Answering Pilate: Truth and the Postliberal Church

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 28, 1987, pps. s. 82-85. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


‘Tolerance’ is too often a vehicle for condemning those who demand that their differences be taken seriously.

The scene had taken place before, and, alas, it would be repeated millions of times. A Jew, back still bloody from a nasty whipping, stood stripped before a gentile bureaucrat. What was to be done with this troublesome Jew, who seemed determined to undermine peace and justice?

"Are you a king?" Pilate asked. Jesus answered, "I came into the world to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:3438). Pilate then asked a wonderfully philosophical question, "What is truth?" Perhaps Pilate learned that question in his student days at the academy in Rome. The young Jew was unable to converse about truth with a university-educated philosopher like Pilate. After all, he had simply told his disciples, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

It frightens us to hear such open talk about truth. We are more concerned with how to live in a world where there is a plurality of truths—and with how to do so without killing each other—than we are with truth. Pilate himself was trying to deal with this problem of pluralism. It was difficult enough keeping Jews in their place—with their Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes—without a young Nazarene claiming to be the truth. Pilate’s response to Jesus’ claim was to try to get him into a philosophical discussion about truth. And then, when this rabbi refused to enter the discussion—refused to be rational—he had him killed.

I’m not sure that we’ve gotten much beyond Pilate in handling pluralism. We are heirs to the liberal theological enterprise which assumes that there is some universal experience that can be characterized as "religious." The plurality of religions, the liberal assumes, is the varied expression of a universal human experience. We shouldn’t be too dismayed by the wide array of religious expressions in our society, according to this view, for the basic experience behind them transcends their particular expressions. But if we encounter an expression that is contrary to whatever we have defined as the "basic religious experience"— as happens, say, when a devotee of Campus Crusade tells a Mormon that she is going to hell—we dismiss this perspective as an unreasonable aberration, an inadequate expression of our basic religious aspirations. The liberal, despite his or her claims of openness, is really quite imperialistic in insisting that all religions be evaluated on the basis of some allegedly universal criteria.

We can contrast the liberal approach with what, following Yale Divinity School professor George Lindbeck, we can call the postliberal approach. For the postliberal, theology is not a description of some universally available experience, but rather an expression of the faith held by a particular religious community. From this perspective, a Christian theologian does not simply state an experience which "oft was felt but ne’er so well expressed," but articulates the convictions of those who have been personally and socially transformed by a religious community. A Jew and a Christian differ not in using a different language to describe the same experiences of God, but in having learned different languages and listened to different stories, which have given them different experiences of God.

In The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster, 1984), Lindbeck contrasts the cultural-linguistic understanding of religion with the experiential-expressive understanding assumed by liberals. The cultural-linguistic approach denies that there is a universal, experiential core to all religions; it recognizes that different religions evoke fundamentally different experiences. Buddhist compassion, Christian love and the sentiment of fraternity in revolutionary France are not versions of a single attitude; they are very different ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self and world.

The liberal theological enterprise promised to give us a way to talk to one another on the basis of some universal aspect of religion—a sense of the holy, for instance. The problem is that there are religions in which a sense of the holy has little or no importance. Thus the experiential-expressive approach lacks empirical support, and tends to distort the religions it purports to understand.

To assume a universal aspect to one’s faith may be unfair to other religions. Stanley Hauerwas says, for example, that it is unfair for Christians to assert that the figure of Christ on the cross is a representation of all human suffering. What Christians learn from the cross is that all human suffering should be cruciform. Similarly, the messianic reign of God should not be taken as a symbol of human hope for the future; rather, it is on the basis of that eschatological vision that futuristic thinking is to be judged. The scriptural definitions of goodness, beauty and justice should transform our cultural notions of these realities, not the other way around. In our lifetime, however, biblical interpretation and theology have largely assumed that Christians must translate their particular language into terms intelligible to the wider culture. Tillich’s attempt to address his day’s "cultured despisers" of religion has set the agenda for subsequent theologians and given us the primary paradigm for our thinking—the translation of Scripture into extrascriptural categories.

It is not surprising that the experiential-expressive view of religion has been fervently embraced, particularly by those of us who work in the academic village. It assures us that our differences are not so troubling. It also fits nicely with the American view that the inner self is the source of all value. Perhaps, above all, it gives us an account of religion that is not dependent upon a religious community, a corporate embodiment of faith. In the terms of the experiential-expressive approach, we all start with our personal religious experiences and then adjust them in light of others’ experiences. The academic enterprise tends to regard this dissolution of traditional ties as the very goal of education—educare means "to lead out." Truth, it is thought, must be something affirmed by the autonomous individual if it is to be authentic.

Faith communities, Lindbeck charges, have become purveyors of this kind of religious commodity rather than intentional communities that socialize their members into comprehensive forms of life. When I hear a student say that he has "decided that Judaism makes about as much sense as anything else" or another claim that "Catholicism is my religion but I don’t want it to destroy my individuality," I am reminded that our society encourages us to think of the self as somehow prior to social influences, an innate given rather than a communal gift. "Fulfillment" comes from shedding the layers of the social self in order to penetrate the inner depths of one’s ego rather than in engaging in communal action.

Someone may say, "If the world is to avoid nuclear annihilation, we must become more unified, not more diverse and particular. Bless those who seek some generalized, foundational principles capable of unifying our diverse religious quests." But from a Christian point of view, we must care for the distinctiveness of our language and the distinctiveness of our community formed by that language because that language is true. I would be forced to say this even if I didn’t believe that saying so would help us to deal with moral fragmentation. I believe that the life, death, teaching and resurrection of Jesus constitute the truth that enables me to live with hope and therefore peace. At the same time it is precisely the particulars of the story of Jesus that enable me to deal responsibly with those who disagree with me—without demanding that they adhere to some specific standard of reasonability.

The liberal may well object that postliberalism fails to make religion intelligible either to the cultured or the uncouth despisers of religion. Without agreement on foundational principles, how can unbelievers understand us? But the postliberal would respond that unbelievers are not aided by our attempts to translate religion into culturally acceptable categories—any more than one is helped to learn French by reading English translations of French novels. Religions, like languages, must be understood on their own terms, learned, as we would learn French grammar, from the inside.

To the extent that religious people have allowed their convictions to be qualified by the liberal search for foundations and universals, they have lost their ability to see the world accurately. Their imaginations have become blunted, and they have lost whatever interesting things they have to say either to other religions or to our culture.

Consider, for instance, a recent campus debate about nuclear weapons. There were, as usual, two opposing views. One was that nuclear weapons are bad, because they give us the ability to destroy the world, and we should disarm rather than threaten the survival of civilization. The other view was that although nuclear weapons are bad, the Soviets have them, and if we don’t have them we might be subject to nuclear blackmail; unsavory as they are, the weapons help us ensure the survival of our way of life. I left the debate thinking, "At least both sides agree that the fundamental issue is survival.

My problem, as one who attempts to answer to the Christian story, is that survival cannot be the issue. I am part of the story of martyrs, and of accounts of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Those who collaborated with the Romans to put Jesus to death did so, according to the story, out of a concern for national survival. Christian heroes are those for whom survival was definitely not the issue. Perhaps Americans and Soviets are in this current mess because their only concern is survival. The Methodist bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear arms, In Defense of Creation, is bound to be ignored by a society that sees that bishops talk no differently than do politicians. Do Christians have anything particular to offer to the discussion, or do they simply accept the parameters of the discussion as defined by the secular world?

Christians are in an awkward intermediate stage in Western culture: having once been culturally established, they are not yet clearly disestablished. This helps make liberalism attractive, since it keeps people vaguely related to the church. Through translation, we attempt to show that Christians are really interested in what interests "the best" in our culture. We translate Christian eschatological hopes into Marxist revolutionary ones, or we translate salvation into self-fulfillment. Our bishops speak out on "important issues," showing society that the church cares about the same things society cares about—and in the same way. We keep people interested in the church even though they no longer worship its God.

To reverse this situation, we must stop redescribing our faith to conform to what is already known. We must begin teaching a language and way of life that transforms the self. Lindbeck recalls that pagan converts to Christianity did not first have a religious expression and then decide to become Christians. Rather, they were attracted to the church’s way of life and then submitted themselves to the sometimes painful discipline of being a Christian. When we reduce the Christian story with its particular, historical claims to the level of general, universal principles, we are left with precious little upon which to build a society. In our desire as religious people to be significant partners in national discourse, we have lost a distinctive voice. Meanwhile, people like Jerry Falwell trouble us because they refuse to find some religiously neutral or nonconfrontational way to state the social implications of their religious convictions.

My goal is not to make the church a sect, but simply to make it faithful. Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach reminds us that the notion of pluralism cannot eliminate the question of truth. And my truth, the truth which is Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be proved, dismissed or discussed without reference to the concrete community he forms.

If such talk of truth makes my neighbor, the rabbi, uncomfortable—and I can understand how it might—I can only point out that Jesus is my sole reason for defending the rabbi against the onslaughts of either fascist politicians or liberal theologians who will not embrace him until he becomes "rational" or "enlightened" in other words, something less than Jewish. As a Christian, I embrace him not because of my belief in universal human goodness or my perception of the commonality of our faiths, but because I am trying to follow a Master who came to me, a stranger, and embraced me as a brother, and who bids me do the same to others. The truthfulness of my faith must be judged on how well it teaches me to live without murderous fear or nihilistic despair. Without the resources of the Christian story I simply don’t have the resources to live peacefully in this violent world.

"Tolerance" is too often a vehicle for condemning those who demand that their differences be taken seriously. The liberal appeals to reason as the basis for toleration, but if some refuse to adapt to our current levels of toleration or our definitions of reasonableness, then there is only one explanation for their peculiarity—they must be without reason. Mere tolerance has rarely provided the moral resources necessary to stop an Auschwitz or a Cherokee Trail of Tears. As Rosemary Radford Ruether notes in Faith and Fratricide, "German Jews made a fundamental error in assuming that their place in German society could be assured by embrace of liberal values. The liberalism with which Jews allied themselves ... harbored fundamental ambivalences toward the Jews. The price of emancipation was also seen as one of cultural assimilation ... paving the way for Jewish conversion to Christianity. All liberals took for granted that ghetto Judaism represented a bad moral, spiritual, and intellectual condition. The price of emancipation was the destruction of Jewish self-government and autonomous corporate identity ... the Jew could become a ‘German’ or else" (pp. 217-218).

What can be our defense against tribalism if we permit discussion of the truthfulness of our various claims? The answer is that the truthfulness of any set of convictions is not in their alleged "universality" but in their practical force, the sort of lives they produce. Christians like Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are the only evidence we have that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life. " Christianity is not another philosophy or some primitive system of belief; it is a community of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross.

That community may not seem very interesting to some when they think of the churches they know, nor may it seem like an adequate resource for sustaining American democracy amid religious diversity. But no one can know me, as a Christian, unless he or she knows that community; nor can I know anyone else as a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist, except as someone for whom these qualifiers are more than mere accidents of birth. And as for whether our various faiths are a help or a hindrance to the success of this particular nation, I see no reason why that question should be the test of our convictions. My faith has reason to be suspicious of Pilate in any guise.