Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Nature of Doctrine: 25 Years Ago

These lines stuck out to me while reading this watershed book for a recent Philosophy of Religion seminar. Now 25 years old, it seems to me that George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine is still hitting some nails on the head. (I use that expression too much, don't I?) He makes some grand claims here, but for the most part I'm on board with what he's suggested. I'm pretty busy writing papers these days, but I wanted to pause and share these excerpts; foods for thought:

"Sociologists have been telling us for a hundred years or more that the rationalization, pluralism, and mobility of modern life dissolves the bonds of tradition and community. This produces multitudes of men and women who are impelled, if they have religious yearnings, to embark on their own individual quests for symbols of transcendence. The churches have become purveyors of this commodity [along with artists and the media, I might add] rather than communities that socialize their members into coherent and comprehensive religious outlooks and forms of life.

Society paradoxically conditions human beings to experience selfhood as somehow prior to social influences, and Eastern religions and philosophies are utilized to support what, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, is the myth of the transcendental ego. Selfhood is experienced as a given rather than as either a gift or an achievement, and fulfillment comes from exfoliating or penetrating into the inner depths rather than from communally responsible action in the public world. . . .

Religious communities are likely to be practically relevant in the long run to the degree that they do not first ask what is either practical or relevant, but instead concentrate on their own intratextual outlooks and forms of life. The much-debated problem of the relation of theory and praxis is thus dissolved by the communal analogue of justification by faith. As is true for individuals, so also a religious community's salvation is not by works, nor is it faith for the sake of practical efficacy, and yet good works of unforseeable kinds flow from faithfulness" (George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (2d. edition), 112, 114).

This particular excerpt might sound like it recommends holing ourselves up in navel-gazing ghettoes, but that is not the main concern of the book. The concern is to promote inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue by having people own their community life rather than dabble in it, and then to see themselves as contributing to the world around as self-aware groups rather than shopping or competing with the world around as individual consumers or solicitors. The idea is to seek communion from the postures of listening and speaking that can come from this healthier place. In my view, a whole lot of reason to do so is needed, but Christian communities of all people ought to have plenty of reason for this at their disposal, shouldn't they?


Stewart said...

"own their community life rather than dabble in it"...that's gold! We've got a lot of dabblers in the church...on every level of involvement too. May i be an owner.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"the rationalization, pluralism, and mobility of modern life dissolves the bonds of tradition and community."

Hmmm. I live in the midst of a large Hasidic Jewish community. They seem to have very strong community bonds, and I imagine those with "religious yearnings" are able to "quest for symbols of transcendence" within a supportive community.

I wish I had those things. I really do. There are other reasons I have for not wanting to be a Hasidic Jew, but I like the idea that we could look to groups like this to learn from them.

It's hard to compell people to commit though! It has to just happen, doesn't it?


Do you not find anything that resonates for you in "the myth of the transcendental ego"?

Jon Coutts said...

Hmmm. I'll have to think about that, Matthew. I'm as selfish as the next person, but that's not necessarily the point. I don't know. I'm pretty sure it would have resonated with me a few years ago, but right now it kind of repulses me. I'm not necessarily saying that's entirely good or bad or permanent, but that's my first answer. I'll think about it.

Mostly I go on and on posting about stuff like this because of an imbalance I feel in the focus of Christianity, and the culture at large, although certainly there are happy exceptions. I find that community you've described quite attractive for the same reasons you've stated.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I don't think that Milbank's comment about "the myth of the transcendental ego" is really about selfishness per se. What he's getting at (along with other post-liberals, post-conservatives, and the radical orthodoxy crowd) is that the primary way that people in North America understand the human "self" is philosophically and (more importantly) theologically problematic.

I think that it's possible to make a strong case that some version of either idealism or existentialism are at the heart of how most people in NA see themselves and human nature. In both systems, "I" precedes "We," not necessarily in terms of importance but definitely in terms of ontology. That is to say, I am first and foremost a choosing individual, a self-defining person, one whose essence is primarily an individual essence. Society, in such a conception, is a collective of individuals.

But even dilettantish dabbling in sociological research of any kind (or in the political philosophy of the Left) problematizes this view to the extreme. There (I'm generalizing here) you find various degrees of social-constructivism which suggest that "We" actually precedes "I" to some degree or another. That is to say, society is not a collective of individuals, but individuals are products of societies. Who we are and what we are, our very essence, our very reality, is socially produced and socially defined.

Milbank is, in my mind, arguing against the former view (the transcendental ego) and for some version of the latter view, especially in the second quoted paragraph.

This is why, in the Apologetics class that Jon and I took together a decade ago, our very post-liberal teacher asked the question "Why are you a Christian" and was perfectly satisfied with a response along the lines of "because my parents were."

And let's be honest, you really, really can't get any more un-Seeker Sensitive than that, can you?

Jon Coutts said...

Well said, Colin. (Although it is Lindbeck in this case, not Milbank). I do think one can go too far in placing the We over the I, and I've probably done so in recent years. This might be exposed as more problematic once a massive corrective took place, and I might certainly be more attracted to the "transcendental ego" if I lived in communist North Korea or something like that. But I don't.

I'm not sure I totally grasp the seeker-sensitive comment, unless by that you are referring to the consumerist approach to church. In which case: yeah.

Thanks for elucidating that Colin.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Haha, yes Lindbeck I meant to say, though as I said, Milbank and the RO crowd have similar critiques.

By my seeker-sensitive comment I meant to say that the Willow Park/Saddleback model of doing church is endemic of individualistic North American Christianity, in which faith is essentially a transactional affair performed by individuals for personal benefit. That's perhaps a little stark, but only a little. That transactionalism is (to my mind) the reason why seeker-sensitive models are so focused upon what can only be referred to as marketing strategies. The Gospel is, in such contexts, a commodity to be sold, just like everything (and I do mean everything, from widgets to art to human beings) else in Western culture.

I think that voices like Lindbeck's offer a much needed assault on this horror. And as far as the We-I relationship, I'm with you in not wanting to go too far in either direction. Or perhaps I'd rather say that We and I are part of an indivisible, eternal, and possibly incomprehensible reciprocal relationship.

Jon Coutts said...

Yes Yes! I'm going to try to read me some Milbank soon. I resonate entirely with your comments and am grateful again for taking the content of my post further than it went itself (due to my mere excerpting).

I love how you said this: "as far as the We-I relationship, I'm with you in not wanting to go too far in either direction. Or perhaps I'd rather say that We and I are part of an indivisible, eternal, and possibly incomprehensible reciprocal relationship."

Too often when we're confronted with two sides of a coin we conclude that all we need is balance (I hate that word). Or to walk some mythical neutral ground between them. I think your "rather" is more on the mark.

And in that regard I highly recommend Colin Gunton's The One, the Three, and the Many. It talks about this communal/individual back and forth in societies, noting the problems with collectivism as well as communism, and asking what light is shed on this by Trinitarian theology. (My Augustian friends tell me Gunton's reading of Augustine is suspect, but I don't know that, and besides that the book is really good anyway.)

Colin Toffelmire said...

Hmm, yes I'd be interested to see what you think of Milbank. I find that he can be terribly frustrating and opaque to read at times, though also very insightful and interesting. I'll look forward to your Milbank posts after you find the time to give him a look :).