Magazine article First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 139
In reviewing The Church in a Postliberal Age (October 2003), Avery Cardinal Dulles focuses on what he calls the "Lindbeck project'--put forward most fully in The Nature of Doctrine (1984)--taken as a whole rather than on the particularities of the book itself. This is all to the good as far as I am concerned, for I have long been waiting for him to put his comprehensive assessment of the project into print. The review reads like a request for a public response, and for that I am grateful.
Before responding, however, I should mention that James Buckley, the editor of The Church in a Postliberal Age and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Loyola in Maryland, is in effect a co-author of the book. He has woven those of my shorter writings he selected out of many into a remarkably unified whole by means of extensive interpretive comments. He did this work without any input from me: I did not even know which writings and organizing themes he had chosen until the page proofs arrived. To my shame, however, I never read them, and thus it is I who am responsible for the editorial failures Cardinal Dulles cites. The most egregious, the failure to correct the consistent omission of fide from sola fide Christi in an article of that title, happened long before Buckley's watch when I condensed and rewrote an essay which I first published, as a footnote indicates, in a German version (which, not surprisingly, is free of this error). Cardinal Dulles does not blame anyone by name, but it should be made clear that it is I, not Buckley, who am at fault.
Turning now to my reply to Cardinal Dulles, I shall, except for thanking him, bypass the "many aspects of the Lindbeck project" about which he says he is "enthusiastic."
What Cardinal Dulles criticizes is not so much my cultural-linguistic view of religion as the associated regulative (or "grammatical") understanding of church doctrines (or "dogmas," in Roman Catholic usage). He thinks that my stress on their intrasystematically regulative role makes it doubtful that they also function propositionally; or, in more conventional terms, he suggests that the emphasis I place on truth as coherence with other beliefs obscures the primacy of truth understood as correspondence to objective reality. He concludes that "Lindbeck's own program concedes too much to post-modern relativism." This indictment, I shall argue, is a mistake, but as I am in part responsible for the misunderstandings which occasioned it, I shall not blame the Cardinal, but simply seek to clarify the confusions that have led him astray.
As I have already indicated, Cardinal Dulles suggests that the chief reason for what he regards as my relativism is that "for Lindbeck, the truth of Christianity... is predominantly intrasystemic." He then goes on to say, as if this were a consequence, that "[Lindbeck] refrains from saying that God is in Himself triune or that the Son of God is really a divine person." This apparent implication is, I suspect, stronger than he intends. We know each other well enough so that I do not take him to imply that I have mental reservations about these affirmations when I recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday or defend Chalcedon against its detractors. Rather, the fault with which I am charged, as I interpret it, is that my project either appears or is relativistic despite my intentions to the contrary. Cardinal Dulles writes in reference to my treatment of "the missionary enterprise" that "the rhetoric of Lindbeck, if not his actual thought, seems to undercut" what I want to say. Most of his criticisms seem to reflect a similar doubt as to whether the problem is with my "rhetoric" or with my "actual thought" (i.e., theories), but their cumulative effect leans towards the latter.
Thus, to illustrate, Cardinal Dulles appears to think that I doubt the following: "In agreement with Lindbeck's editor, I [Dulles] do not see the cultural-linguistic approach as antithetical to the propositional. …