Sunday, June 12, 2016

Propositional Content, Truth-Conditions and Existential Empowerment

For a very long time I have puzzled over the relationship within theology among the notions of syntax, semantics and existential empowerment.  A proposition is uttered and has meaning.  A person hears it and orients himself in a different direction in the hearing.  The pastor utters, "Christ is risen." The parishioner hears the assertion and is seemingly empowered by it: She feels otherwise than she likely would have felt, thinks otherwise than she likely would have thought, and behaves differently than she otherwise would have behaved.  While all this seems clear, it is not.  In this brief article, I want to reflect upon this unclarity.

Preachers proclaiming the Word of God to hearers say such things as, "You are forgiven," "Christ died for you," "God hears your prayers," "God knows everything in your heart," "God demands that you help the poor," "God wants you to love your neighbor even as Christ has loved you," "The Holy Spirit in you is praying through you," and "God's gracious love makes all things new."  Obviously, in the course of any sermon, a preacher utters many statements like these.  As you look closely at them, it is clear that many really do prima facie have the form of statements; they seem to be claims about God, God's will for us, and God's gracious love of us.

If such statements were made in the presence of philosophers, there might erupt a discussion as to the truth-conditions (or lack of the same) of such statements.   What makes true the statements, 'Christ died for you', or 'God's gracious love makes all things new'?  What precisely must be the case for the statement 'Christ died for you' to be asserted as true?  Is it made true by the psychological properties of the utterer?  Is it made true by some set of events, entities, properties or states of affairs, the presence of which determines the statement's truth and the absence of which determines its falsity?

Or is the statement not true at all?  Perhaps it is a saying of the group that one must say to be part of a group.  Or perhaps it is merely an expression of one's own subjectivity, one's feelings and existential orientations.  Maybe the statements are really not statements at all, but rather pseudo-statements masquerading as statements with truth values.  Without a truth-value, a sentence cannot be a statement, it cannot state rightly or wrongly what is in fact the case.   It can, of course, be language that is nonetheless doing something.  For instance, it might make a promise or a command, express a feeling or hope, or give thanks or praise.  But without a truth-value, the statement cannot in principle make a claim rightly or wrongly about the way that things are.

Theologians, particularly Lutheran theologians, have recently displayed a penchant for disparaging ontology.  ('Recent' here connotes the last 225 years or so.)  They seemingly assume that the discipline having to do with being is not a discipline properly relatable to theology, the discipline having to do with logos or Word.  Perhaps they believe, or are somewhere on the trajectory of believing, with the Neo-Kantians that while the categories of 'being' and 'cause' are  appropriate for die Natur, they are out of place in the realm of der Geist (spirit), the region pertaining to 'value'.  Accordingly, theological ontology is misguided because it is an investigation which would locate God in an inappropriate region.  God would be, at best, a being among other beings -- albeit the highest of those beings.  But how could a being among beings be a being that fulfills the primal condition of God being God: the condition that God is infinitely qualitative different than creation, that God is totaliter aliter than all that is?

Maybe they simply think that ontology is metaphysics and that interest in metaphysics is symptomatic of a theology of glory.  Instead of God revealing Himself in weakness and vulnerability on the Cross, human beings search for God on the basis of the created order, locating God at the apex of truth, goodness and beauty.  But is not such a metaphysical inquiry an attempt to build a bridge to the infinite by standing in the finite?  Is not that attempt a proud seeking after the glory of God in strength and impassibility?  "We must search for God where is revealed," they say, "We must find it in is in His Word, not search to unmask the hidden God!"

But these ways of thinking are simply confusions, most often perpetrated by those who have imperfect understandings of what ontology is and does.  Ontology is concerned with truth-conditions, with those conditions that must obtain to make true those statements we regard as such.  Whatever events, objects, properties and states of affairs which make such statements true are precisely those events, object, properties and states of affairs we hold exist.  Simply put, all of our statement utterings have ontological commitments.  Just as some state of affairs makes true the statement 'the cat is on the mat' -- presumably the existence of a cat, a mat, and a particular dyadic relation of "onto" such that the cat is onto the mat -- so some state of affairs would make true the statements 'Christ is resurrected from the dead', and 'Because Christ lives, you shall live also'.  But what might these be?

Now enters the traditional problem of religious language.  What exactly does 'Christ lives' mean and what would 'I live' mean in its wake? Clearly, we know what it is for something to live.  A being lives if it fulfills certain biological conditions.  But would Christ's living fulfill those conditions?  Perhaps, if we are thinking about Christ's living alongside Peter's living.  But is the Christ who lives alongside Paul's living a Christ who lives in the same way that Christ lived alongside of Peter's living?  What would a post-resurrected living be?  A fortiori what would a post-Ascension living entail?  Would a human living that is not a biological living be a living?  Perhaps one says, "yes," but it is not altogether clear what one is saying when saying it.

Everything I have said so far connects to the problem of the assertion of propositional content and the effect of such asserting on existential empowerment.  Pastor Roy goes to see parishioner Mary who has been battling cancer, and now appears to be rapidly losing the battle.  The doctors say she may have only weeks to live.  Pastor Roy says to Mary that death has not ultimate victory over her because Christ has conquered death and through His resurrection, she will be resurrected as well.  Mary thinks about this a moment and says, "Pastor, is that true, or are you just saying that to make me feel better."  Pastor Roy considers her statement and replies, "It is true, Mary, you will be resurrected with Christ."  Mary, always the skeptic, follows up, "But in what sense will I be resurrected?  Will I have a body and will I know myself to be the same person I was before I died?"  Pastor Roy deliberates a moment and then hazards the following: "Mary, I don't know if you will have a body that is like the body you now have, nor a psychology like that which you now have, I just know that you will be resurrected."  Mary is silent a moment and then returns to her original statement, "Pastor, is that true, or are you just saying that to make me feel better?"

Mary is concerned with the semantics of Pastor Roy's assertions.  What do the statements he is proclaiming mean, and are they true?  To know if they are true it seems, she must know what they mean.  But Mary knows that locating meaning logically prior to truth cannot ultimately explain what it is that 'meaning' means.  Mary grasps that for a statement to mean x rather than y, one must know the conditions under which x is true and y not.  Whatever these truth-conditions are, are what makes an assertion's meaning mean.  She knows that when Pastor Roy says to her, "Death does not have ultimate victory over you because Christ has conquered death and through His resurrection, you will be resurrected as well," it makes all the difference in the world to the assertion's meaning what must obtain in order for the sentence to be true.   What makes true Christ's conquering death and being resurrected such that she will be resurrected as well?  Moreover, is it not clear that whatever makes that true makes all the difference in the world as to how she feels, thinks and behaves in the hearing, over and against how she otherwise would have felt, thought and behaved?

A theological statement's semantics, its truth-conditions and truth, is intimately related to its ability to existentially empower.  What I am saying is that it makes a deep existential difference to most people in the face of impending death what it is about which they might legitimately hope.  But is this not merely a baseless assertion?  Why think that Mary's empowerment in the face of death depends upon some fact of the matter about Christ's life after death?  Is not the Word enough?  Is not the proclamation of the Word enough to empower?  Why get into semantics and philosophical discussion when none is clearly needed?

But it is clearly needed; this is the point.  The mere uttering of words cannot empowerment produce.  But is not the Word external?  Is that not enough?  It is only enough, I would say, if one were Zoroastrian and had to have all of the words right in order to produce the correct result.  It is enough only if one believes that words are magical bringing about effects without means.   Lutherans believe in the real presence, after all.  For the external Word to be really present demands that the Word appear in, under, around and beyond the words which bear it.  But in order for the Word to be present, it must mean.  Without meaning the Word remains in bare externality; it remains incapable of connection to fallen structures in need of salvation.  Blessed are they that know their need of God.

What I am suggesting is that a mature Lutheran theology of the Word can indeed connect to truth-conditions.  They are the means by which our hopes are fanned and fears quelled.  While the argument is difficult, is it not self-evident that Mary's fears about death and her hopes for a future beyond it are linked inextricably to what she thinks really is the case with regards to these things?  The Holy Spirit is carried by the Word and is ever related to the Word, and the Holy Spirit works through means.  Is not the Spirit's ability to deliver the Word through human words related to the empowerment of the hearer of the Word, an empowerment that depends upon the hearer knowing the meaning and truth of what is said?  Perhaps one might even say the Spirit forms the link between the proclamation of words, and the Wording of the Word in the salvation of its hearer.

So Mary went out and listened to the voice of Pastor Roy and her spirit was calmed, for Pastor Roy spoke a truth that she could not invent.  To have understood Roy in the flesh would have meant that she understand his remarks figuratively, for denizens of nature can only speak the spirit as an as if.  But because of God's Spirit she did not need to spiritualize the brutal facts of nature. Because of His Spirit, she knew in her spirit that Nature was a far bigger thing than ever she had realized.