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.