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.