The fragility of words : postliberal theology and the difficulty of language.


Access rights

No access – contact

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation explores the difficulty of taking our human language seriously in the discipline of Christian theology and ethics. The central difficulty that concerns me is how the strength and dependability of language comes under threat by the fragile nature of our words—how we acquire them, share them, and use them. While our shared words keep us in touch with reality, the manner in which we share them and use them can threaten the stability of our deepest connections to the world and to others as well as disrupt our moral identities and projects. By finding such fragilities at work within certain theological pictures of language and the moral life, I hope to show how our life in words presses perennial questions about bodily expression and human finitude that are often overlooked in theology’s portrait of the human. I address this set of concerns through a critical engagement with the voices of postliberal theology or postliberalism (i.e. Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Stanley Hauerwas). With the help of the ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, postliberal theology claimed to take language quite seriously. While I find in postliberalism a valuable recovery of the importance of ordinary language for the discipline of theology, I also discover a failure to really appreciate the fragility of language, specifically its source in our natural human capacities and its effect on human community and the moral life. By turning to more recent voices in ordinary language philosophy (i.e. Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and their followers), I locate this failure in postliberal theology’s unwillingness to fully take on the human conditions of language, reflecting underlying accounts of language and the self that are unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge human fragility and finitude. I conclude with a sketch of certain features of theological anthropology that serve to incorporate the fragilities of speech into our moral lives, finding in them, not simply threats of isolation, but hope in a future that directs human speech and life to God.



Postliberal theology. Ordinary language philosophy. Karl Barth. Hans Frei. George Lindbeck. Stanley Hauerwas. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stanley Cavell. Cora Diamond.