“Theology as grammar.”
Wittgenstein suggests this, parenthetically, in the Philosophical Investigations S373. In Wittgenstein’s work, grammar is a big thing: he asks us to distinguish between the surface grammar of a remark – perhaps we could say the linguistic grammar, or the rules governing the way a word can be used in language – and the depth grammar, the way in which a word can coherently be used. Getting at this difference is difficult, but perhaps it helps to think of Mad Libs, a game where words are replaced according to their surface grammar. “The cat sat in the tree” makes sense and “the cat sat in the joy” does not, even though both ‘tree’ and ‘joy’ are nouns, because the deeper grammar of ‘joy’ (not least that it is abstract) dictates that it’s not something cats can sit in.
The idea that theology or doctrine might be regarded as the grammar of religion, the part which tells you which new sentences are acceptable and which are not, was taken up by Lindbeck as part of his broader religion as language analogy (for more on this, see my post about fluency). In particular, I talk in that post about the idea that fluent speakers of a language or a religion will be able to detect grammatical errors instinctively, rather than rationally.
It’s worth remembering here that, despite the impression sometimes given by English teachers and people who sell books about grammar, grammar in language is something which evolves over time, which is flexible and creative, and which varies according to context, rather than a set of absolute rules. In particular, grammar arises from language which is spoken and written, it doesn’t spring into life as a fully formed rule-set. This is especially obvious where subcommunities develop their own grammar; for a recent and light-hearted example, read Anil Dash’s post on the grammar of Lolcats, Cats Can Has Grammar. (Or should that be ‘haz grammar’?) In religion, too, then, we expect there to be books which record the grammar at a particular time, and for there to be some consistency through time as well as some change, but the real judges of correct grammar are the fluent speakers and not the books.
In a recent post called Quakerism as a Second Language, Craig Barnett compares the position of Quakerism today with minority languages, such as Welsh, which need both active support and a continuing process of creating new and relevant ways of speaking. In some ways, the portrait he offers of Quakerism sounds more like a dead language, like Cornish, being revived from books in the absence of fluent speakers. I don’t think this is actually the situation, and to extend the picture I would add to Craig’s list of useful resources for learning the Quaker way. Specifically, I would add that other Quakers and conversations with them are a powerful part of any attempt to learning the living tradition.
In order to learn a language, there comes a point at which it is necessary to practice producing it for oneself. I do think that this needs to be supported by explicit teaching of grammar (one of the things which was missing from my school experience of learning languages, and which I have found most rewarding in studying Biblical languages and conlangs), and an encouragement to listen and read and go on listening and reading (for longer than might seem necessary; many people, including myself, can’t accurately repeat back a word or phrase having heard it only once or twice). However, eventually a learner needs a space in which they can try out what they are learning, safely make mistakes, and be corrected. Especially in recent years, I have been lucky to have these spaces among Quakers, with family, friends, and Friends who are willing to engage in these conversations. How can we provide them more generally?