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.