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Incapable of doubt, incapable of faithThe majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith. -- T.S. Eliot, Introduction (1931), Pascal's "Pensees"
Wittgenstein on Kierkegaard
"Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the[nineteenth] century. Kierkegaard was a saint." - Ludwig Wittgenstein, to his friend Maurice Drury.
Read Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality, and Philosophical Method by Charles L. Creegan free online.
Problem or Mystery?A problem is something which I meet, which I find completely before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity. -- Gabriel Marcel
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Liturgy For The PeopleThe liturgy is essentially not the religion of the cultured, but the religion of the people. If the people are rightly instructed, and the liturgy is properly carried out, they display a simple and profound understanding of it. For the people do not analyze concepts, but contemplate. The people possess that inner integrity of being which corresponds perfectly with the symbolism of the liturgical language, imagery, action and ornaments. The cultured man has first of all to accustom himself to this attitude; but to the people it has always been inconceivable that religion should express itself by abstract ideas and logical developments, and not by being and action, by imagery and ritual. --Romano Guardini, "The Awakening of the Church in the Soul"
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The Anguished QuestionIf you really enquire about God, not with mere curiosity, not, as it were, like a spiritual stamp collector, but as an anxious seeker, distressed in heart, anguished by the possibility that God might not exist and hence all life be vanity and one great madness -- if you ask in such a mood as the man who asks the doctor, "Tell me, will my wife live or will she die?"-- if you ask thus about God, then you know already that God exists; the anguished question bears witness that you know. -- Emil Brunner, "Our Faith"
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“If you have the right beliefs, then approaches, methods, and manners do not matter.” Innumerable American Protestants seem to take this point of view as axiomatic.
At first blush, the following defense of liturgical worship, a gentle defense from N.T. Wright, seems to fit perfectly with the axiom at hand: “If you have the right beliefs, then approaches, methods, and manners do not matter.”
In Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Wright says, “Sometimes formal liturgy enables those who attend it to relax into the love of God in a way which the frenetic informal style, so popular in some quarters, never does. Beware of worship which simply reinforces the wrong kind of behavior patterns” (64).
Consider, however, Wright’s use of the word “frenetic.” It’s more subtle than perhaps even he realized.
According to Merriam-Webster’s definition, the origin of “frenetic” situates the word as a description of undesirable mental states.
The dictionary’s website says, “Middle English frenetik insane, from Anglo-French, from Latin phreneticus, modification of Greek phrenitikos, from phrenitis inflammation of the brain, from phren-, phrēn diaphragm, mind”.
More raw emotion, less organization, more spontaneity, less theological intention — these worship services become frenetic, or insane.
The internal experience of the worship service — we might say, the mindlessness of the worship service — becomes more important than the mind’s and body’s interaction with the worship service. The experience of the soul’s elevation to new heights diminishes the human body.
And yet when Jesus heard Lazarus had died, he wept. And Jesus did not say, “Rejoice! Lazarus has been freed from this earthly prison!” Rather, Jesus resurrected Lazarus, calling forth “Lazarus,” his entire being as one.
And furthermore, consider that the early church rejected as heretical the belief that Christ only appeared to have a body — thus affirming the physicality of the human frame.
Also consider The Fall, however mythological (in the best sense) the Genesis account is, involved humans as unified selves that did not become flesh-and-bone, did not tumble down into bodies, after sinning.
Liturgical worshippers want to have their bodies and senses engaged in worship because that’s how God made them. I’ve rarely heard a sermon about God’s created beings doing normal, creaturely things — as if created beings, doing creaturely things, by design of their Creator, cannot involve serious theology!
So I’m putting all this emphasis on embodiment and the created order and the Incarnation as an point of reference in all this. (Much Christian talk about the soul depends, after all, on shaky grounds.) Sure, you can reply with various proof texts. And I can reply with the promise of resurrected bodies. And you can throw angles on my comment. And so on.
I can bring up recent insights into the human brain and add speculation about the connection of the “mind” or the “soul” to the body. And you can throw doubt on science and certain philosophical commitments.
At least consider, as a possible movement toward a middle ground, C.S. Lewis’s defense of ritual — ritual is certainly a form of embodying beliefs through habits, repetition, and re-enforcement.
The only reason I bought the book 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology was because an Internet search for a handful of keywords produced a passage from the book’s entry on aesthetics.
The word “aesthetics” can mean one or both of two things: (1) thinking about beauty and (2) thinking about the human experience of beautiful things. Aesthetics tends to be an academic discipline within philosophy.
I want to quote a significant passage from the passage on aesthetics in the book, which was written by two faculty members at Calvin College and one at Gordon-Conwell seminary.
Some of the following terms might be a little dense, so I’ll bold-face the easier-read, core parts:
“While strands of Christian, especially Protestant, theology have adopted the more rationalistic stance of Plato, throughout history many theologians have affirmed the aesthetics as a central medium of both revelation and truth, particularly Neoplatonic theologians such as Bonaventure. The emphasis on aesthetics has received renewed interest in contemporary theology due to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jeremy Begbie. At the core of these theological aesthetics (or aesthetic theologies) is a rejection of the rationalist axiom, which assumes that truth is communicated only in cognitive propositions. Rather, there is a mode of truth telling that is unique to the aesthetic or ‘affective,’ that cannot be reduced to cognitive propositions. Appeal is often made to the liturgy itself as an example of this, particularly the rich eucharistic liturgies of Orthodox and Catholic traditions, where all of the senses are engaged in order to communicate the truth of grace.” — Kelly James Clark, Richard Lints, and James K.A. Smith (bold-face added)
On Wednesday, I was driving through the campus of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., when I saw a sign that provided additional evidence for what young people want in worship services.
I believe it was the Lutheran Student Center that had a sign out front with three big words on it. Passing by in a car, I was only able to catch the first two: “Silence” and “Incense.” These words were presented on the sign as offerings for hungry students.
As another writer has recent noted, college-age students already have access to popular music and entertainment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What’s drawing them to worship services is not more of the same, despite the complete inability of just about every minister to understand that.
What’s really awful about the “contemporary worship services” and the “outreach ministries” are their failure to know the people they’re trying to reach. I remember, while I was on my way out of evangelicalism and toward mainline Protestantism, noticing how evangelistic and apologetic efforts were always ginned-up from within the circled wagons of churches, believers, and seminaries. The people creating these moves seemed to be saying, “If I was a non-believer, I would probably think and believe something like . . . .”
However, they weren’t non-believers, and they had little understanding of people. The better folks doing the ginning-up had gained an understanding of cultural forces and the impact of ideas, but few knew and genuinely befriended people. When they did get to know people, it had all the genuine-ness of multi-level marketing sales. (Remember Amway salespeople of recent decades?) The individual was not an interesting person to the evangelist or apologist, but rather a prospect, a target, a challenge. Not primarily a friend or a person.
But to come back to my original point, I remember a story from a student at the campus where I teach, Coastal Carolina University. A young, zealous, Southern, evangelical student invited some Northeastern cradle-Catholics to a local rock-and-roll church — you know, one of the churches with “high-energy” worship, guaranteed never to be boring.
How did the Northeastern cradle-Catholics react to the rock-and-roll church? Were they surprised that church could be so cool? Were they delighted to hear a backbeat in the worship songs? Did they feel at ease around casual clothing?
No. They’re response was simple: “That’s not church,” they said.
I figure they had expected something a little less like the rest of their lives.
“Because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology
Notice the assumptions in the title of the book: Theology is somewhat abstract and intellectual, while tradition is somewhat tangible and embodied.
Also, consider what Holmes is saying, and I’ll put my own interpretative spin on it: even if you don’t believe in “sacred spaces,” you can appreciate that many people have worshipped within a certain place, and you can appreciate that all the symbolism within a place points to Christ or to the Trinity, and you can appreciate that someone, whether the craftsman or just the purchaser, cared that tangible things would be symbols for God, for Christ, and for the glory of God. After all, in Christian belief, the printed word “Jesus” is not the Incarnated God, yet the word stands as a symbol for the Incarnated God. If words can refer to God, than other symbols can, too, and a place with many symbols can be considered special without being considered idolatrous. We don’t fix a flood with a drought, as Thomas Howard said in a quotation I posted the other day.
“When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine’.” — Loren Mead, in The Once and Future Church
The historical continuity and connections have meant the most the me, regardless of changes in the liturgy over time. The changes within various liturgies are no where near as radical as the changes in approaches to worship. As Mead suggests, emotional highs have taken the place of both the solemnity and the education within the liturgical worship services.
One should ask why emotional highs are important to God, why emotional highs are important to individual spiritual growth, and why (for many churches) worship has become inextricably tangled with emotional highs.
Why is my rock concert experience worth duplicating in church? Why is my Super Bowl experience worth duplicating in church? Our emotions ebb and flow but God remains constant.
“The eye that sees the dangers of idolatry is a true one. But to correct a flood, one does not want a drought…. It is false to pit the visible world of solid objects against faith. We never do this in other realms of our experience. Indeed, we cannot, since we are physical creatures and not angels.” — Thomas Howard, in Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament
- Liturgy, ritual, imagination, and worship (liturgical.wordpress.com)
- Revitalizing liturgical worship: C.S. Lewis on ritual (liturgical.wordpress.com)
Thoughts about ritual worship, shared with my friend Danny on Facebook, with updates (and paragraphing !):
As for ritual worship: I used to go to churches with two parts to the services: sing songs and then listen to the sermon. Since I’ve joined Trinity, I’ve been able to memorize portions of the liturgy because they are repeated week after week. These phrases from Scripture and our godly heritage have come back to me in difficult moments and sustained me.
Furthermore, I think the less-liturgical and less-ritualized services ignore the full human being. Our lives are run more by our emotions and our imaginations than by our rational, cognitive faculties.
By imaginations, I don’t mean daydreams but I mean the unique image-based structures of our thoughts and feelings [memories and expectations tend to be associated not with abstract thought but with sensory impressions, whether visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch].
Protestant worship, as noted elsewhere by Thomas Howard, tends to focus on the sermon because of the abstract, cognitive orientation of evangelicalism. The unstated message is, God is for the mind, reality is essentially Mind, and spiritual living is mind over matter. Get the ideas right and, supposedly, everything else will follow. This seems much like Descartes’ famous conclusions following his sensory-deprivation experiment.
When I was at L’Abri Fellowship, surely an evangelical outfit if there ever was one, Descartes took punches for too radically dividing the human being. God made humans as creatures within a Creation, and any part of our Protestant heritage that delegitimizes that doctrine ought to be left in the past. We are promised resurrected bodies, not glowing orbs of souls that float upward to heaven.
So, people try to *will* themselves into good Christian living and worshipful lives, but their feelings and imaginations are saturated with popular movies, music, TV and the never-ending bombardment of marketing and advertising prompts (which in many cases do more to create our assumptions of reality than anything else).
Much worship today imitates mass media instead of providing a counterpoint to it.
The stories of Scripture and sermons can help the imagination enormously, but unfortunately, our short-attention-span culture does not provide meditative time to soak these stories into our “hearts.” The regular ritual helps the meditative process by working good words and good images into our feelings and imaginations. There is really nothing else like it available.
Of course, ritual delivers content — some specific kind of content and meaning, so ritual should be focused around good things: at Christmas, maybe great-grandmother’s recipe; in church, around the Risen God.
All in all, the more I learn about current brain research and breakthroughs in neuroscience, the more I think our liturgical worship is best. Changes in liturgies don’t matter so much as their historical antecedents and the content delivered by the liturgical rituals. The brain makes connections in certain ways. Liturgical rituals correspond to the brain better than rock concert-style worship.
“A parallel, from a different sphere, would be turkey and plum pudding on Christmas day; no one is surprised at the menu, but every one realizes it is not ordinary fare. Another parallel would be the language of a liturgy. Regular church-goers are not surprised by the service — indeed, they know a good deal of it by rote; but it is a language apart. Epic diction, Christmas fare, and the liturgy, are all examples of ritual — that is, of something set deliberately apart from daily usage, but wholly familiar within its own sphere…. Those who dislike ritual in general — ritual in any and every department of life — may be asked most earnestly to reconsider the question. It is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.” — C.S. Lewis, from A Preface to Paradise Lost
Philosopher James K.A. Smith writes,
‘In giving talks around the country about Desiring the Kingdom, one of the themes I regularly press is the refusal of any form/content distinction when it comes to Christian worship. This is central to my argument: when I claim that Christian worship forms and orients our loves, it’s not just any old version of Christian worship that does this. Indeed, much of what evangelicals think of when they think of “worship” (=music) does not have the potential to be formative in this way. What we need is Christian worship that embodies the unique logic of the Gospel, practicing and enacting the specificity of the Christian narrative. This is why, over time, the church, led by the Spirit, has communally discerned a certain given “shape” for core elements of Christian worship (which can then be “indigenized” in different ways in different contexts at different times).
‘The Gospel is not a “content” that can be distilled and just dropped into any old “form” that seems hip or relevant or attractive. You can’t distill Jesus from Christian worship and then just drop him into the mall or the coffee shop or the concert: while you might think you’re “Jesu-fying” this medium, in fact you just end up commodifying Jesus.’
From there, Smith gets into some interesting reflections on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, a convert to Roman Catholicism known for his saying, “the medium is the message.” Read more here: Fors Clavigera: The Medium is the Message.
“Any study of late medieval religion must begin with the liturgy, for within that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture, lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place in it. Within the liturgy birth, copulation, and death, journeying and homecoming, guilt and forgiveness, the blessing of homely things and the call to pass beyond them were all located, tested, and sanctioned. In the liturgy and in the sacramental celebrations which were its central moments, medieval people found the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives.
“For the late medieval laity, the liturgy functioned at a variety of levels, offering spectacle, instruction, and communal context for the affective piety which sought even in the formalized action of the Mass and its attendant ceremonies a stimulus to individual devotion. Ecclesiastical law and the vigilance of bishop, archdeacon, and parson sought to ensure as a minimum regular and sober attendance at matins, Mass, and evensong on Sundays and feasts, and annual confession and communion at Easter. But the laity expected and gave far more in the way of involvement with the action and symbolism of the liturgy than those minimum requirements suggest.” — Eamon Duffy, in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580
- Musings on the Liturgy, In General (gloriaque.wordpress.com)
- When Liturgy Goes Off the Deep End – Troubling Trends in German Speaking Lands. Two Videos Depict the Problems (adw.org)
Dusted off: Below is an excerpt from Phillip Johnson’s essay, “Facing Orthodoxy,” which includes a review of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy by Frederica Mathewes-Green. Johnson, a Presbyterian and a controversial figure in several ongoing public debates, is not necessarily a representative for my points of view. However, in the following excerpt, Johnson succinctly articulates the reasons behind my interest in liturgical worship, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy — while remaining quite Protestant!
Johnson had read the Mathewes-Green book to his wife in the evenings, which is where we pick up:
“We are Presbyterians who are just as satisfied with our local church (but not our denomination!) as Frederica is with her Orthodox community. Although our ship isn’t sinking, we still found much in her account to admire.
“For one thing, Orthodoxy provides a magnificent aesthetic experience. Worshipers absorb the faith not by hearing about it but by reliving the gospel and the passion in the liturgy. This gives them a sense of contact with the historic Christian tradition that is often missing in services centered on the sermon and more closely tied to contemporary culture. Second, Orthodoxy is demanding. Participating in the fasts and in the long services (often standing) discourages the attitude, so prevalent among Protestants, that going to church should be something like watching television.
“Finally, the Mathewes-Green parents seem to have persuaded their daughter and two sons to share a good deal of their enthusiasm. I need to hear of no further wonders. Those children are potentially more impressive answers to prayer than a thousand miraculously renewed icons.”
Johnson’s essay originally appeared in the September/October 1997 edition of Books & Culture. I dusted off the quotation because I use this blog as something like an informal annotated bibliography for future reference.
Bad habits tend to involve things we do with our bodies, but spiritual and religious cures tend to involve intangible, unseen things like prayers, beliefs, and will-power.
Habits are developed, maintained, and broken in the brain, according to this research from MIT.
The spiritual and religious cures that deal exclusively with intangible, unseen things ignore the full picture of human nature.
The spiritual and religious cures seem to be dualistic, making the body like oil on top of the mind’s or spirit’s water.
The assumption is if the mind or spirit gets right, the body will get right, too.
Is this dualistic view orthodox? Difficult to answer. In Christianity, the believer is promised a resurrected body.
Can we really overcome a bad neural pathway in the brain without directly engaging the brain? Tough question. God does seem to empower some people to overcome temptations.
No matter how you answer those questions, consider this: if our bodies engage with material things for bad habits, our bodies should also engage with material things for good habits.
Good rituals, and habitual engagement with good symbols, might not replace a bad habit, but rituals with good symbols would be better than no bodily engagement at all. (Along those lines, see my argument in favor of Montessori-based Christian education here.)
What starved senses in a man who can only think of his body as engaged in the bad, and only think of some intangible part of himself as engaged with the good.
How does this non-material, non-biological view of change track with the Incarnation? If flesh and bone is, in and of itself, sinful, how could He who knew no sin have taken on flesh and bone? I think “flesh” would include the brain.
As researchers interviewed for this MSNBC article said, humans can strengthen good habits.
Imagine Christian spirituality this way: At the bottom, we have natural law, or the moral law that C.S. Lewis describes in an appendix to his book The Abolition of Man. This is the moral law that seems to have been consistently intuited by humans throughout history. However, it is also a moral law that we all, to greater or lesser degrees, have violated.
At the top, we have God’s help, God’s power that enables people to do truly good things and overcome selfishness. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book Heretics, the only requirement for selfishness is to have a self (which is why “education” in information and basic knowledge won’t make better people).
At the bottom, the moral law. At the top, God’s help.
Here’s what’s in middle: family traditions, ritual practices, ceremonies, liturgical celebrations — the habits and cycles, associated with Biblical stories and Christian symbols, that write new neural pathways into our brains.
As noted in the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, good changes in the brain are possible.
Let me jump back to a wide angle on this topic: I seriously doubt that Christian evangelists and apologists can adequately engage the world without some understanding of brain research. What makes us human? What’s the norm for being human? What do we assign to the intangible, unseen realm that is actually tangible, if located in the dark cave of the skull?
While my hope is in the free gift of the New Covenant, I do not believe that God controls everything we become. As it turns out, as humans, as biological beings with brains, at least part of who we are, at least part of who we make ourselves to be, depends upon what we do. We can be staunch believers in that New Covenant and still have no pattern of life or practice that associates with Biblical patterns or Christian symbols.
“…because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes, in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology
I like that quotation because, when I was younger, I felt like the Christian faith was about disembodied spiritual experiences, but that’s probably because (where I was for most of my upbringing) instant and immediate experiences of God were valued more than biblical study or any reference to previous generations of Christians.
So I place a slight stretch on the word “gnosticism,” applying it to any anti-materiality accompanied by specially obtained knowledge or experience. The “doctrine of creation” and, as academic as it might sound, “historical locatedness” are definite remedies for gnosticism.
“Liturgy is what Christians have performed in their public assemblies. Worship is both more and less than liturgy. It is more in that it includes the devotional practices of individuals and households as well as public praise and common prayer; it is less in that liturgy is not only prayer but ritual.” — Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy