By Stanley Hauerwas
I did not have George Lindbeck as a teacher at Yale. During my time at Yale (1962-68) he was often at Vatican II. I remember my first encounter with him was about the Vatican II discussion on religious liberty. I had written a paper on John Courtney Murray in which I developed some criticism of Murray’s position in We Hold These Truths. I am not sure how Mr. Lindbeck discovered I had written the paper, but he asked if he could read it. I was, of course, flattered that he was interested in anything I had done. I seem to remember he was not that impressed with my paper, though he was in fundamental agreement with my general criticisms of Murray. It turned out he was much more sympathetic with the French (and I think he meant Henri De Lubac) argument against the legal establishment of the church than he was Murray’s arguments, which seemed far too American.
Though I did not have the opportunity to take a course with Mr. Lindbeck, he had a decisive influence on me during my student years. That influence came through his book The Future of Roman Catholic Theology. Mr. Lindbeck’s book put me on the road to becoming a fideistic, sectarian tribalist. What was remarkable is how Lindbeck saw so early and clearly that the only way to sustain the Catholic character of the Church depended on the Church becoming a disciplined community that looked more Anabaptist than the universalism represented by many forms of Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism. The Nature of Doctrine, I think, was struggling to find expression in this early book.
I am not sure how Mr. Lindbeck and I became friends, but over the years I was honored that he claimed me as a friend. I am sure many wonder about that claim. Mr. Lindbeck was so learned and I am not, but he seemed to enjoy our interactions. He was even kind enough to suggest that I had been thinking for some time along the lines he developed in The Nature of Doctrine. I suspect our friendship reflected the influence of Hans Frei on both of us.
My favorite memory of Mr. Lindbeck was at an event organized by John Wright at the Nazarene Seminary in Kansas City that was to address the future of Protestantism. David Burrell and I were the other speakers. George’s reflections on his upbringing in China, his difficult reentry into life as an American, how he became a medievalist, his interactions at the Council, and his surprise at how The Nature of Doctrine has been read are priceless. We are indebted to Wright for making George’s remarks available in his book, Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic (Baker, 2012).
When we were in Kansas City, I asked George what he made of Paul J. DeHart’s criticism, which meant to make Frei’s position more coherent than Lindbeck’s, about the text absorbing the world. George, who could be quite impish, smiled and said he was a bit surprised because he had learned that phrase from Frei. And that is how I will remember him. He was a theologian’s theologian who never failed to be ready to be surprised by the God who is to be found on a cross. He was rightly a Lutheran with profound Catholic sensibilities. In his life and thought he was what generous orthodoxy is.
Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School.