To make matters even more confusing, we live in a very relativistic age. If two people disagree upon what is beautiful, must one of them be wrong? Most would agree that clearly "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder."
But what about goodness and truth? If two people disagree upon what is good, must one of them be wrong? Twenty years ago my college students would divide upon whether one person must be wrong in such a situation. But times have changed. Now my informal surveys of student opinion show that almost 90% now think that "goodness lies in the hand of the doer'. Just as aesthetics has been subjectivized, so too has ethics. What is right for me is no longer what is right for you - - yet somehow there is something right for each of us.
Truth itself is under attack: At least within the undergraduate university population, truth has been relativized along with beauty and the good. What is true for x may not be true for y. While A is true for x, not-A is true for y. All of this is extremely problematic, for it is not at all clear we can even use 'right' and 'true' correctly, if we strip each of any normative status. Accordingly, it is not at all clear that 'x is true for A, but not-true for B' does not express a contradiction, an assocation of words that cannot pick out a class of objects or actions in any possible world.
The problem is a very profound one. Even if we can hold onto truth, and even if we do believe that classes of statements do succeed in stating the facts, we are confronted with the old distinction between facts and values. Grounded in the work of Logical Atomism, and the harder edge of the Enlightenment critique, this distinction succeeds in placing all of the big questions, the theologcal questions, in the realm of subjective value.
Some statements are said to express facts, and facts are supposed to be objective, about the world, and concerned with truth and reason. Values, on the other hand, are thought to be subjective and about ourselves. Values concern our feelings, and are neither right nor wrong. Accordingly, value judgments are neither true nor false.
While many regard scientific language as having truth-conditions, many deny that the sentences of theology have the same truth conditions. An expression has a truth condition if and only if it states the contour of the world were it to be true. Thus, 'the cat is on the mat' is true if and only if there is a cat, a mat, and the cat is on the mat - - these are its truth-conditions. But does theological language actually state what the world must be like if the statements of theology are to be regarded as true? Is 'God is in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself' true if and only if there is a God, this God is in Christ, and this God is reconciling the world unto Himself, or does theological language lack truth conditions entirely?
The dominant theological tradition within academic theological circles the last 60 years has uniquivocally said, 'No' - - our theological language lacks truth conditions entirely. And even if it were somehow to retain them, the theological language is not really about the divine after all. This certainly would have surprised Martin Luther, who believed one could actually claim certain things true and certain things false of the divine. (Luther was, as it turns out, a semantic realist - - but more of that later.)
There are so many confusions we face. People profess belief in God, but do not know what they mean by the term 'God'. They use theological language, but yet regard their assertions as being merely "true for them." They pray to God to change things, but do not really believe that God is, or even can be, causally active in the universe. Many people, usually with some deeper theological orientation, deny God's presence in nature even though they claim that he remains readily available in His Word. The effect, of course, is to disconnect the Word of God (Christ) from the reality of nature completely. Finally, people believe that that Scripture has authority, that it confronts us as witnessing to the Lordship of Christ, but they really don't think through what could be the grounds of that authority. Why is this book authoritative because it witness to Christ and another ancient book not because it witness to another God?
It is time that we re-think the issues. We simply must as Lutherans reflect again upon the very presuppositions of our theology. Such a "thinking after" (Nachdenken) theology shall demand deeper ontological, semantic, and epistemological reflections than has recently predominated in theological thinking. In order to get clear about what claims are made in theology - - or even that any claims are made - - we must return again to the basics. We must ask ourselves what the possibilities of the world are upon which we map our theological language. We must ask ourselves about the mapping function itself: What is the naming function by which our theological language putatively refers to elements in the world? Finally, we can ask how we might know that the world has a definite ontological contour, and how this world might be referred to by theological language.
We shall not begin as we have begun theology in the recent past; we shall not begin with the epistemological question. Instead, we shall return to the presuppositions of the Reformers themselves: We shall ask the ontological and semantic questions first, seek clarity on them, and only afterwards move to other questions. In theology, at least, we must affirm the ancient view that epistemology recapitulates ontology, and not the converse. How the divine world is, is not itself constituted by our knowing of it, but rather our knowing of it, is conditioned by how the divine world is.