Thursday, September 25, 2008

Logic and Semantics in Theology

In the medieval university the study of logic and semantics was part of an education eventuating in the Master of Arts degree. Students studying for their Doctor of Theology learned their craft after having already mastered these important fields. In medieval disputations participants knew the rules of inference and could easily spot logical infractions. Moreover, they knew that words had both a signifcatio (signification) and a suppositio (reference), and they could unpack the meaning of theological sentences on the basis of this distinction. The educational horizon of the budding medieval theologian included profound training in the art of inference and the nature of meaning.

At the dawn of the Reformation, theologians like Luther who would become important purveyors of the new theology at Wittenberg, could also claim a deep education in logic and semantics. Luther participated in faculty disputations throughout his life and he clearly knew how to chop logic with the best of his peers. His training at Erfurt with the nominalists Trutvetter and Unsinn prepared him to understand deeply the truth-conditions of theological language, an understanding thought necessary for theological precision. Disputants were concerned with the question of which theological statements were true and which false. In a time in which it was salvifically important what one believed to be true theologically, sustained effort was made to give students the requisite tools to grasp the truth value of theological statements.

We Lutherans living almost 500 years after the Reformation find ourselves in a context quite unlike that of the Reformers. While for them the critical questions concerned the truth value of particular theological statements, for us the crucial theological questions don't seem any longer to be about truth. It is as if many Lutheran theologians and pastors have outgrown a robust sense of truth. Of course, they might say, theological statements are in some sense true, but this does not mean that there is some theological states of affairs existing independently from consciousness making those statements true. Such statements are true for other reasons, it seems. Theological statements may express or address the human existential situation such that their meaning and truth are thus connectable to human experience in a very profound sense. Or perhaps such statements are best understood as linguistic customs of a Lutheran community, meta-rules regulating how that community employs other theological statements.

In an age where one cannot claim another's religion false without thereby somehow denigrating the other person or his/her culture, it is difficult to claim that the truth of one's statements have any ontological backing. The reason is obvious: If one's theological statements are true because of some objective feature of the divine and its relationship to the world, then the statements of other religions not referring to these objective features must be false. But these statements cannot be false without denigrating the other person's cutlure and since to denigrate another's culture is wrong, then these statements cannot be false, and if they cannot be false, then one's own theological statements cannot be true. This is how it works logically.

So theology today passes without robust truth conditions. Theology becomes a discourse about the self, about the self within a communal context, about power relationships and marginalization, about racial or patriarchal oppression, about the individual's will-to-power, about almost anything but a divine being existing over and apart from human beings, a divine being who acts on behalf of human beings. Moreover, the purveyors of contemporary theology seem not even to know how differently from previous generations they understand theological terms. In addition, they do not know how deeply problematic contemporary theological semantics has become, a semantics that seems not cable of allowing for standard logical derivations at all.

In this time when theological language seems to have adopted multiple semantic structures, and theological argument has been debased to mere assertion, perhaps it is time again to return to a former time, a time when agreement on semantics and logic allowed for reasoned theological argument and objective truth and meaning. Perhaps if theologians and pastors could again agree on the rules of thought and the nature of meaning, discourse about God could become again a deeply pertinent discourse seeking to discern truth - - a truth that we have not constructed, but rather found, a truth not of our making, but God's.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Towards Theological Sanity

Ever since the time of Kant, theologians having been playing a certain kind of game. It has been, by all accounts, a pretty successful game. Theologians have taught pastors this game, and these pastors have in turn preached sermons to millions of folks while presupposing it. What the folks in the pews did not know is something rather basic to traditional theology. These folks did not know that their pastors were no longer presupposing semantic realism in their use of theological language; they did not know that that their pastors either did not hold, or had never thought seriously about, this rather commonsense view: Theological statements 1) conform to the principle of bivalence - - the statements are either true or false - - and 2) they are potentially recognition-transcendent, that is, they have evidence-transcendent truth conditions.

Kant had famously taught that knowledge of God is impossible, because knowledge depends upon applying the categories of the understanding to the manifold of sense perception. He claimed, in fact, that the two crucially important categories of substance and causality could only properly apply to the manifold of sense perception; they could not be so applied to that which lies beyond the bounds of possible sense experience, e.g., they could not be applied to God. But if the categories of substance and causality could not be applied to God, what is God? If God is not an entity causally related to other entities, what is God?

The theological tradition of the nineteenth century was anxious to explore various post-Kantian theological options. If God is not a real entity, then what can be said of Him? Schleiermacher labored to show that God was properly conceived to be the "whence" of the feeling of absolute dependence. God is not a real being, but that towards which a profound feeling in human beings flows. Moreover, God is not causally connected to anything else; He cannot be so connected even in principle because the category of cause only relates objects which are themselves syntheses of sense perception. Although Schleiermacher uses causal language in talking about God, he clearly is not supposing that there exists some being having divine powers, a being who has the causal power to change the distribution of natural properties in the universe.

Many later thinkers followed either Schleiermacher or Hegel in thinking about God. While Schleiermacher thought that God was the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence, Hegel thought the reflexivity of human thought itself was a manifestation of divine self-conciousness. The upstart of all of this talk about God was that a special theological way of thinking about God sprung up among theologians. This way of thinking supposes what semantic realism denies, that theological statements are either true or false, and that their truth of falsity depends upon how the world is. Instead of semantic realism, the late nineteenth century and twentieth century often assumed that theological language was neither true nor false, and that the statements of theology have no objective truth-conditions. This is to say, they assumed that it makes no sense to talk about mind-independent states of affairs making true (or false) theological statements if these states of affairs were in principle not able to be encountered. The traditional statements of theology thus acquired a new interpretation, a new semantics allowed the syntax of the statement to remain the same, even if the statement's meaning changed. God was understood as noncausally-relatable to the universe, even as the terms 'create', 'redeem' and 'sanctify' were predicated of Him. The problem was to give an account of creation, redemption and sanctification that did not presuppose the category of causality.

For a whole host of reasons, the general post-Kantian attempt to retain theological language must be seen as a dead end. Some of the problem is simply that human beings in the early twenty-first century are looking for something far more causally-robust in God than their late nineteenth century counterparts. How can a divine entity be germane to human existence if that entity cannot affect human beings, nor be affected by them? How is grace possible if it is in principle impossible to state that God can cause anything? Clearly, God cannot really be at work through Christ to reconcile the world unto Himself.

It is time to return to theological sanity and adopt the basic view that our language about God is true or false dependent upon the way that the divine is structured and acts. While we may have no epistemic access to the being of God, and can thus not provide proper evidence for accepting or asserting some theological proposition as true, it does not follow that there is no way that the divine already is, an ontological way that makes our language about God true even if we don't know that it is! It is time to quit playing the two century old game, and replace it again by one much more ancient - - and successful.

What is needed is a return to theological sanity. I shall be arguing that theological language is ultimately incoherent and marginalized if it does not presuppose semantic realism. We shall be examining this thesis in future posts.