Language Theory and Hermeneutics: Meaning in Postmodernism and Postliberalism
Religious pluralism is correlated with the realities of multiculturalism, decolonization, and fluid migration patterns in the contemporary human community. In the wake of the philosophical crisis catalyzed by the challenges to Immanuel Kant's idealism, thinkers from various disciplines (philosophy, theology, sociology, history, anthropology, etc.) have found themselves needing to give a coherent account of diversity. Theories of religious diversity are particularly difficult, because many traditionalist religious expressions assert seemingly incommensurable truth-claims. (1) The challenge of how (or whether) to resolve this tension is extended to contemporary scholars. (2) Two seemingly antagonistic and counterproductive philosophical schools might, when put into controlled conversation with each other, contribute to one such project. Poststructuralism (also called "deconstructionism," with its preeminent exponent Jacques Derrida) and postliberalism (often called "narrative theology or the "Yale School," represented by George Lindbeck) can suggest a concentricity of intelligibility that might extend to meaningful interreligious dialogue.
Postmodern linguistic deconstructionsists (Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze)--applying the methods of hermeneutical phenomenologists Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur to the very process of hermeneutics--have so thoroughly and convincingly problematized the optimism of Enlightenment and modern positivist epistemologies that any philosophical attempt to construct a theory of interpretation must take seriously the poststructuralist critiques.
A culture-centric alternative to the endless deferring and excavating of deconstructionism has emerged from the synthesis of twentieth-century semioticians (Ferdinand de Saussure), correspondence theorists (Ludwig Wittgenstein), symbolic anthropologists (Clifford Geertz), and the "neo-orthodoxy" of the German Confessing Church (Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann) to produce a school of "postliberal" narrative theology (Lindbeck, Hans Frei, David Kelsey). (3) Postliberalism posits that meaning is found within the sum-total of the cultic, mythic, and confessional practices of a narrative community and that a correspondence between the intention of the communicator and the interpretation of the receiver is possible, therefore, if both are fluent in and indigenous to the same cultural-linguistic system. (4) While postliberalism is an optimistic alternative to poststructuralism in its notion of intelligibility and communicability, it is limited in two profound ways. (5)
The first limitation to the postliberal alternative is that it is simultaneously too rigid and too sweeping (and therefore falls into many of the same traps as the modernity that it so vehemently rejects) in its delineation of the in-group and the out-group. To suggest that immediate (oral-aural) and distant (text-reader) communication can take place without confusion if and only if the communicator and receiver share a cultural-linguistic system is to ignore the concentric nature of proximity. Poststructuralism, in turning Heidegger's historicism on itself, has demonstrated that on one level there is a communication breakdown even within an individual. (6) On another level, there is a sense in which distinct religious traditions (if so essentialized a category even exists as anything more than a loose convention) share common languages with other religious traditions to which they are related either historically/genetically or conceptually/morphologically.
Ironically, it has been largely the legacy of the Confessing Church that has prompted recent Christian and Jewish narrations of one another and, therefore, the development (or recovery) of a common cultural language. Though Christian neo-orthodox theology (in its more exclusivist or sectarian instantiations) proclaims the incommensurability of other religious traditions, it (along with Nostra aetate) precipitated twentieth-century interreligious theological dialogue by conceiving of the God of Judaism as being the same essence as the God of Christianity. …