Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Power of Words

lI am always am disquieted when I hear theologians talk confidently about the "power" of the Biblical word and then go on to claim that Biblical language is not referential, but rather performative. The reason for my disquiet is simply that such an understanding of language does not distinguish well between the performance itself, and the context in which that performance must perform.

Think about Julie saying to Bob, "I love you." This certainly can be said in a number of different instances. But to really empower Bob, the hearer of the word, there must be some sense in which Julie's remarks aptly display what psychological states she is in. If Julie tells Bob that she loves him, it is all-important to Bob that there is a Julie and she actually possesses the property of having love towards Bob. It is highly unlikely for Bob to be empowered by the words, 'I love you', when there is no Julie possessing an attitude of love toward Bob. There must be some basis upon which the locution empowers. It just does not make sense for human beings that performative utterances nakedly empower. A computer program spitting out 'I love you' fails to empower because we do not believe the program is an agent that could possess the relevant propositional attitudes that would make the locution even relevant.

So how can it be that so many theologians want to talk about the powerful effect of words without supposing that those words refer? The answer is quite simple. If one begins with the presupposition that God cannot be an entity causally involved in the life of the universe, then one's semantics must be adjusted accordingly. Words cannot refer because there is nothing to which those words can refer. What they can do is empower; they can free us; they can heal us; they can give us life; they can open up for us new possibilites. The theological trajectory that assumes a power in the words without a reference is a trajectory that allows for very good preaching, and a very good bedside manner.

The problem, of course, is that one cannot come clean on one's semantics to those with whom one speaks. The problem is that the man and woman in the pew are likely being empowered by the words only because they are assuming a referential, and not donational, semantics. One must have a high degree of existential sophistication, I suppose, to be empowred by a naked 'I love you' from a Julie who is not an agent and cannot have any propositional states. It may not be impossible to find some Bob so empowered, but his kind are clearly not found in abundance. In a parallel fashion, I suppose it would take a high level of theological sophistication to be empowered by 'You are saved by grace because of Christ's love,' in the absence of there being any God with a propositional attitude of wrath from whom to be saved. It is a rare bird whose existential anxieties are quelled by 'God loves you' who nonetheless believes that God is not an agent that can in principle possess a propositional attitude, or even an intent towards human beings.

Is it not time that we think deeply about these presuppositions in theology that allow us to use the language of a sacred canopy long after we have come of age to the fact that the skies are forever black? Maybe it is time to either eliminate the discourse or give it robust truth-conditions. Maybe the time is long overdo that we take God-talk very seriously.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nomological Confusions

Lutheran theology classically distinguishes the first and second use of the law. The first use is civil. Here the law works to keep human beings from descending into lawless chaos. The law in its first use functions to order society and to establish those requisite structures that make possible human life together. While this law is a curb, the second use of the law functions as a mirror so that we can see our waywardness and be driven by this realization to the foot of the cross. This theological use of the law was clearly thematized during the Reformation.

Lately there has been confusion in some otherwise solid Lutheran quarters about how the first and second use of the law connect to one another. Some have argued that human reason alone can establish the content established by the first use of the law. They have claimed that reason can establish that both homosexuality and mendacity are wrong. This reading claims, in nfact, that some ethical theory can provide solid grounds as to what is good and bad, right and wrong. For instance, instead of looking at divine proscription, they would argue that homosexuality is wrong on either an act or rule utilitarian perspective. The argument goes this way:

1) One ought to do those actions which conduce to the greatest happiness.
2) Homosexual actions cause physical and mental pain for the participants and their families.
3) Thus, one ought not to do homosexual actions.

The thing to notice about this argument is its consequentialism. It is, of course, the nature of a consequentialist argument to disagree about what consequences will likely follow from an act. To say that a homosexual act is wrong because it has a greater likelihood of causing medical problems in the participants, that it comcomittantly places a greater strain on medical resources, and that those so inclined to homosexual action would suffer more pain from engaging in the action than not engaging is to take part in a thoroughgoingly hermeneutical task. It is a question of the horizon of one's interpretation. Two intelligent people, equally well-trained in philosophy could disagree as to the extent that homosexual actions cause physical and mental pain. In such a case, as is well known, one's motivation for finding things to be a certain way can determine the way that one finds thing. Interpretations, after all, are entirely human matters. An interpretation is, in fact, in many ways like an artefact: One's motive partially manufactures it. An interpretation does not depend upon that which lies outside the self, rather it is autonomously produced by the self.

Now the rub comes. If an interpretation is a human artefact, and interpretations can be changed by the interpretants, then the material content of the first use of the law is determined by human reason. But how can that which is identified (and constructed) by human reason ever drive someone to the foot of the cross? Surely, to be driven to the foot of the cross presupposes that one is not who one ultimately should be, and that someone in power is upset by this. It seems to me that only if one deeply knows that he is not whom he should be could he ever be driven to the foot of the cross. Thus arises repentance and contrition, and the perceived need for the saving grace of the gospel.

Making the material content of the first use depend upon human autonomy, and the material content of the second upon divine heteronomy, clearly destroys the unity of the law and leads to nomological confusions. Within the context of such confusion, the old temptation of antinomianism flourishes alive and well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Authority of Scripture

Many people are concerned about the problem of the authority of scripture. But how can the Bible have such authority when seeming textual authority has been undermined by various methods that penetrate beyond the text and claim to recover deeper meaning? Moreover, how is scriptural authority possible when the homogeneity of hermeneutical method and stance has been broken?

In the early Christian tradition monks slavishly labored to copy perfectly Holy Scripture so as to preserve its syntax. Not always knowledgable about the truth and meaning of the text, these scribes were interested in preserving the text's form and structure. Developing normative canons for syntactic probity, it was relatively easy to diagnose deviant syntactic trajectories. Authority could be defined structurally in terms of proper and improper strings.

But the authority of syntax has never been as important in Christianity as semantic authority. What the text means is what is important, and for many this textual meaning is thought to be as objective as the syntax which mediates and carries this meaning. Identifying deviant semantic trajectories is thus a task of reporting the willful waywardness of deviant interpreters. What the Bible says is clear, it is thought; what is at issue is the interpretation of what it says.

But we postmoderns are not comfortable asserting an objective or normative semantic configuration tied intrinsically to the text. There is no intrisicality to semantics, we think. The idea that semantics supervenes on syntax - - any two worlds indiscernible with respect to their syntactic distributions are indiscernible with respect to their semantic distributions - - is problematic. Any supervenience of semantics upon syntax must presuppose an extrisnsicality of the former not needed for the latter. But when such semantic extrinsicality is admitted, then what becomes of textual authority? Does it finally not devolve to the relatum of textual extrinsicality, to the interpreter himself/herself? But if this is so, then is it not merely an instance of power? The text has a particular semantic normativity because there is a capriousness and arbitrariness of interpretation powerfully supported by the community. The text is given a particular normative semantic interpretation because of the power of the community to enforce its reading. Normativity of interpretation thus becomes a function of communal sanction.

All of this just points out the problem if Scriptural authority somehow gets conceived as a relationship of text to semantic interpretation, or text to that interpretation which is related to community enforcement. Clearly, scriptural authority must finally become merely a projection of a community's will to power. The authority of Scripture is reduced to the authority of the community to whom the text is authoratative. Those wanting to argue divine scriptural authority are marginalized because they do not know the true springs of that authority: human community.

If we are to make progress on the problem of Scriptural authority, we cannot start within the problematic of an innocuous intrinsicality hiding a nefarious extrinsicality. What is needed, of course, is recourse to the benign extrinsicality of the Holy Spirit. The Bible must interpret itself, and the wings of that interpretation must be the activity of the Holy Spirit. Just as postmodernity recognizes that the power of human community drives the semantics of the Biblical text, so too must it recognize that the power of the Holy Spirit also drives the interpretation of the text. The extrinsic moment within the dynamics of interpretation is God's own!

Thus, I do not see how Scriptural authority can be grounded apart from the activity of the Spirit. It is this divine breath of God that determines the contour of scriptural semantics, and ultimately the authority of Scripture itself.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Semantics in Theology

I am convinced that the mainline denominations are dying because they have violated semantic probity. While there seems to be some prima facie absurdity in this, I think that it is so. I believe that people who are profoundly interested in Christianity think that the language of Christianity somehow makes truth claims. That is not to say that every interested Christian is a naive realist. It is to say, however, that an understanding of religious and theological language that construes the specificity of that language as due entirely to human experience is problematic. The crucial realist question is simply this: If there were no human sentience, could one still affirm, in principle, the reality of God? Does it make sense to speak about God's existence apart from the human self/world structure? If there is no possible world - - no self-consistent description of how the world could have gone - - in which God is apart from human conciousness, then God must be causally inert.

The causal impotence of God is related to the internal relatedness of God to the world. If the concept of God is such that God must be related to that which is not God in order for God to be God, then we cannot affirm an intrinsicality to God that could, in principle, retain causal powers. But a God without robust causal powers simply cannot be God - - or so I would argue. The reason is simply that conceptually God must be construed as that which none greater can be thought. But clearly a God with causal power is greater than a God without it. Thus, in order for God to be God, God must have causal power. This is such a basic insight, that I am surprised many theologians no longer find it important to even ask the question of divine causality. For many, in fact, the notion that God can cause anything is taken to be a category mistake, like saying, with Ryle, that she left in a sedan and came home in a rage. This is unfortunate, and tips the theological hat since Kant in a decidedly Platonic direction, though most have not seen this. Just as Plato believed that coneptual analysis in the order of being gets at knowledge more than an examination of cause and effect within the spatio-temporal order, so too have theologians since Kant assumed that thinking about God, or reporting the experience of the divine aims at truth more than examining how God might actually causally relate to the word.

The problem for the last 200+ years is that the use of religious and theological language has continued unabated and that most outside the initiate have no idea that when the preacher uses theological and religious language, he or she does not mean what the unitiate think is meant. Because of this "semantic shift" in religious and theological language, even the "cultured despisers" of religion are put out of work. One does not know what precisely is meant by the language; one can specify no states of affairs making the putative assertions false. How can one talk meaningfully about what cannot be unambiguously and clearly stated?