Quintessential, Ecumenical, Lutheran

By Cyril O’Regan

For some of us graduate students at Yale, Mr. Lindbeck — never Professor, never Dr. Lindbeck — was the quintessential Lutheran theologian. For others, and relatedly, he was the quintessential ecumenical theologian. While I understood and appreciated the first, the latter was more important to me, but perhaps for more than the usual reasons.

The usual reasons did apply. For me the fact that Mr. Lindbeck was involved in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue was a wonderful sign of openness; that he had been an attendant at Vatican II served for me as a seal in that his gift was received. Yet while this openness elicited in me as in others a deep and abiding respect, they did not elicit astonishment. But astonishment there was. It simply came in an entirely different way, at once surprising and entirely convenient; surprising in that the ecumenism of Mr. Lindbeck did not come by way of propositions that linked Catholics and Lutheranism on justification; entirely convenient in that it was tied to practices and a way of life more than words.

Mr. Lindbeck did not wax eloquent as to how much he loved Thomas Aquinas; he performed that love by teaching him as a master theologian for the entire Church. Mr. Lindbeck rarely ascribed the term ecumenist to himself as he mulled over without comment the very Catholic philosophical and theological dilations of someone like myself. What was astonishing and appalling at once was his economy of speech. There were words; it was just that they were remarkably few. There were pauses that never seemed to end, which with anyone else would have caused alarm, but in the oddest way they allowed you to feel safe. What defined Mr. Lindbeck as a theologian was what defined him as a person: deep listening that was a pondering and a questioning.

One accepted it, struggled to provide its provenance, only in the end to conclude that it was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In his listening Mr. Lindbeck conformed to the first mandate of the Rule of Benedict far more rigorously than most Benedictines I have met. If he unapologetically embraced the Scholastic dialectic of Thomas Aquinas, he seemed to go beyond him in his measure of the laconic and call up the silence toward which Thomas strived that was at the same time the font of all that he said.

And then there was Wittgenstein, who with the anthropologist Glifford Geertz served as the non-theological basso profundo of his classic The Nature of Doctrine. One wondered whether the affinity went deeper than the connection between religious language and form of life, and pointed perhaps to a space in which one only shows that which cannot be said. In the end, however, despite all of this I often found myself speculating just how deep the first 17 years Mr. Lindbeck spent in China penetrated his entire way of being with others. Often he came across as something like a Confucian sage who did not say what “manhood at its best” was but exemplified it.

Cyril O’Regan is Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Prayerful Ecumenist

By R. Guy Erwin

In May of 1983, George Lindbeck was the Lutheran co-chair of the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue Commission; his counterpart was Hans Martensen, SJ, Roman Catholic bishop of Copenhagen — like George, a participant in the Second Vatican Council 20 years before. The commission met that month at a converted monastery in the Black Forest in Germany, with the task of completing a joint statement on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, coming up later that year. They only had about a week to complete the work.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student of George’s at Yale, but had been in Tübingen on a fellowship for about a year. When George got to Germany, he called me, out of the blue, and invited me to join him at the commission’s meeting the next day. Apparently since Bishop Martensen had a secretary, George thought he could have one too, and he even had a spare bed in his suite ready for me, should I accept the job. So I put on a black suit and jumped on the train.

It was an unforgettable experience to be George’s secretary that week 35 years ago, and to see him up close doing what he loved: engaging in intense discussion with other scholars of great learning and deep faith toward the goal of Christian unity. In the freedom of that remote location, in those optimistic early days of John Paul II’s pontificate, so much seemed possible, and the talk was wide-ranging and hopeful. We even discussed how Eucharistic sharing might happen, step by step. And I saw a new side of George, how his shyness disappeared in the joy of the hope for unity. Praying with him each night made George more than just a teacher for me; it made him a father in God. I thank God for him and his witness for Christian unity.

The Rt. Rev. R. Guy Erwin is Bishop of the Southwest California Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

‘Don’t Think, but Look’

By Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt

I very well might have gone to study at Yale Divinity school in any case, given that the woman I was eventually to marry was studying at the law school. But I had read a magazine review of The Nature of Doctrine that mentioned George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” account of doctrine, and the debt he owed to Wittgenstein, and I was intrigued.

I had read both the Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations as an undergraduate and considered myself, I suppose, to be some sort of Wittgensteinian in philosophy, but had wondered for some time about the implications of this for theology, which was my primary interest. I knew that it would involve attention to language and to “forms of life,” as well as a willingness to follow Wittgenstein’s injunction, “don’t think, but look!” (Philosophical Investigations §66). But beyond that I was pretty clueless on how to proceed.

I found a copy of The Nature of Doctrine and worked my way through it. So much of it made sense to me, not only because of my Wittgensteinian proclivities, but because of the two and a half years I had spent working with churchfolk. I had come to the conclusion that what was primary was the actual practice of Christianity, that it was something more “caught” than taught, that doctrines most often made sense to people as ways of deepening their appreciation of practices in which they were already engaged: practices of prayer and liturgy, of social action, and of ascesis. Lindbeck’s book helped clarify much of this by comparing religions to cultures, which are complex systems that always outrun the descriptions of their members, but about which those member descriptions have a kind of primacy, particularly in comparison with outsider descriptions.

He also helped me see the problems with and limitations of “expressivist” and “propositionalist” approaches that tended to be offered as the only two theological options. Expressivism— religious statements as expressions of a common, ineffable experience shared by all religions — was particularly prevalent in the progressive Catholic circles in which I usually ran, but had never sat well with me, since it seemed to undermine the significance of the particular texts and practices that made up the warp and woof of the Christian tradition. At the same time, a flat-footed propositionalist account of doctrine, in which religious statements mapped onto facts about God, seemed impossible to reconcile with what I knew of the development of doctrine and the vagaries of the Christian story. Lindbeck offered an alternative.

At the same time, I had some questions. As a Catholic, I wondered how Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach fit with traditional Catholic affirmations of natural knowledge of God, and with the work of the Spirit outside the visible bounds of the Church. Was the cultural-linguistic approach not, in some sense, narrowly sectarian, insufficiently attentive to the world outside the Church that was God’s good creation? If religions were cultural-linguistic systems, how did they interact with the world outside that system? How do we account for change within a closed system?

In my two years at Yale, I took only two classes with Lindbeck. He was on sabbatical my second year, and when he returned I had decamped to Duke for my doctorate. But in those two seminars I came to see that Lindbeck’s answer to my questions was more or less Wittgenstein’s injunction, “don’t think, but look!” That is, look at Thomas Aquinas, or Joseph Ratzinger, or Hans Urs von Balthasar, or Karl Rahner. Look at what they are doing. Attend to the movement of the texts. Much to my surprise, we were not expected to apply Lindbeck’s “theory of religion” (which I discovered he did not set all that much store by) to the texts that we read. We were not encouraged to label Rahner an expressivist or Thomas a propositionalist. Rather, we found ourselves apprenticed to a master reader of texts who had through years of study explored these writers and could help us look and see the overall shape of their thought against the backdrop of the broad Christian tradition. In good Wittgensteinian fashion, we were asked to explore what the texts did.

My proudest moment during that year came when Lindbeck commented in class that a point I had made in my paper was wrong, but it was wrong in an interesting way. He knew that it in the pedagogical process it could be more important to be interestingly wrong than boringly right. He also knew that the primary language of theology was found in Scripture and creed and liturgy, not in books with titles like The Nature of Doctrine, which might one day be found to have been (interestingly) wrong. This freed him to take God seriously, while not taking himself too seriously, knowing that the role of the theologian in the Church was subordinate to the role of the simple believer. This was surely the most important lesson that I learned from him.

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Loyola College in Maryland.

Charitable Reading, Patience, and the Ecumenical Long Game

By Joseph L. Mangina

It was George Lindbeck who taught me to read texts charitably. That tutelage probably began when I took his course on medieval and Reformation theology as an MDiv student, although I was too naive to realize it at the time. But my real education under Lindbeck came with my my doctoral studies. I recall one course in particular: a graduate seminar on ecclesiology (a predecessor of that course, titled “Comparative Dogmatics,” had been the bread-and-butter of previous generations of Yale graduate students in theology). We read ecclesiological texts from a wide range of authors, ancient and modern, Catholic and Protestant. But whoever we read, Lindbeck made sure that we engaged that person both critically and fairly, asking first what the author was trying to accomplish and with what intellectual tools. Only then were we in a position to pose the question “But are they right?” It was a wonderful intellectual askesis and training for a life of teaching and scholarship.

Because Lindbeck was critical of the view of religion he called “experiential expressivism,” people may draw the false conclusion that he was somehow an enemy of experience.

On the contrary! He was a warm, affectionate, and I dare say deeply pious man. He could use old-fashioned phrases like “loving Jesus” or “resting in the bosom of Abraham” without embarrassment or fear of sounding naive. The problem was never experience as such, but the temptation of turning experience into a universalizing method that glosses over particularities and complexities, and is to that extent ironically un-experiential. Expressivism too easily ignores the embodied world of time and space and social interaction that is the created context of human life. The “I” exists only as a social self, a lesson Lindbeck learned from his revered teacher H. Richard Niebuhr.

We attend to the world, and even to God, not by turning inward but by patiently exploring the givens of Scripture and historic Christian teaching. On the one hand, there is something here of the Reformers’ insistence on the verbum externum: it is in God’s revealed Word that he wills to meet us, rather than in the murky depths of the self. On the other hand, we can see why Lindbeck so loved Thomas Aquinas, whose patient exploration of the things of God involved attentiveness to the details of texts as well as the formulating of questions and objections and careful distinctions. Reading a Thomistic article takes time, because God is so important as to demand that kind of timeful attention.

“Timeful attention” was in fact of Lindbeck’s chief virtues. He took time, first of all for his students; I’ve never known a more unselfish teacher in that regard, unless it was his friend and colleague Hans Frei. Lindbeck also took time for the Church. Much of his life was devoted to the slow, often thankless work of ecumenical dialogue, which does not yield to easy solutions or short-term thinking. One always had the sense with Mr. Lindbeck that he was playing the ecumenical long game, informed by the conviction that Christian unity is not something to be achieved in one person’s lifetime.

As Ephraim Radner noted on January 19, part of that long game involved the Church’s learning to be more like the Jews, as well as reclaiming a way of reading Scripture figurally and messianically in ways that have long since gone out of vogue. I would wager that Lindbeck’s legacy has less to do with The Nature of Doctrine and its particular theory of religion than with his summoning us to this Israel-like understanding of the Church. A Church that is less Gentile and more Jewish in its self-understanding might better understand how to inhabit the time God has given us. Amen; may it be so.

Joseph Mangina is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and editor of Pro Ecclesia.

A Remembrance of George Lindbeck

By Bruce D. Marshall

In the fall of 1978 I was a second-year student at Yale Divinity School. Two fellow students and I (future professors all) asked George Lindbeck to do a reading course with us on the theology of Martin Luther. He agreed — only many years later did I come to appreciate the generosity of that gesture — and we set about preparing a reading list for the course. One of our number was an Episcopalian, who wanted to read Richard Hooker alongside Luther. I thought this would be a waste of time, but Lindbeck stipulated that Hooker be included. Juxtaposing the two evidently intrigued him.

At our first meeting with Lindbeck, gathered at close quarters in his office overflowing with books and papers, we were discussing the essays he had required each of us to prepare. One of us, developing a comment in his essay, suggested that Hooker was more than a bit of a Pelagian, especially in comparison with Luther. Lindbeck silently picked up his volume of Hooker, flipped to a particular page, and read out a passage that manifestly rebutted the charge of Pelagianism. He paused. Looking over his glasses at the three of us, he said, “That was in the reading for today.” He flipped to another page, and read out another passage from Hooker, elaborating the point. “That was also in the reading for today.”

Having taught many such improvised seminars myself, I now realize that Lindbeck might understandably have put no more time into this junior reading course than it took him to meet with the three of us every couple of weeks. He had, though I scarcely realized it then, other things to do. At that moment, however, all three of us realized that Lindbeck had in fact done the work of the course rather more seriously and thoroughly than the eager young theologians who had asked him to teach it. On that formative day we learned something even more momentous for us than that Hooker was not a Pelagian.

Thereafter we all read with newly opened and attentive eyes, determined not to be caught out like that again. Lindbeck seemed to warm to our efforts, and by semester’s end we thought we had done well. As our last meeting was coming to a conclusion he offered, almost in passing, his own verdict on the course. “This was worthwhile. I’m sorry that I didn’t have more time to spend with you. We’re just getting to the point when you really might have written some good papers.”

He was, by a long shot, the best teacher I ever had. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

Bruce D. Marshall is Lehman Professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology,  Southern Methodist University.

Humble and Focused

By Michael Root

George Lindbeck will be celebrated, and rightly so, for his ecumenical work and his groundbreaking theological writings. Day in and day out, however, he was a seminary and university professor, teaching seminarians and graduate students and directing doctoral work at Yale. I was one of those students and served a year as one of his teaching assistants. For me he was always, along with his colleague Hans Frei, the model professor. He was objective, in the best sense of the word. His lectures were not models of platform technique, far from it. They were about the subject matter, not about performance. One was captivated by what one saw as he spoke—the theological and ecclesial logic of the matter at hand. Intellectually, what he presented was a tour de force, but one didn’t marvel at the mind, one was fascinated by what he laid bare.

Similarly, he attended to his students. He could be gentle when gentleness was called for, especially with students who had personal troubles. He could also be blunt when bluntness was called for, as I learned when I owed him two papers my first semester, and did much work on one and a slapdash job on the other. He told me he understood what I had done, but that I was never to turn in a paper like that again. He was friendly, could be humorous, but was not chummy. He insisted former students call him George, but I always thought of him as Mr. Lindbeck.

What I never observed in Lindbeck, either when I was a student or when I discussed ecclesial and ecumenical matters with him later, was an ego that got in the way of his clear-eyed perception of what was the case and what needed to be said or done. In this way, he was a model of professorial humility. It was not a humility based on a low estimate of his work. He knew his worth. Rather, it was a humility that valued the task to be addressed and the students and colleagues one worked with more than it valued one’s status. After studying with Lindbeck (and Frei) I never had patience with academic divas.

Lindbeck’s professorial humility was, in a way, deeply Lutheran. For Luther, faith is profoundly other-directed, forgetful of one’s own merit or demerit and focusing on the one thing needful, Christ, and on the needs of the neighbor. Lindbeck was the academic embodiment of such an attitude. The brilliance of his work made his outlook all the more impressive.

Michael Root is ordinary professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

Fides caritate formata

By Caleb Congrove

I had the great fortune of being one of Mr. Lindbeck’s very last students. In the spring of 2000, when I was a student at Yale Divinity School, but long after Mr. Lindbeck had retired from it, Christopher Wells and I met together with him weekly in a reading course we titled “Ecclesiology and Ecumenism.” For us, in our mid-20s then, reading Yves Congar’s Divided Christendom with George Lindbeck was a heady experience. We knew that we had stumbled unworthily into a golden age that time (and reality) should have withheld from us.

We poured ourselves into that course. Many hours of effort and revision stood behind each of the two-page masterpieces we submitted before our meetings. We looked on Mr. Lindbeck with awe, the sage master of our teachers. Besides the texts we read together that semester, we also carefully considered and discussed what he thought of us. If he was hard on us or on our essays, we worried. If he was too gentle, we worried even more.

Mr. Lindbeck was an intense conversationalist, and our meetings left us no place to hide from him. Floating some interpretive thesis or hypothesis entailed a real risk, and it was only heightened by his intent consideration. Our discussions were often punctuated by long and awkward silences. As nerve-wracking as these silences sometimes were, they really were gifts, concrete tokens of his attentiveness. Mr. Lindbeck took his students and their contributions very seriously. I think his pedagogy, in its peculiar way, was very personal.

I think he understood that teaching was about forming intellectual habits or virtues. Moreover, his teaching was guided by this basic pastoral sensitivity: people are different, and different students may require different lessons. He lifted up the lowly but cast down the mighty. Though he wore it quietly, I think love was his greatest virtue. A very reserved person, he was not especially warm, and I suspect that emotional displays made him uncomfortable. But “charitable interpretation” was far more than some ideal for him. Charity gave shape to Mr. Lindbeck’s teaching. It was the concrete expectation he imposed on himself and his students.

Caleb Congrove is a high school teacher in Ohio and a father of three.

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation. He oversees the publishing, budget, fundraising, marketing, and staff of TLC, and with his colleagues articulates the evolving mission and program of the foundation in collaboration with elected leadership.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

3 Comments on "Memories of Lindbeck"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

[…] is also remembered for his robust involvement in ecumenical efforts, including his role as a delegated observer at […]

[…] taught at Yale from 1951 until his retirement in 1993. One of his students, Cyril O’Regan, wrote of his classroom demeanor as […]

[…] learn may seem condescending, but George Lindbeck was a walking antithesis to condescension. The online tributes to his patient and gracious teaching style are on display in abundance. I was also an occasional […]