On My Arc Away From Liturgy

I left an annoying comment on Tony’s recent post about liturgy.  His post briefly explores the possibility of the Church Year as offering the foundation for an ‘irregular dogmatics’.  My comment was simply stating that I wish I could comment because at present the notion and validity of the Church Year and its structural liturgy is, at present, in upheaval.  I thought I might try and trace my thought trajectory so that I can see where it might be heading.

As I alluded to my last post I have been preaching Romans for Advent.  Paul, having little to say about the historical Jesus at the best of times, has no Christmas story.  There appears to be no value in recounting Jesus’s birth for the sake of churches he worked with.  This led to a sort of paradigm shift which began to view liturgical practices not so much as rhythms of resistance but as abstractions displacing what should be existentially integrated (did that make sense?).  So we set baby Jesus outside of us as opposed to attending to the blood, shit and pain that comes with childbirth.

This thinking was further crystallized by a comment Chris Rodkey made on a somewhat unrelated post at AUFS.  He states,

One thing I have been thinking about as I am constructing an outline for a collaborative project a colleague and I are gearing up to write together is Jacob Taubes’ critique of Christianity in his book Occidental Eschatology. Essentially my appropriation is this: The liturgical calendar and liturgical time prevents any sense of Parousia. [emphasis mine]

Perhaps I could be convinced that present liturgies are simply parodies but it hardly makes a difference.  The point is the manner in which our lives are presently and existentially engaged.  As it turns out Dan seemed to push my thinking even further with his recent post.  He writes,

This is the season of Advent and some of my friends are writing pretty words about this time of waiting, hope, anticipation and proleptic action.  They are saying the sort of thing I used to say not too long ago.  As for me, I am tired of waiting and tired of being a good little fellow and “waiting well.”  With all due respect to my friends, I say fuck that noise.  If there is a God out there, and that God is lingering, deciding to postpone an intervention, then I think the only way to wait is to act as if God is not coming or to try and force the coming of God.  Instead of finding ways to make our peace with our godforsakenness we should absolutely refuse to accept it.  Anything is better than that acceptance.  Better to risk everything on the wager that God cares enough to intervene (although that usually doesn’t work out well) than to sit back and make peace with this.  Better to spit at the back of God if that is what will bring God to act.  Besides, it is actions like these, and only actions like these, that actually take God seriously.  Anything else in the context of abandonment is either a pale imitation of worship or idolatry.

I am not quite sure how to take this.  At present I read it as a Psalm which is fully truthful if not entirely complete (is that an insult Dan?).  This leads me to my present reading in Philip Goodchild’s Capitalism and Religion.  Goodchild looks at Henri Bergson’s work on time and freedom.  Bergson critiques ‘measured’ or ‘counted’ time.  Goodchild writes,

For synchronization to occur, real time must be replaced by an abstraction which has eliminated the essential quality of time – change.  Measurable, homogeneous time is an abstraction where nothing takes place.  In countable time, the living is measured in so far as it conforms to the behaviour of inanimate clocks. (105)

In brief, the representation of reality in both science and metaphysics is a commodification, replacing the thing with a quantifiable symbol fashioned for the purpose of exchange.

Bergson’s alternative is to place reason within the temporal process itself. . . . The experience of thinking replaces the object of thought.  Freedom must be encountered in the experience of thinking before it can become the object of thought. (107)

The question this raises is the extent to which liturgical practices actually undermine, overthrow or replace dominant social modes (empire, capitalism, etc.).  Or do they simply fall prey the near omnipotent work of commodification?  Does a flash mob singing the hallelujah chorus in a food court do anything more than make people feel good about their shopping experience?  Even the cultural liturgist Jaime Smith thinks not (I have not read his Desiring the Kingdom). (I also can’t help but cringe at Winnipeg’s attempt to piggy-back on this . . . apparently the press was there waiting for it ‘to happen’)

So that is a bit of the arch.  I still retain theological convictions of doxology as a sort of foundation for practice but as for present form of church liturgy I am becoming increasingly dissatisfied.  The issue remains the extent to which the acts and the structures produce abstractions or commodities that keep one from encountering and entering into the Gospel.  What is my alternative?  At present it is little more than an increasingly social form of (or socially aware) existentialism.  Or to be more naive . . . a biblical faith.  Hopefully, more to come.

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23 thoughts on “On My Arc Away From Liturgy

  1. Wow, thanks for getting back so quickly and with more detail than I expected. I hope you’ll indulge me if I press back on a bit of this, keeping I hope the same charitable stance I’ve always experienced from you.

    Your feelings seem to be very much in keeping with a lot of the feelings of a fair chunk of the theoblogosphere these days, a feeling it seems to me of very deep anxiety over injustice and idealogy and a deep suspicion of particular voices perceived of as being complicit with passive acceptance of the ‘status quo’ – for instance Rusty Reno’s recent bullshit. (forgive me for going meta here, but I feel like what you’re saying is able to be situated in a larger sentiment)

    It’s hard for me not to see how this isn’t very “either/or,” very “existential paulinism / oppressive orthodoxy.” Forgive me, but why is it significant that Paul doesn’t talk about the Nativity? The Gospels do. By talking about the Nativity, how does this necessarily refuse the possibility of Paul? I don’t see how this choice is forced on us. And to force the choice doesn’t take the Bible seriously, it latches onto a strong point in it (here, Paul) and gives it meta-authority over the life of Christ. A life, mind you, which is understood by us to be the perfect response to the election of God, and, moreover, a life I thought that Mennonites were understood to ‘take more seriously’ than other Christians.

    Likewise I don’t understand the connection of liturgy to passivity. In the lectionary we’re reading the opening chapters of Luke, but we’re also reading Isaiah where God is blasting the shit out of Israel for worshiping foreign gods and mistreating the poor. They are held together without any necessary tension in the canon, so why in our life? Why is what Dan saying inimical to the Year?

    The church year isn’t just some “man made” tradition that some dude made up one time, it’s an extended proclamation of the Gospel as presented to us in the actual Scriptures. There’s no need to pit Paul against Luke (especially when Luke is so anti-Roman!!!)

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    1. What I meant, Anthony, is that it’s not simply a novum removed from how Christ established his own life. It’s not mere “religion” in the sense that that word is often used. I realize I didn’t make that clear.

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  2. My influences certainly are reflected in many recent blog skirmishes. What I am trying to do is layer my recent engagement with the various sources cited here over top of my earlier understanding of the Church Year. In so doing I hope that line of congruence will remain and sites of conflict can be addressed. This is why I want to speak (however naively) of a biblical faith because I do hold a high view of canonical diversity.
    As I mentioned at the end my main issue is one of abstraction. This is a functional observation of the Church Year as opposed to simply a theological one. So I am certainly not opposed to expressions of the Church Year that engage people in the world. My exploration currently then is whether the nature of time and practice in traditional liturgies already has embedded within them tendencies that will thwart their purposes. So yes we have the Gospels but that hardly makes a case for high church liturgies. In fact, biblical speaking again we need to emphasize the refrain of the people’s inability to perceive the coming and presence of God. I see this as a challenge to my understanding of liturgy. For liturgy to be effective it is almost as though it needs to be retrospective like the Gospels or prophetic.
    You say that texts of justice and peace are read and encountered in the Church Year but again that does not mean anything. How does the structure of the Church Year enact that within the believer and in the world?
    So while I still have a sympathetic side to your project I need to keep pushing this through until I better understand it.

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    1. For clarity’s sake, I don’t have a ‘project.’ I have a blog. With that blog I think out loud, I have ideas. But I’m not wedded to them, it’s a playful arena for me to explore things not a public statement of particular dogma.

      Who said anything about “high church liturgies?” From the beginning (for instance in the NT), coming together to read scripture, hear prophetic words and enact the Eucharist was at the core of what the church did. I don’t know what makes that high church. It’s not like someone needs chant, Latin and incense to read Isaiah and give thanks. That it didn’t end there on Sunday and was further lived as generosity to the poor, et. al. flows from that life given in Christ and is a necessary part of that moment of focused intensity, not the “real” thing of which the Sunday gathering is the actual parody, it’s an extension of it into all lived places.

      Hearing and doing, both / and, that’s where I want to get.

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      1. Project is simply what I note people are working on at a given time, didn’t intend to wed you to it! The ‘high church’ comment was unnecessary to the conversation I agree. I don’t assume that we can rid ourselves of ‘liturgy’ any more than we can rid ourselves of tradition. We have practices. We have repetitions. I am simply trying to work through the underlying premise of contemporary (or ancient) models of liturgy. It is one thing to believe in Real Presence and another to believe it is simply a formative experience. Again, my functional experience of the power of ‘tradition’ tends to be the power it exerts when it is threatened. I was strongly encouraged to NOT mention the non-existence of Santa Claus in a sermon when I found that the kids were not going downstairs for Sunday School.

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  3. There’s a phrase in the original Book of Common Prayer that I think is very relevant here:

    “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted: as, among other things, it may plainly appear by the common prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service…”

    I can’t imagine liturgy or practice of any kind that cannot be brought under judgment.

    Perhaps I too have a sympathetic side to your project.

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    1. Not at all. Simply that the year is on its most basic level, a ‘repetition’ of sorts of Christ’s life as presented in the Gospels. Inasmuch as imitation of Christ in the power of the Spirit is the norm for Christian life, the year is a way among others, of being conformed to the life that Christ did enact and make possible.

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  4. Just trying to figure out what understanding the Christian year “not simply a novum removed from how Christ established his own life” means.

    It seems to me that it is removed from Christ’s own life precisely because it is supposed to remember, recount, and witness to Jesus’s human story, an event that is unique, and, well, past.

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  5. I don’t believe Jesus’ life is past as he is living, acting, judging, redeeming even now. I’m thinking of where Jesus says his disciples will “do greater things than these,” or where in Acts miracles accompany the life of the apostles and when those healed tried to thank or praise the disciples they say that it is in fact Jesus Christ, the one who lived this particular human story, he is the one who healed you. I mean, there’s a lot more to that but my main point is that Jesus’ life isn’t closed off and it manifests in those who serve him or are called and found by him.

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  6. Sure Jesus is living and active (that’s pretty central to my thought), but the whole point of “you will do greater things than these” seems to be that “these”, the things that came before, the concrete history of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection are unique and unrepeatable.

    And I also have trouble with the notion that the observance of the liturgical year is necessarily analogous with the apostolic miracles of healing. Those seem . . . rather different.

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    1. Let me phrase it like this: I don’t believe that conformance to the pattern of the life of Jesus is possible without the actual life of Jesus, his Spirit. If we are to take the (‘historical’ if you will) life of Jesus as the event – including the gift of the Spirit – which “authorizes” (I’m channeling de Certeau here) and enables alternative not-same repetitions of / conformances-to this life, and if we are to understand this as being done “by the name of Jesus whom you crucified”, then I think that inasmuch as the liturgical year is one way (among others) of being conformed to this life. It could be then in a way analogous to any manifestation of Christ’s life, such as apostolic miracles, since manifestations of Christ’s life are not cut off and are potentially infinite in their occurances.

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  7. To me it seems like the difference is that the apostolic miracles just that, miracles, divine events wrought by the Spirit of Christ. The church year, liturgy, etc, seem to me to be, at best, a sort of space in which such miracles could occur.

    This seems to me to be the rub in some of these arguments. Liturgical enthusiasts (generalizing here, I know) tend to want to claim that liturgy IS a manifestation of Christ’s life, its not just what we intend, or are motivated by when we do it. There is some sort of inherency in liturgy. BUT, obviously we then run into the problem of real life in which its obvious that liturgy isn’t always or even generally a divine event, and indeed it is often quite the opposite.

    The question then is where that leaves us. For me it leaves me with, God may indeed become manifest in our liturgies, but not necessarily or inherently so. And what that might look like cannot be assumed in advance. Obviously that puts me outside of a certain high church or “catholic” understanding how God is or is not bound to liturgical action.

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    1. I feel I get where you’re going. I’ve not read nearly enough liturgical theology to really have a full grasp of that. I look at the church year like a sort of wisdom, something that has been hashed out over a very long time and has been found very fruitful for being faithful. I don’t think it’s “essential” to the very heart. The only caviat I might venture is that if our bodies are now a ‘living sacrifice’, and if this sacrifice is only possible in Christ, then there is a sense in which the whole offering of ourselves is done in the power of God since it’s not something we could have attained to otherwise.

      The talk of ‘boundedness’ I too find rather uncomfortable. Heck in I Cor. we are told that Jesus might show up with sickness and death if the rest of our house isn’t in order so it can’t be that simply performing a liturgy will mean life, unless of course our flesh needs some more death in order that true life might abound.

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  8. Yeah, the “bound” language is used by Hutter and that’s where I’m getting it. I think part of what lurks in the background for me on this is the whole ex opere operato business and the sort of variant versions thereof that I think are making a comeback in certain “liturgical” proposal for ecclesial life and politics.

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    1. Ditto, it has been enjoyable.

      For clarities sake though, I wouldn’t want to imply that I don’t see the appropriateness of a “christological poetics,” a manner in which all human making is itself an “expression” of the uncreated logos. But I can’t articulate that well. An account I really resonate with is Rowan Williams’ “The Nature of a Sacrament”, a discussion largely of David Jones and Aquinas, in On Christian Theology. For instance –

      “Derivatively, then, but really, the Church’s sacramental action is the Father’s art, not our unaided reflection on human existence, nor even our attempt to render present an absent divine act or a distant promise; they are the drawing of believers into the life of the kingdom of God.” p206

      So maybe there is still a gap between us, yet I don’t want to get to the point where poetics and sacraments are a manipulation or command made of God, it’s always dependent on the free initiation of God in Christ.

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  9. Yup. Stirred up some dormant thoughts on using the Old Testament priesthood for contemporary theology. I am mean these got their hands into everything. Every breach, penetration and invasion needed to be accounted for from blood to borders or from mold to money in a theological whole. Tough to abstract that liturgical rhythm in its original context (though I suppose part of the argument is whether there was an original context).

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