Lindbeck & cultural-linguistic doctrine

I picked up a copy of George Lindbeck‘s The Nature of Doctrine last night. The book has hovered in the background of much I have read over the last decade. Lindbeck and Hans Frei have had a huge part in shaping what is sometimes called post-liberal theology. If you have read Stanley Hauerwas or Will Willimon, you’ve been exposed to their ideas.

The first thing that surprised me by the book was that it was written to tackle problems that arise in ecumenical discussions about doctrinal differences between churches. Lindbeck was trying to work out a way that churches could come to agree on doctrinal positions without actually having to abandon what they espouse. So at its core, Linbeck’s ideas are trying to solve ecumenical problems — as opposed, for instance, to help the church better articulate the gospel to outsiders.

Lindbeck sees three different ways to thinking about doctrine. Cognitive-propositional approaches see doctrine as making truth claims about reality that either are or are not true. Lindbeck writes that such an approach has no credence with educated people — like himself — since Immanuel Kant and the scientific revolution. The current dominant mode of thinking about doctrine, Lindbeck argues, is experiential-expressivism, which sees doctrine as an statement derived from internal feelings, attitudes, and spiritual experiences. Doctrines are not truth statements. They are an attempt to put into words what we know to be true based on inner experience. And importantly, those inner experiences can be shared by people of different religions even though they get put into doctrine in ways that contradict each other.

Lindbeck argues for a third view of doctrine, which he calls the cultural-linguistic approach. He carries this approach over from secular humanities. In this approach, religions are understood as languages or cultures and doctrine is best understood as a set of rules or regulations that allow or forbid certain truth claims and practices. Doctrine does not claim to be truth claims about an independent reality. Neither does it claim to be the expression of a universal or shared human experience. Instead, it is like the rules of grammar and syntax of a language.

I’ve only just started the book, so I am still trying to understand myself what he means — and how reading him can help me understand the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and other contemporary writers.

I’d be curious to learn of your reactions to or thoughts about Lindbeck and his project.

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5 thoughts on “Lindbeck & cultural-linguistic doctrine

  1. John, at Duke the postliberal school is very prominent, and I confess to be a convert. I see his three ways as corresponding roughly to fundamentalist, liberal, and (of course) postliberal or narrative forms of theology. I see it as a philosophical background to much of what Hauerwas and others are doing; the insistence on language as the medium of truth-telling – rather than what we can “prove” (how do you prove Christian doctrines?) or what we know in our hearts (how does anyone ever look inside and come up with the Trinity?), is heavily influenced from Wittgenstein and the postmodern project generally. In biblical studies it helps us take the bible – especially its narrative – seriously without being literalists. There is also a heavily Barthian influence on the postliberal school (Barth, too, was very “biblical” and Christocentric while rejecting both fundamentalism and liberalism. I just blogged about a book by William Placher – another of the postliberals. Check out his Unapologetic Theology or The Triune God to see postliberal theology in action.

    1. Thank you for the suggestions on the books. Never enough of those.

      I’m wary of any system that describes basically everyone prior to 1700 as a fundamentalist. But I have a lot more reading to do to come to grips with Lindbeck.

      I predict I will be troubled by the linguistic-cultural description because at some point he’s going to suggest that those without the ability to master the linguistic-cultural grammar of the religion are not really insiders to it. But we will see.

  2. Though I can share with Lindbeck many of his critiques of the other two camps he identifies, I get squeamish with pieces of his proposal. My concern with Lindbeck is when he says, “The function of church doctrines that becomes most prominent in this perspective is their use, not as expressive symbols or as truth claims, but as communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action” (Nature of Doctrine, 18). He goes on to draw the analogy of people driving on the right side of the road in the US and on the left in Britain. Both rules are essential within their particular context, but actually contradicted when placed in a different context.

    I haven’t found anything Lindbeck says elsewhere to balance this. I’m looking for him to somewhere go beyond the bubble of a single community to say that certain beliefs they hold are not just important to them, but may actually be statements that describe truth for all. Does he say anything like this anywhere? I’d love to see it, because I love the rest of his work, but struggle with this one piece being missing.

    So for instance, I don’t think it’s sufficient, upon learning that someone is a Muslim, to say that it’s okay – they just drive on the left side and I drive on the right side. This is where I think that analogy fails. These aren’t equal options, just depending on someone’s context. I believe our Christian narrative more accurately describes the Triune God, and therefore, more accurately forms us as disciples of God.

    1. I need to read him more — and probably re-read him — to have much of response. He does write about cultural-linguistic approaches allowing for truth claims, but I’ve not yet seen how that works out for him.

      Among the other questions I have is how he works out the way people navigate when they live in more than one cultural-linguistic system. Reading Hauerwas — who is not just a Lindbeckian, I know — I always feel as if his actual ethics work only if you are a Mennonite, a clergy member, or a professor at a seminary.

  3. The postliberal approach makes a lot more sense if you read people who develop his work in some constructive directions. The Nature of Doctrine is in some ways a treatise on theological epistemology, but you don’t get a sense of what that theology looks like. Placher or others in the school are helpful to read to get a fuller sense; the branches are much easier to grasp than the roots in this case.

    Your instincts are right about Hauerwas; there is no “church of Hauerwas” except in his writings. I was once advised to read Willimon, because Willimon at least has to work out his ethics in a flesh-and-blood church. He is helpful, though, in aiding protestants to reclaim a sense of ecclesiology. I think he would agree that all of us live within more than one cultural-linguistic system (or narrative), but he would at least want Christians to see Christ as our primary allegiance and the church as our primary community (instead of nation or work or family).

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