Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
During the 20th century, the content of philosophy took a dramatic turn in beginning to give greater precedence to the nature of language and its relation to the world. This transition, which has been called the “Linguistic turn,” lead to the emergence of analytic philosophy, which has had profound impacts on the intellectual world of the 20th and 21st century, including in theology. For instance, the recent emergence of the discipline of analytic theology takes the aspirations of analytic philosophy as a launching point for describing God. Postliberal theology in the 20th century as developed by George Lindbeck is largely dependent upon the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was taken to be one of the fathers of the Linguistic turn. Even though he wasn’t a theologian, Wittgenstein made a brief about theology in his Philosophical Investigations: “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)” (§373). While the meaning of Wittgenstein’s comment is not very clear, it does present a seminal idea that postliberal theology took to heart: theology is a set of rules about the appropriate way of speaking about and understanding God.
Lindbeck offers his understanding of religion as having the structure of a language:
Stated more technically, a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought. It functions somewhat like a Kantian a priori, although in this case the a priori is a set of acquired skills that could be different. It is not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (though it may involve these), or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings, or sentiments (though these will be generated). Rather, it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities. It comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed. Lastly, just as a language (or “language game,” to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) is correlated with a form of life, and just as a culture has both cognitive and behavioral dimensions, so it is also in the case of a religious tradition. Its doctrines, cosmic stories or myths, and ethical directives are integrally related to the rituals it practices, the sentiments or experiences it evokes, the actions it recommends, and the institutional forms it develops. All this is involved in comparing a religion to a cultural-linguistic system.1
Jacques Lacan considered the unconscious to be structured by language. Insofar as religion is an expression that comes from human psychology, it would make sense to describe religious doctrine as functioning like a language that shapes how we can even begin to describe the world around us, much as the psychological conscious is grounded upon the reality of the unconscious is psychoanalysis.
Yet, there is a question looming around the corner in structuring religion and theology with language: to what extent does the object of our thinking determine the nature of our thinking? It is one thing to suggest that religion and theology function as a linguistic system, but to what extent is the focus of our thinking, that is God, responsible for the construction of this cognitive “grammar?” In other words, does the living God determine the shape of our own ability to understand God, ourselves, the world, etc.? As Michael Bird writes in Evangelical Theology, “Theology is speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.”2 How is God responsible for the instantiation of our religious “grammars?”
Lindbeck’s conceptualization of religion regards a person’s engagement with the tradition as the primary formative component of a believer:
This stress on the code, rather than the (e.g., propositionally) encoded, enables a cultural-linguistic approach to accommodate the experiential-expressive concern for the unreflective dimensions of human existence far better than is possible in a cognitivist outlook. Religion cannot be pictured in the cognitivist (and voluntarist) manner as primarily a matter of deliberately choosing to believe or follow explicitly known propositions or directives. Rather, to become religious—no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent—is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways.3
A couple of paragraphs later, Lindbeck regards the formation by the tradition as equivalent to having “the mind of Christ” that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 2.16. Ultimately, the mastery of religious grammar is a matter of one’s involvement within tradition that is expressed within “the total gestalt of community life and action.”4 Lindbeck’s analysis does not seem to take into account the role of direct religious experience or perception of God in the construction of a religious grammar. He doesn’t rule out the role of God in the religious life, but the Spirit is equated to the one who gives the capacity to hear and accept religion:
[T]o become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience. The verbum internum (traditionally equated by Christians with the action of the Holy Spirit) is also crucially important, but it would be understood in a theological use of the model as a capacity for hearing and accepting the true religion, the true external word, rather than (as experiential-expressivism would have it) as a common experience diversely articulated in different religions.5
Lindbeck’s linguistic-cultural model makes a critical distinction between truth-finding and sense-making capacities, associating religion with the latter. Consequently, religion does not provide the criteria by which we begin to discern truth. Furthermore, the hermeneutical, sense-making purpose of religion in Lindbeck’s description is focused on oneself and the world. Combined together, Lindbeck’s postliberal theology ascribes a purpose to religion that has little to do with discerning the truths about God.
Perhaps the critique to Lindbeck’s system may be best offered by attacking the foundation of Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games stipulates that languages are a series of rules shared between persons, which then informs how we understand what the world is. Yet, language is not inherently rule-bound ways of describing and sense-making, but sometimes of deep expressions of the way things are. Language is not used simply to make sense of the world, but it is also an expression of oneself as an attempt to express the truth of what one sees, feels. experiences, etc. While the conventions that surround language certainly inform the way we speak so that those who hear can comprehend it, the speaker communicates because their experiences structures the nature of the thought the language gives expression to. When a Christian feels a powerful experience of God’s Spirit in their life, they may shout “Praise Jesus!” While this is a familiar form of expression that the religious community would interpret, the actual expression of praise in this familiar form is selected because of what it allows the person to express to God. It may invite onlookers to make sense of this person’s experience, but the person expresses it out of jubilation to say or do something, not to communicate. Or, consider a wedding where husband and wife exchange their vows and say “I do!” While such language usage may be formalized and follows a series of conventions that allow people to make sense of what the couple is saying, the power of these words are not in any sense-making they provide, but in the expression of oneself to commit their lives to the other person. As a speech-act, these words are a representation of the experience of a person that can not be readily understood simply by the rules of language.
To push this further, consider how poetry uses languages. Some poetry defies the conventions that language rules that cause people to often read without clarity as to the many. In so doing, the written word invites people to move beyond the conventions of language usage and probe deeper and to explore more into the fundamental nature of what is being said through word selection, rhyme, structure, etc. When a poet accomplishes this, it invites people to put away the rule-based conventional usage of language to invite a person to explore. In this case, the language of poetry is not sense-making, but rather it is the thing towards which a person is seeking to make sense. What initially may start a private language of the poet that would initially only have meaning for the poet, which Wittgenstein would theoretically reject, begins to convey an entirely different way of thinking, perceiving, feeling, and imagining precisely because it violates, if not deconstructs, linguistic conventions that lead people to have to think more in a non-verbal fashion to make sense of the written words. While the usage of the language on poetry may be a starting point for discerning the meaning of the poem, the meaning of the poem is often not reducible to the way language is used, but to the imagination the reader has in exploring the thought-world that the language of the poem simply points to.
To that end, language is multi-functional, providing the means by which people not only communicate so as to be understood through conventional, rule-based usage, but also express themselves and their experiences of the world, including in ways that may defy the rules of the language that are usually used to make sense of language. Sense-making and self-expression do go hand-in-hand as complementary functions, because the person who seeks to express themselves is often seeking to be understood by another. When the goal is to readily communicate meaning, self-expression aspires to become sense-making. Yet, self-expression need not be always locked to the sense-making capacities of language, in which case language functions less as a way to make sense, but it may take on a variety of functions. Similarly, while religion may fruitfully be compared to a language, its purposes should not be reduced to the rule-governing, sense-making function that Wittgenstein assigns to language and that the linguistic-cultural model assigns to religion. Religion and language can function in various other ways.
Consider Jesus’ parables, which were intended to teach His disciples the secrets of the kingdom, but yet to simultaneously keep other people confused and without understanding. Jesus takes an otherwise familiar, Rabbinic genre of instruction to make it easier for other people to understand and turns it on its head, using it to obscure meaning. The only way the disciples can understand is not by understanding the parable directly, but they had to have other knowledge elsewhere to then make sense of the parable (Mat. 13.12; “whoever has will be given more”). Ultimately, in order for the disciples to understand the parables of the kingdom, they had to know the King of that kingdom, their Teacher Jesus with whom they were deeply familiar. Jesus’ language wasn’t sense-making, but Jesus expressing Himself in a way that was sense-obscuring, which would entail relying on non-linguistic knowledge in order to make sense of these parables that were otherwise opaque and quite confounding. To that end, Jesus’ parables may be compared to a poet who obscures their meaning in the poem so that only a deeper reader who took the time to think and read would be able to comprehend. Since God is holy, making the kingdom of God unlike anything humans would be readily familiar with, then that means for Jesus to help people to comprehend the kingdom of heaven, He would not be able to communicate about it directly through language, as human language that is built for use in this world has no reliable way of making sense of the nature and reality of God.
So, this suggests a fundamental limitation of the employment of Wittgensteinian philosophy to make sense of the religion that Jesus taught. Jesus’ language oftentimes provokes mystery, confusion, and a need to inquire further through coming to Jesus that it does provide clear sense-making. Consequently, doctrine, at least doctrine the way Jesus taught it, can not adequately be understood like a set of grammatical rules that determine which theological statements are in and out of bounds. Jesus’ teaching is not regulative in function, but they challenge and call into question the very prerequisite understanding that is necessary to make sense of things and in turn regulate appropriate and inappropriate beliefs, expressions, etc.
To ultimately understand Jesus’ teachings, one could not simply pay attention to the words and try to make sense of them. Ultimately, one had to pay attention to the One who uttered them, that His own life makes sense of His word. In other words, the person of Jesus is the grammar of His instruction. To come to rightly understand and make sense of what Jesus teaches, one has to give greater focus and attention to the events that occurred in His own ministry, most particularly the cross and resurrection that is the consummation of His incarnation and brings about the consequence of His Lordship from where He will judge the world. Jesus’ is the “grammar” that gives understanding and meaning to His teaching.
What happens if we don’t put Jesus’ words within the context of His own life, if His person is not the “grammar” by which we make sense of His teaching. We begin to interpret Jesus against the backdrop of other human concerns, where the sense-making capacities of our language have been formed by the concerns of human engagement with the world without the robust knowledge of God or Jesus. To wrestle away Jesus’ words from the context of His life is to interpret them according to the interest and purposes that define our life, whether they emerge from our personal way that we understand the world and speak about it through language or the way meaning and significance has been passed on to us from our families, cultures, societies, etc.
One example where this becomes salient is when we interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.13-14:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
The backdrop when these words have often been interpreted is against the backdrop of heaven and hell. Many Christians have understood the significance of Jesus is that His death allows our sins to be forgiven so that we can go to heaven, which stems against the all-too-human desire to stave off death. Our own desire to preserve our lives is responsible for how then make sense of Jesus’ teaching here as the distinction between getting into heaven or hell, which is determined by our choice to believe in Jesus to extend our life eternally. As a consequence, it has been interpreted that many people will go to hell and only a few will go to heaven. Yet, when Jesus calls His disciples to take up the cross and to lose their life to save it, He is foreshadowing His own crucifixion which culminates with resurrection. Jesus’ words here are not about getting into heaven, but experience the resurrection power that gives life after one faces with the hard path of taking up one’s own cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the grammar by which we can understand these words.
Furthermore, the background of this teaching is Jesus’ role as a teacher in contrast to much of what was being taught by other Jewish teachers. When we see this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, it is part of a broader body of teaching that is antithetical to the religious instruction by the Pharisees and scribes (Mat. 5.20). Also in Luke 7.22-30, Jesus is teaching as he travels to Jersualem. He is asked if only a few will be saved, to which Jesus responds with similar words to 7.13-14. The implication of those who do not enter through the narrow door (Luke 7.24) is that many will be excluded from the kingdom of God, even as there will be people from across the world who will be in the kingdom of God. Undergirding Jesus’ discourse is the idea that many Israelites will be excluded, while there will also be an inclusion of the Gentiles. The implication of Jesus’ teaching is not directed towards the amount of the world who will be saved, but that Jesus’ words should be understood in the context of His own teaching ministry that opposed Israel’s religious leadership. Israel as God’s people were misled by other teachers and Israel would only be saved by following Jesus through the narrow path that He teaches.
The life of Jesus is the grammar by which we understand Jesus’ teaching. On the one hand, to understand a person’s words by their life and action isn’t that profound. On the other hand, what is profound is when this gets paired with the Incarnation. If Jesus is God, then this means the life of Jesus is more than simply a grammar for the words that are spoken from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus’ life is the grammar by which we understand God Himself, including all of His word. In other words, to be able to understand and comprehend God and what He communicates, we have to do so through our knowledge about Jesus, most particularly through His crucifixion and resurrection. It is here where God’s will is comprehended and understood. To understand what God is doing, to know what God wants and desires for His creation, we have to go through the cross of Jesus to be able to make sense of God.
Yet, for so many, the significance of the cross of Jesus is simply about a cosmic transaction that affords us our forgiveness so we can get into heaven. Ultimately, such persons understand Jesus by reference to their own desire to preserve their life, which in the end is actually a motivation that is opposed to Jesus’ call to face one’s own mortality in taking up the cross. Consequently, when such people speak about God, they speak not from the point of view that the cross and resurrection make sense of God’s will, but rather a combination of their own purposes, their own goals, their own desires that determine how they understand language and the broader interests that formed their understanding of religious language and doctrine controls how they understand God. The grammar that controls their understanding of God is human interests that have not gone through the redemptive fire of cross and resurrection.
To understand God, one must understand God through the person of Jesus, which necessarily goes through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, for us to be able to natively understand Jesus’ life and His words, we ourselves much go through similar experiences of bearing our own crosses by facing our mortality and the subsequent experience of the life-giving power of God. Only then can we have a mind that can rightly discern God’s will and purposes (Rom. 12.1-2). If one tries to understand God apart from this, then the grammar we use to make sense of God comes from the grammar formed by unredeemed human purposes which are insufficient to understand a holy God who is distinct from the world.
As a result, religious instruction and teaching, aside from that which tells the story of Jesus Christ, in the Christian faith can not serve as the grammar by which we regulate religious expression and activity if the actual purpose is to know God and do His will. Instead, they are at their best serve as invitations to understanding mysteries by a deeper, meditative probing on the words that look to Jesus as the One who ultimately makes sense of the mystery of God’s will. Furthermore, if we want to discern God’s will for our life, where He is leading and guiding us personally, we must pass through the purifying fire of the cross to be able to perceive and understand what God is doing in us and for us.
It is that this point where the problem of much religion becomes apparent. Insofar as the life of Jesus Christ that culminates in the cross and resurrection is not truly taken to be how we make sense of God’s will, truth, etc., religion becomes a reflection of the various human interests that appeal to Jesus as a legitimation for their doctrines. Jesus’ doesn’t make sense of God for them, but rather their own understanding and purposes make sense of God and Jesus is appealed to as a justification for that, both in what He taught or what He did. The “grammar” of religious doctrine is formed by unredeemed human desires, even if these purposes and desires are draped with the sheep’s clothing of Jesus’ words and “depend” on Jesus’ cross. Talking about God, talking about Jesus, appealing to the cross, etc. does not itself provide insight into God’s will. One must see the person of Jesus as the One who helps us to come to the Father by being the One who makes sense of God for us, where we are then invited to press further into following Jesus by taking up one’s own cross and trusting in God’s life-giving power.
The life of Jesus must become our grammar for making sense of and His will.