The Meanings Only Faith Can Reveal

I'm a fan of Paul Tillich.

I'm also a fan of Stanley Hauerwas, so go figure.

The reason I like Tillich (and why many dislike him) is how he privileges human experience. That's a big starting place in my own thinking.

A large part of Tillich's approach was to correlate theological symbols/language with human experience. That is, when we use religious language we are "picking out" aspects of human experience. Another way to say this is that human experience provides us with the "meanings" behind religious language.

And yet, I'd like to talk a bit in this post about a limitation of Tillichian, liberal, and existential approaches to theology and belief.

Specifically, as mentioned, Tillich's approach was to "correlate" experience with religious symbols. To find a correlation is to find out what a particular religious symbol or ritual expresses about our existential condition and our quest for meaning and significance. This correlation allows the religious symbol to be imbued with--connected to--human meaning.

Now one thing to note about this method is that it tends to be a one-way street. Meaning flows from experience into the symbol. The religious symbol is a cipher, an empty bucket waiting to be filled with human experience. Religious symbols are inert until they are made "meaningful" when we connect, correlate and "fill" them with human experience. 

What I want to criticize here is this notion that meaning-construction is a one-way street, that meaning starts with human experience and it fills up those empty symbol-buckets.

The criticism I'm borrowing here is the one made by George Lindbeck in his seminal book The Nature of Doctrine.

Lindbeck's argument is that some meanings can only be discovered through immersion in and mastery of the symbols. That is to say, some meanings are inaccessible to you until you come to master the intricacies of the faith. There are some things you cannot see until you become proficient in the use of the symbols. In more conventional language, there are some things about "God" that you can never understand until you become mature in the faith, until you become a skilled follower of Jesus, until you become a saint.

The idea here is that faith--the set of symbols and rituals of a religion--opens up realms of meaning. And I'm still talking here about meaning in human experience. There are things I've learned about love, joy, peace, sacrifice, kindness, sin, reconciliation, failure, marriage, friendship, life, death and fulfillment that I could have never discovered all on my own. I'm not smart, poetic, wise or good enough. I'm sort of stupid, superficial and selfish.

So there are truths about all these things that I've only discovered because of my many years living with and learning to master this thing called Christianity. I've kept at it year after year and decade after decade. Sometimes making speedy progress. And sometimes being stuck for long periods of time, running in place. But there are things about life that I've discovered and have been able to experience only because I've been a faithful Christan for so long. And my hunch is that there is much more waiting to be discovered.

This is not to deny the fact that there aren't similarly deep, significant and transcendent experiences found within other faith traditions. But it is saying that there are meanings revealed in the Christian faith that are distinctively and peculiarly Christian. As there are distinctive and peculiar things about, say, Buddhism. And I'm also saying that those distinctive and peculiar meanings are reserved, in Buddhism as in Christianity, for those who are committed followers of the faith. Mastery and proficiency are required and these cannot be attained overnight.

Here is Lindbeck describing all this:
[T]o 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...[I]t is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.
To be religious, then, is learning to become competent. Learning to interiorize a set of skills that allow us--in ways we can't all on our own--to have certain experiences, and more subtle, varied and richer experiences at that. There are some meanings that only the practice of the faith can reveal. Lindbeck once more:
There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. It seems, as the cases of Helen Keller and of supposed wolf children vividly illustrate, that unless we acquire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specifically human capacities for thought, action and feeling. Similarly, so the argument goes, to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language of 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...that molds and shapes the self and its world...
And that's why I keep at being a Christian. There are numberless thoughts that I would be unable to think, sentiments that I could never feel, and realities that I could never perceive otherwise. My life is fuller, richer, and more meaningful as a consequence. I've loved the journey. And it's not simply been about me, in a Tillichian sense, figuring out what is "ultimately significant" for myself and then attaching that meaning to the word "God." No, rather the opposite has happened. The Christian faith has shaped me, causing me to experience things, feel things, think things, see things and do things that wouldn't have been possible if I had been left to my own existential ruminations.

Summarizing all this, what I'm saying is that Richard Beck isn't just filling up the Christian symbols with his own experience (though that does happen, it's inevitable), but that the Christian symbols are filling me up with meanings that I would never have been able to acquire all on my own.

Because I follow Jesus I have been taken to places--in the world and in my heart--where I never would have gone all on my own.

I am who I am because of the one I follow.

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9 thoughts on “The Meanings Only Faith Can Reveal”

  1. Having read The Nature of Doctrine, I'm a bit embarrassed to say that it left me flat; it felt like a cop out: following Wittgenstein down a road he took reluctantly, when it became clear that religious language acquires its meaning in a "special" way. I say "embarrassed," because I see--with the help of your straightforward counterpoising of Lindbeck/Tillich--that the "special" way isn't special pleading. Still, consider that all that you say can also be said of a person who becomes a musician, doctor, even baker or farmer... (Is that overstated? Only a little, if so.) What then is the point of religion? Of Christianity? I think that Tillich still helps with that in a way that is crucial: Religion in general--and for Tillich, Christianity in particular--puts a person in touch with the main sounding board of human significance, where the highest, lowest, fullest, most moving notes are played.

  2. "I'm not smart, poetic, wise or good enough. I'm sort of stupid, superficial and selfish".

    Whew!! I thought I was all by myself in these!

    Anyway, for me the symbolism that took a great while to mature was God being Father, divine parent, and we, the children of God. For many years I could relate to a degree to the parent-child relationship in Christianity from my experience as a child in flesh. But as I began to experience life outside the small world of my birth, the FATHER-HOOD of God along with the feminine aspect of the presence and wisdom of God, SHEKINAH and SOPHIA, created a new experience for my relationship with the people I meet daily, seeing them as children of the divine, creating a unity that greatly transcends any claim of unity based on agreement.

    I realize that my comment may resemble a dog chasing his tail. But I certainly enjoyed, and was fed by how you brought experience and symbolism together, a puzzle that has been put together, only to be knocked over and picked up and reassembled, time and time again, in my own mind. I do appreciate the daily challenge of your blog.

  3. I think that David Tracy pushed Tillich's corrrelational project further in ways that would be helpful to what you are doing here. In his later work, he incorporates many valid postliberal concerns into is his project, though in a way that would leave most postliberals dissatisfied. In general I find Frei and Kelsey to be more helpful than Lindbeck in actually pulling off the kind of attention to Christian specificity that postliberalism demands. I also think that Tanner's critique of the neoconservative trajectory in postliberalism is devastating, both in terms of its fidelity to the latter Wittgenstein and to Barth, thoughI have some concerns about her thorouggoing constructivism. I think she is spot on in her insistence that postliberals often trade on outmoded theories of culture that are far too static and bounded and ehich ignore internal conflict and dissent.

  4. Could it be that perhaps it is the very act of interacting with the symbols, rather than the symbols themselves, which have expanded your capacity for creating meaning? Like the athlete who through training and dedication is able to push their body to heights previously inconceivable or the scientist who through constant study and devotion to science is able to make intuitive leaps opening up new grounds. Would not meaning creating, like any other exercise improve with time and application? Otherwise would we not expect the symbols to communicate the same or similar meanings to those who devote themselves to them, which they seem clearly to not?

  5. "I[I]t is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in
    order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system,
    the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience......unless
    we acquire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specifically
    human capacities for thought, action and feeling. Similarly, so the
    argument goes, to become religious involves becoming skilled in the
    language of the symbol system of a given religion." Grammar rules are meant to be broken. But as I understand it, you can't do that well until you've mastered them. This sure sounds a lot like Richard Rohr's first-half-of-life "container". Over and over again I'm struck with how this concept shows up everywhere - which makes me think it surely must be true for matters of faith as well. We aren't meant to study textbooks and write short-answer essays all our life! Poetry awaits ...

  6. Rich Mullins: "I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it, no it is making me, it is the very truth of God not the invention of any man."

  7. Very good point. In fact, most who study symbols think there is no real distinction from "the act" and "the symbols themselves"--a symbol is not an object (like a hammer) but an activity/ event (like a dance). There is no "dance" separate from the "act of interacting with the dance."

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