Speaking of God: Theology, Language, and Truth
Is it possible to speak properly of God without falling prey to fideism, projectionism, onto theology and the neoscholastic notion of analogiaentis? In Speaking of God, D. Stephen Long argues that a constructive antidote to these modern theological ills (chapter 1) requires a more explicit Christological basis. More specifically, “if we are able to move beyond the less than salutary effects of the historical contextualization of theology, it will require attention to the incarnation for our ontology, epistemology, and philosophy of language” (15). With this framework in mind, the book seeks to put forth a more robust account of the relationship between faith and reason (chapter 2), the legitimate role of metaphysics in theology (chapter 3), an analogical use of language (chapter 4) and a politics that subordinates power to truth while embodying the virtues of generosity and liberality toward neighbors and enemies (chapter 5).
Long’s proposal calls for a willingness to join, hear, learn from, and contribute to the current philosophical conversation about truth and language, especially since the cognitive and volitional aspects of human existence are the very realities that God assumed. The following options, then, are incompatible with the logic of the incarnation. First, denying a relationship between philosophy and theology is to be “Nestorian” in one’s theology. Second, the tendency “to collapse reason into faith (fideism once again), or faith into reason (rationalism once again), is a species of ‘Apollinarianism.’” Both Christological errors, according to Long, have the same outcome: “they cordon reason and faith off into separate areas to protect one from the other. The theological and political results are disastrous” (15).
Among the many thinkers consulted, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar serve, though not uncritically, as Christological bookends for Long’s account. In fact, he contends that the interplay between Barth and Balthasar, constructively envisioned, “remains one of the most fruitful for theology and the future of a unified church” (12). On the one hand, Barth’s claim that divine “revelation ‘conditions all things without itself being conditioned’ is the most reasonable explication of the logic of the incarnation in contemporary theology”(11). On the other hand, theology, as Balthasar contends, never really proceeds without philosophy. For instance, the coherence or reasonableness of Barth’s position on the priority of divine revelation must be appropriated by philosophical reflection, especially if we seek to show how the incarnation furnishes the framework for addressing the issues at hand. So, Long acknowledges Barth’s suspicion about the dangers of employing philosophy for theological reflection, while affirming Balthasar ’s point that the latter never operates without the former. Moreover, fundamental to Long’s account is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s private language argument. Theology, like all forms of human reflection, is not a private language. Rather, it “proceeds using the same sign system as philosophy. Thus it cannot, nor should it be tempted to try to, escape philosophy” (12).
Take faith and reason, for example. For Long, faith and reason “represent overlapping epistemic sources,” especially since both seek the same goal—truth. In so doing, they “mutually reinforce each other insofar as neither is viewed as cut off from one another” (32). Envisioned here is the refusal to separate faith and reason into discrete entities or to collapse them into one another. Therefore, any theologian discontent with the ills of modernity will reject the identification of reason with “universal criteria or public reason” and the relegation of faith to some blind leap or private matter (30).
Long draws from thinkers and schools of thought as diverse as Stanley Hauerwas, Victor Preller, the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and Balthasar, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, John Paul II, and Denys Turner to construct an alternative to “the unpalatable either/or offideism/rationalism” (89). Constructing a conversation of this sort does not stem from some “irenic commitment,” nor does it attempt to recruit readers to join a new movement or school of thought. Rather, Long’s contention is that these thinkers “share a sensibility that any theology confined to the limited ‘rationality’ developed within modernity unnecessarily constrains the truthful speech about God” (90). Given these insights about the relationship between faith and reason, the goal is develop an alternative account that resists a pull toward fideism or a move toward rationalism.
Overall, Long’s appeal to the incarnation as the basis for dealing with the issues at hand is refreshing. In particular, his desire to join the current philosophical conversation in this way is commendable. His openness to incorporating insights from the analytic tradition of philosophy (contra David Bentley Hart’s exaggerated claim that “no such natural kinship can be found between theology and analytic philosophy”) is instructive. Also, the ability to furnish a constructive reading of a wide range of theological thinkers and schools of thought reflects the mind of a synthetic and mature thinker.
I want to raise a minor issue and then a more substantive one. At times, Long’s lengthy comparative accounts make it difficult to decipher and fully appreciate his constructive moves. In addition, his treatment of and use of terminology such as “foundationalism” may trip up the philosophically inclined reader, especially given the recent work and developments along these lines. In this regard, statements such as “truth is less a proposition carried by statements (or some other linguistic vehicles) and more of a Person” (again on page 302, “if we recognize that truth is a ‘way’ rather than a set of propositions attached to reality or cohering with other propositions”) need greater clarification and development.
Now I want to raise a more substantive issue. In chapter 5, Long takes up the question of how one brings truthful discourse about God into conversations with politics. Underlying the structure and arguments of the book is the assumption that metaphysics and politics belong together, especially when we inquire about transcendentals such as truth and goodness. Without a connection of this sort, “we will get an impoverished politics.” Included here is the theological presupposition that “truth is associated with the specificities of the Christian life and teaching, especially as it comes as a gift in Christ” (261). Thus, theology and politics, metaphysically speaking, are deeply related.
The political and ecclesial question, for Long, “is how to subordinate power to truth and goodness without unwittingly using truth and goodness as mere forms of self-assertion” (262). Two strategies fall short. First, the assertion that truth claims are inherently power plays rigs the game in advance and closes off real possibilities of truthful discourse within public settings. Second, the pragmatist alternative essentially eclipses metaphysics. In this regard, Jeffrey Stout’s important project, as articulated in Democracy and Tradition, “[N]eeds to give us a more significant, and a better metaphysical, treatment of truth than this one if it is to do more than merely stand in the tradition of the redundancy theory which claims to eschew metaphysics all the while drawing upon it“ (279). Tied to this second option is Long’s analysis of the kind of fallibilism advocated by Stout. This is where Long’s analysis confuses more than clarifies his own position.
Long argues that since fallibilism seems to make sense, it poses “a much more serious threat to Christian doctrine and practice than the hermeneutics of suspicion” (286). Fallibilism implies that we should maintain our truth claims tentatively. We should be open to the pro-cess of modifying these claims when evidence shows them “to be wrong or at least revisable.” In other words, fallibilism does not require us “to choose between truth or falsity of something, but to recognize that every claim to truth always comes with admixture of error, so that we can revise when or if the future errors are pointed out” (287).
Despite its initial plausibility, Long argues that fallibilism cannot be maintained. First, it is self-refuting. If one affirms that all knowledge is subject to error and, as a result, open to revision, then one should assume the same about fallibilism itself. Second, and for Longmost importantly, “truth can be present in a sign even when it also exceeds that sign.” For example, “if the incarnation is true, then it suggests that the fullness of God can be found in human form, in a human sign, without any admixture of error” (287).
I want to focus on Long’s second point. Epistemic fallibilism, as I understand it, acknowledges the difference between truth and our epistemic attempts to get at it. A distinction of this sort, for example, acknowledges the difference between the truth of the incarnation and our ability to come to know this truth. The latter certainly leaves open the possibility that our assessment of evidence is imperfect or not final. Moreover, belief-forming faculties and processes (such as memory, sense-perception, reason and introspection), though generally reliable, are fallible. Long seems to affirm, at least implicitly, the distinction between the epistemological and the ontological, especially in his rejection of the claim that any attempt to “hitch theology to either analytic or continental philosophy a priori misunderstands the relationship between faith and reason” (248f.). At the same time, Long argues that the church fathers clearly believed that “they were giving us an ontological truth as to who Jesus was without the admixture of error.” Moreover, the capacity to accept “the words of another as Christ’s words, or partake of something as simple as bread and wine as his body, is tacitly to acknowledge that claim and tacitly to say no to suspicion and fallibilism”(289). Again, epistemic fallibilism certainly presumes that people are entitled to make truth claims or to claim that they have received the truth, as long they understand that truth and how we know it are not the same.
Long seems to recognize the tension here in his own proposal. In the preface, for example, he states that his book offers a critique of fallibilism, and yet it makes “no claims for infallibility” (viii). His critique seems to push him more toward the latter than the former. Perhaps, his claim to philosophize with Mary (“to recognize and acknowledge those conditions by which we can, like Mary, say yes to God and in so doing make Jesus present to the world,” 309) is the middle position. If so, Long needs to explain in greater detail the conditions under which one engages in a process of this sort, and how it fits neither a fallibilist or infallibilist move.
Notwithstanding this issue, the book achieves its goal of showing how an account, shaped by the incarnation, can reorient the discussion at hand. It also succeeds in contributing some constructive insights to an ongoing and important conversation about the task of connecting Christian faith and deep philosophical issues. Scholars from different perspectives will benefit from this text, and hopefully they will take up the invitation to furnish fresh theological accounts of faith and reason, language and truth.