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Not unrelated to the earlier deliberations of neo-orthodox theologians in the first half of the twentieth century, postliberal theology flourished (first at Yale but quickly spreading far beyond New Haven) in that century's closing decades. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it has continued to develop as an important option on a menu of contemporary theological possibilities, in relation to the similar but more extreme perspectives embedded in the Radical Orthodoxy of thinkers like John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. Here, I propose to examine this ‘postliberal turn’ in contemporary religious thought, albeit only briefly and with attention focused narrowly on one important book that helped to launch the movement.

My purpose in writing is not primarily historical, but rather is rooted in the conviction that the ‘enlightenment project’ is not yet dead, not in general and certainly not as it bears on issues of theological inquiry. Without returning to an old-fashioned foundationalism, or to now problematic views of human rationality, or to naïve appeals to religious experience as evidence for the truth of theological claims, I want to revive the spirit of liberal theology in a form chastened by the best insights of postliberal thinkers. Such insights, I suggest, are consistent with philosophical ideas formulated earlier by the classical American pragmatists. By paying careful attention to the thought of Charles Peirce in particular, liberal theologians might be able to regroup and perhaps even reinvent themselves.1 Understanding and appreciating, but finally eschewing Jeffrey Stout's advice that we should now avoid the use of the word ‘liberal’ altogether (in politics as well as in religion) because it only tends to block the path to inquiry,2 I want instead to discover what that word can mean for twenty-first century theologians – theologians who perceive themselves as being in continuity with earlier liberal thinkers, but not eager to embrace some of their more problematic assumptions and perspectives.


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Probably few books written in recent decades have been as misunderstood, misrepresented and misused as George Lindbeck's tersely argued and enormously influential discussion of The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, published in 1984.3 Lindbeck's agenda was essentially pragmatic and ecumenical. How can the representatives of different religious communities, once engaged in honest and open dialogue, understand and then negotiate what appear to be sharp contrasts, even contradictions, between their respective doctrinal utterances? If construed primarily as truth claims, as propositions about religiously significant states of affairs, then most doctrinal conflicts would appear to be irreconcilable. On the other hand, if perceived as the symbolic expressions or articulations in a particular idiom of certain vague but powerful human experiences of the sacred, then any apparent contradictions between doctrines would not be so troublesome. The former perspective makes ecumenical dialogue virtually impossible, while the latter reduces it to a straightforward exercise in translation (while simultaneously obscuring the source of very real tensions and differences that may actually exist between religious communities). Lindbeck famously rejected both a ‘propositionalist’ and an ‘experiential-expressivist’ account of the nature of doctrine, however, and articulated in the pages of this brief volume a ‘cultural-linguistic’ alternative.

That the book became perceived as a manifesto for the ‘Yale school’ of theology in academic competition with so-called ‘liberal’ theologians from Chicago is somewhat ironic considering the broadly ecumenical commitments that inspired its production. Indeed, the book's effective history does seem to stand in tension with at least some of the basic intentions that shaped the author's deliberations as he was writing it. These differences with classically liberal theological perspectives were not, of course, entirely beside the point of the book's basic argument - as its subtitle clearly suggests. Moreover, David Tracy may have been correct to observe, in an important early review of Lindbeck's book, that the title and sub-title designate related but separate projects.4 It was the call for a ‘postliberal theology’ and not the ecumenically felicitous ‘rule theory’ account of the nature of doctrine that Tracy, in his own critique, judged to be most problematic.

The secondary literature consisting of commentary on Lindbeck's study has grown steadily over a quarter of a century, with several special issues of academic journals devoted entirely to that purpose. I do not propose to add here to that collection of material. I want only to make a few brief observations that I hope will be salient for the discussion to follow. In the first place, on Lindbeck's account, it is an experiential-expressivist model of religion that is both presupposed and employed by liberal theologians in the modern tradition that originated with Schleiermacher. ‘Liberals start with experience,’ he asserts, and then make theological adjustments in their understanding of traditional beliefs accordingly (Lindbeck, p. 125). So one of the decisive differences between a liberal and a postliberal theologian for Lindbeck will be the way that they think about experience, and then how they appeal to experience in their theological deliberations. Postliberals, within the framework supplied by a cultural-linguistic model, start with tradition - with the habits of thought, feeling and conduct developed by members of traditional religious communities - and then consider how such habits shape the experiences of these individuals, indeed, constitute the grounds for their having religiously meaningful experiences at all. In contradistinction to a liberal perspective that locates experience as its starting point, ‘postliberals,’ as Lindbeck succinctly explains, ‘are in principle committed to doing the reverse’ (Lindbeck, p. 126).

I want to compare immediately this sort of claim with some of the earlier complaints of a neo-orthodox thinker like Reinhold Niebuhr in reaction to what he perceived to be John Dewey's liberal optimism. It was not so much Dewey's empiricism as his understanding of human rationality that Niebuhr was eager to place at a distance from his own perspective. A naively positive assessment of human reason and the role that it can play in grounding a liberal confidence in human perfectibility are the enlightenment mistakes that Niebuhr regarded as diminishing awareness of the nature, power and ubiquity of human sinfulness. Religious tradition embodies both a judgment of and corrective for contemporary forms of life and modes of reasoning gone awry (ranging from the injustices embedded in our politics and economics to our often destructive technological practices to our ‘scientitistically’ impoverished views of humanity and society).5

While Lindbeck's and Niebuhr's critical reactions to liberal thought differ both in tone of voice and target of emphasis, I want to suggest that, in fact, they resemble each other more thoroughly than might appear to be the case at a quick glance. Lindbeck also portrays liberals as being excessively infatuated with ‘present trends,’ with individual experience (at the expense of communal ties and commitments), and so as pitifully unable to offer any sort of real intellectual resistance to what modernity might dish out, no matter how unappealing it might be - like ‘Nazism and Stalinism’ for example (Lindbeck, p. 126). An insistence on the primacy of the present as the key to creating a better future is, for each thinker, a distinguishing mark of liberal thought. Moreover, for both men, liberals place too much confidence in human nature, in the kinds of experiences of which humans are naturally capable, and in their ability through the careful exercise of natural human cognitive abilities to deal successfully with various problematic situations. Consequently, the tendency to embrace some form of naturalism must be added to the list of classical liberal vices.

Lindbeck identifies Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger, Karl Barth and Ludwig Wiitgenstein, among others, as predecessors laying the groundwork for his articulation of a cultural-linguistic ‘alternative’ to pre-modern or liberal modern theories of religion. He mentions Reinhold Niebuhr only once in The Nature of Doctrine, toward the end of that book when he credits him with being the last American theologian effectively to attempt ‘to redescribe major aspects of the contemporary scene in distinctively Christian terms,’ thus placing him in sharp tension with ‘the liberal tendency to redescribe religion in extrascriptural frameworks’ - a tendency that, both previously and then once again, was dominant after ‘the brief neo-orthodox interlude’ (Lindbeck, p. 124). The neo-orthodox movement itself was hardly the perfect embodiment of the sort of postliberal theology that Lindbeck is himself prescribing, as best evidenced by the thoroughly liberal musings of Paul Tillich as one of its key representatives.

There is virtually no talk about pragmatism in Lindbeck's book, the classical American pragmatists failing to be identified there either as sources of inspiration for his views or targeted as liberal villains (as in the case of Niebuhr's Dewey). I am convinced by Peter Ochs' reading of Lindbeck, however, that the connection with pragmatism is a significant one, whether or not Lindbeck himself was aware of it at the time.6 Ochs discerns a strong affinity between Charles Peirce's semiotic theory and Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic assumption ‘that a religion may be understood as a system of signs,’ furthermore, ‘that such signs display their meaning in the way they inform behavior in the community of sign users' (Ochs, p. 309). Lindbeck's ‘intratextual’ insistence that what a sign like ‘God’ signifies is best to be determined ‘by examining how the word operates within a religion and thereby shapes reality and experience’ is an approach that, in point of fact, he was also willing to describe as ‘intrasemiotic’ (Lindbeck, p. 114). Furthermore, Lindbeck's assertion that ‘performance’ must be the ‘ultimate test’ of the ‘merits and demerits’ of any theological method has a distinctively pragmatic flavor (Lindbeck, p. 134). Once again, none of these observations amounts to an argument that Lindbeck's postliberal project was either consciously or unconsciously shaped by American philosophical pragmatism. Ochs is primarily interested in the affinities, with himself acting as a mediating ‘third’ in the establishment of a dialogue between Peircean pragmaticists and the Yale-style postliberals.

All of this seems like a good idea to me, although my way of making the connections might differ somewhat from Ochs and I am less interested in pushing the postliberal agenda than I am in retrieving a classically liberal one informed and so re-shaped by postliberal criticisms. But I do want to add, before turning in that direction, that Ochs' articulation and development of postliberal themes seems a good deal more promising than that of his former colleague at Virginia, John Milbank. Milbank's program for a ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ generates conclusions that (I agree with Robert Neville) are only ‘superficially similar to the Yale School,’ conclusions that seem dangerously close to fideism, greatly overextending (what Neville labels) ‘the rights of arbitrary affirmation.’7 I think that Ochs is too much of a pragmaticist to run this risk, and I suspect that the pragmatic tendencies that he discerns in Lindbeck's thought may also function for the latter as an important safeguard. Lindbeck's concern to facilitate dialogue between different religious communities even while respecting the integrity of their distinctive beliefs and traditions motivates his theoretical discourse about religion. On the other hand, Milbank seems preoccupied with defending a grand narrative that traces the ‘fall’ into modernity all the way back (at least) to the philosophical and theological arguments articulated by the 13th century Franciscan, John Duns Scotus.8 Radical Orthodoxy represents an attempt to recover and defend the truth of a particular way of thinking theologically, while the postliberal agenda, at least with Lindbeck (and certainly as Ochs has appropriated it) was shaped by the practical need to find common ground between separate religious perspectives.


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The word ‘liberal,’ as it is used both in politics and in theology, is an extraordinarily vague term designating a vast array of ideological perspectives. This vagueness can be a problem for all of the reasons that Stout recognized, but from a Peircean perspective it can also be defended and to some extent maintained; to what extent one chooses to do so will depend on the nature and purposes of any given inquiry. For present purposes, I will focus attention on what postliberals like Lindbeck appear to regard as the distinguishing features of a liberal approach to theology. That will require saying something about the concept of ‘experience’ and the role that experience plays in human reasoning.

As a preface to that discussion, I can offer only a few brief remarks here about the observed liberal tendencies of certain religious naturalists.9 In classical pragmatist fashion, I want to worry out loud about any sort of rigid (and so very probably false) nature/culture dichotomies of the sort that a passionate ‘cultural-linguist’ might be inclined to propose. Learning and using a language, as well as other signs, participating in a community, forming beliefs and developing traditions – in short, becoming enculturated is precisely the sort of thing that human beings do naturally. It is the sort of thing for which they, unlike the members of other species, have a natural capacity. Moreover, what human beings are naturally capable or incapable of doing clearly plays a role in determining the potential shape of their cultural productions and activities. Our linguistic habits, for example, are not entirely unrelated to our linguistic capacities. There is no generation of meaning without the ‘software’ supplied by some kind of cultural affiliation, but the software simply will not run without the proper, functioning cognitive ‘hardware.’

This makes the cultural-linguistic talk about ‘meaning’ a bit more complicated than Lindbeck himself might be willing to concede.10 The meaning of a sign may indeed be determined, ‘intratextually,’ by its location and function within a semiotic system. Moreover, it is certainly the case that the meaning of an experience will be shaped by the language and culture of the person who has the experience; it will be ‘rule-governed’ in that sense. Yet it will also be shaped by other, apparently ‘natural’ factors, like the fact that the person is a biped, who walks in an upright position, with two eyes (positioned in front and not on the side of the head) and two ears and an opposable thumb, with a brain of a certain size, structure and capacity, and with certain genetically induced drives, needs and predispositions. Persons displaying these same natural characteristics will have experiences that other kinds of organisms cannot, just as persons sharing a culture – a language, beliefs, practices, traditions – will have experiences of which someone from a different culture might be incapable.

In none of these instances, however, will it be unproblematic to say that one person has exactly the ‘same’ experience as another. Indeed, unless the word ‘same’ (like ‘liberal’) is governed by a fuzzy logic, it is improper even to say that one person had the same experience today that she had yesterday. So Lindbeck's complaint that the liberal theologian's appeal to the religious meaning of a natural, ‘common core’ human experience (such as those described by Schleiermacher, Otto or James) is illegitimate has force only to the extent that some rigid criterion of ‘sameness’ is applied. At some point, such rigidity rules out any communication between persons about the quality and meaning of their experiences, even those who are intimate neighbors within a community. On the other hand, if descriptive accounts remain at a certain level of vagueness, it might be perfectly legitimate to say that persons from very different cultures have the same experience (for example, of intense fear, or of a beautiful sunset, or of being in love, … or of creaturely dependence).

Now it is one thing to talk about the ‘meaning’ of a sign. It is another thing to talk about the ‘meaning’ of an experience. And it is possible to talk about meaning in the latter case, only because human experiences, understood from Peirce's pragmaticist perspective, are themselves forms of semiosis, that is to say, these experiences are always the product – even if unconscious – of acts of interpretation. Moreover, persons do not merely employ signs, but are themselves living symbols.11 Humans embody meaning in the form of habits– habits of thought, feeling and conduct – many of which are inculcated through membership in a certain community, some of which Peirce regarded as instinctive or natural. Often these habits are developed unconsciously, but they can also be shaped deliberately, so that Peirce understood human freedom to consist in precisely the sort of ‘self-control’ that one is able to exercise over this process of habit formation (Peirce, 5.418ff.).

As participants in a culture we are engaged continuously in both creating and reading texts of various kinds and degrees of complexity. The texts with which we are intimately familiar not only help but predispose us to make a certain kind of sense out of our experiences. At the same time, the way that we interpret texts is heavily influenced by the accumulated experiences that we have had. So there is a complex and ongoing ‘intertextuality’ involved in the production of meaning for human beings. Both the texts that we read and the texts that we are combine to shape the meanings of our lives. This set of claims is plausible, of course, only to the extent that it makes sense to talk about ‘texts’ that are not composed exclusively of words. Language is a form of semiosis, but not all signs are linguistic ones. On this account, we need a generously expanded sense not only of what can be properly regarded as ‘textual’ but also of what it means ‘to give an interpretation.’ That is to say, we need a (Peircean) semiotic theory from which perspective we can regard both feelings and behavior as serving an interpretive function, while also construing their occurrence in certain patterns as constituting a type of meaningful text. On such a view, feelings experienced or behaviors elicited in response to certain religious symbols would constitute part of the meaning of those symbols.

Consequently, Lindbeck's plea for ‘intratextuality’ must be rejected if it is intended to lock meaning within some semiotic system and prevent misguided ‘extratextual’ appeals to experiences or things for the determination of meaning. From a Peircean point of view (and this view sounds like but is actually quite different from the one often defended by poststructuralist literary theorists), one may be able to reach beyond a specific text, but there is no getting altogether ‘outside of’ or ‘beyond’ textuality itself. In a world ‘perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs,’ one in which all experience is always already interpreted experience, there is semiosis ‘all the way down’ (Peirce, 5.448).

I am not suggesting that the future of liberal theology depends a great deal on working out the complex nuances of this sort of pansemiotic perspective.12 And I am certainly not suggesting, along with those harsh critics who have charged Lindbeck of endorsing fideism or promoting sectarianism, that his intention really was to isolate meaning within the confines of a particular tradition or community. (As I have already suggested, his intensely ecumenical motivations belie such a claim.) Rather, the lesson for liberal theologians who are accused of ‘experiential-expressivism’ by postliberals is to continue to insist on the importance of experience for theological reflection, but to reject the claim that they have reduced the role of language to its function as a mode of ‘expression.’13 Experience is not something that a good liberal pragmatist will be inclined to regard as being simply ‘given’ or ‘foundational,’ with its articulation in language or symbol coming after the fact. Nevertheless, this conclusion does not entail that one must reject experience as an invaluable theological touchstone.


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What sort of empiricist, then, should a good liberal theologian aspire to become? In the first place, it seems to me, one should be impressed enough by postliberal arguments to want to speak about experience in more than just the present tense. It was a mistake for Lindbeck to gloss his own claim that ‘liberals start with experience’ by construing this to mean that they must be exclusively preoccupied ‘with an account of the present’ (Lindbeck, p. 125). Nevertheless, the postliberal emphasis on the importance of tradition and community can be a useful corrective for the kind of individualism and inattention to the past that might sometimes infect liberal theologizing. One need not become a ‘postliberal,’ however, in order to avoid such errors. It is probably sufficient just to be a good pragmatist. For the classical pragmatists, especially Peirce and Dewey, it was the scientific method that supplied the model for thinking about the role that experience ought to play in shaping our deliberations; and the empirical life-blood of the sciences is the logic of induction. A result presently experienced will have little scientific importance if it differs completely from results experienced in the past under roughly similar circumstances. Likewise, if a particular result is limited to one person's experience and shared by no one else in the community of inquirers, its scientific value is dramatically eroded. Idiosyncratic results may have some interpretive significance, but what really counts inductively is their accumulation, both across time and by many different individuals engaged in an ongoing conversation.

The scientific method is not exhaustively inductive, however, so that there is a more complicated story to be told about the role of experience in theological inquiry. For Peirce, anything that qualifies as an ‘experience’– that is, anything more than what would appear as a brute surd hardly registering in human consciousness – is always already interpreted. All perceptions represent hypothetical or ‘abductive’ inferences (typically unconscious and automatic), which involve the application of ‘rules’ or class concepts to the particular ‘cases’ of things encountered in experience. Experience in this sense is the linking of object and meaning (or what Peirce called an ‘interpretant’) via the mediation of some sign, a semiotic event that takes the form of an abduction.14 On this account, experience is a source of abductive insight, at the same time serving over time (inductively) to confirm, undermine or transform such hypotheses (many of which, once again, take the form of seemingly direct perceptions that we would not initially be inclined to regard as ‘hypothetical’). So a liberal theology will indeed begin with a turn to experience (here Lindbeck's observation was correct, but how could one ever hope to elude experience-as-semiosis, to get ‘outside’ of it, in order to begin elsewhere?); but it will proceed deductively to explicate insights thus generated, to expose their presuppositions and entailments, then also inductively to test such insights against those accumulated both in the past and by others. This sort of inquiry was for Peirce a deliberate, self-controlled process gradually yielding its fruits in the ‘long run.’15

Now, enculturated human beings are equipped with a vast array of acquired beliefs, habits of thought that will serve as mostly silent premises for their perceptual judgments, thus dramatically shaping their experience of the world; this is a cultural-linguistic insight that no good liberal pragmatist will feel inclined to repudiate. But the liberal theologian will not be bound to these beliefs, in the way that a traditional theologian might, should they prove to be infelicitous in the long run, that is, should they cease to bear interpretive fruit. Instead, a liberal thinker would be willing to embrace the need for a change or reformulation of belief, facilitating the development of doctrine as a future rule for thought and practice. To be open to change of this kind is very different, however, from insisting on the ‘primacy of the present,’ as if some isolated, episodic flash of insight could easily overturn an accumulated wealth of experience. Nothing could be more unpragmatic than such a strategy and so good liberals will be sure to eschew it. Even Lindbeck is enough of a pragmatist to insist on long-term ‘performance’ as the ultimate test of a theological method.

Experience plays a role, as argued here, both in the generation of beliefs (abductively) and then either in their maintenance or their transformation (what Peirce regarded as a kind of editing or ‘pruning’ function) through a process of induction. That beliefs can change as the result of accumulating experience is a liberal insight. But liberal pragmatists will want always to remember (with their memories perhaps being stimulated by the postliberal critique) that abductive insights do not occur in a vacuum; they never constitute a pure starting point. If induction is the testing of insights abductively generated, all abductions require for their premises certain firm (and so often unconscious) habits of thought, the vast majority of which have already been inductively established. (I say the ‘vast majority’ rather than ‘all’ because liberal thinkers following Peirce will want to remain open to the possibility that there are certain basic natural or instinctive tendencies, albeit quite vague, shaping human thought and experience.) Another way to make this point is to affirm that persons who engage in theological inquiry are themselves always already socially constituted (as enculturated selves sharing with others certain traditional habits of thought, feeling and conduct), while also being socially engaged with each other as members of a community of inquiry. And so these communities, as well as their traditions, matter a great deal for our theological practices.

This emphasis on community is also a Peircean theme, one that Josiah Royce developed, most especially in his later writings,16 and then also one that Jurgen Habermas turned to early in his philosophical career.17 Habermas' analysis of ‘discourse ethics’ was appropriately complex right from the start; moreover, his thinking about this complex set of issues has evolved significantly during the last several decades. Most important for contemporary theology, however, is the manner in which Habermas, following Peirce and Royce, characterized communities in semiotic terms, each shaped by a communicative rationality, with the preservation of that rationality being contingent on the ability of all members freely to participate in the community's ongoing conversation.

If the scientific method is to supply the appropriate rubrics for such a conversation, this must be a science broadly conceived, nuanced in much the same way that Peirce thought so carefully about science late in the 19th century, and thus far removed from any of the dangerously narrow forms of contemporary ‘scientism.’ Peirce's theory of induction, for example, articulated against the background supplied by his logic of vagueness, embodies a much more sophisticated account of how multiple interpretations are relevant to each other than the simplistic explanation that they are accumulated for the sole purpose of building a ‘consensus’. Peirce was much more interested in logical ‘systems’ of relations than he was in logical ‘classes’ defined by their members being each of the ‘same’ kind. In Peirce's view, any sign or symbol is necessarily vague; while the logic governing its usage will preclude many interpretations of its meaning as erroneous or irrelevant, that meaning is indeterminate enough to permit a great variety of alternative construals. Some interpretations act together to confirm a particular conclusion, but others work in a more complementary fashion, so that a Peircean ideal of semiotic completeness would undermine any strategy that invokes some rigid criterion of consensus or sameness in order to achieve a radical delimiting of meanings.

Applied to the theological conversation, this ideal could be classified as a ‘liberal’ one, since it allows us to attach to individual interpretations a certain value, not just insofar as they serve to help confirm some belief already held, but also because of the role that they might play in correcting it. In the latter case, correction can take the form of falsification or critique, but if the experimental method is employed skillfully it also enables the modification of ideas by linking them to complementary notions or balancing them against conceptions held in tension with them. Given the extraordinary vagueness of most religious symbols, the false idol of univocity is one that liberal theologians should work most strenuously to smash, with the inclusion of multiple voices and the accommodation of multiple interpretations (despite the risks and challenges involved) following naturally from the sort of semiotic perspective that Peirce articulated. (This is precisely why Peirce himself argued, primarily on logical grounds, that the ideal community of inquiry should be potentially ‘unlimited’ in scope.)

The application of scientific method to inquiries in the humanities and social sciences can and certainly has yielded problematic results. Consensus has been far more difficult to achieve in such inquiries than it has been in the so-called ‘hard’ or natural sciences. This makes it all the more important to delimit the importance of consensus, as being one but not the only goal of a genuinely scientific investigation. Even in the natural sciences, a premature rush to consensus that results in the occlusion of multiple perspectives, in their premature suppression or alteration, can only prove to be infelicitous for someone committed to the discovery of the truth. This is even more likely to be the case in theological inquiries, where the meaning of a religious symbol can be expected to prove a good deal more resistant to the straightforward application of scientific method than, for example, the determination of the weight of a piece of lead. This will be true for a great variety of reasons, not least of all being the fact that such symbols, as already indicated, tend to be multivalent and quite vague. The multiple acts of interpretation in which theologians engage cannot be expected to converge on a single meaning for each symbol, in the way that properly replicated experiments could be hoped to converge on a specific weight for the piece of lead. Since liberals tend to reject the claim that symbols can only mean narrowly what they have been ‘authoritatively’ or ‘traditionally’ stipulated to mean, this observation that science may not be able, either easily or rigidly, to fix their meanings should not be especially troubling.

Some attempts at a ‘scientific’ theology in the past may have naively assumed that the truly scientific inquirer, if properly trained and disciplined, could achieve the status of a ‘well-functioning eye-ball,’ perceiving reality in a way innocent of all historical and cultural contingencies, zeroing in on the truth in the way that a ‘meter reader’ determines precise values with a glance. Yet no group of philosophers worked harder to distance themselves from this kind of naïve empiricism than the classical pragmatists did. Moreover, Lindbeck's sharp critique of ‘experiential-expressivism’ embodies a pragmatic rejection (albeit inspired more by Wittgenstein than by Peirce or Dewey) of just such an empiricist perspective.

At the same time, the failure to achieve consensus should not be taken as a failure of the scientific method itself or as a reason to urge its abandonment. For the pragmatists, a method is ‘scientific’ to the extent that it incorporates certain basic interpretive and inductive elements. Interpretation embraces, in Peirce's terms, both abduction and deduction. Our experience of some phenomenon (an experience shaped by our habits of thought and perception as well as by the phenomenon itself) results in some hypothetical idea concerning its nature and meaning, an idea that, once elaborated, grows to incorporate a vast array of implications, each of which would be deductively entailed by acceptance of the original idea as true. The probability of its truth increases or decreases with additional experience (the inductive element), sometimes one's own, but often also the experience of others who have encountered the same phenomenon and shared their thinking about it.18 This method can be rigorously disciplined and enhanced by sophisticated technologies, as it often is in the laboratories of natural scientists. For the classical pragmatists, however, scientific method was too powerful and important to restrict its exercise to the laboratory; indeed, for Peirce it was our most reliable means for fixing beliefs in general.19 On this account, everyday life is a laboratory, our lived experience involving a steady stream of interpretations and an ongoing process of testing their validity.

The failure to achieve consensus about the meaning of signs and symbols should also not be taken as an indication that in matters of theological interpretation ‘anything goes.’ To say that a symbol has potentially many meanings is not to say that it can just mean anything at all (as if meaning were always something purely external, attached to a symbol as if by a code). For the liberal theologian to be able to regard an array of complementary interpretations as permissible does not preclude the possibility of critique, of arguing for the superiority of one interpretation over another, or of insisting that some specific construal of meaning is altogether illegitimate.

To remark superficially that both liberal theologians and traditionalists recognize the importance of community for theological inquiry is to ignore the radically democratic form that community takes for pragmatic thinkers like Peirce, Royce, Dewey and Habermas (each of these thinkers, the significant contrasts among them notwithstanding, all qualifying as ‘liberal’ in the necessarily vague sense that I have employed the term here). Communities can play a crucial role in shaping the beliefs of their members, but this can be accomplished in dramatically different ways, scientifically for example, or by the imposition of authority. Liberals will prefer the former method, the one that leaves open the possibility of critique, enabling the rejection of ideas that might prove to be distorted or false, sometimes even dangerous. On pragmatic premises, scientific communities are necessarily open and democratic (which is the reason, once again, why Peirce regarded the community of inquirers as being, in principle, unlimited). Everyone within the community should have a proper role in the conversation – while anyone not presently in the community is potentially a member – by virtue of their capacity to reason carefully, to employ the scientific method (even if only loosely conceived). Of course, theologians will pledge allegiance to traditional religious communities that are much more narrowly circumscribed than this liberal prescription suggests. Nevertheless, even such traditional groups should be open, attentive and responsive to the insights and interpretations supplied both by members and by outsiders.20 Moreover, there is a natural limit to how narrowly circumscribed such a community can be, while still remaining open and democratic. Religious cults, for example, are typically reduced to fixing the meanings of symbols by the most unscientific of methods. Liberal theologians, needless to say, should not be attracted to cults; rather, they should be properly and vigorously critical of all forms of cultish behavior.

Peirce's prescription for ‘the marriage of science and religion,’ with the scientific community of inquirers serving as a model for the Christian Church, may seem a bit quaint and naïve to twenty-first century readers who have become jaded about the self-interested politics and economics of much scientific research – not to mention the rather unenlightened authoritarianism of some religious communities (Peirce, 6.428ff.). But that prescription's value cannot be completely undermined by its failure actually to have become embodied in modern institutions. Liberal theologians will want continuously to work toward the creation of such institutions, whether the specific locus of theology happens to be academic or ecclesiastical – to insure through education the accessibility of religious ideas to all members of the community and to maintain politically the right of all members to have a voice in the theological conversation. Within this liberal vision, community is perceived as doubly empowering for individuals engaged in theological reflection, supplying both the cultural-linguistic background for such deliberations and guaranteeing the right of each individual to challenge and critique traditional perspectives, based on pragmatic criteria regarding their long-term ‘fruits for life.’

Pragmatists tend to hate rigid dichotomies and so pragmatic liberal theologians should cling to their example. The division between tradition and experience is elided to the extent that tradition represents the accumulation of experience and experience itself is perceived as always already interpreted, shaped by cultural forces and factors, semiosis all the way down. Nor can the present be isolated from the future on any Peircean account that insists on the necessity of ‘hope’ as a regulative principle of reason, that is, on the importance for our present deliberations of trust in the eventually self-correcting and self-transforming power of human inquiry; this trust is equivalent to the hope in a community of the future that will embody the truth more fully, transcend the limitations of the present community more completely (Peirce, 2.654-55). (This sort of hope, its salience as a rule of inquiry typically obscured, is the frequent target of those critics of a naïve ‘liberal optimism’.) The contrast between communitarian tendencies and liberal individualism is also softened when one learns to regard individual selves as essentially social in nature and to respect the integrity with which free individuals engage each other inter-subjectively, in open, democratic conversation. Because such individuals are often members of different communities, even the distinctions between one community and another, or between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the community will tend to be blurred. Nature and culture is a bogus opposition for reasons already summarized here, likewise theory and practice, for reasons implicit in the argument but never fully delineated.

Liberal theologians should continue to care deeply about the details of human experience and emphasize its importance for reflection; likewise, they should emphasize the freedom and dignity of individuals while struggling to understand their natural capacities and predispositions. This does not mean that the postliberal critique of classical liberal thought fails to embody any wisdom by which they might be edified. At the same time, these commitments hardly need to be portrayed as representing a problem for liberalism. Liberal theologians have long been made to feel woefully ‘nineteenth century’ in their thinking and perspectives, first by Marxists and the neo-orthodox, then by postliberals and the Radically Orthodox . Still, the self-corrective quality of their commitment to human reason, to a deliberate, democratic and communal form of rationality, embodies the promise for the twenty first century of a new enlightenment, less troubled by hubris, and even more thoroughly pragmatic in its methods, goals and respect for tradition. Liberal theologians need collectively to make good on this promise. May their tribe increase!

  1. 1 My project both bears a resemblance and is indebted to Robert Neville's ‘theology of symbolic engagement.’ No one has done more than Neville has to think through the implications of Peirce's pragmaticism and semiotic theory for the purposes of contemporary philosophical theology, and in a way completely sensitive to the challenges and insights embodied in Lindbeck's postliberal perspective. See, especially, Neville's On the Scope and Truth of Theology: Theology as Symbolic Engagement (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), and Realism in Religion: A Pragmatist's Perspective (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009). Jurgen Harbermas also plays a minor role behind the scenes of my prescriptive account – his reflections on the enlightenment project, his early appeal to Peirce and Royce in executing his own philosophical agenda, and his growing influence on contemporary theology all contributing to his significance for my purposes (although I only gesture toward that significance here).

  2. 2 Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 130.

  3. 3 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).

  4. 4 See David Tracy's review of The Nature of Doctrine, ‘Lindbeck's New Program for Theology: A Reflection,’ in The Thomist 49.3 (July, 1985): 460–72.

  5. 5 For a useful discussion of Niebuhr's critique of Dewey and liberalism, consult Langdon Gilkey's introduction to Moral Man & Immoral Society (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. xi-xxii.

  6. 6 Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Ochs' idiosyncratic, but enormously insightful reading of Peirce deserves much more attention from contemporary theologians than it has yet received. For an intelligent discussion of Ochs's relationship both to Lindbeck's postliberal project and to Peirce's pragmaticism, consult C.C. Pecknold's Transforming Postliberal Theology: George Lindbeck, Pragmatism and Scripture (London: T&T Clark, 2005), especially chapter 3.

  7. 7 Robert Neville, On the Scope and Truth of Theology, p. 18–19.

  8. 8 I have indicated elsewhere both my appreciation for and my reservations about Milbank's theological project, in my reviews of Milbank's The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, and Culture, published in The Thomist 62.4 (October, 1998): 633–37, and his Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon published in The Thomist 69 (April, 2005): 322–26. Since those earlier published remarks, while my appreciation is undiminished, my reservations have grown.

  9. 9 For a more extended discussion, see my ‘Theology as Theosemiotic,’Semiotics 1992: 104–111. Naturalism is itself a vague term, typically contrasted in discussions of religious naturalism with various claims about the existence of anything ‘supernatural.’ Here I want to focus my attention on nature/culture, which is also a theologically significant contrast.

  10. 10 I say ‘might be’ because of what Lindbeck reported to me in a conversation during his visit to my university in 1985, when he came to lecture about his recently published book. There and then (although his perspective may later have changed) he was open to the possibility of some kind of vaguely conceived and naturally human core religious experience, but he clearly indicated that theorists like Otto, James, Schleiermacher and Lonergan had failed to make a compelling case with their descriptions of such an experience.

  11. 11 Peirce, C.S., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 5.310-17 (should be read as ‘volume 5, paragraphs 310 through 317’; future references to Peirce's Collected Papers will be made parenthetically in the text of my paper.)

  12. 12 The task of developing the details of such a perspective as an important option for contemporary philosophical theologians is one that I am pursuing in a book in progress, entitled Theosemiotic.

  13. 13 As Tracy did in his review of Lindbeck in The Thomist, there proposing a ‘hermeneutical-political’ model as being more properly descriptive of his perspective than ‘experiential-expressivism.’

  14. 14 See my analysis in Peirce's Philosophy of Religion, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 140.

  15. 15 Within the framework supplied by Peirce's general theory of inquiry, it might be useful to think of ‘propositionalists’ as emphasizing theology in its deductive mode, with ‘experiential-expressivists’ focusing on the importance of theological induction. By contrast, liberal, pragmatic theologians need not only to recognize the essentially semiotic (thus abductive) character of experience but also to appreciate the interdependence of abduction, deduction and induction as related and complementary modes of inference involved in every process of inquiry.

  16. 16 I discuss Peirce's relation to Royce on this and similar issues in ‘In the Presence of the Universe: Peirce, Royce and Theology as Theosemiotic,’Harvard Theological Review 103 (April, 2010): 237–47.

  17. 17 Habermas has frequently admitted his indebtedness to the classical American pragmatists, and his relationship to pragmatism has been submitted to considerable philosophical scrutiny; see, for example, the essays collected in Habermas and Pragmatism, (London & New York: Routledge, 2002), eds. M. Aboulafia, M. Bookman and C. Kemp. The recognition of his importance for contemporary theology is a somewhat more recent phenomenon; see, as one example, Nicholas Adams' important discussion of Habermas and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  18. 18 Peter Berger famously sketched an ‘inductive’ method for doing theology that seeks to discern ‘signals of transcendence’ in certain common human experiences such as play, hope, and humor; see his book A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, (New York: Doubleday Publishing Co., 1970).

  19. 19 In ‘The Fixation of Belief’ (5.358–87), perhaps Peirce's best known published essay, he argued for the superiority of the scientific method over other methods of settling opinion, but most readers do not bother to notice that he never insisted on the exclusive use of science for this purpose. Similarly, I have argued here that liberal theologians in a post-liberal age should employ but certainly not be slavishly restricted to a scientific method (and only one subtly adapted to the special subject matter and purposes of theology).

  20. 20 No theologian articulates this requirement more forcefully than Robert Neville in On the Scope and Truth of Theology, where he argues consistently that theologians should make their claims ‘vulnerable’ to correction by exposing them in ongoing dialogue with the members of other religious communities.