Might We Silence the Word: On the Truth Conditions of Theological Statements

Might We Silence the Word: On the Truth Conditions of Theological Statements by Tylor Lovins

Tylor Lovins

Founder at Christianity Now
Tylor studied philosophy at Anderson University, concentrating in the philosophical works of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also studied the theological and religious works of Rudolf Bultmann and D. Z. Phillips.

If I want to be a Christian, I must believe and do what other people do not believe or do.[i]


The world of the West is godless.[ii] We must begin with this truth, for this is the situation of theology today. Not only is it godless in that the concept of God has become empty and superfluous to public discourse of values and policies[iii]—use of theology in politics is viewed as both undermining to democratic processes and inappropriate for engagement between what are, by all appearances, the clashes of incommensurable community values—but it is godless in that we have no future. As Dr. Robert Saler has articulated, “21st century life is lethal.”[iv] With the consequences of climate change already disproportionately affecting the most marginalized populations in the world, it is only a matter of time until it undermines the most powerful cities and institutions, the cornerstones of modern civilization. This environmental crisis is perhaps the crisis of our time. Yet we also have crises of the past that, by festering in the mediation of history, have become enlivened by certain actors on the world stage: it seems nuclear war is, once again, a threat to us all.[v] As if it did not terrify us that our cargo ship of civilization is stocked full with everything that sustains us and is headed into the perfect storm, the oceans are warming, and the ability we may have had to project anything like an assured future with known possibilities is nullified by the fact that economic inequality is worse, the world-over, than it has ever been. We are trapped in the rotting carcass of the world we have created without God, and we now stand questionable within this godless void as to whether we will be banned from the Second Eden: the Eden which became possible after the initial proclamation of the Gospel in Jesus the Christ. We are faced with the question the Christ posed originally: might the Son of God have already returned and found no believers left among us? Might we have silenced the Word?

We are godless because we are sinful: these two assertions testify to the same reality. The period of the 20th century, for us, is as important as the period of religious wars that established secularism as the situation of the West. With The Great War, WWII and its Holocaust, and the Cold War, succeeding one after the other, the impetus has arisen, even within Christianity itself, to no longer consider doctrines or beliefs, but our common humanity, as essential for the awakening and sustaining of faith. This, motivated by the Protestant doctrine of justification, has brought us, by the accounts of many, to a new essence of Christian life: reception of the other as gift.[vi] Left to our own godless technologies and godless languages, we have turned inward, in hopes of finding salvation: in hopes of a future.

Compelled by the separation of Christian experiential knowledge and knowledge of the world, the Church appears to be moving in a direction where just or good relationships with others is what it means to love and know God,[vii] and to the extent that any theological claim becomes a barrier to loving thy neighbor, theology is seen as senseless. The meaning of the concept of God has been tabled, as a result, and the conditions of theological truth are deferred to, and held hostage by, the drive to relate to others in a non-conflictual (vis-à-vis nonconceptual) way. What good is truth, after all, if by our pursuit or attainment of it the world should burn?[viii]

This shift in attention, for its valid humanist reactions to the horrors of war and, now, the environmental and human toll of inequality, should be viewed yet with a critical eye. For though the shift from self to other,[ix] as central to Christian experience and reflection, appears benign, we risk forgetting that even the other is not what we term “God,” and that the Christian confession about the sinfulness of humanity applies also to the other. Are we to believe that there is no difference between (1) loving thy neighbor and (2) loving thy neighbor by the love of God? But there is a love which ends with death, and a love which, by its divine quality, creates the future, makes for life after death.[x] This is a distinction housed in theology, and our situation is perilous because we have ignored it.

These questions about the importance and negligibility of theology are posed by secularism in the public realm, a product, itself, of the Reformation, brought about by Christians in church and government alike. Churches, though in decline in the West, still exist. And the exact nature of our theological problem within the church is “not that there is any lack of institutions and publications which provide possibilities for speaking of God. On the contrary, the problem is how a genuine word of God is to be asserted in the midst of this tremendous inflation of existing possibilities.”[xi] Granted, the experiences of everyone are valid contributions for conversations surrounding Christian practice, yet it is the linguistic mediation of these experiences that is significant for theology, not the fact of the experiences themselves. And this mediation is precisely what is ignored when we turn from God to the other.

Let us form the problem more clearly by analogy. Compare and contrast the following communities in which “love” means: (1) “the experience of pleasure;” (2) “good works in service to and for the benefit of others;” and (3) “the love of God, shown in God’s sacrifice on the cross, given as a free gift of grace to all.” Immediately it is clear that the concept of love for (2) has greater breadth and depth than (1). Yet is the situation of (3) any different from (2), at its most basic level? We will name this the issue of “God and Word.”

The relationship between “God and Word,” as Gerhard Ebeling reflects on it,[xii] is the theological issue of our time. We live in a culture and with a language “full of references to God,”[xiii] and yet it looks to us today that God talk is just an artifact of tradition, a linguistic relic of the past. This problem is uniquely modern, in that there has never been such a “gulf between the linguistic tradition of the Bible and the language that is actually spoken.”[xiv] Our linguistic tradition, a product of the fissure between Christian experiential knowledge and knowledge-making in general, as traced from the Reformation period described below, is one in which the meaning of the concept of God is (1) threatened by and diminished to nonsense by the logic of scientific language in which “God” either indicates something like an object in the world or does not exist at all, and (2) nullified in Christian discourses of the West by the demands to separate God from the anthropomorphic, from “just my interpretation of Scripture” or “just my experience” and to identify God with “a higher being or power” and therefore make the question of God essentially negligible: to table the question and pursue the reality of loving relationships instead. We are all Feuerbachians when we separate the reality of God from the question of truth: when what is central to Christian life is relationship and not, also, the eschatological reframing of relationship by the Word that condemns and frees. The extent to which there is a distinction between loving thy neighbor in Christian and non-Christian ways hinges on whether “God” has any meaning today, which is a question of the truth conditions of theological statements. Let us consider this question as it relates to its “original” setting in the West immediately preceding the modern era, turning then to how we might understand it today.

The central problem of theology, we will see, is not simply a product of what was set in motion during the Reformation,[xv] but follows from the choices of major actors in history to pursue interests that sidelined Christian experiential knowledge for the manipulation and control of reality. These choices had a ripple effect, not only changing the social structures of the West, but the language itself. As knowledge-making severed from Christian experiential knowledge, language became “Enframed,” a word from Heidegger,[xvi] which means, for my purposes, reflecting the cause-effect continuum as something essentially non-human, not, for its truth, requiring human experience to occur, instantiating the world as fundamentally composed of objects to be manipulated. We see the effects of Enframing with the rise of technology, and its linguistic situation is that of the sciences. This Enframing has separated us, conceptually, so far from the conditions of theological truth that they are nearly unrecognizable today. With a few mundane examples, I want to suggest a way toward recovering the sense of theology, and its condition of truth. The claim of this paper will be that what makes a theological statement true is its correspondence to the human situation, and that this condition of truth is the watershed for a different way of not only speaking, or conceptual thinking and relating, but also of living, and a unique epistemology.

The Truth Conditions in History: Choosing a Godless World

At least two types of knowledge ascribed to and claimed by believers can be discerned in the history of Christianity: experiential and theological. According to Brad S. Gregory, experiential knowledge, the monastery its institution par excellence, “…sought to embody what [the] Christian life as such was supposed to be: a disciplined reorientation of one’s desires and actions away from baseline selfishness and toward the selfless love of God and others, a deliberate endeavor to uproot default sinfulness through shared practices that habituated to virtuous life.”[xvii] This practice of piety integrated all knowledge in the teleological aim toward the virtuous life before God.

Theology is distinct from this and understood as “… a rational comprehension that could both grasp the interrelatedness of the faith’s truth claims and distinguish its tenets readily from their erroneous repudiations by heretics.”[xviii] More specifically, theology is the mechanism that integrates “…the church’s truth claims, scripture, patristic exegesis, and monastic commentaries….”[xix] The two are distinct but were not practically disassociated around the time, and long before, the Reformation. For even in the universities, masters of theology were both “to care for souls and teach the faith.”[xx]

Importantly, the scholastic method undergirded the theological discipline at the time of the Reformation. It required theologians and students to maintain “…a strong recognition of the principle of noncontradiction, the demand of logical coherence, relentless questioning, and a keen ability to make distinctions at multiple levels….”[xxi] The method set its sights on sources from antiquity that were considered authoritative, yet the centrality of authority impaired the church from seeing the difference between knowledge derived from authority and knowledge derived from the manipulation of the cause-effect continuum. We have all but lost this distinction, understanding knowledge to be derived from what can be established under conditions of repeatability, under controlled conditions. What is authority, anymore, but the negation of human experience? Just give us the facts, and we will determine our future, for we will know the truth.

Let us break here because the relativism of our time is a consequence of the separation of knowledge from Christian experiential knowledge, of control from authority. On one side, truth is found in shared spaces of cause-and-effect objectivity (where objects may be shared: where power and manipulation over objects can be established), and human experience is seen as negligible for the truth of knowledge. On the other side, human experience is the place where truth is found (truth can appear differently to different people) and any claim to public objectivity is seen as a projection of individual human experience. The former wishes human experience to be unnecessary, and the latter desires to collapse the world held in common to separate pieces in the possession of individuals. Both are motivated by the same logic: human experience is considered essential for knowledge and truth only to the extent that it has utility, or control over, the cause-and-effect continuum. The difference between the two is where this control originates (from the universe inward or from consciousness outward), for whom the control is taken (everyone or oneself), and over what control is exercised (production in common spaces or production in private properties.)[xxii]

The impetus to separate Christian experiential knowledge and knowledge-making in general arose with the protest of Luther and others who posed questions about what was authoritative, and the religious wars that followed these questions. This divorce undermined the perceived interrelatedness of all disciplines in service to experiential knowledge, for as “faith was subjectivized,” “knowledge was secularized.”[xxiii] Political, technological, and educational changes helped, in part, to spur this secularization of knowledge. The eminently influential Republic of Letters, as a case in point, “accomodate[d] all manner of intellectual exchange except those concerning disputed matters in theology and countervailing claims to Christian experiential knowledge, which highlighted their distinctiveness—and problematic character—in comparison with other sorts of knowing.”[xxiv] At the same time, “the Reformation era saw a wide-ranging proliferation of additional sites devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, apart from the universities in which the privileging of theology constrained it.”[xxv] Some of these included the creation of “[l]ocal civic academies and societies,”[xxvi] the use of homes for scholarly work such as the dissection of human cadavers, field museums, astronomy observatories, alchemy labs, and early versions of pharmacies. These alternative knowledge-seeking sites and the persons who created them were encouraged and funded by state rulers, to such an extent that the courts became “the preferred site for the production of new knowledge.”[xxvii] And “we can see here a distant ancestor to the modern relationship between knowledge-making and state power.” This is understandable, considering that “the concrete application of matters as seemingly ethereal as neo-stoic philosophy and the mathematization of kinetic motion, for example, could influence the prosperity of states in the form of better disciplined armes and more accurate ballistics.”

The pursuit of knowledge sans-authority established a grammar of “knowledge” that excluded, and forgot the meaning of, authority as it had functioned in Christian experiential knowledge. What came to count as knowledge omitted anything from the world that remained outside the calculus of control to include everything in the world that could be discovered or created insofar as humans were substitutable, experiences were controlled for, humans were all-in-one, that is to say: absent. The conditions of knowledge had to be the same from one human to the next, and knowledge aligned to something outside human experience, which was the causal nexus. The continuing negation of experiential knowledge is most evident in “the most innovative institution of higher learning in early modern Europe.”[xxviii] “From the very start Leiden’s professors were made to profess no oaths except political loyalty, and beginning in 1578 students were also released from any confessional oath.” This is a long shot from just a few decades before when students could fail exams for immoral behavior, and professors were expected to not only care for minds but also care for souls because the institution had before been grounded by the central role Christian experiential knowledge played in the shaping of society. This is to say that the role authority played in the origins of knowledge was replaced by the role of control.

Rather than remain within doctrinal disputes that by all appearances could be resolved only by violence, the practice of the virtues became decentered as the reason for knowledge. With Bacon, we acquire a universal knowledge that is able “to produce worthy effects, and to endow the life of man with infinite new commodities.”[xxix] This knowledge, pursued and promoted by people like Thomas Hobbes, John Wilkin, and John Locke, carried the distinction between authority and control in a different form: “what was merely believed as a matter of faith and opinion from what could be known on the basis of observation and reason.”[xxx] Whereas religion carries what is merely believed, by the methods of the sciences we can discover and determine what is to be known. Now the stage was set for the exit of faith from the social structures of Western society, and with it, the exit of God.

Yet Gregory discerns another cause for this disjunction between experiential knowledge and knowledge within the church itself. As certain reformers turned away from the practice of virtues as the grounds for experiential knowledge, they posited the Bible as “the real and only source for God’s teaching and for genuine Christian experiential knowledge based on them, and thus scripture alone was the criterion for determining what in the church’s tradition ought to be retained and what had to be rejected.”[xxxi] Accordingly, though some not as iconoclastic and revolutionary as Gregory claims, reformers established a center, one based not on experience but on, ironically, a godless, Enframed text, as the appropriate route for establishing and revitalizing Christian experiential knowledge. Thoroughly subjective, this new kick removed the old epistemological ladder of experience understood by tradition and accessed by authority, and Christian experiential knowledge disappeared in the dissipating clouds of a shrinking geocentric universe. Christian experiential knowledge “now turned directly and entirely on the correct understanding of the Bible…The Bible was now sharply contrasted with the ‘human additions’ and mere ‘traditions of men.’”[xxxii]

Now that control has ascended as the central notion of knowledge, of the verifiable and epistemological ground of knowledge, when we ask what the truth conditions of theological claims are today, post-Reformation, it is not self-evident what, exactly, either the nature or object of a theological claim is. It is unclear whether the core of theological “truth claims” is Biblical precepts, epistemology, everyday experience, or, even, ontology. If the “correctness of Scripture” is opposed on epistemological grounds, as Gregory sets it up, to human traditions, both the intelligibility of Christian experience and the correctness of any Biblical precept precludes at the outset the conceptual roles tradition, rationality, history, authorities, and experience play in forming beliefs and making knowledge in the first place. The Bible, as we now see, becomes a means for production: of a certain kind of church, society, morality, etc. This negation of any functional role of authority as it relates to “tradition” within the concept of “correct understanding” necessarily relativizes and makes incomprehensible the notion of “truth claims” or “correct understanding” or even “Christian experience” in toto.[xxxiii] Because, as a result, the notion of control is centrally operative today, we have lost any operative sense of “authority” in our concept of knowledge, the ground from which Christian experiential knowledge grew. Whereas the concept of knowledge that developed during the Reformation was centered around control and production, Christian experiential knowledge was centered around authority. Christian experiential knowledge, in its grounding in authority, appealed to something nobody could control or produce, bring into the present or banish to the past, arrive at by equations or conquer by land, sea, air, or market. The modern epistemology of control does not know the situation of humankind as the beings who use and receive the meaning of the world, themselves, and God by language. Human tradition was seen with skepticism because it assumed something not controllable within the causal nexus: human tradition testifies to something no eye hath seen nor ear hath heard, and this is something we cannot control the arrival of. It is, therefore, banished from our godless knowledge.

The tensions today remain largely as they were then: “What was the relationship of the word of God to the (nonoriginal) biblical manuscripts, (rival) doctrinal truth claims, and (divergent) claims of Protestant experiential knowledge?”[xxxiv] On the one hand, one can hear some people of the Protestant church claim that the basis of faith is the word of God (i.e., the Bible), placing value in a deadly knowledge-driven “theology” over Christian experience, to the extent that Christian experiential knowledge is not generally pursued in many fundamentalist branches of Western Christianity. On the other, it appears the trajectory of the ecumenical movement, as it follows the popular, and to some extent justified, movement to relate to others in nonconceptual ways, some Christians prize Christian experience but only to do away with theology. This sets the scene for the metaphysical vacuity of Western Christianity today. Now that science has come into its own, theology is challenged: what can we say about Christian experience, about the concept of God, that makes sense of the world we have found with science? Nothing. We are godless. And this is a good thing: this is the world for which and in which the Word of God became flesh.

On the God and Word Problem

Although Christian theology is in some ways a discipline centered around “God,” our question is not merely about the word “God” and its meaning, but a question about “what is to be said of all things in the light of God and before God: how the world and history, my fellows and my own self, my whence and whither, life and death are given expression before God.”[xxxv] As we consider the truth conditions of theological statements, an ambiguity must be clarified between two directions in which we could pursue this question: between the questions of how it is that true theological statements appear as true to the hearer; and what it is that makes theological statements true.

The former might be called the question about the conditions of meaning of a true theological statement. And to the extent that this question is motivated by scientific concepts, of a factual world of contingency–biological, psychological, sociological, political, and the like–to solve its riddle, we are here in the realm of a properly, and strictly,[xxxvi] scientific endeavor. Yet an issue appears immediately: in the study of history, we realize that the conditions of the meaning of true theological statements fissure and independently develop with every new denomination. We only need to consider Luther’s excommunication and the fact that he embarked on institution building, at some point, and that the results, just at the surface level of interest for us, entailed a separation from the authority structures of the Catholic church that had delivered the conditions of meaning of true theological statements for most of church history. And to the extent that these conditions have changed in history, the answer to this question, in this specific sense, is a de facto description. With the multiplicity of Christian practices, it appears at this juncture that our inquiry has ended, not because we have answered as to the true meaning of the question, but—like the person with the VR headset, exploring vast landscapes in virtual reality, but taking one-too-many steps in his physical space, he runs into the brute truth of drywall–we must perhaps reaffirm what the Reformation has delivered into our hands: there are no empirical, controlled conditions for the appearance of de jure truth.

But let us press on, if only to re-establish the impossibility of answering our question. For, if Christian inquiry has any validity post-Reformation, we must consider the extent to which it has a coherent epistemology apart from the sciences, apart from that which is controllable, underdeveloped though this idea may still remain. In considering language, it becomes clear our conception of language itself has changed because of the secularization of knowledge. We are compelled by the ubiquity of the sciences to believe the essence of language consists in referentialism, wherein the meaning of a word is its referent in the causal nexus. This underlies our notion of truth, as a result, which motivates the secular critique of religion: the concept of God can neither be verified nor connected to a being in reality, therefore it is meaningless. Yet, theologically, I am compelled to say there is a sense in which science cannot see the face of Truth and live, and still be science. But we still believe that, despite not possessing the capacity to answer our question in the full, we have seen something like the backside, if not the face, of Truth, in what we have said already. For it is true that there are multiplicities of Christian practices, and this fact seems, theologically, to be legitimate.

Turning from one side of the question, we now ask under what conditions true theological statements are made true. And for this path, two observations along the way will set us in the right direction.

It is nearly self-evident, but warrants repeating, that the language we use to talk about behavior gives meaning to that behavior. Consider the difference between a person losing weight because he is “going to the beach next weekend and wants to look in shape,” and a person losing weight because she is “following the doctor’s orders, trying to stave off the worst consequences of diabetes.” From these two brief examples alone, we get the sense that, though performing the same action, these people live in different worlds when it comes to “losing weight.” They could both, conceivably, maintain the same eating schedule, dieting plan, and meals: perform all the same actions when it comes to “losing weight,” and yet the meaning of these actions are worlds apart.

And we can go further. Not only does language express the meaning of our actions in some cases, in other cases it delivers the possibilities for action. Consider the communities with different uses for the word “love” as mentioned above. In the context in which it makes sense to talk about “love,” the possibilities for action of community (1) differ dramatically from (2). In fact, some possibilities of action are inconceivable for (1), whereas they might be commonplace for (2), as in the situation where “doing good works for one’s neighbor” entails displeasure. This rules out for community (1) that this action is conceivably an action of “love,” and therefore is not a possibility of action within the realm of love. Very simply, we can see that the development of language is essentially connected to possibilities of action, or, to put it straightforwardly, freedom and future.

Where does this leave us? Language gives meaning to action, and it also delivers possibilities for action. These two truths are connected in the concept of “linguistic situation.” A linguistic situation is any situation in which behavior is given meaning and granted freedom by the use of words. We can say not only behavior, but the totality of behaviors as they exist in our memory, and as they are manifested in the present as habits, are artifacts of linguistic situations of the past. We are in a different space now than we were in considering the scientific conception of language. For now, with action and freedom, we are in the realm of time. The meaning of a concept, here, is not only its referent in space, but also its associations in time, to the past and future; the linguistic situation words manifest in the moment are not simply groups of individual words that refer to groups of individual objects, but words, as they are communicated in sentences and situations, are unities of meaning, of the subjectivizing of time in the physical situation, as manifested in actions and speech. This is the realm in which theology exists, belonging to action and freedom, when words become incarnate. For in this moment what occurs to me in thought is different from that moment, and the futures belonging to either are specific to those particular moments. Sometimes thoughts condemn, other times they resituate me. But in every situation in which thoughts are present, I am called to respond to them.[xxxvii] “It is not the concept of signification, but far more profoundly the concept of answerability that points us to that which is fundamental in language.”[xxxviii]

It is only appropriate that theology is separated from the sciences. For although science certainly operates within a linguistic situation, in its idea of truth as correspondence to reality, it has developed a conceptual scheme in which “‘the world,’ as distinct from the meaning of words,” is the meaning of “the world.” Science remains fundamentally distinct from theology in this sense: we are not only dealing with the words and actions of humans, but “bodies in motion,” “quantum states,” and “waves of light.” The linguistic situation of science establishes a conceptual scheme that, at its base, does not require the existence of humans, of persons. The truth conditions of scientific claims are repeatability, and, in a sense, substitutability. And because, as we have mentioned, our conception of knowledge has developed within and delivered by scientific enterprises, it is motivated by an epistemology of control. When we are knowers, we are firmly in the realm of the godless, for there we are the controllers and producers of worlds.

This points to why science was not able to answer our question about the truth conditions of theological statements sufficiently in the first place. We can understand why, as a matter of fact (of psychology, sociology, economics, etc.), truth appears differently to different people in different situations. This knowledge, a product of scientific inquiry, cannot tell us how and whether this de facto truth becomes or is the truth de jure. We are in a different world from science when we ask: is the truth acquired the truth that saves?

And now we can arrive again at the question about what makes a theological claim true. For the basic situation of humankind is its linguistic situation.[xxxix] And the condition of a true theological statement is its correspondence to the human situation. As we have said that the human situation is the linguistic situation, a theological statement is true to the extent that it makes humanity true: that it grants a freeing word, that it speaks freedom. We are called by that which is outside ourselves, summoned to be and to account for our being: we are called by a freeing word. To go further: it is by the word of God that we are made true, that we are awakened to faith, that we are both condemned to the human situation and yet saved from it. For in obeying the word of God we change our situation, and because we are human, we make true the human situation as sinner before God, saved by the grace of God, when we have faith. God’s word verifies itself by verifying humankind as such: by verifying the situation of humanity as linguistic situation.[xl]

The implications of the split between Christian experiential knowledge and knowledge-making in general is now more potent. For, although the concept of knowledge as we have inherited it is grounded in an epistemology of control, Christian experiential knowledge is grounded in an epistemology of freedom. This is why in knowing we are made Godless. The meaning of the concept of “God,” is, if it is anything, this “mystery that pervades all reality” that offers the Word that grants freedom, as freedom is understood by the witness of faith we have in the Christ Jesus. From the epistemology of control, God is that over which we have no control; that about which we have nothing to say; and that beyond which we must move in order to gain control over our situation. From the epistemology of freedom, the Word of God is not contingent on any logical conditions, for it calls into question all logic. Neither does it depend on the outcomes of the world, for it is world-ending, eschatological, calling to an end of the world as we know it and thereby transforming it. From the epistemology of freedom, life is not lived with interests found between life and death; we are bid to come and die, and thereby life itself is transformed into life after death. The truth of the Word of God is found in the obedience of the believer, for whom the Word is transformative, in whom faith creates a certainty which is greater than knowledge and reaches beyond death, beyond history, beyond ethics, beyond logic, and beyond art; the Word of God is experienced as a question, not of what is and how one should be as a matter of fact, but in what is to come, by the Word which makes humanity true and Christ all in all. As Ebeling says:

Representations of God, to be sure, give expression to that which is meant by the word ‘God’ only to the extent that they present man to God, and thus awaken man to his basic situation. The moment the word situation of which we have spoken is abandoned and God is regarded in one way or another as reality, rather than as the mystery of reality which lays exacting hold upon us, then God is murdered.[xli]

Because we are talking about “truth” conditions, it may seem as if I have maneuvered a slight of hand, for the ostensible hermeneutical circle I have introduced makes theological “truth conditions” so oblique as to not even appear within the realm of what we mean by “truth” in the first place. What of objectivity? Let us be cautious, for objectivity is a feature of “knowledge,” not Christian experiential knowledge. As objectivity requires repeatability, controlled conditions, and phenomena without human experience, it confers a godless situation. Whenever we have acquired “objectivity,” we have gained a world that can exist without persons. Persons, like objects, must be substitutable for one another for us to be “objective.” This is why science and what we term “knowledge” requires a distinction between the conditions of meaning and the conditions of truth. Many criticisms of religion from secularist persons rely on this distinction when it is said that “The nice thing about facts it that they’re true whether or not you believe them.” Yet this distinction is precisely where science becomes godless, and it is instructive to more fully articulate this difference here.

Although absurdly brief, our overview of the separation between theology and politics delivers an important lesson about the relation between what we call “knowledge” and “Christian experiential knowledge:” It is just a fact of history that what we term “knowledge” developed in a godless world.[xlii] As a result, to know what day it is,[xliii] to go to work, to stock up on food or products, to chat or commune with others, to acquire an education, to learn about the world and our place in it as humans, one never need to speak of God. To know and act in our world is to be godless. The task of theology is not to deliver knowledge, as a result, for good theology is good only to the extent that it awakens and sustains faith in the believer who hears its word. Good theology, because it is a word given to godless humanity, uses science to establish the facticity of the humanity for whom it is a word. Yet it is a true theological claim to the extent that the word awakens and sustains faith: carries the Word of God and therefore makes the Word incarnate. The proper role of theology, as conceived of here in relation to God and humankind, is that it awaken faith, wherein faith is a rebirth, and thereby give speech to Christian experiential knowledge. Whether in this speech, and in the condemnation of the human situation, humankind is free of it and makes the word of God true, the truth condition of a theological statement is satisfied. The collapse between the conditions of meaning and the conditions of truth is not a failure or deficiency of theology but rather its essential character: for it speaks to and of persons. The Word of God appears to humankind. The Word of God becomes incarnate.


Let us recap. As a result of the progress of the sciences, which manifested the loss of Christian experiential knowledge and the rise of objective knowledge, theology has been called into question. Indeed, humanism is perceived as a secular alternative.[xliv] But this is seriously suspect because the kind of language surrounding humanism, in its means-to-an-end logic, is an imposition of scientific language in what is properly the theological realm. Consider, for instance, that Bart Campolo convinces his secular students to be in community, in service to one another, by reference to statistics and data. Sam Harris, a prominent secular humanist leader, argues that science can ground morality, and that ethics can be grounded in science. He also argues that free will is an illusion. From the point of view of science, of substitutionability and determinism, these are logical positions. Yet there is something lacking in the language which posits human actions as neither bad nor good but deviant, anomalous, or malleable to the facts: perhaps the future of humankind?

It’s highly suspect that humanity might remain free when all language points to the opposite conclusion or rids us of the word “freedom” altogether. B. F. Skinner considers the fact that the literatures of freedom are the operant conditioners for “freedom.”[xlv] We must consider with him whether if we lose theology, its language of the human situation and the freeing gospel, we lose our humanity. For humanity is preserved only to the extent that the humanity of language is preserved, and this is a possibility only when the basic situation of humanity not only encompasses but also constitutes humanity itself. And this can happen only if “even in the word of the godless there is to be heard a hidden word of God.”




[i] Martin Luther, as quoted in Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (The United States of America: Herper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1957), 249.


[ii] By “godless” I intend the same meaning as “sinful” but with a broader implication. “Sinful” for many has been reduced to a moral position. I want to indicate with “godless” not only our moral position but also, and primarily, our epistemological situation: that we can neither find God in our world nor in our words, and cannot, by the modern standard of knowledge, “know” God.


[iii] We should be clear. There is a large swath of Christians who marry politics and Christianity (namely, American Evangelicals). I include them in this statement because there is a difference between people who are political but have a religious center and people who are religious but have a political center. Many people are religious for nonreligious reasons (political, philosophical, or cultural). It is the person with the religious center who is most difficult to see in the crowd, and the most ostracized in the public square: for their language of God attests to a reality that turns our godless world upside down and judges it from the inside out. This language is anathema to our godless politics and incomprehensible to our godless philosophies.


[iv] Robert Saler, “Toxic Theology” (lecture, First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis, IN, May 11, 2017).


[v] Hawaii recently reinitiated monthly nuclear siren tests: the first time since the end of the Cold War.


[vi] This notion, I have learned from the Lutheran Bishop Bill Gafkjen, is the driver of the ecumenical movement.


[vii] Peter Rollins, a popular and foremost representative thinker of radical progressive Christian thought, stated as much in a podcast.


[viii] See Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (United States: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000), 545-575.


[ix] Let us understand “other” not only as another person, but as any person that isn’t you who by the fact of their existence calls into question your basic assumptions about reality.


[x] This “life after death” is a life lived beyond the interests that are found only between the realities of birth and death. The life after death is essentially the life which goes beyond interests that end at death and by death.


[xi] Gerhard Ebeling, God and Word, trans. James Leitch (United States: Fortress Press, 1967), 5.


[xii] Ibid.


[xiii] Ibid., 3


[xiv] Ibid., 4.

[xv] One reason theology has become a problem today is because when the political power that enforced the “truth” of theological statements was separated from theology itself, by the separation of church and state, we, in a significant way, abandoned the Word of God to create and live in a world without the demand to know what “God” means and, therefore, speak in an increasingly godless world. That is to say, this is not a necessary course of history, but the rejection of God by influential people in the West and, following, the people who inherited, inhabited, and perpetuated the language and institutions of these people.


[xvi] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (United States of America: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977), 19. I used “Enframed” to mean motivated by the lure of Enframing. Heidegger defines it as follows: “Thus when man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a away of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve….We now name that challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve: ‘Ge-Stell’ [Enframing].”

[xvii] Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (United States of America, the President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2012), 309-310.

[xviii] Ibid., 313.

[xix] Ibid.


[xx] Ibid., 315.


[xxi] Ibid., 317.

[xxii] Production in common spaces include societies, technologies, laws, markets, etc. Production in private properties include self-images, dogmas, experiences, ideas, etc. The difference between control and authority, and the displacement of authority, is that functionally “control” means I build (system of ideas, societies, religions, technologies, etc.,) in order to produce. All things that are knowable can be controlled, or give us control. The idea of “authority” is that there is something which remains outside our control, somewhere in the past, which could transform our situation if only we would release control to rather abide by something that isn’t us or that we cannot produce. These are terms of motivation rather than status.


[xxiii] Gregory, 327. Brad gets this formula backwards in the text, unsurprisingly, but it’s a significant mistake, given his argument that fissiparity, and the specialization of knowledge, is a product of, and didn’t anticipate, the Reformation.


[xxiv] Ibid., 335.


[xxv] Ibid., 336.


[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid. 337.


[xxviii] Ibid., 338.

[xxix] Ibid., 340.


[xxx] Ibid.


[xxxi] Ibid.


[xxxii] Ibid., 328.


[xxxiii] This is the implication of Gregory’s argument. And although many Reformed traditions actually do not cross this conceptual line in practice, I think Gregory is essentially correct in characterizing this metaphysical vacuity the rupture from tradition caused, though I disagree it’s caused by the rupture of tradition per se, but think it is rather because of the resulting secularization of knowledge, as it is carried by the will to control, and the later imposition of this kind of knowledge on speech about God and ourselves. The true failure is that the church has not developed the notion of theological truth apart from scientific truth.


[xxxiv] Gregory, 333.


[xxxv] Ibid.


[xxxvi] This point is important in connection to the Enframing of language. This is to say, we have a method to answer this question in its strictest form, in which the answer appears in the public as something everyone, no matter disposition or background, can receive it as a fact. Yet this answer does not make theological statements true. To read the gospel as a fact (historical or otherwise) is not to hear its Word or meditate on that which it testifies to.

[xxxvii] As in a moral situation in which I realize somebody “needs my help,” or when somebody simply asks me a question.


[xxxviii] Ebeling, 19.

[xxxix] This concept of “linguistic situation” is not one Ebeling uses. He uses “word-event,” or “word situation” which I think muddies the waters. And although he frames his project in God and Word as one in which he interrogates the meaning of the concept of God, my claims here are the implicit claims of his project that are yet hidden in his work because his articulation is of a different aspect of this problem.


[xl] Ebeling, 40.


[xli] Ebeling, 31. Emphasis his.

[xlii] Francis Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s four causes, nullifying the need for teleological explanations of the empirical world, firmly established the realm of “knowledge,” which today we call the conclusions of science and commonsense perceptions of the world which align with science. For after Bacon, the world became a system unto itself, and all its causes were, like a machine, to be discovered by looking at the functions of its basic cogs, and thereby taken control of.


[xliii] See Eamon Duffy, Stripping of the Alters (Avon, Great Britain: Yale University, 1992), 11-46. A telling difference between our time and the religiously volatile times of the Reformation: you could not look at a calendar, could not know what day it is, without also ascertaining its relation to the next feast or fast, the next religious ceremony.


[xliv] We now have “secular humanist chaplains” such as Bart Campolo: formerly Christian, but now preaching a godless word to a godless people.


[xlv] B. F. Skinner, “Freedom,” in Beyond Freedom & Dignity (United States and Canada: B. F. Skinner, 1971), 24-45.





Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited by Peter Baehr. United States: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.


Ebeling, Gerhard. God and Word. Translated by James Leitch. United States: Fortress Press, 1967.


Duffy, Eamon. Stripping of the Alters. Avon, Great Britain: Yale University, 1992.


Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. The United States of           America: Herper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1957.


Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. United States of America: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977.


Saler, Robert. “Toxic Theology.” Lecture at First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis, IN, May 11, 2017.


Skinner, B. F. “Freedom.” In Beyond Freedom & Dignity. United States and Canada: B. F. Skinner, 1971.


Photo by Oscar Keys