Monday, January 09, 2012

Semantics and Correlative Theology

There was once a time when I did not worry too much about how talk of God and talk of the universe as such connected.   In those days I solidly subscribed to a correlative theology which linked the semantics of theological language to the semantics of human existential/phenomenological/ontological language. Theological truth and meaning had to do with human truth and meaning.   The language of each could be mapped to an appropriate background language such that the discourse of theology was commensurate with that of theology.   While the logical geography of fundamental ontology differed from that of theology, they could be compared.   Existential questions could be given theological answers, and theological answers would invite existential questions.

Over the years I have come to regard this effort as being more or less misguided.   It is not that existential questions cannot be correlated with religious answers, it is simply that when this is done, the religious answer correlated has a different meaning than it would have had were it not so correlated.   How is this so?

Religious and theological answers pertain to soteriology, and what is salvific with respect to our immediate situation in the universe is not likely the same thing as what is salvific when our immediate situation is worked up existentially-phenomenologically-orntologically.   (I realize that this statement needs a considerable amount of unpacking.)  A corollary to what I am saying is simply that a problem with the method of correlation is that it cannot save the one that correlates.  This method is to the philosophy of science what lived salvific immediacy is to the practice of science.

It is finally a question of semantics.   For C (the one correlating), existential question E has a definite meaning that can in some way be addressed by theological answer T.  E and T have more or less definite semantic conditions for C.  Think, however, about one who has not adopted the reflexive standpoint of C.  Let us call such a non-reflexive one U (standing for unable of willing to occupy the standpoint of C).  For U, T has different meaning and truth conditions than for C because the truth conditions for T are ontological - - one might better say 'ontic' here because I am talking about being not the be-ing of beings - - in a way that they are not for C.

How is this so?  Clearly, the truth conditions for T with respect to U are tied to what is the case in a way that T is not for C.  Accordingly for C, T is true just in case T obtains.  But this need not be so for C.  Here T is true just in case it is appropriately linked to E.   For U, T is true just in case a relationship R holds appropriately of some state of affairs S.   For C, T is true just in case a relationship R' hold appropriately of some religious or theological description D that is pertinent to E.  For U, T is true because of some reality that is what it is apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language.  This is an extensionalist  interpretation of T.  For C, since T is true just because there is a reality which is what it is because of human awareness, perception, conception or language, the description of this reality becomes the most important matter.   Now we have moved to an intensionalist context.   (This needs more unpacking as well.) 

If I have not made myself sufficiently clear in the proceeding paragraph, let me try again.   The theologian who believes there is some extra-linguistic, extra-subjective ontological situation that obtains from which one must be saved, will regard the meaning of that which saves to be of a different type than the theologian who does not believe this.   The move to the reflexive level is indeed a move out of the primary soteriological context.  The one making the move likely has reinterpreted the meaning of the soteriological context in ways that make it true that a real ontic answer no longer is necessary or warranted in addressing that context. 

The question of which we are dealing concerns the identity conditions of theological and religious statements.   What makes one theological proposition semantically identical to another?  Identical syntax does not an identical semantics entail, for theological propositions have different meanings within different contexts.   Semantics does not supervene upon syntax unless the syntax is defined to include the very form of life of the one using the syntax.   (One might then talk about a global supervenience of semantics upon syntax.)  The identity of theological propositions is clearly not externally related to the philosophical (ontological) context in which they find themselves and to which they are related.  The point is that the context of reflexive correlation is a very different context than immediate lived existence.

A related question of identity within theological semantics arises for the theologian who believes that the content of preaching Christ and Him crucified is somehow identical across various philosophical and metaphysical worldviews.   Wilhelm Hermann argued famously that metaphysics is irrelevant to theology.   That is to say, presumably, that the semantic identity of a certain set of theological statements is invariant across different ontological worldviews, across worldviews as different as nineteenth century materialism and teleological Aristotelianism.  The semantics of theological propositions are indifferent to the greater philosophical context, that is, to alternate sets of philosophical presuppositions.

But this cannot possibly be the case.  What a theological proposition means is fundamentally connected to the context in which it finds itself, that is, to the wider philosophical context.  It is very easy to see this is true, for the truth conditions of a theological proposition does in fact change across different ontological horizons.   Why? 

Imagine I hold that the proclamation that I am forgiven from my sins in spite of my sin is a performative utterance issuing in the perlocution of existential empowerment in the face of fundamental anxieties.   Clearly, the semantics of the declarative utterance is related to the context of a linguistic/existential structure of human existence.  The meaning of the declarative statement is not related to some kind of theological states of affairs, but rather to the human existential/linguistic structure.  In this way, one might say that the Word is what it does.

However, the critical question is and has always been, is the Word only what it does.   Is the perlocution itself the result of a belief about the world, or can the perlocution happen without such a belief?   It has always seemed clear to me that the possibility of the perlocution occurring is tied to human belief in a very proximate way.  Without the belief being the belief that it is, it is not the case that the perlocution is the perlocution that it is.   Responding to the gospel declaration is not like hearing the words "excuse me."  While the conventions of the social situation are present in the former, they do not determine the use and response to the gospel address in a similar way.

But the deeper question has to do with truth conditions themselves.   If one says "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself," is it not quite different to say that the truth conditions are that God is in Jesus Christ, or alternately that they are somehow in the existential empowerment of the listener?   Consider how different these two truth conditions are:

1)  'God is in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto Himself' is true if and only if God is in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. 

2)  'God is in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto Himself' is true if and only if the utterance of 'God is in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto Himself' effects a particular hearer H (appropriately structured so as to be effected by the utterance), in such a way as to have existential empowerment of an appropriate kind, 

While one could spend a great deal of time and effort trying to clarify (2), it should be apparent what the salient difference between (1) and (2) is.   The meaning of the latter has to be defined relationally with respect to the human linguistic/existential structure; the meaning of the former can be defined by its relationship to a world that exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language.