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.