I’m participating in a reading group that is looking over George Lindbeck’s extrememly important work, The Nature of Doctrine. We’ve only met once so far, but the discussion is already interesting.

For those unfamiliar with Lindbeck’s work, he is one of the so-called fathers of postliberalism. Postliberalism, in the basic sense argued for in Lindbeck’s book, calls for a third way of giving an account of religion and doctrine (the material of religion, if you will). As opposed to the cognitive/propositional theory – that religion and doctrine are merely a set of propositions to which people ascent or subscribe; and opposed to the experiential/expressive theory – that religion and doctrine are merely a set of symbols or expressions of an inner experience; the cultural/linguistic approach considers religion and doctrine in terms of a culture or language in which rules and regulations exists that then play out in practice. Just as a grammar in language, life in a culture is defined by certain rules and norms. This is not to say that propositions and beliefs are absent; but it is to say that propositions are not just there to be subscribed to, rather they actually have some significance for life and imply therefore a certain form of life. This is similiar to Wittgenstein’s idea of a “language game.” It is also not to say that experience is ignored; rather, experience is taken up into the bigger picture of interpretation within a cultural framework, articulated by a culture’s shared language.

There is a certain difficulty in being fully able to grasp what Lindbeck is up to (even still, at times, for this reader of Lindbeck). While Lindbeck is in a very real sense simply offering a description of the way things actually exist, or pragmatically speaking, of how we actually think and therefore do something, his theory is challenging and at times somewhat incomprehensible to readers and theologians who live, breathe, and do theology from within one of the other frameworks (cognitive/propositional; experiential/expressive). As I have heard the analogy used, it is as if we as readers are trying to receive a fax from Lindbeck without actually possessing a fax machine by which to translate the incoming information into something we can comprehend. In other words, to use the idea discussed by Thomas Kuhn (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to begin with) and Donald Davidson (see his “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in his Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation), we lack the conceptual framework by which to grasp Lindbeck’s theory.

Strangely enough, Lindbeck’s theory can account for this very lack of understanding on the part of some readers. As individuals who live within a cultural/linguistic situation, or in other words, within a particular culture formed, comprehended by, and articulated through a particular language (with all the possible concepts we as individuals happen to possess at a given time), we lack the concepts to fully grasp what he’s “up to.”

However, we get glimpses of it in our reflection on parts of our thinking. For example, one of the members of the group teaches hermeneutics at a theological school. It just so happens that the very framework he uses to actually do hermeneutics and therefore also to teach it, mirrors exactly the ideas put forth in Lindbeck’s cultural/linguistic theory of religion. As opposed to the cognitive/proposition approach that generally assumes an objective, correct, unbiased interpretation is available to all readers of Scripture by following the “right” method, the hermeneutics teacher and his materials recognize the phenomenon that interpretation occurs within interpretive communities, and thus, interpretation is always inconclusive, provisional, and critical. This hermeneutics also stands in clear opposition to an experiential/expressive model which might account for interpretation as based singularly on the experience of certain thoughts and feelings as they strike the reader in the act of reading, rendering a significantly wider field of possible interpretations. (Yet again, Lindbeck’s theory offers a criticism of this view, noting that the field of interpretation could never be infinite or even close to infinite, for interpretation is always already happening from within a cultural framework created by the use of a particular language).

What has been interesting for this reader of Lindbeck, other postliberals, and a field which I see as significant and closely related, pragmatism, has been the experience of expanding my conceptual framework from within my cultural situation to be able to more clearly grasp what Lindbeck’s theory actually puts forth. But this has only happened when I have found Lindbeck’s theory accurately accounting for my actual, embodied experience. Like pragmatism, it truly is an account of how I think and how I do theology, and everything else in life (that is, praxis and how I operate or get-along-in-the-world). In that sense, Lindbeck’s work has been influential in my articulation of what it means to Live Theology.

As I continue to reflect on Lindbeck’s account of my own experience of doing theology, and even more widely, of simply living (or better, being human), is seems his offering is as much a phenomenology with an accompanied anthropology. He is describing a phenomenon – that of religion –  and offering an account of what it means to be human (be it as it may, in a very narrow sense, and always implicit) simply in his pragmatic accounting for how we think and live.

For those of us who are still finding our way through a postliberal theory of religion, phenomenologically speaking, it might be helpful to see ourselves as always “in-between.” We’re between a former concept and the emerging discovered concept (which is better than saying a “new” concept, because linguistically, it had to have already been there – nevertheless is still “feels” new). But even more important it seems, we’re always in-dwelling this discovered concept, becoming more in-timately aware of it, just as while we are learning a language, we are not totally aware of what is happening to us, or how we know grammatically “what to do”. As Edward S. Casey has recently said, “At stake here is a sense of interiority or inwardness, not of persons but of a given place: their domestic interior, which we can know only from within by residing there for some significant stretch of time.”

While none of us may ever fully understand what we might be studying at any given moment, we may often have the intuition that what we’re studying is right. Those are the times (and rather than moments, it’s better to think here of long periods of mulling-it-over), it seems to me, that are appropriately defined using the phrase from Augustine, then Anselm, and still others: fides quarens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding.” I live there most of the time.