Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the ILT Theological Commitments are Important for the Parish

This address was given at the ILT Theological Conference at Mt. Carmel on June 7 - 10.


I want to say something today about the theological direction of the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and how that direction relates to preaching and teaching in the parish. This is a very important issue for those, like me, who still believe that seminary and graduate theological education should be effective in making students better teachers and preachers. Accordingly, I will begin by describing briefly what has now become the five theological emphases of the Institute. I will then relate these principles to what I take to be the “hermeneutical horizon” of those we shall likely encounter within the pews of North American churches in this early part of the twenty-first century. I use the term “hermeneutical horizon” to describe the set of interpretive presuppositions and principles of these early twenty-first century Americans and Canadians who are listening to sermons, participating in liturgies, and attending theological educational opportunities in their congregations.

The Five Theological Tenants of ILT

A few years ago I put together a list of what I believed were fundamental theological assertions or claims for the future of a robust Lutheran theology. The list included a number of assertions about the nature of church, the relation of the infinite and the finite, and the sufficiency of the agency of the Holy Spirit in the process of salvation. Since that time, however, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the first three claims that are not strictly speaking theological are nonetheless the most important of the claims for our time. The first speaks of the reality of God, the second about how we might objectively talk about God, and the third pertains to the nature of God’s relation to the universe. Since those first days of what was called then “the fundamentals,” I have had discussions with numerous people - - including the very able staff of the Institute of Lutheran Theology - - and I have accordingly refined the list to five. I offer the following as critical assertions for a robust Lutheran theology:

•Theological Realism. This is the assertion that God does exist and has a particular, determinate nature apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. While it may be surprising to some that a theologian would have to specify a commitment to theological realism rather than merely presuppose it, the truth is that theological realism is by no means any longer assumed within mainline Protestant theology. The explanation for this takes a bit of time to develop, and its full development is unfortunately beyond what I can do here today. However, I should say that I did do a Ph.D. in Contemporary Theology and Theological Thinking at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, and I found very few theological realists in those days either in the theological books I read and reflected upon, or the students, faculty, and professional theologians with whom I had the opportunity to work and speak.

•Semantic Realism. This asserts that our language about God has truth-conditions, that is, that there are features about the world, or more generally about what ultimately is, that make our language about God true or false. While it may be again surprising that theologians would not simply presuppose semantic realism, there are a host of very technical reasons - - some of which are scarcely understood by the theologians themselves - - why semantic realism is not widely subscribed to within leadership circles of faith communities within mainline Protestant denominationalism. Semantic realism claims the possibility of evidence transcending truth conditions, that is, it claims that language about God and God’s being is either true or false regardless of whether or not divine being is perceptually and publicly manifestable to us. This is widely assumed to be a very controversial philosophical claim. There are several alternatives to semantic realism, some of which claim that our talk of God is entirely in error, meaningless, or ultimately about features of ourselves or the world, features of which many users of the language are not aware. It is my contention that most theological education in the last fifty years has either explicitly or implicitly rejected the very possibility of semantic realism.

•Theophysical causation. This asserts that God can actually do things in the world. Beginning with the assumption that “to be real is to have causal powers” theophysical causation states that God’s actions must be understood causally, and that God’s agency is involved in causal relations. For instance, to say ‘God creates the universe’ is to assert a causal relation between God and the universe; it is to say, minimally, that the universe would not have come about as it did were it not for the activity of God. Moreover, to claim that “God redeems His creation” or that “God sustains His creation” is to say that creation would not have been redeemed without God’s action, nor would it have been sustained. Talking about theophyiscal causation, however, involves us in a very tricky matter: We have to be able to assert some kind of relationship between the infinite and the finite, between eternity and termporality, between the nonphysical and physical. Clarifying the nature of such a relationship is enormously difficult and fraught with numerous philosophical problems. For instance, how can something nonphysical be said to cause a change in the physical when the causal chains of the physical do not terminate in the nonphysical?

•A Lutheran Theology of Nature. This asserts that Lutheran theology, if it is to be sufficiently robust to survive within future generations, must reclaim a strong connection to daily life and living. The days of philosophical idealism are over. While previous generations of Lutherans may have rested content in the assumption that their theology and physics did not mix - - and were confident that such a non-mixing was good for theology - - I believe that this is no longer the case. We live in a time dominated primarily by physicalist assumptions. We believe, after all, that all things are made of atoms, and that such atoms are themselves very complex wholes whose parts are leptons and hadrons, etc. While we admit that the quantum world is quirky, we are not ready to admit that it is spiritual, that it is finally somehow mind. In such a world as ours, separating the actions of God from nature leaves people confused. How can one talk about the mighty acts of God without talking about the mighty acts of God in nature? The problem, of course, is that we Lutherans, along with many within mainline Protestantism, have been quite successful in talking about God without talking about nature. The notion of God, we have intoned, is after all finally something that connects to the realm of human value, not the world of physical and metaphysical fact. It is my contention that our slavish commitment to the fact/value distinction has marginalized theology and its language; it has made such language basically language about the self and what it values, rather than language about the world and what ultimately obtains.

•The Clarity of Scripture. This asserts that Lutheran theology must again return to a robust understanding of sola scriptura. Luther and the reformers presupposed that the Bible had a clarity making possible the apprehension of its content without the need of sophisticated and profoundly scholarly methods of ascertaining it. After all, Luther criticized the tradition’s four-fold method of Biblical interpretation, whereby all of Scripture was thought to carry a literal/historical sense, a hidden allegorical sense, a morally-relevant tropological sense, and finally an eschatological anagogical sense. Luther and kin realized that having such a method virtually guarantees that the Bible can mean anything that the interpreter wants it to mean, that is, that the sense of Scripture is merely a projection of the human interpreter upon the text. Such a view of things, of course, undercuts the very authority of Scripture. Accordingly, it is not Scripture that has the authority, but the various human readings of Scripture that has it. Luther and the Reformers also spoke of the internal clarity of Scripture, the clarity that Scripture had for the hearts of men and women in bondage to sin and not able to free themselves. The external clarity of Scripture grounds and internal apprehension by the faithful, an activity that presupposes the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Why Not the Classic Lutheran Tenants?

These fundamental assertions have been sometimes attacked because they do not seemingly talk about what is essential for Lutheran theology, that is, the centrality of Christ, the distinction between law and gospel, the theology of the cross, the simul iustus et peccator, the finite bearing the infinite, etc. But this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of these assertions. I have stated clearly and repeatedly from the beginning that our theology presupposes and affirms these traditional Lutheran motifs, as well as traditional Christian motifs generally. The reason that this set of assertions is highlighted is precisely because the fissure in the modern theological context is not primarily on the question of the putative centrality of Christ in salvation, but rather pertains to the reality of Christ Himself. Granted that Christ is central in salvation, the critical question is whether it is our idea of Christ, or the culturally-transmitted symbol of, or language about, the Christ that is central, or Christ Himself. Is Christ a real being that can sustain causal relationships with other beings in the universe, or is it merely a question of our ideas about Christ that are causally efficacious - - if ideas can be efficacious at all?

Lamentably, in this lecture today, we can only deal with the first three issues. I want to claim that the notions of theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation are central and crucial to life in the parish. I want further to suggest that committed lay people have, in general, always had the good common sense to affirm these notions. The problem has been, I believe, in the educational system that produces pastors and teachers in the mainline Protestant denominations: These people have not been trained in ways that are sympathetic to these three affirmations. Instead much theological training has assumed theological irrealism, semantic expressivism, and the causal impotence of the divine. There is, accordingly, a theological disconnect between those who teach and preach in mainline Protestant denominations and the committed lay people within them.

But another disconnect arises as well. While committed lay people often simply regard theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation as entailments of the Christian tradition generally, the dominant “cultural default” position within North America is not a position that supposes any of these to be true - - or, at least, does not suppose them to be true in any profound sense. The situation within mainline Protestantism whereby pastors and teachers not espousing theological and semantic realism are supposed to evangelize a group of people themselves not holding such realisms is not a happy one for the perpetuation of the Protestant tradition. While there does not exist a profound presuppositional disconnect between the horizon of leadership and the group to be evangelized on issues of theological and semantic realism, the tacit agreement of horizons between the two groups unfortunately offers no real reason for those to be evangelized to become committed lay people living out their faith within Protestant denominations throughout North America.

Why Theological Realism is Important in the Parish

The classical model of God in the western tradition presupposes certain Greek notions about perfection. In Greek thought influenced by Plato - - Whitehead has said that “all of philosophy is a footnote on Plato” - - God is figured as timelessly eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, simple, and impassible. God is, as Anselm was to say centuries later, “that which none greater can be thought.” God is accordingly regarded to be a necessary being, a being that does not merely happen to exist, but one who could not have not existed. Such a being is thought to exist apart from human being; indeed God has never not existed. This means, of course, that God existed for eternity before His creation of the world. The Triune God exists for eternity within the immanent Trinity prior to God’s expression into that which was other than He. What is important to see is that on the classical model the order of being (ontology) is unaffected by the order of knowing (epistemology). According to the classical view, God’s determinate being is what it is apart from our ability to perceive, conceive and understand it. God exists determinately before all worlds. The traditional view of God thus presupposes that ontology is logically prior to epistemology.

The Kantian revolution of the late 18th century radically transformed thinking about God. Because the notion of God has no “empirical intuitions” falling under it, Kant regarded it not to be the kind of being that could either be a substance nor could be known to be causally related to anything else that is a substance. Kant thereby relegated God to the status as merely an ideal of pure reason. Accordingly, God has in principle no causal efficacy, nor can He be said to exist apart from human awareness.

After Kant, theologians had to work out various “post-Kantian options for doing theology.” Instead of God-language being about some reality existing over and apart from human being, such language must ultimately be cognized as relatable to the self and its experience. With Kant, epistemology takes primacy over ontology. Accordingly, Schleiermacher identifies God not as a being existing external to human being, but rather “the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Within the nineteenth century, we see various attempts to think God anew. For Schleiermacher, God is somehow reducible to, or identifiable with, the human feeling of absolute dependence. For Kant himself, and certainly his disciple Fichte, God becomes reducible to, or identifiable with, the human moral drive generally. For Hegel, God is somehow reducible to, or identifiable with, human reflection upon reflection, that is, with human thinking generally. Accordingly, as human beings progressively understand the historical identity of being and their thinking of being, they grasp that their thinking of being is itself the thinking of God as God comes to know Himself historically and temporally.

Later post-Kantian options turned more existential in their orientations. Barth and Tillich could both hold basic Kantian presuppositions, yet talk a great deal about God not being a mere idea. The trick here was to regard God relationally as the other of a human encounter, an encounter with a phenomenon that is not of their own conjuring or projection. Yet Barth’s commitment to the eschatological breaking into history of a reality that could not be part of history made it the case that God’s “mighty acts in history” could not be “mighty acts within nature.” Moreover, Tillich’s radical separation between God as the ground and depth of being and the human structure of being made it the case that, for Tillich, God’s existence could not mean that God was simply a member of the domain of existing things, that is, that an “ontological inventory” would include within it that being we call “God.”

Interestingly enough, people in the pews - - and I would say even mainline Protestant pews - - have never really made the Kantian turn fully. They seem yet to believe that to be real is to have causal powers. I would argue that in the present context, with so many options for belief, most people find that there are really no compelling reasons to attend church simply to remember or venerate an idea, ideal, or any other abstract object - - no matter how lofty that idea or object might be. One can, after all, venerate an idea or attune oneself to an abstract object without being in church. For the great numbers of people presupposing that the notion of God somehow clarifies the highest and noblest sentiments of human being, attending church services often grants no profound utility. Reading and discussing one’s noble sentiments is probably more useful than going to a church service where one’s sentiments are only obliquely referenced.

I think that the “cultural default” position on God in modern North American culture is probably not far from what Christian Smith has recently called “Moral Therapeutic deism”. In his recent Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers, he offers the following summary of this view:

• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

It is important to analyze this a bit, for on first blush it would appear that this cultural default view suggests theological realism after all. As Smith and company point out, the teenagers they have interviewed do mostly hold that a God does exist outside human awareness. Indeed, they espouse a rather vaguely platonic belief that they have a soul and it goes somewhere good when they die. After this, however, things get complex in a hurry. God is not thought to be causally active in the world, and theological language is not thought to be capable of sustaining truth-conditions. The idea is that people use the language that they have inherited, and somehow this language helps in being both moral, and in achieving some peace and happiness in one’s life.

In analyzing this view, it is important to note that those holding it have not, in general, thought deeply enough about it to assure any kind of theological coherency. While the first tenet of “moral therapeutic deism” suggests theological realism, I am not sure most holding this view would want to assert that some determinate divine being exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. To claim that ‘God exists and watches over the world’ is consistent with the great religious traditions of the world, is clearly to deny the Triunity of God. A general God cannot both exist and watch over the world and a specific Triune God also so exist. Moreover, it cannot be the case that both ‘God is not particularly involved with one’s life’ (as moral therapeutic deism asserts) and that God is triunely active in quickening the hearts of dead sinners. The two cannot exist simultaneously.

Even if one could somehow assert that moral therapeutic deism does presuppose theological realism, it is simply not the case that such a realism would be a Christian realism. The critical claim for Christians is that Christ has been resurrected, and that somehow that resurrected Christ now exists independently of human awareness, perception, conception and language.

It seems to me all important that the Christian theological realist assert the reality of Christ apart from human being. In the absence of such a realism, language of Christ merely becomes symbolic language of empowerment, language that helps the person achieve greater moral direction and existential peace. But, of course, this moral therapeutic deistic trajectory is completely consistent with the Kantian turn in theology: The idea of God functions importantly to ameliorate human life. God is somehow identified with human moral striving and human existential health. God’s being is not a being that is prior to human being, but God’s being is only assertible on the grounds of human being. For moral therapeutic deism, epistemology is prior to ontology.

It is obvious that Christian discipleship is very difficult on such a view. While God is thought to exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, the Triune God is not. This means, of course, that Christ is not important in and of Himself as He whom one must follow. While talk of Christ is fine within a tradition of reflection on the problem of human being, fear of committing to Christian exclusivism makes even putatively committed Christians not want to be realists with respect to the second person of the Trinity. Of course, Christ has always been a stumbling block.

Why Semantic Realism is Important

Traditional theological language was truth-conditional, and robustly so. While the tradition always understood that one could perhaps not know what it is that one was talking about when talking theologically, the specificity of the talk was deemed nonetheless crucial in order to refer properly to the divine. Specific Trinitarian formulas were necessary to state the truth about the Trinity. It was not merely a game of having to say the same things as the rest of the tribe, it was rather the assertion that these things were true, and because they were true the whole tribe should say them. Traditional theological language held to the possibility of evidence transcendent truth-conditions. Language about God and God’s relationship to human beings is true or false because of the nature of God and His relationship to human beings. Such language while said by human beings, is not thought to be true because of human beings and the way in which such language is said.

There has been, however, quite a revolution in our thinking about theological language. This is an area where there is perhaps the most profound disconnect between the presuppositions of mainline Protestant pastors and teachers, and the presuppositions of committed lay people. It is an area where there is perhaps the deepest sharing of presuppositions between the “cultural default” view and the horizons of pastors and teachers.

Revisionist views of theological language assume that semantic realism can either not be defended in theology, or if defended, that the assertions of theology must be reduced to the assertions of some other area of discourse entirely. Opponents of theological semantic realism have various options. One can be a semantic realist and claim that no states of affairs exist which make true the sentences of theology. Such opponents say that semantic realism is committed to error theory, to a view of things that simply does not obtain.

Other detractors of semantic realism include semantic expressivism, the view that all language about the divine really is a projection or an expression of the self. This view is quite widely accepted, I believe, and often accompanies the moral therapeutic deism previously mentioned. That God wants humans to be happy and peaceful is perhaps best understood as an expression of the self upon the world. If God is not causally engaged in the world, what is the best analysis of the assertion that “God wants humans to be happy?” I would argue that it is best seen as a mere projection upon the cosmos of our own desire to be happy.

Other options for opponents of theological semantic realism include reductionisms of various stripes. Maybe talk about God really just is talk about the self, as Feuerbach claimed. Maybe all such talk is either semantically or theoretically reducible to psychology, economics, or sociology. It should be obvious that the rejection of semantic realism is consistent with, and probably entailed by, a rejection of Christian exclusivism.

If language about the divine is not really about the divine over and apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, then such language is really culture-bound and its “truth” must be asserted in ways that are quite different from the the truth-conditions of the tradition. For instance, one might assert that the various religious languages of the differing traditions are true in that they express or empower human beings in various ways. Statements about Christ thus are true because of the effect of the symbol, language, or concept of Christ within human experience generally.

It should be obvious that pastors and teachers presupposing this view of things do not really have a reason to evangelize the masses who are already accepting the “cultural default” view. What is it about the particularity of Christian claims that makes it the case that one would want others to adopt them? The tradition said that such claims were true, but in the absence of clear truth conditions, this assertion devolves merely to an assertion that such language is effective in the moral and existential lives of human beings.
Why Theophysical Causation is Important

The tradition assumed that God really does create, redeem and sustain the world. While there was much reflection on the relationship between the being of God and the being of contingent being, there was never a denial of God’s actions as somehow causing the distribution of natural events. The whole premise of the supernatural/natural distinction is that God can and does work in the world, whether through divine primary causality coursing through all things, or via special interventionist causal action.

However, since the time of Kant, the effort has been to think of God primarily in noncausal terms. God is not the kind of being that can be appealed to as the terminus of any causal chain. God’s being is not like contingent being, so whatever contingent causality is, it is not divine causality. As I pointed out previously, in periods deeply in debt to idealism, this is not as profoundly problematic as it is in our time, a time governed by physicalistic assumptions, a time where people widely regard it to be the case that “to be real is to have causal powers.” In our time, when people do decreasingly come to worship out of cultural inertia, there has to be some compelling reason to do so. If pastors and teachers suppose that God is not real in the sense of being causally efficacious in one’s life, then they can finally only offer God as a great idea, as the embodiment of justice, goodness, power, etc. But it is difficult to see why one would go to church to encounter such a God unless the pastor or teacher can say things that ultimately make the church-goer happy or more at peace. But this puts the pastor or teacher in the same business as the counselor or the writer of self-help books.
On the issue of divine causality, there exists again the profound disconnect between the loyal lay people who regularly pray to God and expect God to do things in the world and the pastors and teachers who know that God is not the kind of thing that can be in principle a being that can do things in the world. Here the pastors and teachers have to teach and preach in such ways that do not cause the really committed to leave the faith community. Yet, in their preaching and teaching, they are to preach and teach to an audience that does not believe that God is causally efficacious but somehow still desperately wishes it were so.

The question of the causal efficacy of the divine is, in my opinion, the fundamental fissure between Christian Protestant expressions. While we can argue the fine points of theology among Reformed, Lutheran, Tudor, and Anabaptist traditions, the question of whether or not God is the kind of being that can in principle change the distribution of worldly events and properties is far more fundamental. It is, after all, quite difficult to frame a non-causal account of divine redemption. If Christ does not exist over and apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and if divine things are in principle not able to be causally linked to worldly things, then in what sense can Christ “save” us? That we have been able to proceed for so many years within mainline Protestantism as if this were not a deep and significant question merely shows the theological bankruptcy of our time.

Conclusion & Summary

There was once an emperor who was convinced that he had clothes though no one else saw them. All except the most unsophisticated were able to affirm that the naked emperor had clothes, but not so the children.

When I was a child I marveled at the world and asked questions about how there might be a God that somehow hooked up to it. After six years of Ph.D. work in theology, I was ready to put away childish things and do real theology. But I know now that some questions from children our childish and some quite profound. I think that the question of whether or not the emperor has clothes is the profound question of a child. Jesus told us to be as little children. So that is why I am here today. I believe that the emperor is naked; I cannot find a stitch of clothing on him. I can’t see a way ahead theologically without first coming to terms with the nakedness of the emperor.

The Institute of Lutheran theology thinks the emperor is naked as well. It steadfastly and boldly asserts that God is real, that our language about God is true, and that God really does create and redeem His world. The Institute believes that these commitments are of fundamental importance in the parish. The pastor and teacher must, after all, have a good reason to evangelize. If her God is real, her God causally active, and her language about God true, she has every reason to evangelize. If this is not the case, then things are much more complicated. In fact, if not, one would expect to see a rather confusing situation in parishes across North America; one would, in fact, expect to see the situation we are in fact witnessing today.