Limits in (religious) Language

I just finished my semester this past week and was going through my desktop cleaning up all the icons when I discovered this post and realized that I had put it up over here yet.
It was originally posted at HBC

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

  1. I didn’t realize what people did with Lindbeck. I did not know that it often led to retreat into a neo-Catholic expression.
  2. There is some philosophical wrinkle that I don’t fully understand about why the language that creates our religious experience implies a one-way limitation of language -it is a bit technical for me but I wanted to acknowledge it because it eventually becomes a real sticking point.

Having said that …

What I am a big fan of is Lindbeck’s critique of Language. He has a riveting analysis of the way that religious language functions in our communities and personal experiences.  I was susceptible to liking Lindbeck because of my deep appreciation for Nancey Murphy’s book “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”. I was primed for what Lindbeck 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 Lindbeck’s (post-Liberal) approach is like saying you cheer for the New York Yankees in Boston. I understand 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 this past January 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 Tomoko Masuzawa and “God is not One” by Stephen 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 have 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” 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.

5 thoughts on “Limits in (religious) Language

  1. Sounds to me like you’ve stumbled onto theopoetics via the technical route! I’ll drop some taste-y quote goodness related below, and heartily agree with your conclusions!

    It is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered. It is here that culture and history are broken, and here that the church is polarized. Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown and new-name the creatures.
    —Amos Niven Wilder, Theopoetic

    Poets write in the line of prophecy, and their work teaches us how to live. The language of poetry, when properly absorbed, becomes part of our private vocabulary, our way of moving through the world.
    —Jay Parini, Why Poetry Matters

    Language under the pressure of divine weight always crumbles. Theological writing, theopoetics as theological writing, must come to grips with the reality that it is always lo(o)sing its grip, always arriving on the scene too late, in the aftermath of an event that always — at least partially —withdraws into the future, into the dark abyss of time itself. As such theology cum theopoetics is, I think, in the best position to face the enduring phenomenological aporia: that we never have clear, pristine access to the things themselves.
    —Blake Huggins, “Writing on the Boundary Line”

  2. But the whole problem of “doing” poetics is you cannot–eh? Reading an analysis of say Keats’ Odes or the Psalms is not the same experience as READING or experiencing the Ode or the Psalm, and this is always a problem, or a pleasure. What would Kierkegaard say about all this?

    • Just for clarification – I am not interested in just doing poetics for fun (as intriguing as that seems). I am in the field of Practical Theology and my interest is in the formation of character and the way that language functions in our communities.

      This is not merely entertainment of being clever … not does it happen in a vacuum. Just thought I should say where I was coming from -Bo

  3. I think, if we’re careful, we can find surprising congruence with tradition. True, our language was here before us (although we’ve augmented it some) – we are ‘thrown’ into this embeddedness (as the least of what Heidegger might say) and must find the best way to practice our faith through the often ill-formed tools our words can be. We’d do well to acknowledge this humbly, seek to reinterpret the struggles of tradition (such as the apophatic movements within it), and finally, not try so hard to define what the right experience is as we try to follow that which was most probably intended by our Lord and attempted throughout history by faithful communities. Ours may speak with different words, but the language of action ought to mean we can at least recognize a few of the dance steps.

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