Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Cultural-Linguistic

It's funny how one goes back to some books, even those disagreed with. Some clear books can be summarised in a few sentences. One such is the second, but most noticed, standard book on postliberal religion and theology, that of the Yale School, and it is George A. Lindbeck's (1984) The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age (London: SPCK). It explains the basis of much that passes for conservative postmodern theology these days.

It gives three bases for doing theology. One is propositional, that is foundational, which is that knowledge is secured in Truth. Much theology has claimed that. Another is experiential-expressive, that is theology which in liberal terms has truth in terms of translation into personal experience. The theology the book proposes is non-foundational so called cultural-linguistic. In Christian terms it is an ecumenical average (my word) that acts as a standard of role performance. The language is that of inherited doctrine and group identity by performing that.

The book is odd because it doesn't think its own manifesto will come about. As the propositional basis of Christianity slips away - because of the secular narratives that dominate intellectual and common practical thought - the book suggests that the experiential-expressive will retain the upper hand. It says, for example:

How, as modern Christians put it, does one preach the gospel in a dechristianized world? Those for whom this problem is theologically primary regularly become liberal foundationalists. The first task of the theologian, they argue, is to identify the modern questions that must be addressed, and then to translate the gospel answers into a currently understandable conceptuality. If this is not done, the message will fall on deaf ears inside as well as outside the church; and unless postliberal theology has some way of meeting this need, it will be judged faithless and inapplicable as well as unintelligible by the religious community.

The postliberal method of dealing with this problem is bound to be unpopular among those chiefly concerned to maintain or increase the stock or membership and influence of the church... (page 132)

The point is to maintain the teaching, the ecumenical catechism. This author dislikes the liberal route, because the symbols of Christianity can go on to mean anything of experience, whereas the propositional route no longer holds.

But why then call it cultural-linguistic? What is cultural about it - other than to freeze something of a past culture? If it is revelation, then it is foundational at least in revelation. This is what the Radical Orthodox do: they push their own postmodern bubble into a premodern Christendom.

The analysis of this book goes on:

Western culture is now at an intermediate stage, however, where socialization is ineefective, catechesis impossible, and translation a tempting alternative. The biblical heritage continues to be powerfully present in latent and detextualized forms that immunize against catechesis but invite redescription. There is often enough Christian substance to make redescriptions meaningful. (page 133)

So, presumably, the author is waiting for a time when there is no cultural Christian residue in order that the frozen beliefs can be left frozen or as nothing. The present situation even prevents teaching clear Christian beliefs to the children of churchgoers, so powerful is the culture and the residue left. The process goes on, so:

When or if dechristianization reduces Christians to a small minority, they will need for the sake of survival to form communities that strive without traditionalist rigidity to cultivate their native tongue and learn to act accordingly. Until that happens, however, catachetical methods of communicating the faith are likely to be unemployable to mainstream Christians. The by no means illegitimate desire of the churches to maintain membership and of theologians to make the faith credible, not least to themselves, will continue to favor experiential-expressive translations to contemporary idioms. (pages 133-134)

I find this utterly bizarre. The faith is clapped out in its own communicative terms, so it is better to shrink and freeze it to the point where a few act it out in remaining communites. But he already realises it is hardly going to be the future.

However, I notice this policy in the most experiential-expressive groups of all - as it shrinks - the British Unitarians. It is the argument that, OK whilst the theology may have gone from our lips the appearance of being a church should be maintained. This involves addressing God, keeping saying the Lord's Prayer, having a church service structure, maintaining traditional hymns among the mix, and even when new putting such hymns in the old presentation and then there is the maintenance of some distinctive church like architecture or arrangements. We continue to have Christmas services and even Easter, in some cases even Pentecost (instead of saying, hang on, we've moved to a different breeze). I'm afraid I squirm somewhat when I get to Unitarian Christmas services: they are all tinsel and no content, because after all we do not believe in the very point of their existence. Translation into 'universal babies' etc. is just more of the same gush. You can so translate it out, but it is very inefficient. And this is often without the presence of children, which is another excuse for the nonsense in the content.

The problem here is that the younger adult who would avoid church but might attend a meditation group with a talk will see exactly what is to be avoided despite the difference in actual content and meaning. My point is that the reason the content is gone, that the theology has died (we are no longer translating - it died), is because we have moved on to seek out and reflect upon more salient ideas of Western spirituality. We should have the guts of our Puritan forebears, for example, who would avoid all mention of Christmas even on Christmas Day.

Incidentally this is from someone who is picked to take the Easter service each year, presumably because I can tackle it and make it consistent with a Unitarian view. But the point comes when the argument is done and we ought to move on. Yes I can examine the Bible and say why not a resurrection but can we perhaps do a Pagan spring instead (and many do). I wish we would do this with Christmas - just make it Yuletide and be done with it.

But to return to the book in general. One notes the current decline of the Methodists and United Reformed Church, and one wonders why the argument should not be extended to their particulars. Why not end up with rump communities that witness to the reasons Methodism broke from the Church of England or that the URC maintains two orders of ministry rather than three? Presumably you would not because the arguments are clapped out - but they can just as much be 'rules of performance' as any other. So if the Trinity is an argument that few can maintain - it becomes some sort of idealised socialisation within the Godhead - well then let that drop too. But then that would be a core belief, so defined in one of those ecumenical councils. I noticed its modalist (heretical if core: creator, redeemer, sanctifier) use last Sunday. Unitarians used all that language in the past, because they knew it wasn't enough to be the doctrine of the Trinity. My point here is that its defence now is so weak it would satisfy many a Victorian Unitarian who used God the creator, Christ and redemption, and the Holy Spirit for sanctification when those words had meaning. But we tend not to use them now, because they are vacated.

The point about cultural-linguistic is that language and culture changes. We have dialects that become new languages, and languages that import so that people start to hear across languages. Old secure languages die, and languages carry concepts that change. You cannot freeze to something arbitrarily fixed at some three to four hundred years after Jesus of Nazareth and then throw in a bit of Reformation clean-up (including, for Unitarians, the left wing of the Reformation). You have to be in dialogue with the present. And the present narratives of science and social science are very powerful because they use research and because they work. People see that technology works and explains. So religion ought to be about this - a reflection on our world as is, and world as could be as we argue out the ethics of what is and could be. You cannot privilege the arguably clapped out in terms of explaining anything.


Dominic said...

Didn't know Harold Shipman was an author.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know that Unitarians celebrated Christmas, Easter and even Pentecost! Maybe the reason is that the first two at least are so highly recognisable outside Unitarianism that to lose them would distance the Unitarians even further from the surrounding secular culture, rather than drawing them closer to it. After all, even atheists enjoy singing Christmas carols!

For people outside the church Christmas is about reconnecting with a shared British heritage in the most potent way possible, and I think the popularity of Christmas has probably been driven by people outside the church rather than those inside. Even if Christians - and Unitarians - wanted to do away with Christmas, the non-religious populace wouldn't let them.

If Christmas is awkward for Unitarians, then Easter must be more so. Again, it must be a cultural thing. I mean, what exactly are you celebrating?