Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies

To Speak or Not To Speak:
The Limits of Language Ability in Sacred Experience

Molly Haslam
Vanderbilt University

In The Rejected Body, Susan Wendell discusses the preconditions necessary for full participation in social life — those "disciplines of normality" which go unnoticed among those able to meet such requirements effortlessly.[1] For those unable to meet the requirements, however, the result is often the experience of shame, self-hatred and exclusion from many activities of daily living easily accessible to those without disabilities. With such marginalization, ignorance of the experience of those with disabilities is fostered; fear sets in, and those with disabilities suffer even further marginalization.[2]

These "disciplines of normality" can be found in most aspects of social life, and the religious life is no exception. It is often assumed, as a result of ignorance of the experience of those with disabilities, that the requirements for full participation in the religious life are easily met, e.g., the swallowing abilities necessary for participation in the Passover meal or the Eucharist or the flexibility and balance necessary for full participation in the very communal experience of Muslim prayer.

The effect of these standards of normality is not limited, however, to the exclusion of those with disabilities from full participation in religious practices. These standards of normality have impacted our own thinking about what is required even to be religious at all, much less participate actively in the religious life. The requirements of normality have taken such a hold on our lives and our culture, and our fear of the rejected body has become so prevalent, that we have ignored the experiences of those with disabilities in our efforts to theorize about what it means to experience the sacred, to be religious, even to be human.

It is at this point that I take academic theology to task, the cultural-linguistic approach to religion in particular. In his work, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, George Lindbeck, motivated by a desire to understand the ways in which theologians from the various Christian traditions can claim that they are in basic agreement over significant doctrinal issues while at the same time adhering to their once-divisive doctrinal positions, discusses what he calls a cultural-linguistic approach to religion and a "rule" or "regulative" theory of church doctrine. According to the cultural-linguistic approach to religion, it is not the cognitive or the experiential-expressive aspects of religion that are emphasized. Rather, what must be emphasized are those respects in which religions "resemble languages together with their correlative form of life and are thus similar to cultures."[3] According to the "rule" or "regulative" theory, doctrines function not so much as truth claims or as expressive symbols but as "communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action."[4] To consider doctrines in this way allows us to explain the possibility of reconciling two very different doctrines without the capitulation of one to the other. To use Lindbeck’s example, the rules "Drive on the left" and "Drive on the right" clearly oppose one another, but under different circumstances both may be binding — say one when traffic is normal and the other when an accident is to be avoided. Thus, opposition between rules, or doctrines in this case, may be resolved not by changing one or the other, but simply by specifying the context in which the rule or doctrine applies.[5]

While Lindbeck’s motivation for the development of his theory includes such ecumenical and theological concerns, the aspect of his thought with which I take issue most and what is most significant for the purpose of this paper is Lindbeck’s attempt to make a nontheological case for the superiority of a cultural-linguistic approach to religion over and against the consideration of religions in expressivist fashion. Lindbeck claims that it is conceptually and empirically better to think of religions as "producers of experience" rather than as the product of "those deep experiences of the divine (or the self, or the world) which most of us are accustomed to thinking of as peculiarly religious." While he concedes that the relationship between religion and experience is dialectical — that there is an interplay between religion and experience in which experience can influence the development of a given religion and vice versa — the leading factors in this interplay, Lindbeck claims, are the religious and cultural-linguistic factors.

There is little to contest here, but it is when Lindbeck proceeds from this point to defend his claim for the necessity of language in religious experience that the dialectical relationship between religion and experience begins to disappear and the relationship becomes more exclusively one-way: that "inner" experiences are derivative of "outer" cultural-linguistic features of a religion,[6] and even further, that human experience in general, and not just religious experience, is not possible without language.[7]

Now, it may be the case that, with regard to religious experience, language is necessary. Lindbeck refers to the case of Helen Keller as a very young child and of supposed wolf children, and argues that because they were unable to acquire language of some kind, they were unable to actualize their human capacities for thought, action and feeling. People such as the young Helen Keller and wolf children, Lindbeck suggests, would be unable to become Christian or "to become religious" because they lacked the ability to become skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion.[8] In the case of Christianity, these individuals would be unable to become Christian because they could not learn the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience themselves and their world in its terms.[9] If we accept Lindbeck’s conception of religion as comprehensive interpretive schemes embodied linguistically in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized schemes, it is difficult to conceive of someone without the ability to comprehend such a complex linguistic scheme — or even a very simple linguistic scheme - (say, in the cases of an infant or a profoundly mentally retarded adult) as having a particularly Buddhist experience, or as a particularly Christian individual.[10]

But in his effort to argue that linguistic ability is necessary in order to have religious experience — a claim with which, again, I do not take issue — Lindbeck neglects the other aspect of the dialectic that he initially acknowledges — that aspect of human experience which is not completely limited by a cultural-linguistic system and which, in fact, may transform the cultural-linguistic, religious system. He neglects that aspect of human experience which could give us the intellectual space to conceive of what it might mean to experience the sacred in ways not limited by the linguistic abilities necessary in Lindbeck’s conception of "religious experience."

Lindbeck has made it clear that his motivation is to preserve the distinctiveness of the variety of Christian traditions in a way that also preserves their unity, and that the best system for conceiving of this diversity amidst unity is a cultural-linguistic view of religion. But my point is that in his efforts to prove the superiority of a cultural-linguistic system over an experiential-expressive system for understanding religion, Lindbeck argues that religious experience is derivative of religious and cultural-linguistic forms, and, in the end, ignores those aspects of human experience which do not require language or linguistic ability. The cost of such theorizing within an academic community in which able-ness, health, and linguistic and cognitive abilities are taken for granted can be devastating to the mentally disabled individual for whom language use is not a possibility.

To demonstrate my point, I turn to Lindbeck’s discussion of human experience in general, which, I argue, he misuses in his efforts to defend his claim that linguistic ability is a necessary condition for religious experience. In his discussion of human expression and human experience in general, not just religious experience, Lindbeck claims that the means of expression and communication, whether linguistic or non-linguistic, are a precondition for the possibility of experience, whether non-reflective or reflective/unconscious, sub-conscious or conscious.[11] In sum, Lindbeck claims, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it. He takes this claim even further and states that "the richer our expressive and linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience."[12]

There is little with which to differ here initially. In this brief discussion of general human experience, Lindbeck seems to provide an intellectual space for the consideration of the experience of those without linguistic abilities. He merely states that in order to have human experience, one must have some means of expression and communication, whether linguistic or non-linguistic. With such a perspective, we can acknowledge that there are a variety of means of self-expression, language being just one among them. And with such a perspective, we can acknowledge the reality that self-expression is a necessary concomitant to being embodied individuals. Self-expression is not limited to linguistic ability alone. We can conclude, therefore, that the condition for human experience is simply the fact that as individuals we are embodied, with or without linguistic abilities. Granted, our capacity for a variety of human experiences may be limited by the level of our linguistic and cognitive (even physical) development, but by no means has Lindbeck thus far ignored the fact that there are a variety of means of self-expression, and, therefore, that human experience is not limited exclusively to the ability to express oneself linguistically.

What becomes troublesome, however, is that in his effort to defend his claim that a cultural-linguistic approach to religion is superior to an experiential-expressive one, Lindbeck conflates what may be the case for religious experience — that language is necessary — with his claims about general human experience. In other words, in his efforts to demonstrate the superiority of a cultural-linguistic system for understanding religious diversity and unity, Lindbeck applies the conditions for religious experience to all human experience, and concludes that language is necessary (not only for religious experience but for human experience of any kind as well) for both.

The first indication that this is the direction Lindbeck will take in his argument appears as he follows his discussion of the requirement of linguistic or non-linguistic self-expression for general human experience with an example of the necessity of language in human experience. He discusses the case of those tribal languages that do not discriminate between, say the colors green and blue, and, as a result, the members of those tribes are unable to recognize the difference between the two colors.[13] Because these individuals lack the verbal categories for experiencing the differences in visual stimuli, they are unable to have the visual experience of differentiating between blue and green.

This may be the case, but Lindbeck has not yet explicitly excluded the possibility that, while the more developed an individual’s linguistic abilities the more able an individual is to participate in a greater variety of experiences, human experience does not demand linguistic ability. He does, however, go on to state this explicitly in what follows. He writes, "the position that language (or, more generally, some conceptual and/or symbolic interpretive scheme) is a condition for religious experience need not be based on these perhaps empirically falsifiable speculations…One could also claim that an experience (viz., something of which one is prereflectively or reflectively conscious) is impossible unless it is in some fashion symbolized."[14] While Lindbeck’s claim that language, or some symbolic interpretive scheme, is a necessary condition for religious experience is a valid one given the linguistic nature of the variety of religions, he goes too far in extending this claim to include the misguided notion that language or symbol systems are a necessary condition for human experience of any kind. As a result, he ignores the possibility that, while the means of self-expression are a requirement for human experience, there are a variety of means of human self-expression, not all of which are linguistic or symbolic. The ability to express oneself, and therefore to experience, I am arguing, is available to all individuals based upon their nature as embodied human beings — and not based simply upon their ability to participate in any symbol system, linguistic or otherwise. I am thinking here of those individuals with severe mental retardation whose heart and respiratory rates decrease and whose muscle tone releases with the application of a warm towel, with the sound of soothing music, or as they begin to rock back and forth — these are legitimate, though often ignored, forms of self-expression.

It is as if, for Lindbeck, to be without language is to cease to be human. In fact, he explicitly states as much. In another passage further defending the cultural-linguistic position that patterns of ritual, myth, belief and conduct constitute religious experience, and not vice versa, Lindbeck quotes Wilfred Sellars when he writes, "The acquisition of language…is a ‘jump which was the coming of being of man.’"[15] And, later in the same passage, "The Christian theological application of this view is that just as an individual becomes human by learning a language, so he or she begins to become a new creature through hearing and interiorizing the language that speaks of Christ."[16]

To be sure, it was not Lindbeck’s intention to exclude those without linguistic ability from being considered human or to ignore the experience of those without linguistic ability. He has made it clear that his motivations here are ecumenical and theological. My point, however, is that while making a valid effort to defend both the diversity and the unity among the variety of Christian traditions, Lindbeck ignores the experiences of those without linguistic abilities to the point of excluding them from among those even considered to be experiencing human beings. The exclusion is egregious and demands in response that theologians acknowledge those with cognitive and linguistic disabilities as experiencing human beings, first of all. This is not to deny the complexities involved in speaking to the experience of those who cannot articulate their experiences to us in linguistic terms, not to mention the complexities involved in speaking to human experience at all. I am suggesting, though, that in our theorizing — and we are bound to the level of theory when addressing these concerns - we must be aware and critical of the ways in which we exclude individuals without linguistic abilities as experiencing human beings. I am suggesting that we must also reflect upon the ways in which these individuals experience the sacred and the ways in which their experiences may impact what we believe to be true about the nature of sacred experience. And finally, academic theologians must ask why the experiences of those with cognitive and linguistic abilities have not been considered in our efforts to theorize about sacred experience in the first place. An obvious factor to consider is the inability of those with cognitive and linguistic disabilities to advocate for themselves in an academic culture in which the abilities to speak, reason and comprehend are taken for granted — more "disciplines of normality," if you will.

There is a sense in which the academic community has been among those most guilty of embracing the "myth of control" that Wendell discusses, which she defines as "the belief that it is possible, by means of human actions, to have the bodies we want and to avoid illness, disability, and death."[17] The academic community is one that fosters a concern for maintaining (and a fear of losing) the appearance of a body impervious to illness, disability and death — a body fully able to participate in the growing time-demands and intellectual rigor of the academic life. But as a result of our fear of exposing this myth of control, as scholars we have ignored the experience of those with disabilities at the expense not only of the consideration of their inclusion as legitimate participants in religious communities. We have ignored the experience of those with disabilities at the expense of our own ability to speak to matters of meaning and truth, matters especially significant to scholars of religion.

And finally, I am suggesting that, while some linguistic ability may be necessary in order to interpret an experience as a particularly religious one, experience of the sacred is not limited to religious experience. At this point, we have much to learn from the mentally disabled community, which challenges us as theologians to consider the ways in which sacred experiences reach beyond the limits of language and challenge the very basic claims of a cultural-linguistic approach to religion. Granted, the more sophisticated one develops linguistically, the more one is open to a variety of means of comprehension, expression, and experience, religious or otherwise. But to exclude the experience of those without linguistic abilities in our efforts to theorize about what it means to experience the sacred can limit our ability to appreciate the role of embodied-ness, and not just language, in sacred experience.

The task of the theologian does not include avoiding the diversity of experiences and perspectives on the religious life. Rather, the theologian’s task is a creative one involving the exercise of theological judgment in order to give meaning and structure to the variety of cultural materials of the religious life. This is a judgment that will always be contestable according to the cultural materials at hand, including the experience of those without cognitive or linguistic abilities.[18] With such a perspective, full consideration is given to the religious experience of all who participate in the life of a religious community, and not only to those without cognitive or linguistic disabilities. Full consideration must be given, for example, to the experience of the autistic child who demonstrates a growing ability for affection and connection in relationship to the other members of her religious community or the adult with profound mental retardation who may sit in his wheelchair with little means of visible self-expression. In consideration of the experiences of those both with and without linguistic disabilities, the theological task embraces the embodiment of the sacred in its fullest sense.


[1] Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (New York: Routledge, 1996) 88.

[2]Ibid, 91.

[3]George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 18.



[6]Ibid, 34.

[7]Ibid., 37.

[8]Ibid., 34.


[10]Ibid., 32.

[11]Ibid., 36.

[12]Ibid., 37.

[13]Ibid., 37.

[14]Ibid., 37-8.

[15]Ibid., 62.


[17]Wendell, 9.

[18]Ibid., 162.

Copyright (c) 2003 Molly Haslam

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