Anguagelay Amesgay (Languages of God, Part IV)

The previous post in this series talked about typology. One typological system that’s been influential in theological circles over the past few decades has been George Lindbeck’s model of how doctrine and dogma function (see The Nature of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).). This typology distinguishes communities based on the attitudes of adherents of a faith towards its prescriptive rules:

  • Cognitive / Propositional, which takes doctrines to be formal, objective truth claims. This is an intellectual approach and lies behind the traditional concepts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy;
  • Experiential-Expressive, which takes doctrines to be symbols that stand in for feelings or ineffable experiences. This is a more aesthetic approach and was particularly well-suited to explaining the liberal theology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and
  • Cultural-Linguistic: which takes doctrines to be the shared rules of engagement within a community. This approach is linguistic and recognizes that the words and phrases we use to talk about anything have meaning because they serve a function within our particular community.

The problem with the first two approaches, in Lindbeck’s view, is that they make doctrinal reconciliation between communities difficult. In the first approach, the words themselves matter so much that dialogue ends up becoming either/or debate. There can be no reconciliation without one side capitulating. In the second, the words are essentially meaningless, which renders the idea of reconciliation irrelevant. And so, Lindbeck proposes that a cultural-linguistic approach to doctrine is the most helpful: it allows doctrines to have meaning without precluding the possibility of reconciliation. (And indeed, it was through this sort of approach that the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches were able to agree that, despite 1500 years of schism, they do in fact share the same theology about the two natures of Christ: While they were not able to accept each other’s formulas, they were able to agree that the differences between them served to promote and protect one aspect of that shared truth.)

The most common metaphor used to describe this approach is the language game, a manipulation of a language that produces gibberish to outside ears, but is comprehensible and predictable to those who know the rules. (Probably the most common English example is pig Latin, which moves a word’s initial consonant to the end and then adds ‘ay’, so ‘pig Latin’ becomes igpay atinlay.) Speaking in this way may not work in normal speech, but within its own parameters, it is perfectly grammatical. For Lindbeck, doctrines function the same way: it’s less a matter of them being right or wrong than it is of recognizing what they do and how they cohere within the system to which they belong. 

The idea of looking at doctrine as a language game has been very helpful as I’ve navigated the twisting path of my spiritual journey. Over the course of my adult life I have spent time learning and expressing my faith in very different theological contexts — conservative Anglicanism,  evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, progressive Christianity, with some time as a vaguely spiritual None in between — and so, I’ve become adept at expressing what I believe, value, trust, and seek to live out in different ways, using the language and understanding of these different communities. 

Once you know how different communities talk, how their language game functions, it’s easier to understand them and to make yourself understood. It’s helpful whether we’re talking about common ways of expressing yourself, like the famous evangelical question “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” (which confounds faithful Christians from other traditions), more technical theological vocabulary, such as how a community uses the word ‘salvation’, or the meaning of ritual actions, such as kissing an icon or relic. 

This is helpful in a number of ways. First, it has allowed me to navigate what would otherwise be a confusing array of theological positions and allows me to have meaningful conversation with more people. Second, it has helped me develop an appreciation for the breadth of the Christian tradition, which stabilizes my faith and creates unexpected connections with people outside the tradition. For example, understanding logos theology, rooted in the Gospel according to John but more fully developed in the Eastern Church, has created space for a lot of meaningful conversation with Nones, who largely share its intuitions about the wisdom and interconnectedness of all things. Third, taking doctrines to function as language games has allowed for more creativity in thought and practice. Different traditions become like different suits that I can put on in order to most appropriately express myself in different situations. The intellectual flexibility this promotes has been exceedingly helpful, not only for understanding my fellow Christians but also those who practice other religions — a needful tool for living life in a diverse society. (I’ll say more about the strengths and limitations of using the language game analogy with other religions in the next post in the series.)

Like any metaphor, I think this one has its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve focused on the strengths in this post, however it’s important for me to note a couple of its weaknesses. First, in the wrong hands it can actually make a faith tradition more insular rather than less. For example, about twenty years ago or so, a group of Anglican theologians essentially argued that if Christianity is a language game, then it plays by its own rules and should therefore be unintelligible to outsiders and so it doesn’t need to respond to any critiques from outside the faith. Used in this way, the metaphor reinforced the differences between religious traditions instead of bridging them. If that’s the goal, then, well, that’s a choice; but to me this is the worst kind of postmodernism, a theology of retreat instead of engagement.

Equally troubling for me, the opposite postmodern extreme can also happen: if doctrinal systems are simply suits we can take on and off, it can undermine their importance just as much as the experiential-expressive model does. There comes a point when we have to ask What is it I really believe? What am I going to stand for? What am I willing to die for? 

And so, while I think the language game metaphor is helpful, and I’m glad my faith journey has taught me the skill of trying on different systems for size, at the end of the day it is still a metaphor. Use it, have fun with it, but use it wisely, and with prayer.

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