Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age by George A. Lindbeck

In a footnote to his book, Renewing the Center, Stanley Grenz suggests that the paradigm for doing theology in a postmodern context may be found in Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology and George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. I loved Grenz's book, so I bought and read these other two when I finished it. Both were tough. Both were over my head. Both were good. (Pannenberg's Systematic Theology was the best systematic theology I have read.) As I "review" Lindbeck’s book, keep in mind that systematic theology is not my specialty and that I am probably not qualified to critique Lindbeck's thoughts. (But that's what blogs are about, right? They're commentary by the non-specialist.) :)

In The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck seeks to describe a method for "doing theology" in a postliberal age. His primary concern is ecumenicism. Is there any way that competing faiths can have meaningful dialogue in a pluralistic culture? To find out, he describes and critiques three ways of "doing theology," the pre-modern propositional model, the modern experiential-expressive model, and his own postmodern cultural-linguistic model. After showing why he thinks that the cultural-linguistic model is superior, he then moves to test whether it is applicable to modern ecumenical discussions.

Lindbeck starts by defining the different methods of "doing theology" have developed over time. In the pre-modern period, doctrine was propositional in nature. Doctrines spoke of reality and were packaged in propositions. I don't need to rehash the collapse of this method.

The modern way of "doing theology" is the experiential-expressive model. In this model, there is one true religion of which all world religions are only a shadow. Thus, none of the religions are "true," but they all have some "truth" to them. They all essentially say the same thing, just in different ways. Thus, the "doctrines" of a particular religion don't describe reality, but the particular religion's experience of reality. The problem of this view is that all religions are not saying the same thing. Often they are saying very different things, even when they address similar topics. Lindbeck points out that just because two religions both talk about "God" doesn't mean that they are saying the same thing about God. After all, the fact that there is a word for "God" both in English and Chinese does not make those two languages the same. By claiming that all religions agree, the modernist liberal sets himself over all of the religions in judgment of them. This is inappropriate.

Lindbeck prefers a model he calls cultural-linguistic. In this model, religions are like languages and cultures. They are not absolute, and they are not all saying the same thing. Just like a language is guided by rules of grammar (rules that don't apply in other languages), so also religions are guided by their doctrines. Similarly, cultures have mores that shape their cultural identity, so also religions have their doctrines that shape their identities.

There are some strengths and weaknesses to Lindbeck's ideas. First, Lindbeck is right to point out that doctrines aren't important merely for their propositions, but for their role in the life of faith. The doctrine "Jesus is Lord" has no meaning unless it affects my life--unless I live like He is Lord. The doctrine of spiritual presence in communion has no meaning outside of the religious significance it has when I partake. Doctrines become meaningful when they affect spiritual practice. In that sense, they are more like rules than propositions.

Second, his theory fits the reality in which we find ourselves. In that sense--it's practical. In my circles, we tend to think of doctrine as propositions about reality. Where does that get us in a post-Christian culture? If I walk up to a guy on the street and say, "Jesus is Lord," he's not going to say, "Thank you for telling me, I'll start serving him right away." He'll probably say something like, "That's fine and nice for you, but I'm not interested in your Lord." The fact that our culture sees doctrines as rules for a particular community (thus, "that' fine and nice for you"), suggests that we should learn to do the same to communicate to them.

Interestingly enough, in the last few pages of the book, Lindbeck asks the question of how relevant his ideas are to faiths that see "evangelism" as a primary element of their faith. (These faiths believe that their "rules" are applicable to those outside of the faith.) He writes about the difference between the way the catholic church (the early church, not the Roman Catholic Church) approached the pagans and the way the Gnostics approached them. The Gnostics "changed the rules" to make them more appealing to their pagan neighbors. The catholic church continued to teach their rules to those who lived by other rules. Lindbeck writes:

"Pagan converts to the catholic mainstream 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. The reasons for attraction ranged from the noble to the ignoble and were as diverse as the individuals involved; but for whatever motives, they submitted themselves to prolonged catechetical instruction in which the practiced new modes of behavior and learned the stories of Israel and their fulfillment in Christ" (George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984], 132).

I think Lindbeck is on to something. Regardless of how we see our doctrine (generally as universally valid propositions), the world sees them as rules relevant to us only. I think that this is okay. We should preach them as such. We have to face the fact that our culture is post-Christian and that we can't just say, "The Bible says such-and-such" and expect people to listen up. We have to impress them with our lives so that they choose to submit to the faith. Then the doctrines become relevant to them.

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