Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In between Quaker Portraitures: Pointon and Lindbeck

The article cited below by Marcia Pointon provides a late twentieth-century interpretation of the sometimes tortured eighteenth- century Quaker relationship to material goods. If Clarkson, in Portraiture, offered an idealized view of Quakers, his odd bedfellows in the fight against slavery, with an eye towards "normalizing" Friends to upper-class Britons, Pointon examines some of the difficulties eighteenth-century Quakers had in navigating the world of consumption. In doing so, she emphasizes how "this-worldly" Quakers were in their understanding of the power of material goods:

Marcia Pointon, 'Quakerism and Material Culture', Art History, September
1997, pp. 397-431 (HT: BPD)

As for George Lindbeck, one of the books I recently read for an ESR seminary class in Constructive Theology was Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine, a modern classic. In this book, Lindbeck argues that the notion of religion most common in the West since the nineteenth-century is "emotional expressivism," the idea that we each, as individuals, have "our own" individual, interior experience of the Divine. After we have that experience, which in this mode of undertanding, is considered universal, we "translate" it into the language and culture (sign-system) of a religious faith. Thus, if we're born in to a European-American family in Ohio, we would likely translate a mystical encounter with God into the language of Christianity; if born in Iran, we would likely translate the same experience into the language if Islam. In a nutshell, religion works from the inside out and flows from the individual to the community.

Lindbeck, whose initial agenda in writing the book was to devise ways to foster ecumenical dialogue, turns "emotional expressivism" inside out. Religion, he says, is a "cultural linguistic" system, first and foremost, in other words, a grammar. Rather than functioning secondarily as a communal expression of shared interior experiences, the culture and language of our religious heritage determines the kind of interior religious experiences we as individuals have. We go from the outside (culture) to the inside (mystical experience). And, if our "interior" religious experiences are structured by our language and culture (the religious rituals, stories, songs etc. that we learn), then the "mystical" encounters with the ineffable that a Buddhist has are fundamentally different from those of a Christian.

Understanding religions as cultural linguistic systems or "languages" is useful for interfaith or ecumenical dialogue because it respects, rather than erases, differences between faiths (nobody would ever, for example, posit that French and German are the "same") and it eradicates the need to establish one religion as "superior" to another (French and German are simply two different languages and one doesn't have to devise a hierarchy to show that one is better than the other).

Lindbeck thus argues that since there is no single transcultural experience of the spiritual there is no need to posit a transcultural, overarching experience of religion: “One can no more be religious in general than one can speak language in general,” he writes. Religion is located in particularity. This leads to the now familiar move from doctrine to stories--religion is not a set of propositions but a community of people who share a language and heritage for understanding the divine.

Lindbeck's theory is obviously problematic for Quakerism, as this is a faith group that highly values individual mystical experience. At that same time, the Society of Friends is a highly communal--and even orally-dependent--group. The question becomes, how does Quakerism align with and challenge Lindbeck?

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