I’m reviewing D. Stephen Long’s latest book Speaking of God: Theology Language, and Truth that recently came out by way of Eerdmans. In the introduction, arguing for a resurgence or re-acceptance of metaphysics, Long made a great point about a subject that has concerned me for some time: I worry that in the future, theology will become mostly a discussion of hermeneutics. So, to the following point, I affirm with a hearty “Hell yes!”
A second and related consequence to the dogmatic claim to know the limits of language in speaking about God is that theology, like much of modern philosophy, becomes mired in epistemology. Because we assume we know the a priori limits to what our language can do, we also assume we know the limits of that to which it refers. Language is a creaturely, historical reality. It shifts and changes. If we tie reference to its modes of signifying too tightly then we will assume that the object to which language refers shifts and changes with it. We become trapped in a synchrony to existence because our language can only designate things limited by its particular, temporal modes of signifying. One tradition of the linguistic turn tends to trap us within this designative function of language. It finds metaphysics and theology misleading us because they are not attentive to how language signifies. Once we become attentive to language, then questions of truth, God, goodness, beauty, and being lose their mysterious character and we realize that the questions only emerged because we let our language mislead us. This designative tradition posited ‘verificationism’ as the necessary means by which we can determine whether what we say has any meaning at all. In the process, it treated metaphysics with contempt and walked away from its questions, wrongly assuming that once we recognize such questions cannot be given meaning through verificationism they would disappear. But now this tradition itself has been called into question. It has been historicized and we recognize that far from escaping metaphysics, it worked within a metaphysics known as nominalism. It did not lead us to the ‘end of metaphysics.’ If anything, we are at the end of a secularism that tried to train us to refuse to ask metaphysical questions, which was more like an ideological program than a genuine search for wisdom.