By Rowan Williams
I first met George Lindbeck 30 years ago at a symposium organised by Trinity Church, New York, to discuss what was probably his most influential book, The Nature of Doctrine. For me, as for many others, the book was a liberating contribution to theological debate, chiefly because it insisted that if you wanted to understand how doctrinal statements worked, you should ask “native speakers,” those who were conversant with the “language of Zion.”
After a longish period in which theologians seemed to be approaching classical dogma as if it were (at best) a dead language whose meanings had to be reconstructed or (at worst) a set of inadequate early solutions to problems we now understood more fully, this relatively brief essay simply pointed to the location in which doctrinal ideas worked and were used and spoken about: the worshiping and witnessing community. Obvious enough, you might think, but it was a breath of fresh air at the time, one of the most important expressions of a new turn in Anglophone theology that made responsibility to and in the Church look again like a natural aspect of the theologian’s task. Along with Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and a few other creative voices, George’s essay set the agenda for a radically new look at theological method.
To speak of these and others as examples of postliberal theology gives a misleading impression of more convergence than was in fact the case among those who led this revolution: Church-focused theology is not necessarily any more uniform or convergent than any other serious and exhilarating intellectual enterprise, and a concern with theology as an aspect of spiritual integrity does not in itself constitute the program of a party or school (thank God). But we can rightly say that these writers helped to restore an intellectual and spiritual confidence to theology, not least within the Anglican tradition.
But I remember that some of the most challenging exchanges with George at that 1987 symposium were precisely about the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom’s situation and the seductions of Anglican optimism (as he saw it). I was cautious about assuming that the language of Zion was quite as self-contained as George sometimes seemed to believe, wanting to ask about how as a matter of fact theological and cultural categories still leaked into each other, for good and ill, so that theology could properly learn something of how to be its best self from the world’s critique. George argued that my questions grew out of a rather insular British Anglican positivity about the relation of theology and culture, and an insufficient sense of the quiet but enormous intellectual crisis generated by the loss in public understanding of traditional theological categories, so that my Anglican qualms could reopen the door to a new subjectivism.
The argument continued with friendly vigor (and, at least on my side, a lot of learning) for a good many years; and it is a debate that continues on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere. But it is enormously the richer and more nuanced because of George’s unique contribution. Every contemporary theologian — and there are many — who takes for granted that the Church is the place where theology is done and that the language of liturgy and prayerful meditation on Scripture (not the supposed needs of a religious consciousness) is the normative background for theological labor is in George Lindbeck’s debt.
Very few English-speaking theologians have made such a decisive contribution to the discipline. George’s literary output was not copious in volume — a fact that reflects the reserved, somewhat ironic, modest, and nonpompous style of the man. Church and academy have every reason to be grateful to God for his steady, probing, reticent but also celebratory interrogation of how theology works.
The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams is master of Magdalene College and honorary professor of contemporary Christian thought at Cambridge University.