Three closely interrelated topics dominate this work. The first is language and the role it plays in forming how we experience reality. The second is the nature of religious experience. The third is whether there is a transcendent reality to which such experience corresponds. Kelly surveys ideas from Schleiermacher, Proudfoot, Lindbeck, Steiner, and Rahner in order to arrive at his own rather Rahnerian position.
Friedrich Schleiermacher saved religion from implausible and even dead doctrines, according to its cultured despisers, by an appeal to inner religious experience of the transcendent Whole or Independent. Such experience gives rise to linguistic expressions, as in doctrines. But as the language context changes with time and place, so must doctrines change, in the service of basic piety or religiousness.
Wayne Proudfoot challenges this on several counts. He agrees with postmodernists that language creates experience. Any religious experience is the product of culture and its language, not vice versa. Because cultures and languages vary, there is no universal human religious experience. Moreover, academic explanations of religion need not accept the believers' claims that there is a transcendent reality. Culture and language may produce experiences without a really existing object of such experience.
George Lindbeck saves religion from Proudfoot by accepting Proudfoot's postmodernist claim that language produces experience. Every language is the product of a community and is handed on through the community's tradition and forms of life. But this means there is no neutral place to stand to evaluate this or that community; there is only one's own community guiding one to certain ways of experiencing reality. This also means that the doctrines of any community can only be judged from within that community and its standards. From within the community, this "cultural-linguistic" way of life is fully legitimate and valid. While its doctrines are not the "objective" truth (though believers may think of them that way); they are guides to life, rules on how members of that community are to think and act.
George Steiner rejects a fully postmodernist interpretation of language in his Real Presences, and thereby saves the truth of at least a basic religious belief in a transcendent, a belief that can belong to humans in general not just to a given linguistic community. Language and experience interact, says Steiner. The deconstructionists are partly right about the endless flexibility of language and the worlds it guides us to see. Yet implicit in the long traditions of great art and literature there is a trust in meaning and meaningfulness which transcend and ground language and experience and creativity.
Karl Rahner agrees with Steiner that language shapes experience but that experience can also shape language. But Rahner burrows far deeper than Steiner's implicit trust in a vaguely identified transcendence. Rahner exposes the possibility of human self-recognition as the being intrinsically related to infinite mystery. Language, product of culture and history, is necessary to lead a person to become aware of self as this mode of experiencing. But this is then an experience of self as intrinsically open, free, responsible, living a relation to a mystery that exceeds all culture and language. Rahner allows us to get beyond thinking about thinking and talking about talking (159) to discover a positive relation to the holy mystery.
For the sake of brevity I have omitted aspects of the book, particularly Kelly's repeated use of the doctrine of the Trinity to show how doctrines are treated differently in the five different positions. But now a confession: I have also played a little loose with Kelly's presentation of the ideas of the five figures. Dissertation style, his prose is rather opaque, often repeating a dense abstraction rather than unpacking it in simpler and more concrete language. After several attempts to distinguish clearly between his reading of the five sources from my own, I succumbed and allowed my own sense of the five to take over, without always being sure when I was being unfaithful to Kelly's intent.
Nonetheless, the book nicely highlights limitations of postmodernist approaches, and it illustrates well significant differences and implications on the topics of religious experience, language, and doctrine. I found myself better able to articulate my own sense of the relation among these after studying Kelly's book. It also shows that Rahner's ideas can deal successfully with aspects of postmodern thought.