Sunday Meditation

Churches should not imitate the Pharisees, look whom Jesus condemned for compassing land and sea to make proselytes (Matt 23:15), but should rather follow the practice that prevailed in the first centuries of prolonged catechesis. The primary Christian mission, in short, is not to save souls but to be a faithfully witnessing people…When serving the world results in the neglect of the household of faith, the church becomes not a sign, but a countersign, a contributor to that human confusion that is the opposite of God’s design. It comes to resemble the philanthropist who loves humankind at a distance but not his neighbors or family in need. Its primary task should be to build up sisters and brothers in the faith, not to liberate the oppressed everywhere; and it is only through performing this task that it becomes a liberating force in world history.

George Lindbeck, “The Church,” in Keeping the Faith: Essays to Mark the Centenary of Lex Mundi, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 192.

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.

Rule Theory of Doctrine

(This is a continuation of a Cultural-Linguistic Approach to Religion)

What is doctrine?

Doctrines are rules to guide Christian life and speech.

They are not, sildenafil Lindbeck argues, view primarily propositional truth claims, nor universal symbols. This does not mean that there isn’t objective truth in doctrine, just that that is not the primary function of doctrine. Same with religious feeling or ‘experience’. It is part of the Christian faith and doctrine, but it is not the core of doctrine.

In chapter four Lindbeck lays out six categories, rules or types of doctrines:

unconditionally necessary
conditionally necessary

In chapter five, Lindbeck sets out to test his rule theory using these six categories. The goal – to show that a Rule Theory of Doctrine “provides a nonreductive framework for discussion among those who genuinely disagree.” (pg 77)

Case #1 – The Christological Creeds (Nicaea and Chalcedon) – Unconditonally necessary//permanent

Lindbeck suggests that there is a distinction between doctrines and terminology. He reminds us that creedal terms like substance ‘ousia’ and person ‘hypostasis’ are ‘post-biblical novelties.’ (pg. 78) These terms are not essential because if they were than the creeds themselves would be temporary (rather than permanent) and conditional on a Hellenistic culture.

Christianity “has been committed to the possibility of expressing the same faith, the same teaching and the same doctrines in diverse ways.” (pg. 78)

First and second order propositions “are separable from the forms in which they are articulated.” (pg. 79).
e.g. Amanda has jaundice. We can describe this using Galen’s four humours (inbalance of the humours) or science (viral infection). Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that Amanda has jaundice (even if one explanation is more correct than the other).

What Lindbeck says we have to do is show that the doctrine of Nicaea and Chalcedon “are distinguishable from the concepts in which they are formulated” and we do this by stating, “these doctrines in different terms that have equivalent consequences.” (pg. 79)

To do this we have to see Nicaea and Chalcedon as second order ‘guidelines’ not first order ‘affirmations.’

So, Lindbeck argues that Athanasius (opponent of Arius) used Greek logic rules to describe the relationship of Christ to the Father. Athanasius expressed it with the rule ‘whatever is said of the Father is said of the Son, except the Son is not the Father.’ (pg 80). This is a rule of speech, not a first order proposition. Lindbeck argues that later scholarship imported (read in) metaphysical first order meaning into Athanasius’ statement.

Creeds are primarily regulative; not propositional.

3 regulative principles or rules behind the original creeds
1. Monotheistic principle
2. Principle of historical specificity (Jesus was really a person)
3. Principle of Christological Maximalism

The major heresies (Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism etc) were all rejected because they violated “the limits of what was acceptable as defined by the interaction of these three criteria.” (pg. 81) Therefore, creeds are paradigms of doctrinal truth/rules. They are “permanently authoritative paradigms, not formulas to be slavishly repeated.” (pg. 82)

Practical Question – Does this mean that creeds should be re-written for a post-modern culture?
Lindbeck says ‘no.’ His reasons:
1. rare to achieve a creed that is accepted by the whole Church.
2. The creeds have “acquired liturgical and expressive functions.”
3. the recitation of the creeds is “a mighty symbol of the Church’s unity in space and time.”
4. “An updated version of the creed is less likely to invite believers to worship, proclaim and confess the faith in their language rather than in its own.” (pg. 81)

Case #2 Marian Dogmas (Immaculate Conception) – Reversibility//Irreversibility

Lindbeck argues that these two doctrines could not exist until other doctrines (i.e., Marian devotion and the doctrine of original sin) were well developed. After this long process, “Christians [Catholics] discovered that the grammar of faith required them to speak of the Mother of our Lord as sinless in a way concealed from the first generations.” (pg. 83).

A Catholic affirmation of the Immaculate Conception is necessary in order to ‘maintain her God-given and God-dependent freedom in saying ‘yes”.

So, if Marian dogma is built on a specific understanding of the theology of sin, what would happen if that understanding of the doctrine of sin changes? What if the theology of sin is temporary (culturally specific for a specific era only)? That would make it possible that the Marian dogma is reversible.

Hypothetical Ecumenical Discussion:
Evangelicals and Catholics get together to talk about Marian Dogmas. Using the ‘rule theory’ of irreversibility/reversibility how would this ecumenical dialogue proceed?
Rule Theory allows evangelicals to understand why the doctrine of IC is so important to the RC faith. It allows evangelicals to explore how to re-appropriate and appreciate the role of Mary in the biblical narrative without having to necessarily adopt the long standing traditions that led to the official IC doctrine.

But what does it do on the other side of the discussion? How would Catholics feel being told that this core doctrine is ‘reversible’, contingent on a theological tradition that may or may not continue to be accurate?

The Usefulness of Rule Theory:
So how useful is the rule theory, taxonomy of doctrine?

Positive: It ‘could make an important contribution if it encouraged the ecumenical dialogues to consider the status of doctrine in the respective churches, and also the status of particular doctrines.” (Wainwright, 130)

Negative: In reality “churches will continue to believe that doctrines make truth claims in a stronger sense than Lindbeck wants to allow. As Luther put it against Erasmus: ‘take away assertions, and you take away Christianity.” (Wainwright, 130).

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…