Cultural-Linguistic Approach to Religion

George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine is probably the hardest book I’ve had to read. Yes, sales he is more difficult to read than Barth. But just because he’s a hard read doesn’t make him irrelevant. Indeed, NOD has had a huge influence on various strains of Christian thought. Protestant Liberalism and conservative evangelicalism have both been shaped in the last 25 years by the theory introduced in NOD.

Lindbeck suggests that there has been two main ways of understanding doctrine, the Cognitive-propositionalist approach (CPA) and the Experiential-expressivist approach (EEA).

Cognitive-propositional: This approach to doctrine is concerned with verifiable fact. It is about “proving” that such-and-such doctrine is metaphysically true. He says that this was the pre-liberal approach to religion.

: This approach to doctrine is concerned with symbols. It is about finding the common human experience and about reducing doctrine to it’s universal principle that can be found across religions. The experience of “absolute dependence” is key to this approach. This has been liberal protestantism since the days of Schleiermacher.

Lindbeck proposes a third way — The Cultural-Linguistic Approach (CLA). This CLA is at the heart of what he calls “post-liberal” theology. In short, Postliberal theology is a movement to help liberal protestantism be shaped by Scripture. As Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm summarize, the mission of Postliberalism is “…to reverse the trend in modern Christianity of accommodation to culture.”

The CLA is based upon principles of cultural anthropology (Clifford Geertz) as well as theory of language (Ludwig Wittgenstein). So, a CLA means that “to become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” (NOD, 20). It means that just like becoming fluent in a language, a person who becomes a Christian learns the language and practice; that is, how to think, act and feel within the Christian tradition.

A CLA approach means that we don’t have to “prove” the veracity of doctrines, nor do we have to reinterpret doctrines so that they can be explained to those outside of the faith. Indeed, it is very possible that there will be doctrines that will not ‘translate’ to other religions. (Example: there is no Christian equivalent to Buddhist Nirvana).

So what does this mean for explaining or evangelizing the faith? It means that in a cultural-linguistic approach, postliberal theology will ‘instead of redescribing the faith in new [modern] concepts, [it will] seek to teach the language and practices of the religion to potential adherents.” (pg. 118) Catechism becomes vital to the life of the Church. For example, Lindbeck looks back to the earliest Christian converts. He notes:

“Pagan converts…did not, for the most part, first understand the faith and then decide to become Christians; rather, the process was reversed: they first decided and then they understood. More precisely, they were first attracted by the Christian community and form of life…Only after they had acquired proficiency in the alien Christian language and form of life were they deemed able intelligently and responsibly to profess the faith.” (pg. 118)

…to be continued…

  • This is really interesting, and it makes me want to read this book. I imagine that his model just might be adapted to make testable predictions in a social psychology lab.

    The CLA approach is an interesting way of bridging modernity and ancient tradition. Great post.

    • I’m thinking about reading NOD for exactly that reason, Syphax. I’m told that Lindbeck draws heavily from social-scientific work on religion, so it would be interesting to see if the CLA approach might serve as a useful common language bridging psychology and theology (rather than the current approach, which often involves interpreting one using the terms of the other.

  • Such a bridge is desperately needed, at least in the psychology of religion in academia, which, despite being 100+ years old, has never quite developed a real vocabulary or common language. It’s like someone treading water for 100 years, never finding a place to put his feet down.

  • I read NOD a couple of years ago. May have to go back to it.

  • Anne Stevenson

    Putting it in the simplest way: when a person truly wants Jesus/the participation in Christian community and worship in their lives, they seem content to learn the language and culture of that group. In fact i continue to meet people who are not involved with Jesus nor his church who show far more interest when they can consider Jesus and his church to be an alternative/radically different lifestyle and world view than what is culturally current. If all we can offer people is the same culture they are all ready in, then what is the point of us or our God?

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