Saturday, September 27, 2008

Post-liberal theology

It's only in the last few days that I've heard of such a thing (even though it goes back 20 years). Last week I corrected the English of an article about the Tower of Babel for somebody in the Theology Faculty. I don't think I'm breaching translator confidentiality by saying that it presents a reading of Genesis 11 that makes Babel not the curse of confusion but the blessing of diversity.

Reading this article introduced me to George Lindbeck, a name I am now surprised not to have known earlier. Lindbeck, it seems, is a Lutheran who is very heavily invested in ecumenism (and was one of the observers at the most recent Ecumenical Council), but thinks that what works for ecumenists can’t work in interreligious dialogue. His reason is that all Christians can speak to one another in a biblical and Christ-oriented idiom, but adherents of different religions "speak different languages" (as it were), so when they say "God", or "good", or "sacred", they have different things in mind, and people end up assuming more common understanding than there really is. Well, I'm a translator -- and even if I weren't, I've had enough experience of being among people whose language was foreign to me that I'm simply not convinced that communication between people who "speak different languages" is so near-to-impossible (it has pitfalls, of course, but if it was impossible I'd be out of a job). Perhaps this is pressing the language analogy too hard, but are religious ideas really so incommensurable? Surely conversion itself would be impossible, if adherents of one religion were unable to communicate with or understand adherents of another?

I've not read much of Lindbeck's work, just a couple of his articles to see that there weren't specific terminological preferences I should leave untouched. It was enough to give me a very strong impression (open to being corrected) that this is just a postmodern, "linguistic turn" attempt to recuperate sola scriptura, and perhaps also sola fide: those who haven’t already accepted the Bible as authoritative and Christ as Saviour, simply won’t be able to understand what Christians are on about. This is so utterly foreign to any Catholic understanding of human reason and human virtue that it makes me wonder why Lindbeck doesn't extend his scepticism to ecumenism as well. How much attention was he paying at Vatican II?

One of his articles contains the phrase "The Reformers were, on the whole, right in their polemic against the establishment theology of their day -- Roman Catholics also now recognize that -- but they were clearly wrong in rejecting the radical left" . Roman Catholics recognize no such thing, and since the "radical left" presumably means Thomas Müntzer and John of Leyden I can't quite see why it's "clear" that Lutherans should have embraced them. Still, I want to read more of Lindbeck; but I also want to reread Christopher Derrick's introduction to Light of Revelation and Non-Christians, published in 1965 (presumably, and bizarrely, Derrick must be one of the "liberals" that Lindbeck is "post").

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