Part 1

I like reading Linbeck.* I used to say that I love Lindbeck but I ran into two snags:

  •  I had no idea what people did with Lindbeck. I did not realize that it often led to retreat into a neo-Catholic expression.
  • I did not (and still do not) fully understand that there is some inherent wrinkle in his idea that language creates our religious experience that implies a one-way limitation of language – not allowing our experience to change language and that somehow limits God. Like I said, it is a philosophical wrinkle that is a bit technical for me.

Having said all that … 

What I am a big fan of is his critique of language. He has a riveting analysis of the way that religious language functions in our communities and personal experiences.  I was prone to like Lindbeck because of my deep appreciation for Nancey Murphy’s book “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”. I was primed for what Linbeck brings to the table.

To become religious–no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent–is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with the religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor is that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. p. 35

Then I found out that saying you appreciate the post-Liberal approach is like saying you cheer for the New York Yankees in Boston. I get the concern with the descendants of Lindbeck’s work … but I am still suspicious that he is right about how language works in our faith communities.

Fast Forward: I was reading some stuff to get ready for the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation and I stumbled onto a section of Whitehead’s thoughts on religious language.** I got to a section called “Doctrine and History”. After dealing with the fact that language does not have a one-to-one correlation and that all language thus requires interpretation, the author explains:

“The language of a tradition and the central doctrines that reflect and support that language are the prime turbulence of the particular mode of existence characterizing that tradition. Furthermore, as human existence is shaped in specialized ways during the course of history, experiences occur that are not possible to persons shaped by other traditions.”

I resonate with the idea that a person is shaped by the language one is groomed and conditioned by – and that would both empower and naturally shape the experiences that one has and the interpretation of those experiences … even (or especially) the religious experiences.

It just makes sense that because religious in a communal endeavor – one is always a part of a community that has a tradition and set of practices/beliefs – that it determines, at some level, both the types of experiences one has , can have and how one translates or interprets those experiences.

 This is a vital assertion for the 21st century! We no longer live in the monopoly of Christendom or the frameworks of the Colonial Era where one tradition imported and imposed foreign expectations and alien interpretations on another.

With works like “The invention of world religions” by Masuzawa  and “God is not One” by Prothero (among many others) we are entering a time in world history (and thus church history) where we need to come to terms with two things that both Lindbeck and Whitehead are pointing out:

  • Language is both inherited and powerful in shaping our experiences and subsequent interpretations of those experiences.
  • Language used in doctrines like ‘the Church’ and ‘Eucharist’ actually facilitate the ability to have certain experiences that are simply not available to those outside the community or language game. Practices like Yoga or Ramadan would be the same for those in different traditions. That is why North American Christians who do yoga are not having the same experience as those in India.

We live in an era where the realities of inter-religious education, cross-denominational communication and trans-national citizenship are going to challenge all of our inherited traditions and conceptual frameworks.

If we are unwilling to do so and insist on simply repeating the same rote answers week after week under the misguided impression that we are being faithful to the tradition … we are in danger of an irrelevance that leads not only to extinction but ultimately failure to accomplish our great commission.



* George Lindbeck wrote “The Nature of Doctrine” and along with Hans Frei (author of “Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative”) is credited with starting the Yale School of thought. One of the most famous proponents of which is Stanley Hauerwas famous for his books like  “Peaceable Kingdom” , “Resident Aliens” as well as other things.


** Alfred North Whitehead was a 20th century philosopher who is credited for helping to come up with what became Process-Relational thought.