Semiotic Orthodoxy: A Naturalist Reassessment of Lindbeck’s Theological Norms
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Brandon Daniel-Hughes, John Abbott College
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Semiotic Orthodoxy: A Naturalist Reassessment of Lindbeck's Theological Norms
AAR/SBL, November 2014
Liberal Theologies Section
This brief paper consists of three moments, the first appreciative, the second critical and the third—the bulk of my comments—constructive. My overall goal is to offer what I am calling, in the language of parliamentary procedure, a "friendly amendment" to George Lindbeck's Postliberal theory of doctrine. With the help of Charles Peirce, especially his semiotics and his less well known work on critical commonsense, I hope to consolidate some of Lidbeck's most important insights into the functions of doctrine while at the same time working to address some of the weaknesses in his position that have emerged in the last three decades. I am calling my friendly amendment, Semiotic Orthodoxy.
By way of introduction I will begin appreciatively. In the forward to his 1984 text The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck warns that "Doctrines…do not behave the way they should, given our customary suppositions about the kinds of things they are." (7) Taken out of context, doctrines seem to offer straightforward descriptions of theological truths. But we should be careful not to allow the form in which doctrines are expressed to deceive us as to their primary function. Doctrines do not provide information.
Following Schleiermacher, the Liberal tradition has continued the custom of foregrounding the descriptive function of doctrine, but instead of describing an external and objective world, doctrines are taken to describe the internal and private worlds of the pious. For Lindbeck neither of these theories captures the most important function of doctrine: its role in authorizing communal norms of discourse and practice. Of course Lindbeck notes that doctrinal statements have usually recognized their prescriptive role, the regula fidei, but he describes his own innovative proposal as the claim that "this becomes the only job that doctrines do in their role as church teachings." (19) Doctrines are boundary markers that establish regulative grammars, delimiting the space in which the faithful can act and the language in which they can speak.
Of necessity, because he is offering a corrective reading, Lindbeck stresses the many things that doctrine does not do. But if we stop to consider the context in which he was writing, we can more fully appreciate his approach. In an ecumenical context, this understanding of doctrine helps to explain why it is that old doctrinal debates between churches seem to dissolve, despite the fact that neither side has capitulated or changed its formulations. Lindbeck reckoned this rapprochement to be one of the primary benefits of a Postliberal theory of doctrine. However, I would like to call attention to several additional benefits of his approach.
Once it is freed from naïve realism, and no longer understood as the mere communication of a subjective experience, doctrine, in Lindbeck's hands, becomes more interesting. His theory calls our attention to the reciprocally constitutive function of language and communal religious life. As a second-order discourse, doctrine lays the groundwork that enables the possibility of meaningful religious engagement, engagement that is not possible without a rich language that allows for fine distinctions and subtle experiences. With crude signs and minimal language, homo sapiens can perhaps reproduce and feed ourselves, but only with complex languages and sign systems can we fall in love and truly savor a fine West Coast India Pale Ale. Just as good grammar enables complex experience and communication, good doctrine makes religious life possible even as it constitutes the language of a religious community. Lindbeck shows us that doctrine is not passive. It does not describe an antecedent religious reality or experience after the fact. Rather it plays a vital convening role. It brings together and constitutes a community in which deeper experiences can be had and truths shared and tested.
As I move into the critical moment, I want to note that the most apparently devastating critique of the Postliberal movement (or the Yale School), is largely a critique of fideism. But fideism is a vague category, for there are strong fideisms and weak fideisms. However, my criticism is aimed less at fideism and focuses more on amending Postliberalism in a way that retains Lindbeck's valuable insights into the social and linguistic construction of religious experience, while also recovering naturalist norms of truth. The danger, as I see it, of an unamended Postliberal understanding of doctrine, is not that doctrine functions as a normative grammar, but that it is not in turn checked by any norm other than itself.
I will return to my realist concerns in a moment, but I first want to note that Lindbeck himself is actually working with multiple norms and I call your attention to a very helpful 2006 article in Crosscurrents by Robert P. Jones and Melissa C. Stewart entitled "The Unintended Consequences of Dixieland Postliberalism." They argue convincingly that in the hands of white, southern Evangelicals Postliberalism loses its critical edge. Their central point is well taken: Postliberalism grows out of and is primarily a criticism of Yankee Liberal Christian theology. Therefore, when it is appropriated in a uniquely Southern context, i.e. is taken up by the established church, the prophetic core is lost. My takeaway from their analysis is the critical importance of context. In regards to Lindbeck, this necessitates that we not lose sight of his ecumenical commitments. Put simply, Lindbeck, for all his talk about doctrine, was consistently aware of and governed by additional norms of interreligious and interdenominational dialogue. And the most superficial criticisms of his Postliberalism ignore the influence of those additional norms.
My central critique of Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic theory of doctrine is that it concentrates almost exclusively on issues of meaning and social context while the issue of reference is largely lost. His treatment of meaning under the rubric of "intra-systematic truth" is subtle and it is at this point where his use of Wittgenstein's notion of language games is most helpful and his analogical treatment of doctrine and grammar is strongest. But his overall theory of interpretation can be substantially strengthened by applying the semiotics of Charles Peirce. I am not the first to make this particular criticism and I am aided here by the work of Robert Neville, particularly a 2002 article entitled "Contextualization and the Non-obvious Meaning of Religious Symbols."
My friendly amendment and my critique go hand in hand: Lindbeck would be better served by first addressing the issue of reference and noting the important distinction between different modes of reference. Peirce identified three ways in which signs can refer. First, signs can refer iconically as when the object of reference is taken as being somehow like the sign itself. Think of the icon in our hotels where the staircase is marked with a jagged line resembling several stairs. The object looks like the sign. Second, signs refer indexically when a sign establishes a causal relationship between its object and an interpretant. A pointing finger is the usual example, but much more complex and evocative symbols also function indexically. Beethoven's Ode to Joy, even were it known by another name, would still serve to evoke the emotion. The song itself is not a simple icon of joy in that the vibrations caused by the orchestra are not themselves like joy. But as a whole and in the proper context the song generates a joyful and engaged interpretant. The third mode, Peirce refers to as symbolic reference, but conventional reference is a less confusing term. That a dog is a dog and not a chien or hund is a matter of mere convention. This tripartite scheme (icon, index, conventional symbol) is an oversimplification and Peirce was clear that many of our most useful signs refer to their objects in all three modes all at once. Of the three, the mode that is most frequently overlooked is indexical reference, and Lindbeck's theory of doctrine would be well served to consider indexicality and its importance relative to the role of conventional reference.
In a brief but dense section of his text entitled "Excursus on Religion and Truth" Lindbeck contends that his theory of doctrine does not reject the possibility of ontological realism and propositional truth claims. Rather, doctrine, as a second-order discourse, pertains only to intrasystematic truth and its coherence is a necessary though insufficient condition for additional correspondence type propositional truth claims. It is worth quoting him at length:
The ontological truth of religious utterances, like their intrasystematic truth, is different as well as similar to what holds in other realms of discourse…a religious utterance, one might say, acquires the propositional truth of ontological correspondence only insofar as it is a performance, an act or deed, which helps create that correspondence. (65)
I call your attention to his claim that religious utterances and signs, insofar as they work to constitute a form of life, help to create a correspondence between the utterer, i.e. the religious interpretant, and the religious object. In Peirce's terms, the symbol does not iconically mirror or mimic its object, nor does it refer conventionally as does a proper name. Rather, it may work to refashion and reform the interpretant and bring it into harmony with the religious object. The doctrine is not a passive sign to be read, but an active agent of change. It indexically signifies by creatively altering the relationship between the object and the interpretant, though with signs as complex as doctrines, this process is drawn out over a lifetime.
This small amendment with the aid of Peirce's semiotics and the indexical mode of reference does not at first appear to make much of a difference to Lindbeck's overall theory of doctrine. In fact, if my reading is correct, Lindbeck comes close to a functional notion of indexical reference. The payoff, I contend, comes when we consider his theory of doctrine from a realist perspective that registers the values of the natural world.
From such a perspective, Lindbeck's claim that that doctrine is not about the world but rather "absorbs the world" is highly suspect. (118) For the natural world has an uncanny ability to resist absorption, denting and sometimes even destroying our most beloved social constructions and sacred canopies. When languages, symbol systems and doctrines are well designed they allow us successfully to engage the objects to which they refer, especially when that reference is indexical. In such cases the difference between the world and our signs of it may seem to disappear. But then there are the occasions when we come up against resistance and our interpretive habits let us down. These are the moments when, in Peirce's unique nomenclature, the Secondness or "brute actuality" of the world asserts itself in the form of stubbed toes, burnt fingers, and an unpredictable climate. Oftentimes the symbolic and ritual resources are at hand for dealing with these moments of doubt and we find ways of interpreting these brute encounters, patching up our symbol systems, amending our behavior and returning to a state of stable belief and settled habits. The world's major religious traditions are both agile and diverse enough to allow for considerable self-repair. My question is whether Lindbeck's theory can make room for those moments of Secondness and correction? In its unamend form I do not believe that it can.
Perhaps the best way to think about the ways in which the natural world resists our interpretations is not to think of these encounters with Secondness as mere inconveniences but to see them as Peirce did in his 1877 essay "The Fixation of Belief." Here he suggests that these unexpected moments of brute encounter, not only break our interpretive habits and generate doubt, but more importantly, they stimulate genuine inquiry. The drive to return to a stable state of belief and habitual interpretation is powerful, but mere tenacity—the attempt to ignore stubborn reality and new data—is sure to fail in the long run, as is the authoritative appeal to scripture or tradition or doctrine. The world resists absorption, despite the strong fideists' best efforts. Later in his career Peirce will spend considerable effort developing a theory of the normative sciences of logic, ethics and aesthetics, arguing that values are not subjective projections but are realities that function normatively, and we ignore or misinterpret them at our peril. His published materials suggest that he was primarily interested in the philosophy of inquiry and the role of norms in the logic of science. However, our discussion of doctrine and Lindbeck's theory in particular can be furthered by briefly considering Peirce's work in this area.
The natural world asserts itself in value laden encounters, leading variously to joy, pain, awe or simple puzzlement, we either register and harmonize those values or dismiss them. But engaging the world is always engaging through signs. Peirce's claim that all engagement is semiotic does not amount to the claim that our signs absorb the world. Rather, far from wholly determining our experience of the world, our signs and symbol systems, languages, myths and doctrines are shaped by those engagements and in turn prepare us to engage in more or less harmonious ways. The key Peircian point, the first half of which Lindbeck would certainly recognize, is that the signs we use shape our engagement, but they do not wholly determine it. The natural world contributes to the engagement as its values are registered or neglected in successful or unsuccessful interpretive encounters. I contend that Peirce's understanding of dynamic interpretation is reciprocal in just the right way to include Lindbeck's best insights without forgoing a realist commitment to speaking truly not only in communal grammar but also of a shared natural world that transcends any determinate set of sign and language users.
To the final piece of my friendly amendment, I have given the ungainly title of Semiotic Orthodoxy and I introduce it by raising a question that hovers around the edges of the Postliberal project. Granted that there is no speaking a "language in general" but only in the grammar of a determinate language, why this particular language and not some other? Granted that doctrines provide the second-order grammar of a community, why this particular set of intrasystematically coherent terms and symbols and not some other? Surely, if all that we desire is a descriptive answer, then accidents of birth and history are sufficient. But if we want a normative answer that explains why we ought to cultivate fluency in a religious tradition and allow its rituals and doctrine to shape our engagements with the world, then we need something more because there are other options. In fact, one popular reading of the Pragmatic tradition holds up Dewey's radical social experimentation as the ideal. One could choose to make due with whatever symbols and social forms are at hand, borrowing and experimenting freely. In a pluralistic society, why should one make the relatively conservative Postliberal decision to exercise semiotic restraint and live within the boundaries of the relatively stable grammar of traditional doctrine? When doubt arises and reality interrupts our stable habits, why work to reform traditional doctrines instead of abandoning them entirely in a search for greener pastures?
I turn again to Peirce, this time to his theory of critical commonsense. Peirce has been accused of being of two minds in his theory of inquiry. He was a radical fallibilist and in most matters an advocate of free experimentation and scientific inquiry. But, he argued, in matters of vital importance, in which action is necessary and consequences may be dire, one does well to lean on conservative habits of engagement. Experimentation in vital matters—ethics, religion and, occasionally, politics fall under this heading—is usually inadvisable. Put simply, Peirce's commonsense logic and ethics of inquiry, dictates that in vital matters where free experimentation is not a live option, we should follow our instincts. In practice this means operating with a reformulated version of Ockham's razor where the simplest hypothesis is to be preferred, not because it is logically simpler, but because it harmonizes best with our habits of interpretation that are already up and running. Again, we see Peirce's conservatism in his claim that all other things being equal, our instincts ought to be trusted. This is a normative claim pertaining to methods of inquiry and determinations of conduct, and while it is no guarantee, Peirce does argue that in vital matters our instincts are practically infallible.
Truthfully, Peirce had a tendency to overblown rhetoric and on occasion when writing about vital matters, his realism evaporates and the corrective function of the real world is lost. But in his more circumspect moments he is clearer; instinct is not intuition. Instinct is trustworthy because it embodies and preserves those habits of interpretation that have survived repeated trial and proven themselves through repeated engagement with the natural world. We start with the instincts we have, but we never truly start. Our instincts are our inheritance, the products of long but determinate lines of past real world inquiry. What are these instincts? Peirce had in mind not only our perceptual and cognitive apparatus but also what we might call our cultural inheritance: our preference for certain artistic forms, ways of preparing food and designing cities, but most especially our ethical and religious habits, our rituals, moral instincts and religious doctrines. Because we must start somewhere, speak in some language and engage the world with some symbols system, we ought at least to start with those languages and symbol systems that have demonstrated their ability to facilitate harmonious engagement.
Semiotic Orthodoxy is a simple appropriation of Peirce's critical commonsense for explaining the normative character of reality that is missing from Lindbeck's theory of doctrine. In answer to the earlier question that I posed regarding the conservative move to practice semiotic restraint and live and speak within the boundaries sketched out by a doctrinal language, doctrinal fidelity is grounded in the natural world when we understand our doctrines and religious symbol systems not as self-justifying language games or grammars, but as the products of generations of real world trial and error inquiry, what Dewey called "the funded capital of civilization." In most if not all cases the extraordinarily rich symbol systems of the world's major religious traditions contain tremendous resources for engaging and exploring the real values of our shared world. The decision to live within those symbol systems and allow our engagements to be shaped by them is best understood not as a rejection of inquiry or a strongly fideist flight from reality but rather as an acknowledgment that we are deeply indebted to the experimental research and engagements of those who came before us, whose own explorations have indeed shaped the grammars and doctrines that enable our own richer interpretations of reality and engagements with nature.
By way of closing, I offer a brief acknowledgement that most everyone wants to keep the "correct" parts of doctrine and edit the "bad." The crucial question remains, as ever, one of discernment: how to know and how to agree about which is which? Semiotic orthodoxy promises only a critical commonsense starting point. Communal norms of doctrine and grammar offer our best opening hypotheses as to how to better engage the real world. But they remain "working hypotheses" and both terms of that phrase deserve equal emphasis. No matter how successful our doctrines and signs have proven themselves to be, they are only as good as the engagements they facilitate. They remain fallible and have all too frequently failed to take seriously the experiences and values of they least among us. Equally, though doctrines are fallible working hypotheses, they do often work to engage the world and enable us to harmonize its values. Our prospects for deeper, truer engagement are enhanced by both a renewed appreciation of Lindbeck's emphasis on the norms preserved by doctrine as well as a fresh focus and openness to the values of the natural world that push back against our grammatical conventions.
Jones, Robert P. and Melissa C. Stewart, "The Unintended Consequences of Dixieland Postliberalism," CrossCurrents 55:4 (Winter 2006). pp. 506-521.
Lindbeck, George A.. The Nature of Doctrine: Religions and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).
Neville, Robert Cummings, "Contextualization and the Non-obvious Meaning of Religious Symbols: New Dimensions to the Problem of Truth," Neue Zeitschrift Für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 44:1 (April 2002), pp. 71-88.
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