality, (1) can be parsed as ‘Bob is one having been created.’ Since, of course, one cannot be created without there being one to create you, (1) becomes ‘Bob is created by a creator’. Since we identify the creator as God, (1) reads ‘Bob is created by God’. Now, it should be easy to see that (1) and (2) are logically equivalent. I can conceive of no possible world where Bob is created by God, and God does not create Bob, or alternately, where God creates Bob, but Bob is not created by God. In truth, (1) and (2) share the same logical form; they state the same putative fact: ‘There is Bob and God, such that God and Bob are members of the set of all ordered pairs such that the first member creates the second’. (This is the standard extensional understanding of ‘God creates Bob’.)

Now one can object, of course, claiming that one does not mean by ‘Bob is a creature’ the proposition 'he is created by God'. But if this be so, then why use the word ‘creature’? Why not use another word, a word that more precisely states what is being asserted? If the word ‘creature’ is to be applied if and only if certain existential-phenomenological conditions are met, then why not eliminate the term in favor of a precise specification of those underlying existential-phenomenological conditions? This would be far clearer for all involved, and it would avoid useless ambiguity.

Lutheran theology can be precise. The problem is that in order to escape the ontological problems posed by the Enlightenment, Lutheran theology moved to become “deeper” so that its language no longer connoted what the average pewsitter presupposed. It is all a bit disingenuous and, I believe, it is time to come clean.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Objective Guilt and Justification

It is difficult to understand guilt correctly these days. When guilt became "subjectivized" into pyschological states, the ontological contour of guilt simply faded away. In former times, of course, one could make good sense of guilt as a transgression of the laws of God. One was "guilty" for not doing what one ought to do, even if one did not know one was so guilty. People are guilty coram deo (before God) even when they do not know of their transgression of divine boundaries.

In an age that understands guilt objectively, the prophetic voice is crucial. The prophet is one that reminds people of their guilt; he or she tells them what is the case and, by doing so, drives them into subjective apprehension of their guilt. A consonance between subjective and objective guilt is necessary if a person is ever to repent. The necessary condition for an experience of repentance is subjective apprehension of one's objective guilt.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to the future for a "day of the Lord." Such a day will be one when the "lion and lamb lie down together" and the "child plays with the adder." This day will be a day when the mountains are leved out and the valleys raised up (Luke 3). In the day of the Lord there shall be no unsatisfied guilt. Objective guilt demands objective satisfaction. Retributive justice requires paying back "likes for likes" (Cicero). The scales of justice must balance in a just society. In the day of the Lord, there shall be proper justice; there shall be no "extra guilt" in the universe. Just as the sum total of all charges in the universe is zero (at least, that is what many physicists say), so too the sum total of all guilt in the universe is zero. In the day of the Lord, all guilt is cancelled by its proper satisfaction.

It is truly wonderful to think of the justice in this "last day." Judaism, Christianity, and Islam long for the just day in which there will be no uncancelled guilt. However, while Judaism and Islam continue to look to the future for the justice of the day of the Lord, Christians claim that this justice has already dawned in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Unlike the other great monotheisms, God's day of justice is already here! Right now guilt and satisfaction are in proper balance. Right now the mountains have been lowered and the valleys raised. Right now the lion lies peacefully with the lamb.

But how can this be? It should be apparent to everyone that this is clearly not so; there is no objective justice here and now. The "not yet" of the eschaton might bear justice, but surely in the "yet" of time, justice is lacking.

Precisely this, however, is the paradox. Just as we are objectively guilty, though seldom realize it, so are we now living in a state of objective justice, though we cannot see it. The Christian claim is that the justice of the eschatological "not yet" is now "yet" present in the injustice of the world. Simply put, eternal justice is present in the injustice of time.

But how ought one understand this? What is the relation between temporal injustice and eternal justice? How can it be that this world is already just and still not just at the same time? What is the ontology of the justice the prevails now?

There are a number of options. One could, I suppose, simply deny that any justice holds now. We might claim that the world is groaning in travail and waiting for some future rectification. While this seems true empirically, it is inconsistent with the profound Christian claim that the logos (proper order) actually entered history in Jesus the Christ.

One could claim that justice is really present, and no matter how bad things appear, the reality is that God has entered time and that justice has been established. The problem with this view is that it devalues the current situation. Things are good, no matter how they look.

The proper claim is to hold in tension the "yet" and "not yet" by understanding the reality of present justice theo-ontologically. From the standpoing of the divine, justice has been established through the Cross of Christ. However, this is simply not true ontologically, from the human standpoint. Earthly eyes see that the day of the Lord shall someday come; divine eyes know it is already here. How can this be reconciled?

The truth is that no synthesis of the human and divine standpoints are possible. What humans can hope for is a "trickle down" from the justice already theo-ontologically established into the injustice of a world ontologically comprehended by sinful man and woman. The world, like human beings, is both just and unjust at the same time. It is not partially just and partially unjust (partim/partim), but it is wholly both just and unjust (totus/totus). This is the place where the paradox lives, and this paradoxical presence ought not be mistaken for conceptual confusion.

Friday, December 08, 2006

On Truth-Conditions in Theology

In his influential book, The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck discusses three general semantic approaches to theological and religious language. The cognitive-propositional approach assumes that theological statements have truth values because they either state what is or what is not the case. The experiential-expressivist strategy understands theological statements to be somehow expressive of human attitudes and orientations. Finally, the cultural-linguistic approach believes that theological statements are rules assumed by the theological community, rules that are themselves neither true nor false, but which ground further employment of theological and religious language. Of these three approaches, only the first grants robust truth-conditions to theological language.

Contemporary theology, of course, has deep problems with ascribing truth-conditions to its language. Ever since the days of Kant, the academic elite in Europe has been engaged in the project of doing theology without assuming God to be real - - or at least not "real" in the way that other things in the universe are real. God is either an ideal of human reason or an abstract object who is incapable of having causal relations with the universe. Tillich spoke of such a god as the "ground of being" or the "depth of being" in order to distinguish this being from any beings within the "structure of being."  Of course, causal relations hold only among beings within the structure of being.  (I will simply ignore the question here as to whether the Tillichian structure of being is a noematic structure or a structure existing apart from the noematic entirely.  As it turns out, for our question this distinction is not important.)  

Since God is not a being within the structure of being, statements about God cannot have truth-conditions in the way that statements about other objects in the universe can. If statements about such a God are to be true or false, they must somehow correspond to what is so within the structure of being, or be consistent and coherent with the language of other theories that themselves deal with the structure of being. However, if Kant is right, then God cannot be known as a member of the class of all beings, and thus a fortiori cannot be referred to by a language having definite truth-conditions. The assumption, of course, is that giving an extension to theological language involves the specification of a divine domain, divine properties, and relations (ordered n-tuples) having at least one term taking on a divine value, and the other (or others) the value of a member of the class of non-divine things. But dyadic (two-place) causal relations between God and any non-divine entity are clearly precluded by the Kantian starting point.

If theological language has no truth-conditions because it has no non-linguistic, non-mental domain to which it could refer, then it's use must serve some other function. Schleiermacher was perhaps the first clearly to grasp that theological language could be retained but assigned some other function. Instead of it having truth-conditions as if it were about something, it could be expressive or poetical, in its first-order use, and regulative and diagnostic in its second-order use. For Schleiermacher and many after him, theological language is neither true nor false, but rather expressively or regulatively adequate. Simply put, theological language is important not because of what it says about God, but what it expresses about us -- our experience and our condition. Theological language is thus not about God, but rather presents, evokes or displays the self.  Instead of theos-logos, it is anthro-logos -- albeit, in a most roundabout way.

The problem with this should be apparent. Theological language that is merely expressive of the self or human experience does not have an extension and hence cannot be semantically relatable to entities within the universe. Such language is "doing something else" than claiming an object or ordered n-tuple is a member of a set; accordingly, it is doing something else than making a claim of truth. But surely this question is crucial: Does the term 'God' refer to a divine entity or does it merely express the self, and its aptitudes and orientations?

The reason why the question is crucial is apparent.  Because human beings are beings who can pro-ject ahead of themselves various possibilities of being -- one of whose possibilities is the possibility of there being no more possibilities -- and because the referent of 'God' has traditionally been conceived to be an entity with salvific, causal power -- an entity causally-relatable to the human possibility of there being no more possibilities -- the very reason for employing 'God' is seemingly taken away when an extensionalist theological semantics is denied.  One might go so far as to declare that whatever is referred to by 'God' is not referred to properly if the entity in question has no causal power.   (On such a non-extensionalist construal, one might say that the entity in question has no causal power in each and every possible world in which it is ingredient.)

Since humans experience their death in the midst of life, the question of the reference of God is all important. Who, or what, can deliver a person from eternal death? Here the word 'deliver' has causal overtones. Only a being having causal power can liberate somebody from death.  Why? The reason rests with the meaning of 'liberate'.  For P to liberate x from y is for  P to bring about a state of affairs of x in regard to y that would not have been brought about without P.  (P cannot be said to free x from y if it were in x's power to get rid of y.)  It is precisely this notion of bringing about a state of affairs that would not have been brought about otherwise that captures the causal relation.  (Giving an analysis of 'cause' is, of course, a very difficult matter and we won't go into it here.)

A salvific, causal being is precisely the kind of being traditionally referred to by 'God'.  Since we cannot deliver themselves from death, expressions of the self are improperly employed in combatting the critical salvific issues of human being. Moreover, these expressions may violate the very logic of theological discourse.  How might this be so?

Theological language developed with a semantics that specified as its universe of discourse both worldly and divine objects, properties, relations, events and/or states of affairs.  The point of such language was to claim satisfiability of a class of ordered pairs (or ordered n-tuples) by elements of this domain.  So the question is simple:  Does the criterion of application of 'theological language' extend beyond the semantics of traditional theological language to something quite different?  I think a strong argument can be made that employment of a wholly different semantics properly precludes application of the term 'theological language' entirely.  Accordingly, whatever it is that non-cognitive, non-propositionalist theologians now do, they do not do theology.    

Monday, November 27, 2006

Trinitarian Reflections

One can claim that in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries two different Trinitarian traditions developed in the west. The first, grounded in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, claimed that relations themselves individuate the persons of the Trinity. On this view, the Father is the Father because he bears a particular relation to the Son. The second, developing in and through the work of Duns Scotus and others, claims an emanationalist model where origins individuate the persons of the trinity. The person of the Father is innascible, and by virtue of this innascibility, is the Father. On the first model, bare relations individuate the Trinitarian persons. According to the second model, particular monadic properties are possessed by the persons, properties, on the basis of which, relations among the persons are established.

With regard to the Son being the Word, the first view, because it is committed to individuation through bare relations, understands 'Word' metaphorically. It is because that the Son bares sonship to the Father that the Son is the Son. Word can be spoken of this Son metaphorically because the Son is "like a Word" in being an expression (issue) of the one who expresses (issues) it. On the other hand, the emanationalist view can regard 'Word' as specifying more or less the individuating property of the Second Person. Because the Second Person is Word, He is called the Son of God.

The distinction between internal and external relations may be helpful here in understanding the distinction. An external relation R holds of a with respect to b if and only if R does not change the entity which a is in relation to b. For example, I am externally related to my son because I remain exactly who and what I am genetically regardless of whether the relation of being the parent of b obtains or not. An internal relation R' holds of a with respect to b, however, if and only if R obtaining changes what a is in relation to b. For example, my son is internally related to me because his genetic material varies as a function of whether the relation 'being a son of me' holds or not. An external relation does not change the being of the one related to another; an internal relation does change the being of the one related to the other.

These categories can be helping for thinking about the indiviudation of persons within the Trinity. On the Fransican model, the Trinitarian persons are externally related with respect to 'being the Father of x' because the dyadic relation of Father to Son is grounded on the the existence of nonrelational, mondadic properties like innascability which themselves individuate the persons. According to the Dominican model, however, the persons are internally related with respect to dyadic relational properties like 'being the Father of x', for the Father could not be the person He is apart from the relation in question.

Using the language of logic, the Dominicans claim that the one called 'Father' is the one having two dyadic relations: 'being the Father of the Son' and 'being the one from whom the Spirit proceeds'. For the Fransicans, on the other hand, the one called 'Father' is the one having the nonrelational monadic quality of innascability, a property, on the basis of which, the relation of Father to Son is established. The two dyadic relations individuate the Father on the Dominican model; a single monadic property individuates the Father on the Fransican view.

Now things get difficult when trying to conceive how either account is possible without compromising the unity of the divine essence, or without denying real objective distinctiveness of the persons. For instance, if we say that there are either real relations or real intrinsic qualities in the persons, we seem to be claiming that there is a real ontological consitutent to individuation, a modus essendi, not merely modi intelligendi. But if this is so, it appears that divine simplicity, and hence the divine essence itself, is compromised. On the other hand, if we say that the Trinitarian individuaters are mere modi intelligendi, then the ontological distinctiveness of the Trinitarian persons seems to be undermined. There is one divine essence ontologically, although human beings might, from the standpoint of reason, distinguish that essence into persons. But if this is so, then the Persons seem to be due to human construction.

The third way also sometimes used in the tradition appears unworkable. It claimed a modus se habendi in which no distinction arises when comparing the personal properties to the divine essence, yet a distinction arises when comparing these properties to the properties of the other persons. Lamentably, this is a non-starter because the problem still remains: Are the individuating properties, upon which the persons are individuated, ontologically grounded or not? If yes, then divine simplicity seems difficult to sustain; if no, then divine simplicity is sustained at the expense of their being any real differences among the Trinitarian persons.

The problem of the identity in difference of the Trinitarian persons is a profound one, and it is clearly not solved either in the Dominican or Franciscan traditions.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Realism in Theology

Every discipline has its fundamental assertions and assumptions, those principles without which the discipline cannot proceed as the discipline it is. This is true as well for theology. We find, in fact, that particular fundamental assertions demarcate trajectories of the theological tradition. This is clearly true of what I call the realist fundamental: "God exists independent of human awareness, perception, conception and language." Whether or not one accedes to this fundamental determines the meaning of an entire matrix of theological assertions. Theology can proceed whether or not one postulates the realist fundamental. The point is that the ontologies of realist and antirealist theologies are quite different, even if they both proclaim similar religious and theological statments.

Since the time of Kant, the theological penchant has been towards antirealism generally. Kant famously held that God is merely a regulative ideal of human reason. While thinking God is perhaps inescapable, and while God can function as a postulate of pure practical reason (guaranteeing happiness to the one who does his/her duty), God cannot be a substance entering into causal relations with any other objects in the universe. Kant only grants substance status to those objects which have concomittant sense impressions; he only allows causal relations to hold among substances. Because God is not the kind of object having sense impressions, then God is not a substance causally relatable to entities within the universe, or the universe generally.

The problem for theology after Kant was to try to provide a meaningful account of theological assertions when that referred to by 'God' was not a substance, and that referred to by 'creates' was not a causal relation. Although the theological tradition was not always consistent, it basically asserted that talk of God must be parsed in terms of something besides divine objects, properties, events or states of affairs. Schleiermacher, for instance, spoke of God as the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. Hegel located God in the reflexivity of human thinking. Later liberal Protestantism found God talk most germane to the arena of ethics, of human doing. Even the twentieth-century backlash to liberal theology worked with a basic antirealist notion of God. While theologians talked a great deal about God's "mighty acts in history," God remained unable to causally interact with nature. But how is action in history possible without action in nature?

While neo-reformational theology "preached well," it, and later theological developments, have proved unable to assert robust causal connections between God and the universe. The result has been lamentable for theology, for a causally impotent God is clearly irrelevant for most postmodern men and women. What kind of question is the Christ the answer for when the God, to whom Christ reconciled the world, is causally inert? If God is not connectable to the universe, then Christ becomes merely a symbol for the liberation of human beings from anxiety, despair, and ultimate suffering. Antirealist assumptions lead one into a basic projectionist strategy. The universe is presumably what it is apart from us, but God is "put" into the universe because of human value and interest. Finally, Feurbach is correct at this point: We project God onto the universe. Therefore, God is internally related to us; His being is determined by the relation we assume towards Him. Antirealism is a definite trajectory of theology thinking, a trajectory that has been, in my opinion, the dominant motif in academic theology.

But how different it all becomes if one asserts that there is some being, such that that being has robust divine properties, properties not affected by the relationship humans have towards that God! On the realist assumption, causality is put back on the table. Now one can speak again about God actually creating, actually acting such that something came into being that would not have come into being without that acting. Now one can speak again about real redemption and real sanctification. Now one can speak again about the possibility that God really can act to answer prayer. That the evangelical tradition has tended toward realism, does not mean, of course, that realism entails other evangelical positions. Conversely, while the Lutheran tradition has tended toward antirealism, this does not mean that antirealism entails other Lutheran positions. Of this we shall have much more to say later.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Basic Over-and-Againstness

Much has been written about the law as it was conceived by Luther and the Reformers. Of late, there has been a proclivity within Luther circles to get it wrong. In my opinion, the problem is that we Lutherans have been so enamored with anthropology since the Enlightenment, that we cannot any longer even conceive what terms like 'law' meant in their original Reformation context. We sons and daughters of Luther (viewed through the lens of Kant) quite naturally put a pro nobis behind all of the basic theological loci. But while grace is finally pro nobis, ought one say the same thing about law?

Lately Lutheran theologians have pushed the freedom of the justified from the law to such a point that Christ becomes the "end" of the law in an ontological as well as phenomenological sense. Of course, Christ frees us from the law in that we sinful and justified ones no longer need to build a bridge to the divine upon the basis of human works. The law has no applicability in the order of redemption. We are free indeed.

Unfortunately, this preoccupation on how the law affects us has undermined any thought of what the law is in itself. Traditionally, the law had everything to do with God as a real being apart from human being. The theological tradition asserts that God has a primal intentionality towards His creation, an intentionality that, since the advent of sin, can only confront human being as an ought. The law, ontologically considered, is the expression of divine intention, an intention that appears to man and woman as demand.

In Christ, of course, human beings are set free of the law; they are liberated from living under the onus of demand. This does not mean, or it ought not mean, that there is no longer any primal intentionality. To say that God is the end of the law in an ontological sense, would be to say that God either has a changed intention, has no longer intentionality, or no longer exists. In much of the contemporary discussion, it seems that we cannot talk meaningfully any longer about God apart from the horizon of man and woman.

But look what happens if God and divine law is reduced to phenomena for human being. Instead of human beings revolving about God - - this due to the basic artificer/artifact relationship - - God revolves about human beings; God only "shows up" on the horizon of man and woman. This "Copernican revolution" in theology has been so pervasive these past two centuries, that we no longer remember what it might have been like to have lived at the time of the Reformation. We Lutherans, so in love with Lutheran theology, can't quite imagine what a robust Lutheran theology would even look like.

Dennis Bielfeldt