Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lindbeck's "The Nature of Doctrine"

I have been reading The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck very closely for a final paper this term. There seems to be no shortage of questions that I'm asking of this text. I think this is due in part to the problematic implications of what is being said here from my own perspective. This semester, I took courses in Barth's Romans commentary, feminist/womanist theology, missional theology, and this postliberal reading course. Many of these questions are the direct product of personal questions that have surfaced through taking all of these courses at the same time. So in an attempt to think out loud, I figured I would write out a quote from Lindbeck and put some questions up that have been important to me in hopes that others might help me find answers (or move towards answers):

"The novelty of rule theory, we must next observe, is that it does not locate the abiding and doctrinally significant aspect of religion in propositionally formulated truths, much less in inner experiences, but in the story it tells and in the grammar that informs the way the story is told and used. From a cultural-linguistic perspective, it will be recalled, a religion is first of all a comprehensive interpretive medium or categorical framework within which one has certain kinds of experiences and makes certain kinds of affirmations. In the case of Christianity, the framework is supplied by the biblical narratives interrelated in certain specified ways (e.g., by Christ as center). ...

Even more than the grammar in grammar books, church doctrine is an inevitably imperfect and often misleading guide to the fundamental interconnections within a religion. In part, this is because every formulated rule has more exceptions than the grammarians and the theologians are aware of. Some rules may reflect temporary features of surface grammar or may even be arbitrary impositions ... The deep grammar of the language may escape detection. It may be impossible to find rules that show why some crucial usages are beautifully right and other dangerously wrong. The experts must on occasion bow to the superior wisdom of the competent speaker who simply knows that such and such is right or wrong even though it violates the rules they have formulated. Yet, despite these inadequacies, the guidance offered by the grammar or the doctrine of the textbooks may be indispensable, especially to those who are learning a language, to those who have not mastered it well, or to those who, for whatever reason, are in danger of corrupting it into meaninglessness" (80-82).

I am going to outline my questions and concerns as follows:

1. I want to be as fair and charitable as possible in my questions so I will make this crucial note: Lindbeck says repeatedly that this is a theory of religion rather than a theological account of Christianity. But given how many Christians find theological resources from Lindbeck's work, I think these are crucial questions to be asking in my own education for the sake of theological discourse today.

2. Is the "abiding and significant aspect of religion" located in "the story it tells" and in "the grammar" used? What would it mean to say that the essential meaning of the Christian faith lies in human stories and language? How can we ever be confident that these words and stories are not projections of the human subject or the collection of individuals in a community? How can it ever be proclaimed that the God preached in these stories and through our language is not a god made in human images if these stories and words are the primary essence of the Christian religion? Even more, is the confession that Jesus is Lord in the cross and resurrection a "religion" (i.e. human practices, systems of knowledge, etc.) of sorts or rather the confession through discipleship of unmitigated divine action for the sake of the world? It remains uncertain what is meant when we say the word "religion" in relation to the confession that Jesus is Lord. Religion seems to be, at least primarily, about humanity and not about God.

3. I am concerned more by what is not said than by what is said in these pages. There seems to be a lack of theological speech about the Gospel in that through the cross and resurrection, God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. And that same God is made known to the individual and the community of believers through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit by faith, not primarily through the inculturation of Christian symbols, language, and religious grammar. And the primary mode of "being a Christian" after the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not so much understood through the lens of discipleship in abandonment to the forgotten of this world, but rather as maintaining and perfecting the religious practices of one's particular ecclesial community. Thus, the direction is always back to the church or the religious community, rather than following as disciples of Jesus Christ into the world for the sake of the world, not the church. How does this not then ultimately become about the Church securing power and visibility in the world by being over and against the world?

4. I remain concerned regarding the notion of grammar, rules, and who is deemed as the "experts" or those who are "competent" within the religious community. It seems that within the history of the Christian church, those who were such experts and competent learners in the religious language of the day were usually those with power who oppressed and marginalized those who were not male and white. For me, this is fundamentally an issue of power and who gets to speak and who doesn't. Even more, what does this mean for the cause of mission? Must those who come to confess the lordship of Christ be skilled and perfected in the language of grammar before they can be heard? And since Lindbeck wants to say that the categorical framework for the Christian faith is the biblical narratives, what do we do with those narratives that might actually lead to justifying the oppression and subjugation of those who don't have power?

5. Finally, as I read Barth's Romerbrief again this semester, I wondered what it means to take these words seriously and not as sheer reactionary hyperbole:
"To suppose that a direct road leads from art, or morals, or science, or even from religion, to God is sentimental, liberal self-deception. Such roads lead directly to the Church, to Churches, and to all kinds of religious communities. ... Only when the end of the blind alley of ecclesiastical humanity has been reached is it possible to raise radically and seriously the problem of God" (Romans, 337).
I take Barth's point to be that this sort of rule theory of religion fails to account for the utter crisis that humanity finds itself in that there is no point from humanity or no human possibility to reach God that can be created through the human side. And the climax of such human possibilities is manifested in the church and ecclesiastical communities. Can this theory of religion genuinely account for not only this crisis of humanity in relation to the Otherness of God, but also the radical in-breaking of revelation that occurs in the cross and resurrection? Does the rule theory account for the reality that we are continually in this state of helplessness since revelation does not occur once but must happen again and again? Is the emphasis upon the visible practices of the ecclesial community the practical manifestation of lacking such expectancy for God to continue to act in the world?


Rod said...

I think number four hits the hammer on the nail for me. Enjoyed this post.

Gilgoredh said...

For Barth, would God's revelation in history not also establish the event(and therefore story, framework, grammar, and also rule (of faith)) by which we know who God is and what he intends for the World? I think (an older, more mature, and less argumentative) Barth would allow for this rule theory in so far as it is God that has revealed and established (and continues to revise) this grammar which guides the Church in its thinking and speaking. Doctrine as grammar seems to simply be a sociological (and functional)exploration of doctrine rather than a theological one.

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