Cultural-Linguistic Approach to Religion — Conclusion

(The two previous posts can be found here and here)

What are the pros and cons—the “promises and pitfalls”—of the cultural-linguistic model for interreligious dialogue and for evangelism?

A cultural-linguistic approach allows us to embrace a non-imperalist attitude to dialogue and evangelism. In adopting a cultural-linguistic approach, drugstore we submit to learning the language, look culture and story of our dialogue partner, and we begin to find ways to explain the gospel without relying on propositional bullying, and without reducing our experience to relativistic symbolism. In addition, a cultural-linguistic approach challenges us to better understand the structure of our own story which in turn will allow us to better communicate it to others. It allows us to reflect on what is essential to our story, admitting what aspects of our faith are culturally specific rather than culturally universal, as well as what elements are wholly unique, or untranslatable to other faiths.

In terms of interreligious dialogue for the purpose of uniting around a common goal (e.g., feeding the poor), in a cultural-linguistic approach we can see the other religious partner as being a participant in advancing the kingdom of God, even if they are ignorant of that truth. This is similar to the way in which Cyrus cooperated with God’s providential plan for Israel (p. 131).

A cultural-linguistic approach allows for points of commonality while at the same time admitting and recognizing that some doctrines will be untranslatable from one culture to another. An example of this is found in Lindbeck’s description of Buddhist and Christian students in dialogue. Here, the students discovered that Nirvana and the concept of God were untranslatable to the other religion. This realization is allowed and encouraged in a cultural-linguistic approach, because unlike a cognitive-propositional approach, neither side is trying to prove the existence of Nirvana or the existence of God. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of a cultural-linguistic approach over a cognitive-propositional or experiential-expressive approach is that the dialogue is founded upon mutual respect, even when there are incommensurable ideas existing between the two groups (p. 133).

If evangelism becomes a matter of translation, a way of communicating our story after having learned the language and story of another person, culture, etc, then the proclamation of the Good News is kept at the centre of our evangelism. Our current postmodern ‘lifestyle’ evangelism is nothing more than an experiential-expressivist approach to evangelism (that is, “this is what works for my life”). The appeal of ‘lifestyle’ evangelism is understandable as a reaction to the more apologetic/propositional evangelism of an earlier generation, but both of these methods of evangelism are secondary in a cultural-linguistic approach. This is not to say that ‘lifestyle’ evangelism is not biblical, indeed, Jesus said that everybody “will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35). This does not mean, however, that just because people recognize Christians by their love they will become Christians. Proclaiming the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is, in a cultural-linguistic approach, vital to the task of evangelism.

The biggest pitfall is that The Nature of Doctrine does not provide us with the tools to create a strategy of evangelism, because that was not what it was intended to do in the first place. Lindbeck himself admits that had that been the goal, the book would have been a completely different project (p. 138). Indeed, looking at the practical illustration of dialogue that Lindbeck offers in the afterword, the cultural-linguistic model works best as an academic framework, in which the rules of engagement are agreed upon in advance. In the case of the Christians and Buddhists in dialogue, “the religion that can better incorporate strengths from the other without losings its own is the one that wins.” (p. 138)

Lindbeck compares this to the encounter between rival traditions of inquiry described by Alasdair MacIntyre. His indebtedness to MacIntyre may itself be a source of this pitfall, as MacIntyre (in After Virtue, and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) is describing the intellectual clash of conflicting scientific and philosophical theories. The end result of the conflict is one theory’s triumph and displacement of the other. This kind of adversarial interaction is at best of limited applicability to interpersonal evangelism, being better suited to formal apologetics, which in turn is inconsistent with Lindbeck’s desire for a non-imperialistic approach to dialogue.

Another potential pitfall is that it may become too easy to ignore the fact that one religion is in fact more right than another. What is important to emphasize, and what may not be clearly articulated in Lindbeck’s book, is that the way to avoid this pitfall is to recognize that a cultural-linguistic approach is neither anti-propositional, nor anti-experiential. For Lindbeck, the cultural-linguistic model is the first order proposition, while cognitive-propositions and experience-expressivisms are second order propositions. It is not about one approach eliminating the others, so much as it is about ordering and priortizing.

  • “This does not mean, however, that just because people recognize Christians by their love they will become Christians. Proclaiming the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is, in a cultural-linguistic approach, vital to the task of evangelism.”

    Great point.