Christianity & Culture – October 1998

Question: Is Christianity a cultural-linguistic system or a socio-historical movement?

Publication Month: October 1998

This question is for October and November 1998.

Dr. Cobb’s Response

In recent decades there has been a great emphasis on language. We speak of the “linguistic turn” in philosophy. Some who stress the importance of language give the impression that reality consists in nothing else.

Whitehead shared in the recognition of the importance of language. This is especially clear in Modes of Thought. There he writes that it is hard to say whether the human soul created language or language created the human soul.

Nevertheless, it is also clear in Whitehead that reality is not reduced to language. However important to our interpretation of reality language may be, there is a reality it is interpreting. And through physical feelings we are in touch with that reality, albeit largely unconsciously.

Whitehead’s realism makes a huge difference. Of the many places that shows up, one is in the understanding of Christianity. A few years ago Lindbeck wrote a book called “The Nature of Doctrine” in which he described Christianity as a cultural-linguistic system. The book has become something of a classic, and the idea of Christian faith as a cultural-linguistic system has become influential.

There is much in the book with which process theologians can agree.  Lindbeck criticizes two alternative views of the nature of doctrine. One is the propositional view that identifies Christian truth with a set of unalterable statements of belief. Process theologians certainly join in rejecting this view. The other is the experiential one, which teaches that there is an unalterable experience that gains expression in changing language. Against this he rightly points out that our experience is already informed by language. We not only describe out experience differently at different periods and in different languages. Experience itself changes.

Lindbeck turns to Clifford Geertz for help. Geertz is a cultural anthropologist who has reflected on the relation of culture and language. It is he who provides the idea of a cultural linguistic system which at its depths remains constant even through many superficial changes. To be a part of a cultural group is to be formed by that linguistic system. Lindbeck proposes that we think of Christianity in this way.

If we do so we see that the future of Christianity depends on socializing new generations into this linguistic system. This is quite different from teaching that a certain set of propositions is objectively true so that all should accept them. It is also quite different from cultivating a certain type of experience that can then be articulated in ways that make sense in changing contexts. From a process point of view it may be superior to either of those approaches.

Nevertheless, there are two major ways in which it is quite unsatisfactory. First, it is essentially static. Although it recognizes that there are surface changes, the “deep structure” of the symbolic system remains unchanged. What Christianity was, it is, and will be.

The need is to socialize people into this system, not to reexamine it and hold up parts of what we have inherited for serious criticism and revision. If the Christian symbol system has been patriarchal, there is no basis for changing it into something else. If its implications are anti-Jewish, anti-Jewish they will remain. Greater efforts can be made to treat women more fairly and, certainly, to avoid persecution of Jews. The deep structure itself calls for justice and toleration. But it does not lead to more fundamental change.

Second, the cultural-linguistic system is self-contained. It does not refer to anything beyond itself — to God, for example. Every symbol has its meaning in its interrelations with the other symbols in the system, not by reference to something outside.

This, in turn, has two problems. It makes interfaith dialogue impossible. Dialogue with persons who live in different linguistic systems requires that there be at least the possibility of common referents of different symbols. These common referents may be either common objects or common experiences. If these do not exist, there can be no overlap of meanings.

This view rightly accents the difficulties of interfaith dialogue, the error of supposing that there will be simple correspondences of meanings between terms in the two systems. But the actual success of dialogue demonstrates that differences among the traditions do not amount to sheer incommensurability. At a deep level we do live in a common world and some features of our experience of that world are similar.

Secondly, the denial of referents outside the system is in deep tension with the symbols themselves and the experience they evoke. The symbol “God” is not felt, by believers to refer only to other symbols. It is felt to refer to that which existed long before there were any symbols at all and transcends all symbols. The fact that “God”, like every word, is a symbol does not reduce God to a symbol.

The socio-historical school out of which process theology arose had a better understanding. Christianity is a socio-historical movement. Of course, symbols, linguistic and other, are very important to a movement. But they, too, have histories. They come into being and can also die. The death of any particular symbol need not be the death of the movement.

A movement has many shared beliefs about the world in which it lives. As it reflects about these beliefs, they develop and change. Changes in the historical context also lead to changes in the belief system. What seemed beyond all doubt in one generation may cease to seem credible in later times. If symbols and beliefs change, what maintains the unity of the movement?

The unity is more like that of a narrative or of a person’s life. Tremendous changes occur but there is no doubt that what is happening is a continuation of and development from what has happened before.

Whitehead explained the unity of personal existence in terms of “hybrid feelings”. In each moment the most important prehension in my experience is usually of the antecedent moments of my experience. These prehensions include a great deal of conformation, so that in fact I am very much like what I was. But in each moment there are elements of novelty as well. The feeling of the novelties of one moment in the next moment, that is physical feelings of conceptual feelings, are the hybrid feelings. Hence, what I receive from my immediate past in one moment differs from what that past received from its past. This difference may be slight when compared with the massive similarity. But through hundreds, thousands, and hundreds of
thousands of occasions, this difference can be very large. I am now the same “person” I was at the age of two, but my character and personality and the way I think are also very different.

Not all changes are positive. Sometimes rich potentialities present at one point disappear because of the directions I have chosen. Sometimes I develop habits of rejecting anything that does not fit comfortably into what I have previously known. Sometimes I get in ruts and lose all memory of a richer and more complex past.

But in most lives there are many positive changes too. The most positive ones are those in which I am able to assimilate new ideas and sensibilities without abandoning what I have already known and lived. This is not simply the addition of the new to the old, because assimilating the new also transforms the old. `But transformation is not loss.

We may think of the church in analogy to this. It is in continual change. This change may be decay. Change as such is not good. But there are healthy changes as well. When a socio-historical movement is able to encounter others, learn from them, and move on, enriched and transformed by that learning, it remains the same movement, but stronger and wiser than before. Thus, a Christian movement that has assimilated scientific knowledge, historical knowledge, the wisdom of other religious traditions, and the perspective of women is a stronger and wiser Christianity than one that refuses all of this.

Our oldline churches are in trouble today. Their decline in membership and resources is a symptom of the decline in spirit. Lindbeck and those who follow him call for the church to emphasize its inherited language and separate itself from the influences of culture. But if the church is better conceived as a socio-historical movement than as a cultural-linguistic system, this is the wrong recommendation. The church does need to renew its appreciative understanding of its own past, but it needs to do this so as to repent of its errors and sins and to wrestle with the challenges of the present. It is not by holding fast to old forms but by nondefensively embracing truth and wisdom wherever they are to be found that the church can be true to its own past and move confidently into the future.