Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Big Problem for Lutheran Confessionalism

Thinkers like to think about things towards which progress can be made. Philosophers of a materialist or physicalist persuasion find it relatively easy to understand how properties at higher levels might covary as a function of properties at lower levels.

For instance, biological properties distribute as a function of chemical properties, which distribute as a function of molecular properties, which themselves distribute as a function of atomic properties or subatomic properties. While there are some problems relating levels, the big problem concerns how it is that psychological properties covary with respect to neurophysiological properties.

While we may have no difficulties in general in countenancing a view of things where neurophysiological actualizations are finally metaphysically dependent upon mircrophysical causation, the notion that thoughts and decisions might ultimately metaphysically depend upon mircophysical processes is disquieting. While moderate reductions seem unproblematic throughout physical reality, the countenancing of reductions between the mental and physical involves some rather paradoxical claims, e.g., the notion that my writing these words in this blog right now themselves metaphysically depend somehow upon microphysical actualizations of various kinds.

While some philosophers here warmly embrace the "downward causality" of the mental into the physical on a mereological basis, the fundamental problem remains: If mental event m1 causes neurophysiological actualizations p2, then it seems that m1 must either itself have a physical realization or not. If it has no physical realization, then the advocate of downward causation must finally advocate a substance dualism - - something they want to avoid - - or she or he must admit that the physical realizer of m1 - - let us call this p1 -- itself causes p2, and there is no real downward causation. So the big problem is simply this: How is genuine freedom possible for an agent when the agent and his/her acts are metaphysically dependent upon microphysics? The problem is so big and intractable, that philosophers generally work on easier problems, providing in other ways the work that can advance a physicalist agenda.

We confessional Lutherans also have a problem that is so big that we really don't want to entertain it. We want to work on things that can be worked upon profitably, e.g,, Law/Gospel matters, not problems that seem intractable, problems that pertain to the truth of our theological position.

All the standard paths are open for the Lutheran wanting to talk about truth, of course. One could say that proposition p is true if and only if p describes or expresses the feelings, attitudes or the existential orientation of the one so uttering p. Or one might improve this somewhat by saying that p is true if and only if it liberates from sin and grants the freedom for the future (whatever precisely might by meant by "sin" and "freedom for the future" in this context). Or one might say that p is true if and only if it functions as a rule for the specification and use of other utterances by a particular linguistic community. Or perhaps one is less trendy and say that p is true if and only if p obtains. But then one must ask the rule specifying the condition for p obtaining.

Readers will understand that this last option asks that we think about the truth of p in broadly "cognitive-propositional" terms. For one stating that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself' is true if and only if God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, the question is what conditions must be met in order for God to be in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. This is not an easy question, as we shall see. One could say that that there is an individual God, and individual Christ, and that the two are related by the first being in the second. But this does not help too much either, for what are the conditions for "being in"?

At this point, the discussion of the last few decades about Christian inclusivism, exclusivism and pluralism becomes relevant. One could say that there is some kind of linguistic commensurability across religions such that the same objects and events can be in principle picked out in the various religious worlds. On this view, the Christin and Buddhist would presumably disagree about whether God was in Christ obtains, but they would both understand what it means. However, if a particular kind of holism holds, then the Buddhist could not state that "God was in Christ" in the same way as the Christian, and thus the fact that it obtains for one and not the other would not entail that the very same thing would need to obtain for both in order for truth to be predicated.

The point is a basic one between internalism and externalism. Are there conditions that must be met in order for a proposition to correctly apply to a situation, conditions that are internal to the proposition in question (and its relevant context), or are they external to it? What I am asking is simply whether or not there can be some "bird's eye" factual perspective above and beyond the practico-linguistic worlds occupied by adherents of the various world religions. While this question of the priority of facts over language arises within philosophy generally, theologians must pay especially intense attention to it because, in some sense, much of what the theologian is trying to talk about is beyond what can be said to be factual in any ordinary sense. The theologian who embraces externalism must seemingly hold, as John Hick suggests, to a view that Ultimate Referent of religious and theological language lies beyond the linguistic worlds of any religion and that it is a noumenal reality to which the phenomenal fields of meaning of the various traditions point.

Lutherans do not often enter the fray on what many would regard as a "philosophy of religion" concern, but it is simply the case that some position on the inclusivism, eclusivism, pluralism issue is more cogent and plausible than others, and must thereby be adopted - - either explicitly or implicitly.   While the relationship between grace and nature in some of the Catholic theological tradition sets up nicely for inclusivist views like those of Rahner, Lutheran emphasis on the discontinuity between these two seem to block any argument for being an "anonymous Lutheran."  A tendency towards exclusivism seems to be in the Lutheran theological DNA, but clearly we cannot easily argue like seventeenth century Lutherans did before the "Copernican revolution" of realizing that Christian faith is one belief system among the other world religions, and that the Lutheran take on Christianity does not predominate even there.

To hold to religious pluralism is much easier when one works with an alethia account of truth as unveiling, rather than an account that supposes there is an objective reality identified by Christians as the Triune God.  To the theological realist, of course, truth is not promiscuous, and it is predicated of those propositions that tend to represent most accurately that which can never be known.   (While the paradox here makes this problem seems acute, it is no worse than the problem of the external world generally.)

I believe that the big problem I describe here should be regarded as such by any Lutheran thinking through the options on the table.   We cannot simply decide not to engage the issue.  To do that would be an example of the quietism we have so long been accused of sponsoring.  

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Ugly Broad Ditch

Gotthold Ephriam Lessing (1729-81) is famous for a great many things, one being the authorship of the trenchant phrase, "the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across."

Lessing's "broad ugly ditch" concerns the supposed jump Christian theology must make from the accidental truths of history to the necessary truths of reason. He writes: "If on historical grounds I have no objection to the statement that Christ raised to life a dead man; must I therefore accept it as true that God has a Son that is of the same essence as Himself?" Lessing's solution to the problem of the ugly broad ditch is not to base the deep truths of religion on the contingent facts of history, but rather to reverse the situation and find in history an exemplification of the deepest truths of religion. These truths are ultimately grounded not in history but in personal experience. Lessing compares his solution to geometry: "Is the situation such that 'I should hold a geometrical theorem to be true not because it can be demonstrated, but because it can be found in Euclid'?" The truths of Christianity are to history as the theorems of Euclid are to Euclid. History no more grounds Christian truth than Euclid grounds geometrical truth.

A distinction used among twentieth-century philosophers gets at the issue about which Lessing is concerned. We must distinguish the context of the origination of a putative truth from its context of justification. Just because probability theory originated among men of rather unsavory reputation playing in the Italian casinos does not mean that probability theory is somehow incorrect. Truth claims must be justified in the logical space of reason, not by an appeal to external historical circumstances. The context of origination (or discovery) of a truth simply is logically independent from the context of its justification. To confuse the two is to commit the genetic fallacy, to claim that an argument is unsound on the basis of the one giving it (and the purposes for which it is given), rather than on the basis of the evidence for the premises and the validity of the reasoning.

Lessing's claim is thus that the "ugly broad ditch" of logical independence separates the context of the origination of Christian truth from the context of its justification, and that this "ugly ditch" is, in effect, necessary to prevent one from committing the genetic fallacy. Christian truth must stand on its own legs; it must not be dependent upon who said what when. Reflecting a bit on this, one realizes that the problematic of the "ugly ditch" forces one to take a position on revelation: what is it for God to "disclose" to us truth that we could not have grasped by free exercise of our insight?

Specifically, we must inquire as to whether revelation is best conceived as external, contingent and accidental, or whether we might understand it to be somehow internal, necessary and reasonable? (I am using "necessary" here in the sense of Lessing, and not making a modal claim.) This question as to the "location" of revelation goes right to the heart of the matter, I believe, and how one answers it determines who one's theological comrades are and, indeed, even potentially what century one lives in theologically. For Lutheran Orthodoxy, there could be no question of the "place" of revelation. It is indeed external; the formal norm of Scripture establishes the material norm of Christ, and both norm theological reflection. For denizens of the heady world of nineteenth century post-Kantian theology, revelation's "place" cannot be external because there can in principle be no bridging of the ditch on that assumption. The contingency of the Biblical text, the contingency of history, the contingency of the Christian tradition all mitigate against a successful justification of the most profound truth of all of life.

Within Lutheran theology we have moved a very great distance indeed since the time of Lessing. We have passed through German idealism, the disintegration of Hegelianism into the right and left wing schools, the rise and fall the Ritschlian School, the rise of fall of Neo-Orthodoxy, existential, phenomenological and hermeneutical theological approaches, and the various theologies of liberation. We have witnessed sophisticated, learned attempts to do theology faithfully, attempts that understand the intellectual and cultural horizon of the time as well as the witness of Scripture and tradition. But the sophistication of the theological enterprise over the last two centuries can sometimes obfuscate certain fundamental questions. The question of the ontology of revelation is central among these questions. It infects all of our theological thinking, oftentimes confusing conversational partners to the point of not knowing even that they are confused! I will close this brief essay with an example of how this is so.

Lutherans have always spoken of sola scriptura, claiming that Christian truth is not founded on the pronouncements of canon law, councils or popes, or in the authority of the patristics or other church fathers. Authority is found in Scriptures. But now the question arises: In the meaning of the written words of Scripture? The standard reply here, of course, is "no!" The words of Scripture are themselves to be understood contextually both synchronically and diachronically. The words of Scripture have meaning within the context of their origination and throughout the context of their transmission, and in the context of Scripture itself being a tertiary witness to the primacy of the Word manifest in Christ and the secondary witness to this Word in the immediate oral tradition. Now this way of things has interesting corollaries because it makes it difficult to claim that unsophisticated readers can ever "know" what Scripture is meaning. (Presumably, one must know the context deeply before one can know the text.) One could simply ignore these problems, but one does it at one's own theological peril. Regardless, the larger problem of Lessing forever looms: Something in the contingencies of history and tradition can undermine Christian truth, the truth upon which our very existence rests.

So another way of understanding Scriptural authority must seemingly be sought, a way that does not abandon Scripture in externality, but which rather protects the sola scriptura from the vicissitudes of scholarship upon the text and context. This way of understanding, I think, must proceed by locating authority somehow immediately within the reading of the text. The text is not authoritative because of some historical, causal connection to a divine nexus, but is rather authoritative because of what it somehow does to the reader in its reading. The place of revelation is now found within the power of the revelatory event itself. The original authoritative externality of the sola is now translated safely into the inner authority of the event of revelation as text confronts reader.

It should be obvious that all of this has very deep repercussions for Lutherans fighting about whether the practice of homosexuality is consistent with Biblical truth. The relationship among the notions of Biblical authority, revelation, Christian truth, and the "ugly broad ditch" cannot be more palpable. It is not my intention here to offer a constructive solution to the problem, but merely point it out. I have always believed that if we could get clear on the problems in theology, perhaps we could get clear on the kinds of discussions that would profitably lead to a solution.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Can a Lutheran Semantics be Recovered?

For some time now I have been interested in theological semantics. Reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus thirty years ago, made me acutely aware of the problems we encounter when we try to talk about extra-worldly" things. (I include any talk about a talking about extra-worldly things as itself an extra-worldly thing.) Wittgenstein's distinction among propositions having Sinn (sense), those that are sinnlos (senseless), and those having nicht Sinn (nonsense), was for me very convincing that theology encounters significant problems in its speaking. Because I thought in those days that getting clear on semantics could be done independently from affirming or presupposing a metaphysic, I thought that there was some global problem with theological semantics. The language simply could not refer properly, it could not clearly affirm a state of affairs that one could falsify. Because I was hoping to become a theologian, the idea that the language of the trade was strictly speaking nonsense, caused me considerable discomfort.

While I am still somewhat uncomfortable with the general problem of theological language, over the the years I have gradually come to understand that a deep relationship exists between semantics and metaphysics and/or ontology. There simply are no semantic facts and judgments that can be made (or presupposed) independently of what one believes is that case. For the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, a metaphysical atomism nicely accompanies his semantic nominalism. If it is true that facts comprise the world - - "Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsache, nicht der Dingen - - and if there are not ethical, philosophical, aesthetic and theological facts, then the propositions purporting to talk about these things must be "pseudo-propositions." They look like they are making factual claims, but are finally not doing so.

Because of the press of many matters, I have not developed adequately what I regard to be the case: The Lutheran Reformers were unreflective theological realists and the presupposition of such a realism made them theological semantic realists as well. For those who wrote, read, debated, and signed the various confessional documents, there was simply no question that the language of the documents referred to divine entities, properties, events and states of affairs. Furthermore, because they believed that a divine realm exists outside of human awareness, perception, conception and language, the language could rather unproblematically connect to it, and state what is the case (or not the case) with respect to it. Confessions-talk is thus talk "in the material mode;" for the Reformers it made truth-claims of the world, for the world of the Reformers was filled with facts about which Wittgenstein would be astonished. His judgment that human language was unable to picture in logical space the transcendent was simply an admission of what philosophers since the Enlightenment presupposed: Talk of the divine was, in general, on very problematic epistemological footing.

This epistemic liability is related to ontology: One either says that we cannot affirm p because we cannot know that p is, or that we can affirm p even though we don't know for sure that p is - -or perhaps that our criterion of "for sure" has changed. In the Reformation period, when what it meant to know "for sure" was different than the Enlightenment, one could reasonably hold metaphysical facts that later became quite unreasonable. As it goes with metaphysics, so it goes with semantics. If it is unreasonable to hold a particular metaphysics, then it is reasonable to revise our language or, like Wittgenstein, claim that there is something about our natural language that makes it the case that it naturally can refer to states of affairs of a materialist or physicalist nature, but cannot picture a theological order at all.

We theologians who learned that the theological task must go through Kant learned to neglect certain questions and to prioritize others. The possibility of theological semantics (including theological truth) had to begin with a rejection of the very possibility of theological and semantic realism. Trained in the post-Kantian theological tradition, we looked at the texts of the Lutheran Confessions with quite different eyes than those who formulated, debated, and signed them. The questions that were of interest to us were naturally about things that could be of interest to us.

None of this is, of course, necessarilya bad thing. Classic texts have a deep fecundity; their history of interpretation takes them sometimes far from the contexts in which they are written. However, when the Churches of the Augsburg Confession find themselves no longer able deeply to recognize each other, then the question arises: When has the interpretation ceased any claim to normativity? How does one determine what is normative about such normativity in this case? Is there a set of presuppositions or affirmations that grounds a normative stance on the Confessions?

My sense is that Lutherans will continue to talk past each other as long as they are unwilling to articulate their ontologies. We live in a far different context than that of Wilhelm Hermann who claimed the independence of theological assertion from metaphysics. In a time where society and culture no longer grant a continuity of theological practice and expression (through a difference of ontological interpretation), people are searching again for authentic claims. They are not looking to find some way to justify the continued use of a theological language in the face of modern philosophical and scientific developments, but rather they search for a ground or reason to employ such language at all. As it was in the beginning of the Christian tradition, so it is now: The only reason to employ the language is that we Christians regard something to be true that non-Christians do not so regard. But the question of truth is always connected to the question of being. So it is that we Lutheran Christians must ask, "What is it that we hold to be so that others don't so hold, that is what it is apart from us, and that we sense the need to tell others about? What is this thing?

The Reformers could not have entertained this question without presupposing a rather explicit theological realism. The question for us is simply this: Can we? I used to think we could, but I no longer believe this. If Christ has not risen from the dead, than we Christians are the most to be pitied.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Institute of Lutheran Theology Happenings

As many of you know, I have had the opportunity these last years to serve as the founding president of the Institute of Lutheran Theology. I have been grateful to have been able to do this. The time came a few months ago, however, for me to reevaluate what it is that I can do and can't do. With the Institute growing so quickly, it just is not possible any longer for me to serve both as President of ILT and Vice President of Academic Affairs. Accordingly, as of the June ILT Board meeting I am no longer president of this organization, but now VP of Academic Affairs only, I am very excited to be back doing mostly academic work, and am thrilled about the new person the ILT Board has selected to represent ILT as president. The announcement of this new person will come later this summer.

Many people connected with the Institute of Lutheran Theology have recently been contacted by a former staff person of ILT concerning a new start-up entitled "St. Paul Lutheran Seminary." As it turns out, two former staff members of ILT are advertising that a new seminary will be on-line this fall, and they have apparently gotten one former ILT faculty member to teach for them. Like the ILT Board and the rest of the ILT staff, I am concerned that people understand that "St. Paul Lutheran Seminary" is in no way connected to ILT. Its efforts are neither supported nor sanctioned by ILT.

Now the question arises: What motivation might there be to start a new seminary? It seems that when things like this happen within Lutheran circles, there are generally the following motivations:

One might start a new seminary because of theological reasons. However, it appears that the new entity has no theological differences with ILT. The Institute has always tried to understand Lutheran theology in the context of its origination and development, and related this theology to the contemporary intellectual horizon. I doubt if the new organization is opposed to this.

One might start a new seminary because of ecclesioloigical reasons. However, it appears that the new entity is striving to serve the same market as ILT. The Institute has always tried to serve LCMC and NALC congregations, and support as well those ELCA congregations who sense they are not being fed theologically by the ELCA seminaries.

One might start a new seminary because of structural/organizational reasons. However, it appears that the organization of ILT as a "distributed residential community" with non-geographic "Designated Teaching Centers" using the latest in synchronous technology is one with which the new entity might agree.

Sometimes it is said that if one puts three Lutherans in the same room, one gets three different theological traditions. Lutherans have traditionally privileged truth over unity. When important doctrinal/theological issues are at stake, Lutherans have historically separated from one another. However, Lutherans need not be opposed to unity. We can work together. Sometimes unity is a very good thing. ILT has always hoped that one seminary might develop to be the voice of theological conscience within present day Lutheran diaspora. I do not think the present context warrants a division or reduplication of efforts in the building of a truly confessional Lutheran seminary.

I have been working on trying to build ILT for about six years now. We have now a very fine faculty, scores of students, a great curriculum, dozens of congregations relating closely to us, and the financial stability to accomplish those things we believe that God has put before us. The future is very exciting! Let us work together in trust and love.

Soli deo gloria.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On an Infinite Regress of Causes

The general structure of cosmological arguments is well known: Starting from general features about the world (e.g., that there is movement), these arguments proceed by pointing out that these general features must have a cause, and this cause must have a cause, and since if there were no first cause there would not be any subsequent causes, there must indeed be a first cause.

Much has been written over the years about cosmological arguments, and there are, in truth, many different types of such arguments. One must distinguish in esse arguments (arguments in the order of ontological dependency) from in fieri arguments (arguments in the order of temporal becoming). One must distinguish arguments that proceed from the fact of contingency from arguments proceeding from movement or causality. One must distinguish arguments that use the principle of sufficient reason from arguments that do not make explicit use of this principle. To enter into any discussion of the diverse array of such arguments shall not be our concern here. What I want to deal with in this post is an interesting attack by James Sadowsky on the notion that there can be an infinite regress of causes ("Can there be an Endless Regress of Cause," International Philosophical Quarterly, 20-4, 1980).

Sadowky points out that the operative principle in the cosmological argument is that "if each cause of A were itself in need of a cause, then no cause of A could exist and hence A itself could not exist." From this the argument proceeds easily: A (let us say there is motion in the world) exists and thus all of A's causes are not in need of a cause, that is, there is some cause that is itself not in need of a cause. [One thinks here perhaps of Schopenhauer's quote that the law of universal causation is like "a hired cab that one dismisses when one reaches one's destination."]

Critics of cosmological arguments oftentimes point to the obvious fact that in order for A to be, there must be some B which causes A, and in order for B to be there must be some C that causes B, and that this series can run back to infinity. Think for a moment about the infinite series of integers. For every integer I, there is some integer 'I - 1' such that I is generated from 'I - 1' by adding '1'. Any integer can be "caused" by taking the preceding integer and adding one. There is no problem with this series running back to infinity, of course. If it did not, we would have a pretty truncated mathematics.

But proponents of cosmological arguments often make claims about how an actual infinite is not possible - - after all, Aristotle said so - - and that the analogy between an infinite causal series in the world and the infinite series of integers is not great. For the infinite causal series, the operative principle specified previously holds, which does not in the generation of infinite mathematical series: If each cause of A were itself in need of a cause, then no cause of A could exist and hence A itself could not exist.

Sadowsky asks us to compare the statement of the cosmological argument that no causation can take place because each act of causation requires a previous act of causation with the following: no permission can be asked for because each asking of permission requires a prior asking of permission. Consider this statement:

1) No one may do anything (including asking for permission) without asking for permission.

Is (1) true? It seems not, for how could it be that the condition for asking for permission is itself the asking of permission. It seems that permission asking in order to do every X cannot run back to infinity, because X includes the asking of permission. The activity of asking for permission cannot run back to infinity because there would be no first asking of permission and thus no subsequent series of permission asking.

Sadowsky asks us now to consider Ryle's demolition of the so-called "Intellectual Legend": Never do anything (including thinking) without first thinking about it. Consider then (2):

2) No one ought to anything (including thinking) without first thinking about it.

Is (2) true? It seems not, for how could it be that the condition for thinking is itself based upon thinking? It seems that an infinite series of intellectual reflection based upon intellectual reflection is impossible, for how can it be that one's reflection on something (call it X) must result from X?

Although Sadowsky does not explicitly say so, he supposes that (1) and (2) are unsatisfiable, that is, there cannot be a state of affairs of every act of intellectual thinking being dependent upon anterior acts of intellectual thinking. Why? Because if there is real contingency in intellectual thinking - - if it is possible to consider propositions either shrewdly (intellectually) or stupidly - - and the condition for considering propositions shrewdly (intellectually) is a prior condition of having considered propositions shrewdly (intellectually) and not stupidly, then in order for there to be subsequent acts of intellectual consideration there must have been a first act of intellectual consideration. In other words, there is no possible world in which there can be an infinite regress in the order of prior intellectual operations as a prerequisite of subsequent intellectual operations. There must be a first intellectual operation that grounds subsequent intellectual operations, or there would have been no subsequent intellectual operations. Similarly, there must be a first permission that grounds subsequent acts of granting permission. There can be no possible world in which one cannot do anything without first asking permission, if it is true that "doing anything" includes the seeking of permission.

In (2) it is impossible to break into a series of intellectual considerations without there being an intellectual consideration not grounded in anterior intellectual considerations. In (1) there cannot be a breaking into the series of permissions without there being a first permission granting that needs not anterior permission. We have here the claim that there must be intellectual consideration that is not the result of an intellectual consideration, and a permission seeking that is not the result of a permission seeking. Now the question is simply this: is an infinite regress in the order of causes analogous to these two cases? Is it true that (3) is unsatisfiable?

3) For each and every cause, there must be a cause of that cause.

Is the denial of (3) somehow contraditory? Is it contradictory to have an uncaused causer? Or, put differently, if there must be an an unpermitted permitter, and a nonintellectualized, intellectualizer, why not an uncaused causer? Why should causality be regarded differently?

It seems that the answer to this might lie in the different contexts in which intellectual considerations, permission seeking, and causing inhabit. It strikes me that intellectual considerations and permission-seekings are teleological activities. Take, for instance, the notion of an infinite series of purposes. It seems like an infinite order in the series of final causes is indeed unthinkable. If everything that occurs, occurs for the sake of something else, is it not true that there must be finally something for which all things occur. (Heidegger traces this back to Dasein, of course.) No infinite regress in the order of teleological "reasons for" is possible, for it seems, that in order for there to be subsequent "reasons for" there must be a first "that upon which all reasons are ultimately reasons for."

Most of the time, however, we regard the order of causes as a nonteleological context: A causes B which causes C, etc. In a universe without meaning or purpose, why would an infinite series of causes not be allowed? Of course, there is not a first cause on the basis of which subsequent causes are! That is the point of thinking about an order of causes purely extensionally. There is nothing unsatisfiable about (3), though there might be about (3') below:

3') For each and every reason, there must be a reason for that reason.

I think many people would dispute (3') being satisfiable on the basis of there being finally a 'brute reason or purpose' on the basis of which other reasons find their positions. (Heidegger would agree here.) We often trace human reasoning back to a human telos generally. Why did Bob do x? He had such and such reasons for doing x. But why did he have these reasons? Because he ultimately desired that some y come about, and he reasoned in ways that would eventuate in y. But why did he desire that some y come about? Reasons must stop somewhere, and one might just say that his desire for y just is. Is it reasonable? Perhaps, but it is not reasonable based upon other reasons. It is an unreasoned reason.

Sadowsky has forced us to see more clearly into what we often mean by an infinite regress in the order of causes. We mean something that is quite without meaning. It seems in an unthinking universe without value and purpose there could be an infinite series of causes. Whether a thing is or is not is not the same kind of question as whether a proposition is reasonable or not. While the second concerns a teleological context where an infinite regress is impossible, this is not so of the first. Or at least that is what one might reasonably say.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tremendum et Fascinans

Joel 2:1-18 speaks of the "Day of the Lord." This day is "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come." The people are waiting for the Day of the Lord perhaps as children wait for Christmas. But this is folly, for this Day will be nothing like they expect.

In the heyday of dialectical theology 90 years ago or so, theologians emphasized the totaliter aliter, of the divine, the "wholly otherness" of God. The times were indeed ripe to talk of God as that nullity which effectively judges being. They proclaimed that one cannot find God by finding Him somewhere in the field of being, no matter the lofty region He might inhabit. If God really is infinitely qualitatively different from His creation, then this difference cannot merely be some adjustment of form or quality within a common potentiality spreading from the heavens to earth. No! Divine being must be totaliter aliter than the potentiality that lies within being itself. In other words, God is wholly other than what the philosophers once called "prime matter." To speak of uncreated divine being and created being under the general category of "being" is deeply problematic, for how could God be the Krisis of the world if he retains a place within it?

No matter how we might try to think the being of divine being, it is a different type of thing we think than the being of created being. God is so radically different from created being that we use the word 'being' a bit improperly to describe Him. God and the universe form ontological antipodes: God is what the universe is not, and the universe is what God is not. This ontological gap between the creator and creature is a necessary condition for the grace-full contingency of creation itself. If the created order where merely an adjustment on the uncreated order, then the gap between the divine and not-divine narrows to the point that what God is, is no longer what the universe is not. On this view Emerson would be right in saying, "Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line, Severing rightly his from thine, Which is human, which divine." On this view, God's otherness is lost and God becomes less than God.

Why does God become less than God when God's otherness is lost? How can the asymmetrical relation of 'being other than' somehow make God other than God is? If God has a determinate being, and x regards God as other and y does not, is God more God for x than x? This is but another way of asking the realist question of God: Is God externally or internally related to His creation?

What is necessary is to distinguish God-in-Himself, versus God-in-regard-to us. While divine being has the contour it has apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, what human beings regard to be God is deeply dependent upon how God is for them. While God is God apart from whether or not God appears distant or close to x, x will regard something as God only if God is not wholly proximate to x. What I am saying is very simple: For something to be regarded as God by person p, there must be an experience of extraordinary distance for p in the presence of this putative divinity. God cannot be God for p if p does not fear God as that before which p feels puny, is overwhelmed, and experiences shudder. For p - - and I would generalize to great numbers of people - - that which is not experienced as distant cannot ultimately be God.

The paradox of the Christian proclamation is that the Distant One, however, loves us. The experience of the divine has the character both of divine distance and proximity. While that which is not distant cannot be God, that which is not close cannot save us. The tremendum which is necessary for p to regard something as God is at the same time the fascinans by and through which humans are drawn to God. Our experience under the condition of existence is not a healthy one. What is needed is salvation from that which is not ultimately us. Just as creation is the free act of a being ontologically discontinuous from the divine itself, so is redemption a free action of a being ontologically discontinuous from human existence as such. While a God that is not distant cannot be God, so too a God that is too distant cannot save. The necessary condition for x to regard g as God is that g is distant from x; the necessary condition for x to be saved by g is that g is close to x. For human being, God purchases salvation generally by sacrificing divinity; he purchases his divinity by sacrificing His soteriological intimacy. This is the way of nondialectical assertions within the field of being.

The dialectical theologians were fond at pronouncing paradoxical phrases. None perhaps is more paradoxical than these we must make: Only the Distant One is ultimately Close to us. Only the One whose impassibility precludes the sentiment of love can ever really love us.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Theological Realism and Christology

One of our assumptions at the Institute of Lutheran Theology is theological realism, the notion that God exists and has a definite contour apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. While this would not be a surprising claim for most believers throughout Christian history, it is somewhat of a bold claim today, 230 years after the publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. For most of the nineteenth century, attempts were made to talk intelligibly about God while at the same time not affirming that God is a metaphysical substance capable of sustaining causal relations with His universe. This penchant survives and is deeply presupposed in much Protestant theology, especially of the Lutheran persuasion.

Yesterday as I preached on 2 Peter 1:16-21, it struck me that no matter how robust the claim of theological realism is, the claim of Christological realism is be even more bold. Imagine claiming that Christology is objective, that it is an evidence-transcending propositional truth about the universe that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Imagine making such a powerful claim that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is factual, that is, that Christ's suffering, death and resurrection exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language! It seems to me, on reading these passages from Peter, that the claim of factuality is emphasized precisely over and against claims that the proclamation of Christ is mythological, that the proclamation somehow is a response to our inchoate religious yearnings.

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Heideggerian thoughts much of the time. I have always been deeply convinced of the rectitude of Heidegger's analysis of human existence and authenticity in the face of the phenomenon of death. For much of my adult days I have assumed with Heidegger that death is basically a phenomenological reality, that only in life is there death, because there can be no death for death - - as Epicurus famously taught.

But while Heidegger's phenomenological analysis is deeply persuasive and penetrating on this point, because it is phenomenological it cannot deal with the relationship between the phenomenological and that which grounds the phenomenological. The reason is easy to see: To reflect and articulate the relationship between the phenomenological and the non-phenomenological is no longer to describe the phenomenological, but to conceive why the phenomenological has the contour it has.

Yet while moving beyond a phenomenological analysis may not a phenomenological analysis make, clearly it is not unreasonable to ask what grounds the phenomenology of death. One does not have to think very profoundly to answer that question: The phenomenology of death is grounded in the factuality of death. We live with one foot in nonbeing because we shall someday fully be nonbeing. A reasonable person not unduly timid about ontology would certainly assert such a thing. (Maybe phenomenological ontology is finally an ontology of the timid . . . )

When reading 2 Peter 1:16-21, it seems clear that the last testament of the writer to the truth of Christ is a testament of the factuality of Christ, that is, the writer wants us to know that the proclamation that liberates us in the face of death is itself grounded in the reality of the one that liberates us from death. Just as death is not a linguistic event but a fact as well as our phenomenon of it, to too is liberation from death not merely a linguistic event, but a fact as well as our phenomenon of it. In other words, just as my death exists apart from my awareness, perception, conception and language, so too does my liberation from death exist apart from those things as well.

Why is theological realism important? Because Christian theological realism just is Christological realism. But why is Christological realism important? Because as the writer of 2 Peter declares, "We do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made know to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (16).

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thinking and Thanking

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger was fond of the seventeenth century Pietist phrase, “Denken ist Danken, (to think is to thank).” Heidegger writes, “Pure thanks lies in this, that we simply think that which is solely and properly to-be-thought.”

But what is it that properly ought to be thought? For Heidegger, it is Being-Itself, and
thinking of this being is itself a thanking for being. Much of Heidegger's later work is a poetic exploration of the common etymology between thinking and thanking, and I recommend his ruminations to those so inclined. But what has this philosopher to do with the question of God and Lutheran theology generally? And what has thinking and thanking to do with the Institute of Lutheran Theology?

Heidegger distinguishes calculative thinking from meditative thinking, claiming that while the first attempts to grasp being, the second responds to it by “thinking after” it as it discloses itself. While Heidegger never calls Being-itself 'God', the connection is palpable. Just as light-itself lights the world, so does Being-itself radiate beings. Accordingly, Being-itself is the “ground” of all that is, a ground that cannot be investigated in the way of other things. The answer to the first question about God is that just as Being-itself is the ultimate ground from which beings arise, so too is God the creative mystery at the heart of the universe.

Heidegger realized that while being could not be grasped by human thinking - -for such thinking always presupposes being - - human thinking is nonetheless a way of be-ing. Accordingly, while the human subject cannot grasp the object (being), the object can and does call forth the subject's thinking of it. Simply put, while attempts to grasp the divine always end in failure, the divine successfully reveals itself to us. The answer to the second question about Lutheran theology is that what the law cannot do is done by the grace of God. God's revelation in our lives is something we cannot coax, engineer or guarantee. His presence is donated to us from outside ourselves, not by virtue of our own efforts at spiritual transformation.

But what has Heidegger to do with our work in the Institute of Lutheran Theology? After all, is not ILT committed to the Bible and not to German philosophy? Moreover, why do people at the Institute of Lutheran Theology concern themselves with such heavy thinking? Is it not simply enough that ILT gives it future graduates instructions for doing effective ministry? Can't we simply train pastors the way we train computer engineers, librarians and hotel/motel managers?

The Institute of Lutheran theology is deeply committed to reading and understanding the Bible. Collectively, we have a very high view of Scripture, believing its clarity and authority to be matters not of our doing. But while the source of theological reflection must always be the Bible and the tradition of its thinking, this source is always reflected through the medium of the contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon.

Reading and understanding the Bible is thus both simple and difficult. It is simple because the Bible speaks immediately to its readers as the Word of God; it is difficult because there is no methodological formula that can forever establish the exact words of that speaking. The Bible speaks as it is questioned by different readers at different times. Ultimately like Heidegger's Being-Itself, the Bible reveals its Word as a matter of grace, for it cannot wholly be grasped through application of methodological law.

I am convinced that one of the main problems facing Lutheran clergy today is that oftentimes their education denies them the freedom to think, at least to think so deeply that their thinking is transformed into thanking. While they acquire a set of skills - - they know now how to give sermons, how to plan worship and how to make hospital calls - - they aren't mentored to think what continually ought-to-be-thought: God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. This Word of grace, which cannot be established by human thinking, is itself revealed to human thinking, and in the thinking of this thought, human life becomes itself a thanking, a life lived in joyful response to the One who has Himself called such thinking into being. Faith is thus active in love.

Indeed we at ILT cannot be happy simply with teaching students what to do, until each is clear on what it is that must be thought. With an eye toward the ought-to-be-thought, students at ILT study Bible, history of church and theology, philosophical underpinnings for theology, Lutheran Confessions, and systematic theology. The objective is to think so deeply the thought that the Holy Spirit has called us to think, that we live out our deeply-thought lives in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ and in thankfully serving Him. Pastoral skills are only important if pastors believe that about which they speak. Faith is always active in love.

All of this is to say something that Lutherans have always known, but that has gotten a bit obscure in our time: Being precedes doing. Over and against existentialists, pragmatists, modern day Aristotelians, and enthusiasts of the law in all its forms, Lutheran theology has always steadfastly declared what the Bible perspicuously records: While a good tree bears good fruit, good fruit does not a good tree make. More important than future Lutheran clergy learning in their classes how to do the job of being a clergy person is that they have the time (and the space) to think through what it is to called to be one who in his or her thinking has pastoral doing as a mode of thanking. God's work of faith establishes the possibility of love.

So it is that we think about many things at ILT. We consider deeply the human condition, sin, atonement, and salvation. We think about how God relates to His universe in creation, redemption and sanctification. We reflect upon how language of God relates to other kinds of language, to the words of poets and scientists. We are convinced that if our language of God cannot easily be used Monday through Saturday, it is only very oddly and parochially employed on Sundays.

We think as well that considering these things deeply is
already to occupy a position of gratitude. Think of the grace involved in such thinking! To think deeply is to realize that there is something rather than nothing, and that this situation has no worldly explanation. To think deeply is to realize that we might not have been, or that we might not now be who we somehow still deeply are in time. Thinking deeply pushes us to consider the radical contingency of human existence, to think the thought that there is nothing necessary about being. But as we consider that things could have been other than they in fact are, we realize that why and how things are themselves involve grace and gift. Thinking through contingency breeds a thankfulness of what is. Denken ist Danken!

As the end of this first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, our collective thinking at the Institute of Lutheran Theology is in truth radically oriented to thanking. After all, there is no reason to expect that a seminary starting from nothing on a financial shoestring should be successful. People thought it could not be done. How could ILT overcome financial constraints, accrediting issues, and course delivery problems?

But I am here to proclaim to you the startling, and wholly contingent fact, that it daily is being done. ILT is blessed to have high quality students, a stellar faculty, an increasing list of generous donors, and a very professional course delivery system that allows students interaction with some of the best Lutheran theologians in the English speaking world. Where else can students study with professors Jim Nestingen, Mark Hilmer, Paul Hinlicky, Robert Benne, Hans Hillerbrand, and Uwe Siemon-Netto, to name but a few? Where else can students get the opportunity at home for one-on-one interaction with professor of international reputation who will coax them daily into thinking deeply what it is that ought-to-be-thought?

Next semester ILT will be in the process of launching a second generation video delivery system that will deliver much higher quality video to anyone having a broadband internet connection. Please tune into our fifteen minute chapels every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:00 a.m. to see clearly Lutheran preachers preaching clearly the Word of God. Soon students will have greater options for accessing higher quality video during select lecture formats. Through the generosity of almost five hundred individual and congregational donors this last year, the Institute of Lutheran Theology is transitioning from a start-up seminary with a vision for tomorrow to an actually existing Lutheran graduate school filling the needs of students world-wide today.

While the universe did not have to be, yet by the grace of God is, so too with ILT: It could have failed, but it did not. Not only did it not fail, but it has the opportunity to lead the transformation of Lutheran theological education world-wide. To think about this radical contingency of ILT is perpetually to thank Him who called it forth into Being.

Through the work of the faculty, staff, students and supporters of ILT, that which ought-to-be-thought is itself humbly and thankfully being thought. To think in a sustained way about what God has done for us in Christ is to live a life of thanksgiving. It is from this ground that ILT has emerged, and it is from this ground that it is watered and will ultimately grow into full fruition. The divinely-worked faith of human thinking is always active in the divinely-worked love of human thanking. May God's faith and grace be indeed with you all this New Year!

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt


Institute of Lutheran Theology