Back in 1978, I took a course from George Lindbeck, and I have two vivid memories of him. I remember him staring out the window, chewing on the temple piece of his glasses, and lecturing-brilliantly but abstractedly, utterly absorbed in his thoughts. But I also remember the weekly tutorial sessions that were an integral part of the course. He would meet informally with a dozen or so students and talk over whatever was on their mind. Here he was affable, spontaneous, and thoroughly engaged. James Buckley has managed to capture both sides of Professor Lindbeck—the scholar and the gentleman—in this superb selection of his writings.
Lindbeck the gentleman emerges in the two autobiographical essays that open the volume. The first essay was written in 1990 for The Christian Century's "How My Mind Has Changed" series and gives an overview of his spiritual and theological development. The second is a candid (and sometimes hilarious) "oral history" of the Second Vatican Council (1962-64), which Lindbeck attended as a Delegated Observer for the Lutheran World Federation. There is no trace of self-promotion or self-congratulation in these essays, but they nevertheless display that remarkable combination of personal charm, intellectual gregariousness and generosity of spirit that made him such a remarkably effective theoretician and practitioner of ecumenical dialogue.
Lindbeck the scholar comes across in the remaining twelve essays. Buckley has divided these essays into three groups. The first two groups delineate the "evangelical" and "catholic" features of Lindbeck's theological program, respectively. It is important to note, however, that these are by no means antithetical categories. On the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin. To Lindbeck, being "evangelical" means being "Lutheran," and being authentically Lutheran, in turn, means participating in "a reform movement within the Catholic Church of the West" (emphasis added). However unavoidable the schisms of the sixteenth century may have been, Lindbeck refuses to concede that they must be permanent features of the ecclesiastical landscape. He understands Luther's aim, and therefore the proper aim of Lutheranism, to be the uncompromising defense of the sola fide. But he denies that this necessarily entails an irremediable breach with Rome or even the repudiation of the papacy. Indeed, for Lindbeck, that quintessentially Lutheran document, the Augsburg Confession, is as much a "catholic" document as an "evangelical" one. As Buckley puts it, Lindbeck understands evangelical Lutheranism as a "radical movement" within the broader Augustinian-Thomist tradition. Of course, not all Lutherans would share Lindbeck's commitment to "evangelical catholicity," nor indeed, would all Roman Catholics accept his reading of Augustine and Thomas. But that is precisely why Lindbeck's theology serves both prophetic and irenic functions at once. It challenges all parties, not to downplay their animating religious convictions in order to promote some spurious "unity" which lacks substantial religious content, but rather to formulate their convictions in ways that foster mutual understanding and respect. The canon of Christian scripture is, of course, the model for this, incorporating as it does a wide array of diverse but complementary and mutually corrective theological voices.
The third group of essays in this book underscores Lindbeck's commitment to a "postliberal" methodology. "Preliberal" theologies typically construed Christian doctrines as truth claims to be distilled from scripture and/or church tradition and then formulated into systems of logically interlocking propositions. "Liberal" theologies, in reaction, often regarded doctrines as symbolizations of people's primal religious experiences, often assuming that different people's experiences were more similar than the church's dogmatic propositions could account for. Lindbeck, in contrast, regards doctrines as the rough and ready "rules" according to which the members of a particular religious community think, act, and feel-much as the grammar of a language governs, but also reflects, the way that native speakers of that language actually talk. Lindbeck does not deny that doctrines enshrine religious truth or encode religious experience. But he insists that they are neither the "foundation" nor the "expression" of a community's way of life. Rather, they are the widely shared and often tacitly held principles, which suffuse and regulate its public discourse and activities.
Buckley's fine anthology illustrates Lindbeck's diverse interests and accounts for his wide influence among church leaders and academic theologians alike. He has organized these writings into a plausible schematic (although one wishes for some sign that Lindbeck approves of his categories), offers helpful commentary along the way, and furnishes bibliographical information useful for those who want to explore Lindbeck's work further. Highly recommended.