Last week we learned the hallmarks of science. Over the next three posts this week and next we will discuss the hallmarks of religion and theology. In today’s post (part 1), we will transition into religion and theology and look at the nature of religion. Part 2 will be an in-depth look at the nature of theology while Part 3 will address parallels in science and religion and look ahead to chapter 4.


“Belief in the deity of Jesus Christ also seems essential to the relationship. After Jesus had asked his disciples what people thought of him, he also asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response,” You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” met with Jesus’ resounding approval (Matt. 16:13-19). It is not sufficient to have a warm, positive, affirming feeling toward Jesus. One must have correct understanding and belief.[1] Millard Erickson

“Man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”[2] Paul Tillich

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual toward freedom.”[3] Albert Einstein


Transitioning to religion and theology

We saw in the previous chapter what makes science, “science,” and we now turn to religion and theology. Religion and theology are inter-twined, but mean different things.[4] Religion is founded on humans’ beliefs in something higher than themselves, be it universal reason, a force of nature, a set of values, an entity called God,[5] or a college football team if you’re from the south.[6] It is possible to study religion from an objective sense and this is the purview of a field known as the “scientific study of religion,” child of mother psychology and father anthropology. Its practitioners scientifically study the reasons why people believe in God and perform the various rituals associated with their religious community. People in the field ask questions like: Is there something genetic about religion? Is religion’s power only due to its cultural properties making the content of belief (theology) irrelevant? Evolutionarily, do societies that believe in God have a better chance of survival? Will the birth rate in Alabama be affected by Nick Saban’s retirement?[7]

While the content of belief can differ greatly, religions are quite similar in their social dimensions. Religions exhibit shared commitment amongst the believers to the group, leading to in-group and out-group dynamics (see high school cliques) that seem to be a necessary aspect of human existence. Within religious communities, there are expectations for how members should treat others and how lives of meaning can be lived through shared ethical principles. Remarkably, the Golden Rule or something akin to it is found in many religions even though the “source” of the rule comes from very different views of God. Then again, perhaps this is not so remarkable since loving our neighbors as ourselves is so difficult to, you know, actually do well.

Efforts to “normalize” religion by identifying common themes helps to illuminate what it means to be human and promotes inter-religious dialogue, but greatly varying definitions of who or what God is hinders the potential of this exercise. Focusing just on religions that believe in an entity defined as God, there can be one to an infinite number of Gods and the Gods can be personal or impersonal, capricious or immutable, angry or loving, Alanis Morissette or George Burns.[8] The diversity of interpretations of God, atheistic religions aside, limits similarities in the cognitive realm of belief. The acting out of religious communities’ beliefs in God varies as well though all religions include feelings such as mystery, awe, amazement, humility, obedience, and practices such as prayer, worship, and the partaking of sacraments.[9]

Though the scientific study of religion is interesting, it is impossible for theology to be studied similarly due to the different ways religious communities define God. Theologians are tasked with rationally ascribing meaning to theirs and the community’s faith in God as echoed by Saint Anselm’s motto fides quaerens intellectum or “faith seeking understanding.” Relatedly, and reminding us again of the connection between religion and theology, if the living out and personal practice of beliefs in God is “on the level of primary experience,” then theology is “second level activity” that concerns itself with “describing, analyzing, critiquing, and organizing doctrines.”[10] Furthermore, experience, while important, is not the sole source of theology. Theologians use other material such as reason, holy books, and the tradition of the religious community, which collectively results in different theologies amongst and even within different religions. Can you say transubstantiation? No, how about complementarianism? Do you like tulips?

And YOU thought science was complicated.

Since theology is constructed and thus cannot be studied objectively, to write on these matters means that one must state where (s)he is “coming from.”

Sorry, not happening!

Ok, fine, I’ll go there.

Hi everyone, my name is Justin. I am a postmodern and post-evangelical Christian who dedicated my life to Christ in graduate school. I believe that faith is both rational and supra rational, but I am wholly committed to the use of reason in explaining my faith and discussing theology. My holy book is the Bible and my tradition is Christianity, dimples, warts, arks, rainbows, Charlton Heston, and all.

The hallmarks of religion

It has been more than 30 years since George Lindbeck wrote his influential book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. In it, Lindbeck argued that there are three models of religion and theological doctrines that collectively describe all Christian communities. The models, like other models, are a simplification of reality, but they highlight well the differences found within the Christian tradition.[11]

In the cognitive-propositional model, doctrines are informative and provide “truth claims about objective realities.”[12] This could be considered the traditional view, in which theology is similar to other rational disciples like philosophy or science. In this model, the theologian functions as an arbiter of truth for his religious community and provides logical and evidential arguments for why that community’s doctrines are truer than those of other communities. But doesn’t this model welcome if not make debate inevitable between different religious communities? And isn’t competing truth claims between different religious groups a major cause of war? Go state! Beat that other team we hate!

The experiential-expressive model states that doctrines are interpreted in relation to the “inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations” of the religious community.[13] The theologian is the spiritual leader and his/her role is to attempt to put into words the complex ways in which the community interacts with and responds to the divine. This model is conducive to inter-religious dialogue because it seeks similarities in religious experiences and focuses on the meaning ascribed to the feelings and beauty of these experiences. The experiential-expressive model of religion describes well the “spiritually non-religious” and can be a welcoming oasis for those who are weary of the cognitive-propositional view of religion and its seeming reduction of religion to warring truth claims about God.[14] But is describing human “feelings, attitudes, and orientations” enough to give justice to God? And how deep can this type of theology possibly be? Who cares… this model comes with a snazzy coexist sticker.

The last model, cultural-linguistic, says that religions are ”comprehensive interpretative schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world.”[15] This model reflects the importance of community and is post-foundational, unlike the other two models, which makes it more amenable to postmodern interdisciplinary discourse. For Christians, the cultural-linguistic model makes the focus the story of Christ and how it can be reinterpreted anew for the religious community. But does this mean that theology is only a story? And how does communication between communities work if each has a unique story; how can we determine which story is the “right” one? No worries since Jesus can be a warrior, good shepherd, and your homeboy.

For those familiar with his work, I do not agree with Lindbeck that the models correlate with history and represent a progression of Christian doctrine since the Reformation (i.e., cognitive-propositional as pre-modern, experiential-expressive as modern, and cultural-linguistic as post-modern). Nor do I formulate my arguments in this book committed to a particular model of Lindbeck’s or believe one model is better than the others, as should be obvious by my humorous jabs at each. All three are needed to collectively explain religion and theological doctrine. Instead I note the models to highlight the different ways Christians think about religion and theological discourse. Your understanding of the role of theological doctrine is likely not the same as mine or your neighbor, and it is certainly not the same as the rest of the readers of the book. Amen for that!

Furthermore, one does not have to agree with Lindbeck’s interpretation of these models to see that they are of great use to theological and religious dialogue. A well-known introductory volume to Christian Theology provides a view of Christianity that makes indirect reference to all three of the models. Try to figure out who is the source of the quote without looking at the endnote…

“How, then, shall we regard religion? Religion is actually all of these – belief or doctrine, feeling or attitudes, and a way of life or manner of behaving. Christianity fits all these criteria of religion… Christianity also involves certain feelings, such as dependence, love, and fulfillment. And Christianity most certainly involves a set of teachings, a way of viewing reality and oneself, and a perspective from which all of experience makes sense.”[16]

Did you figure out who it is? It’s Millard Erickson. I’m not a religious scholar or theologian and this survey is brief but if Millard Erickson and George Lindbeck can agree this much on the hallmarks of religion then it’s probably safe for us to move on.[17]

[to be continued on Thursday]


[1] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 30. Italics are my emphasis.

[2] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Perennial Classics) (HarperOne, 2009), p. 47. Italics are my emphasis.

[3] Albert Einstein, The Einstein Reader (Citadel, 2006), p. 7.

[4] In the remainder of this book, when I use the term “religion” I am referring to both theology and religion. When I use the term “theology,” I am speaking specifically about doctrine and ideas about God, not believers’ practices or the cultural role of the religious community.

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998).

[6] Kidding, of course.

[7] Kidding again, of course.

[8] I’ve never seen the movie, Dogma, but I’ve heard it’s good. I have seen Oh, God! and at least one of its sequels. They’re the opposite of good.

[9] You thought I was joking about religion founded on college football, but these actions describe the Alabama fans I know. Sorry Rachel Held Evans, but you know this is true. Go Hawkeyes!

[10] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 21.

[11] In spite of my attempts to be an uglier version of Keanu Reeves and play devil’s advocate.

[12] George Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 16.

[13] Ibid.

[14] This model is also exemplified by the quote from Einstein that opens Chapter 1.

[15] George Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984), p. 32.

[16] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 1998), p. 20.

[17] A conservative, a liberal, and a duck walk into a bar. The bartender says…