Tag Archives: George Lindbeck

Coordinating Language and Experience

How should we understand the relationship between the contents of human experience and their articulation in language? Must mastery of a language be taken for granted before any particular experience is even available as a possible object of consciousness? Or is it the case that the notion of a pre-linguistic experience is perfectly intelligible?

This first pass, from Joseph Sittler, draws a soft/moderate line. Sittler claims that language serves only as a sufficient condition for some experiences. Language can broaden our field of experience, but he remains silent as to whether some experiences might still remain available to us prior to our induction into language.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

from Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986), 84.

In contrast, this second remark, from George Lindbeck, takes a harder line. Here language is a necessary condition for any experience.

There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. …In short, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.

from The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster Press, 1984), 34, 37.

It’s the categorical character of Lindbeck’s claim that makes it such a provocative one. But even if we don’t follow him all the way down that road, and leave open the door to the possibility of there being some pre-conceptual thoughts/pre-linguistic experiences, it’s still the case that a greater linguistic repertoire does expand one’s intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities. That much should be uncontroversial. Either way, as Lindbeck has labored to demonstrate, this is a question of considerable theological consequence.

All that to say, the following clip offers a serviceable introduction to a version of this same question, though without an eye to its theological horizons. I wanted to share it here anyway because it’s still taking a crack at a question of interest across the humanities and beyond. It comes from the School of Life youtube channel. I won’t endorse all their productions, but I watched this one all the way through.


To take us back to theology. If this thesis has any traction, it should give us reason to reevaluate the (in)dispensability of our inherited theological lexicon whenever we come to asking whether any given term has lost all cultural currency, and therefore should be dropped from our active vocabulary, or whether it remains the best tool at our disposal for bringing to experience its intended referent. Can we really do without talk of, say, confession and absolution, or would our world be made hellishly smaller without them?

If this seems like a topic of interest to you, you can dive deeper into this line of inquiry with the help of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, (Belknap, 2016).

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

In defense of an irony

Owen Chadwick has a remark about John Henry Newman that’s left a lasting impression on me, namely, “Newman was an intellectual who distrusted the intellect.” There’s something about this characterization I find highly suggestive. It works not only as a description of how Newman proceeded in theology, but also as a proposal for how much weight we should accord certain kinds of considerations in our theological deliberations today. If you’re curious about what it might look like to take this lesson from Newman to heart, I’d suggest you need not look any farther than the work of Nicholas Lash, himself a Newman scholar. (I’ve tried gesturing to this same point before here). We’d be misinterpreting Newman and Lash if we take them to be advocating for a species of anti-intellectualism, some sort of principled refusal to submit their work to the review of their peers. Quite to the contrary, both theologians are examples of exceptional intellects at work on their craft. What they’re actually engaged in is an effort to overturn reigning prejudices favoring the primacy of the intellect in our understanding of religion.

Fortunately Newman and Lash aren’t alone in this endeavor. We can number other theologians among their ranks. Consider the following passage from Kathryn Tanner:

in the early 1980s […] the main worries of both theologians and philosophers of religion were methodological in nature: to justify religious thought, either by showing how it met the usual standards of meaning, intelligibility and truth endorsed by other disciplines, or (the preferred tactic of Frei and Lindbeck) by showing, with an ironic display of academic rigor, why no such justification was necessary. (Shaping a Theological Mind, Ed. Darren Marks, Ashgate, 2008, 115)

Tanner notes the irony of the rigor Frei and Lindbeck had to exert in order to make the case that university-wide criteria of accountability would be misplaced in theology. Whatever Tanner’s evaluation of their efforts, I’d say Frei and Lindbeck were on the right track. Even when (maybe even especially when) one is setting out to delimit the vocation of humanity’s rational powers, one must do so as thoughtfully, intelligently, as one can, if the critique is to have any chance of sticking. After all, it’s no disservice to reason to apprehend the limits of the intellect’s competencies by way of reasoned appraisal.

D. Stephen Long’s formulation of a live dispute on the question of theology and culture

[Kathryn] Tanner’s postmodern feminist theology is more of a “style” of theology than a distinct practice or culture. Christianity never has enough of its own substance such that it can be an “alternative society” or a distinct culture. […] But if postmodern feminist theology argues Christianity in no way functions as a culture with a logic intrinsic to its own language, it differs greatly from radical orthodoxy. Thus, Kathryn Tanner, one of the ablest proponents of postmodern feminist theology, finds that radical orthodoxy, like Lindbeck’s postliberal theology, assumes a too easily defined and stable Christian identity. Radical orthodox theologians would tend to find Tanner’s position too allied to certain trends in postmodernity that identify cultures only by what they oppose, that is to say, these postmodern accounts of culture tend to be “reactive.” Because they do not contain any inherent logic internal to their practices, they can only be identified by their adoption and opposition to the borrowed cultural products that can alone allow us to recognize them at all. This means that they are not only “mediating,” which is to say that they express theology by mediating it in and through available cultural forms, but they are also “accommodating,” they accommodate those cultural forms to such an extent that they finally subordinate the logic inherent in Christianity to the logic inherent in the secular rationality by which most accounts of culture are presented to us, especially as they are given to us by the social sciences.

from Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion, (JamesClarke&Co, 2008), 100-101.

George Lindbeck on religion

Religion cannot be pictured in the cognitivist (and voluntarist) manner as primarily a matter of deliberately choosing to believe or follow explicitly known propositions or directives. Rather, to become religious – is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a 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 that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. Sometimes explicitly formulated statements of the beliefs or behavioral norms of a religion may be helpful in the learning process, but by no means always. Ritual, prayer, and example are normally much more important.

George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, (The Westminster Press, 1984), 35.