Ben Kickert. Review of George A Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).
In 1984 George A. Lindbeck presented a new approach to viewing religion and doctrine in his book The Nature of Doctrine. As the subtitled indicates, it was his desire to provide a "framework for discussion" (10) that was compatible with the emerging postliberal movement. What he came up with is non-theological approach that advocates a cultural-linguistic view of religion and a rules-based understanding of doctrine. He then evaluates his proposal in light of various test cases. This review will assess the usefulness of this approach and evaluate the book as a whole.
The author makes his personal religious convictions clear. He is a Christian, with a great interest in unity in the midst of diversity (7-8). He wants to be able to adequately address not only divergent beliefs, but the dynamic nature of beliefs (9). In order to do this, he calls for a paradigm shift on behalf of theologians and students of religion (8). Lindbeck admits the approach he lays out is mostly theoretical, but invites others to evaluate it (11). The book is laid out in 6 chapters. The first serves as an introduction while chapters 2-3 address the cultural-linguistic approach. Chapters 4-5 deal with rules theory of doctrine while chapter 6 outlines a larger theological framework.
In his introductory chapter, Lindbeck critiques the approaches to religion that were dominant in his day. He describes two major methods: the cognitive and the experiential-expressive. The former focuses on truth claims as the primary determinate of religion while the later uses experiences. The author also looks at a third approach that seeks to synthesize these two. In light of his goal, the author rejects these and turns instead to an understanding that views religion in terms similar to culture or language. He expands this discussion in chapter 2 and argues for the superiority of a cultural-linguistic approach. The non-theological framework he presents contends that like culture "religions produce experience" (33) rather than being the explainer of experience. Furthermore, like language, it must be learned and interiorized; only then can a person full participate through expression and experience (35-37). This is a complete reversal of the experiential-expressive model. Chapter 4 evaluates whether this non-theological theory of religion can be religiously useful by looking at the concept of superiority of religions, their interrelationship, salvation for non-adherents and the overarching concepts of religious truth. The author concludes a superior religion is categorically true, rightly utilized, and corresponds to ultimate reality (52). From here religions can regard themselves as different without judging superiority. In regards to the salvation question, Lindbeck take a universalist approach.
Chapter 4 moves to the issue of doctrine within religions. It is here the author lays out his approach. He contends, "a rule theory not only is doctrinally possible but has advantages over other positions" (73). The result is a view of doctrine that operates like grammatical rules rather than absolute faith statements. This allows for differences within religions and between religions to stand without the need to reconcile them. This theory is tested in chapter 5 by evaluating three contentious issues: Christology, Mariology and Infallibility. He concludes what matters is not conclusions, but rather what lies behind them; this provides reconcilement for the first two issues, but not the later. For the author, a rules based approach to doctrine is best utilized in relation to behavioral requirements.
The final chapter of this book serves to place cultural-linguistic theory and a rules-based approach to doctrine within the larger framework by evaluating their implications. These views push for an intra-systemic (or intra-textual) approach to meaning wherein the religion gives meaning rather than describes meaning. Within this system, religious text are formative within the communities that adapt them. Religions and sacred texts hold the power to shape communities. This, the author concludes, is a necessary part of the wider society and culture. Lindbeck is essentially arguing for a relativistic view of religions while advocating religious communities resist relativism so they can teach the culture and language of religion. His ultimate conclusion is that the theories he has presented in his book are valuable, but in the end each religion must be true to its roots and message.
In evaluating Lindbeck's proposal, the first issue that must be considered is his approach. He is clear in pointing out that his theory is non-theological. As such, his primary purpose is not to provide a tool for Christians to evaluate their belief systems. Instead, it is his desire to offer a theory of religion that allows an observer to judge and understand a system of beliefs entirely on their own merit. Therefore, before any judgment can be made on conclusions, this method should be evaluated. Since the author is clearly writing from a Christian perspective, one could expect a theory that supports the claims of orthodox Christianity. This book does not set, nor achieve this goal. Lindbeck is much more concerned about unity than about orthodoxy. However, from a non-theistic approach to understanding religion, the approach the author employs is exceedingly useful and relevant.
The primary advantage of Lindbeck's approach to religion lies in its ability to study and evaluate religions intra-systemically without having to evaluate ontological correctness. In effect, each religion can stand alone and be evaluated on it own merits. This is extremely helpful when viewing faith systems objectively, especially from an anthropological viewpoint. In addition to providing a non-judgmental way to evaluate religions, the cultural-linguistic articulated in this book provides fresh insight and perspective on the role religion plays in communal formation and spiritual development. It is certainly important to ask questions about how experiences can be explained through religion, but just as important is an understanding of how religions shapes and informs those experiences. This framework allows individuals to better appreciate the contributions and unique features of a religion. Additionally, the rules based approach to doctrine allows for the dynamicity apparent in most religions. Rather than seek to reconcile transitions, Lindbeck's approach embraces these.
The Nature of Doctrine is not without its limits and shortcomings. In emphasizing ecumenical and interfaith unity, the book has lost some of its value for evaluating and informing traditional, orthodox theologies. For instance, the universalism he argues for is outside the scope of orthodoxy for many evangelical traditions. It could be argued that Lindbeck misses the goal of being religiously useful. This is perhaps most apparent in the concluding chapter; here the author admits his framework explains the assimilation process, but does little to convince those who "share in the intellectual high cultural" (124). In effect, he is concluding cultural-linguistic theory and rules theory of doctrine can explain religions, but may not bolster them. A final shortcoming of the books is one readily admitted to by the author. At the time of it's writing the approach presented was largely untested and thus relied heavily on theory. It is almost as if Lindbeck was throwing out an idea for others to try. Considering the brevity of the book, it seems a more thorough treatment would have possible and useful.
The contributions of Lindbeck cannot be overlooked and should be applauded. The ideas outlined in the pages of this book continue to reverberate 24 years later. The lens the author provides his readers is innovative and practical; however, its practicality is primarily found in external evaluations of religion. One could assume that Lindbeck expected his theories to have been accepted or rejected by this point in history. However, the tension still remains between modern (especially evangelical) thinkers and postmoderns (or postliberals as Lindbeck calls them). Where ever a person falls on that continuum, they would be well served to join the discussion spurred by this book. We may not agree, but hopefully we can better understand each other.