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The impotence of the liturgical year

Around Advent a lot gets written about the importance of the liturgical year. Advent is the Christian New Year. It marks the beginning of our true, authentic, Christian time. And marking time according to our Christian calendar offers us a way of forming our lives that resists the machinations of corporate capitalism, the nation state, etc. I’ve spoken like this for years myself.

I’ve been a part of a church community that very rigorously follows the liturgical year for nearly a decade. I love the liturgical year. I’ve taught a year-long class on it using (among other things) Robert Webber’s popular book Ancient-Future Time as a text. For the last four years I’ve made sure to be a part of planning and facilitating our Holy Week celebration because I so deeply love that time and all it witnesses to.

Okay, so that’s my Christian year street cred. Do with it what you will.

In light of what I’ve experienced in practicing this way of keeping time and in the many theological and philosophical books currently in vogue that have a strong emphases on the liturgical year, I’ve come to have some doubts about its ability to do all we tend to hope. The Christian year we are told, forms us differently than the secular calendar, it immerses us in the story of Jesus and the church, training us to resist other loyalties, allegiances, priorities, and practices. This is commonly accepted in certain theological circles these days.

This claim, however, somehow seems to avoid being put to any empirical testing even though it is an empirical claim. The argument is made that liturgy does in fact form and shape a people that resist global capitalism, aren’t seduced by American militarism, and so on, and yet when asked where this particular liturgy-formed people is, there is usually just some quick excuses and then a return to extolling the virtues of the liturgy. Maybe the reason is that the liturgy that most Christian communities practice has been corrupted by secular calendars and methods. But empirically there’s not really any evidence for churches with untouched, uncorrupted liturgies birthing people who live more faithfully. There’s no sign that high church liturgies that haven’t been influenced by “the world” inherently produce social bodies that do all the things liturgical enthusiasts insist are encoded into the liturgy. One could cite the massive amounts of pristine and pure liturgy that went on in the Medieval Crusades, Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, or the famous scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone renounces Satan and all his works as his minions slaughter his rivals.

My point is simply this: liturgical enthusiasts claim that practicing liturgy (and the Christian year in particular) effects an empirical change on the faithfulness of the church in the world. It does something, we are told. And yet it doesn’t. And when asked about this inconsistency such enthusiasts give very scant answers. The fact is that, as far as I can see, the correlation between Christian faithfulness and liturgical observance doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way. There is rampant unfaithfulness in churches with the best and most uncorrupted liturgy and there is remarkable faithfulness and vitality in churches who have the most compromised and immaterial worship forms around. And vice versa. As such I see no reason to be persuaded that liturgy does what its enthusiasts claim.

To be clear, I’m not saying that liturgical practices are bad or something, or that observing the Christian year is not a good thing. Only that it doesn’t “just do it” the way it is popular to imagine these days. It suffers from the same vulnerability as all our attempts to fashion a common life together, not merely that it might become stained and corrupted by secular calendars, but that it might become, in itself an object of hope that we reify. We need much more humility, much more realism about our claims for what things like the liturgical calendar can do. To be sure God can and does meet us in worship, but more often than not it is a meeting like that of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist with the Lord (Luke 1:8-20). While burning incense, going about the usual liturgical practices of their calendar, this priest was confronted, unprecedentedly with the Word of God in a meeting that terrified, overwhelmed, and left him literally speechless. It is in this coming of God, this free coming that we must place our hope, not in the “work” of our fragile attempts to offer praise. To the extent that our “work,” our liturgy becomes our answer to the problem of Christian faithfulness, we offer a different answer than that of the gospel.

With all that in mind, recognizing the impotence of the liturgical year to do what some enthusiasts would like it to, I suggest that Advent would be better spent talking about God than about our calendar and how we imagine it organizes us and sets us in the right over against the corrupt world. We do better to simply cry out for God’s coming than to make peace with God’s absence by fixating on our celebrations, with all their traditions and trappings. This impotence is built into the Christian year itself. It has always been meant to be something we simply look through, are helped along by, not something we look at, something we assign divine agency to, or hope in. Advent does not want us to talk about calendars and what they might do for us. It wants us to talk about God, to cry out for God, to long for God, to have literally no hope if God is not coming to us in a way exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could every ask or think — even in our greatest liturgical calendars and celebrations.

82 Comments

  1. Tony Hunt wrote:

    I think you’re right to stress this point Halden. The mere fact of performing the Year (or any other ‘liturgical’ action) has no sheer power to affect substantive change when not coupled with accompanying action/inaction in the ‘other’ aspects of life.

    That’s why it’s of fundamental importance that during, say, Advent (to use an obvious example), when we’re reading of God judging Israel and the nations for injustice, that acts of justice/resistance to injustice and proclamations of judgment be part and parcel of the whole thing. Otherwise it’s sort of like assuming that eating an apple will make one healthy if they’re also still eating Krispy Kreme and not exercising.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  2. My religious upbringing was not only non-liturgical, but also possibly even anti-liturgical, for the simple reason that modern liturgy does not originate in the practices of the apostolic church (insofar as we can determine that church’s practices from the New Testament), but rather in post-apostolic (and thus dubious) accretions to those practices.

    Though I don’t think observing the liturgical calendar is “sinful,” I think that any attempt to ground our spiritual maturation in anything but prayer, evangelism, study of the Word, and love for one another – all of which we are entirely capable of without a liturgical calendar – is misguided. Why, then, do so many focus on the liturgy? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that many of us are more comfortable observing a calendar than praying (spontaneously!), studying the Word, proclaiming the gospel to a lost world, and loving one another deeply.

    Christians (including me) have a bad habit of emphasizing the importance of those aspects of the faith which we like and minimizing the importance of those we do not. We have to avoid that habit if we want to be like Christ and change the world.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Study of the Word is a post-apostolic practice.

    That being said, I agree with Halden.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  4. good critique. Maybe the emphasis should not be on what it “does,” but simply in that it “redeems” time…by bringing it captive to Christ. I dont know, but I do find greater meaning following the rhythms of the redemptive story over our civic calendar which is sold out to linear progress…

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  5. dan wrote:

    I agree, Halden. I went through some similar experiences with practicing the liturgy within an intentional community for a few years (we used “Celebrating Common Prayer”). I also started going to daily mass at a Catholic Church (I know that might upset some RC folks, but given that I already have issues in relation to private property, I sure as hell don’t think anybody can turn the body of Christ into their private property).

    However, after a few years, I became increasingly dissatisfied on the same points you raise in this post — the contrast between the claims made about the effectiveness of the liturgy and the sacraments and actual end results, and so on.

    I challenged Hauerwas on this point at a conference (given that he was one of the major voices that brought about my liturgical turn) and used 1 Cor 11 to argue that any practice of the liturgy or of the Eucharist must be paired with the concrete practice of lived solidarity with the poor and asserted that, if we do otherwise, we risk eating and drinking judgment (even death!) upon ourselves (which, of course, is precisely the point Paul makes in 1 Cor 11). Unfortunately, Hauerwas also fit into the general trend of those who don’t actually offer a substantial response to challenges raised in this regard. Instead of addressing the point, he just cracked a joke about how he wished more American Evangelicals would partake of the Eucharist so that God could kill them (I guess he’s free to answer that way since he’s tenured at Duke and I’m nobody, but I was still disappointed).

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  6. I came to faith and spent over 20 years in a tradition just like Porter described. But I’m SO glad that I “fell” into the liturgical church.

    I’m surrounded by apostates just as much now as I was then, so empirical claims be damned.

    But both in my work as a lector and as a lay-witness (non-ordained preacher) I have taken pains to make my prayer “God, what are you saying to the church/Church?” So it may be my temperament or personal preference, or it may just be that the “rhythms” of non-liturgical worship simply don’t leave the space to ask such a question.

    I think part of this is that the “givenness” of the liturgy comes to us as a gift. It takes the pressure off of “improvising” our worship to God. Or the illusion of improvising…because we’re all using borrowed scripts. Maybe I just like the one that’s a bit older, broader, and common to the churches.

    At any rate, I think that I’m probably like Zechariah. If God interrupts my world, it only helps that I’m trying to watch and listen. Yes there are plenty of ways to watch and listen, but for many of the name we give “watching and listening” is “the work of the people”.

    On a personal note, I wonder sometimes if my attraction to the liturgy has something to do with being a Levite and a Cohen.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  7. Nate Kerr wrote:

    “A Christianity marking time is the habit of the one who, according to 2 Corinthians 11:14, depending on time, situation, and audience, disguises himself as an angel of light and feigns charismatic fellowship where, apart from openness to the world, a Christian ghetto is renovated and repaired and where thought is at an end.” — Ernst Kasemann, On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene, 70

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  8. Derek wrote:

    Halden, would you make an analogous critique of (other) spiritual disciplines? I’ve been thinking some about Bonhoeffer’s attempt to argue for the importance of spiritual disciplines while maintaining God’s freedom, and this post brought that to mind again.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Mark Van Steenwyk wrote:

    Thanks for the article. I grew up irrelgious, came into the non-denom Charismatic movement in my teens and, up until my early 20s, deplored liturgy in all of its forms. These days, I really enjoy the liturgical year. But I get upset when folks assume that liturgy and sacraments are magic tricks that turn us into Jesus.

    Nevertheless, I do believe that observing the Christian calendar makes it easier to resist Empire. It provides a structure of meaning that lets me separate my imagination from the regular flow of Imperial time. So, I suppose, it offers a helpful way of focusing energy. It is a small part of a larger strategy.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  10. dan wrote:

    It certainly can be “a small part of a larger strategy” but it can also be one of the means by which a “spectacular” form of resistance is employed within the society of the spectacle. Too often, it ends up being a simulacrum of resistance rather than a genuinely liberating or subversive act.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  11. Mark Van Steenwyk wrote:

    Agreed. There is also (and this is probably my own residual charismatic evangelicalism coming out) a sort of smugness associated with it. That if you aren’t observing liturgy the way it OUGHT to be done, then you are piteous or deeply deficient. But the truth is, for many churches, all they have left is liturgy, and they cling to it they way an insane man still holds his long-dead cat for comfort.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  12. Wilson wrote:

    Most of the language of the liturgical year I have come across seems window dressing. I have never been in a church that does its finances with the liturgical year, or hiring policy, or vacation time. We bracket off those aspects that may be awkward or difficult personally and communally.

    If the liturgical year really reoriented people it would make it difficult to live in a society that does not practice that year. This is gets to your point about how this is an empirical claim that no one seems to address. Where the liturgical year is impractical, it is dropped. This is Christian discipleship today.

    Advent does want us to talk about calendars but they are different calendars than the ones we want to talk about. They don’t have wreaths or candies but eschatological vision. The Time of God demands a calendar, an entry into our life, but when we separate it so neatly we can still do what we want and think we are doing something holy. That is your point, I think.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  13. Thanks for a great post, which is a genuine challenge to me. I love the liturgical year for I do find it focuses me spiritually on the events and life of Jesus without allowing me to spend all of my time on the event, person or theme which is most appealing to me. Is that not sufficient? Is your argument that people are claiming more for the liturgical year than it can deliver? I linked to your post at America: http://americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=1&entry_id=3705

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  14. Marty Troyer wrote:

    I agree with all the author’s questions, and I’ll add a big one to it: if the liturgical calendar was created and has been sustained throughout Christendom, does it smack of Christendom? Or did it somehow manage to escape unscathed?

    Allow me a surprising answer: this Sunday’s lectionary gospel text (lectionary and liturgy are of course linked) is Matthew 2:13-23, a deeply subversive, violent, and from-the-under-side text. Would I or anyone else choose to preach on the slaughter of the innocents one day after opening presents under the tree and getting fat on dipped chocolates if it wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter?

    To me the lectionary & liturgical year is like walking into an amazing restaurant, and not being able to order for yourself: the chef brings you what its time for, not what you want to eat. If it was up to most of us pastors we would feed our flock what they want at Christmas: sentimental ooey gooey theology about babies. If you’re committed to The Year though, that’s not possible!

    So, is it impotent? Is it tainted by empire/Christendom? Great questions.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    John I feel the same way about the liturgical year. I do believe many people expect far more from its observance, arguing that the liturgical year shapes and forms the church in all sorts of political and economic ways that I think it simply does not.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  16. Tony Hunt wrote:

    btw you might check out Vincent Lloyd in the latest New Blackfriars who makes a congenial argument to your own. It’s called “Liturgy in the Broadest Sense.”

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  17. Oh man, point well taken about the disconnect on church policy and practice.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  18. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    An Assemblies of God youth pastor once told me that 90% of the time when he read the Bible he didn’t get the feeling he was getting anything out of it. 10% of the time he would have the strong impression God was showing him something he needed to learn and/or share with the people he preached to. That said, he keeps reading the Bible because if he only read the Bible when he was sure it would change him he’d never read it at all. He also reasoned that the more he studies the Bible the larger that 10% will be. Having any kind of pastor, even if a youth pastor, demystify personal study of the scriptures was a valuable lesson for me. Evangelicals often swear up and down that personal devotion time and Bible study is what really transforms you. It doesn’t, really, it doesn’t do anything more than what high liturgical advocates claim for their view of things. The most compelling case for any practice is that as you do it you trust that the Lord will at some point actually work through it as Halden described but also recognize that in the midst of it on a daily basis the experience is substantially more humdrum than that.

    Sometimes the only really big discovery I have made in personal study of the scriptures and prayer is to realize that a pastor I had listened to for years patently abuses OT texts to suit whatever he wants to get his congregation to think. This is not directly revealing who God is in any obvious way but I can’t say that epiphany wasn’t valuable. If someone makes a 90%/10% argument like the one the youth pastor outlined then I can get that–that’s not ascribing more to the routine than the routine can confer. I would think that with the law and the prophets we’d all recognize that just as sacrifices and feast days didn’t make every Israelite a better follower of Yahweh so we should not fool ourselves into thinking that if we do or don’t do this or that in the liturgical year that we will automatically be materially effected.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  19. Really, can’t we write the same sort of blog posts with these titles?

    “The impotence of reading the Bible”
    “The impotence of the Holy Spirit”
    “The impotence of living in intentional community”
    “The impotence of seeing Jesus face-to-face”

    I don’t know anyone guaranteeing that the liturgy somehow had the power to overcome human agency and guaranty faithfulness. The more I think about this, it’s a decent warning against empty religious forms…things we’re used to if we hear Jesus or Isaiah read during the liturgy (wink, wink).

    I don’t love the liturgy less for not being the magic gumdrop that makes me a disciplined follower of Christ. But I do love that God uses the liturgy (calendar, lectionary, prayers, etc.) to discipline me insofar as I’m willing to be disciplined. The more I think of it, the church calendar has borne concrete results in my life.

    Which may all be besides the point…because we are all liturgical whether we recognize it or not. The issue is not whether or not we have a liturgy, but whether or not it’s a good one. And one of the measures of “the work of the people” is whether we are working well. It sounds like Halden’s intentional community is working well with the church calendar, right?

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    My point though is simply that the church calendar isn’t responsible for a lick of any faithfulness, as far as I’m concerned and as far as I’ve seen. I don’t expect that from the church calendar and I don’t think we should. Some people do expect it to effect certain theopolitical ends. I just think that’s misguided.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Also, in your list, I think you sort of make my point for me. I’d have no problem writing a post on 1 or 3 (in fact those would probably be helpful), but 2 and 4 are completely different because those involve the direct presence and action of the Trinity.

    That’s the kind of confusion of categories that is a big part of the problem I’m getting at in the post.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  22. Hill wrote:

    I think your point that “we all have a liturgy” gets to the true usefulness of “the liturgy.” To the extent that it raises this issue to the level of explicit consideration, it is helpful.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  23. Sarah wrote:

    I was struck by a group organized to help their poor neighborhood in Mexico. They had started as a base community in the church, but had left that format. Their reason–The liturgical year! They felt that the liturgical calendar and its accompanying feasts and obligations took away momentum and energy from the actual work they felt called to do. Even though this work was impelled by the gospel.
    Their experience raises the question whether the liturgical year actually can impede our Christian life. Does it turn in on itself and keep us from the very work the life of Jesus invites us to?

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  24. dan wrote:

    I would be comfortable with 2 if it said “absence” instead of “impotence.” As for 4, I also disagree (unless you’re talking about those who encountered Jesus pre-resurrection — any post-resurrection experience seems to create dramatic changes).

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  25. Evan wrote:

    Sarah, your comment here brought Mark 2:27 to mind… perhaps an obvious scriptural appeal and the red letters that everyone here was thinking of in the first place, but worth noting.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  26. Martie wrote:

    At the least, the liturgical calendar & practices serve to unify the church to some degree…Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopals, and many other congregations share these practices.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  27. Bud wrote:

    Wait, are you saying that actual reason for this season is Jesus? Well I’ll be a — I think you’ve uncovered yet another tactic in the war against Christmas! Well done, sir!

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 8:50 pm | Permalink
  28. Neil wrote:

    Does the language of “impotence” really follow from speaking of “humility” and “realism”?

    It strikes me that most liturgical Christians would want to say that practicing liturgy “does something,” “effects an empirical change,” retains a certain degree of potency, and so on. Perhaps a Roman Catholic would point to the sociological work of Andrew Greeley, which has suggested – most intensely in The Catholic Myth – that a Catholic “difference” or “sensibility,” nurtured in large part by the liturgy, has sustained a measurable “communitarian ethic” among Catholics. (At times, this “communitarian ethic” has been destructive, but the point here is that it exists.)

    It is true nobody can seriously pretend that most Roman Catholic parishes in the United States effectively “resist global capitalism” and avoid the seductions of “American militarism.”

    I suppose that one might desperately say that if more American Catholics were attentive about liturgical practices, this might be possible. I suspect that this is what a “liturgical enthusiast” would have to say. What if a critical mass of American Catholics became committed lay Benedictines? What if priests decided to really focus on the liturgical year? Perhaps, once we set the right objective and worked ceaselessly towards it, we’d clearly see the desired liturgical “resistance.”

    But then we run into the problem, noticed by Harry Williams and others, that self-consciousness is often a very real impediment to holiness.

    So, the point, I think, should be that liturgy “does something” but not everything, and that it is problematic if someone suggests that it really must be everything or nothing at all.

    Is this what Halden is saying? (Forgive me if I’ve read too quickly.)

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  29. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Perhaps at issue here is the way in which “liturgy” has increasingly come to be thought (withing Western Christianity especially) as a kind of ecclesiological datum, rather than as a kind of Christic dandum. That is to say, when the singular reality of Jesus Christ is constitutive of our liturgy — when his death and resurrection is the one “work” we are given to live and to live into ever anew as the sent people of God — then things like the “church calendar” are not ways by which the church as such “keeps” or “marks” time for itself, but are rather a witness to the way in which we ourselves have been “timed” by the apocalyptic historicity of Jesus Christ. And so the “church calendar” is not de facto “liturgical” in-itself, as such, but rather is just one of the ways in which our own all-too-human modes of making and marking and keeping time are unhanded in radical orientation to the singular reality that is Jesus, the liturgical reality of which (as missionary act) paradoxically ensures our genuinely apostolic openness to the ongoing interruption and transfiguration of all such modes of making and marking and keeping time.

    Dogmatically speaking, this is just to say that the point at which we go wrong is in thinking “liturgy” as a sub-set of or category within “ecclesiology,” wherein the matter comes to be treated more or less phenomenologically. What if we were rather to consider “liturgy” and “ecclesia” under the dogmatic heading of something like, “Jesus the Apocalypse of God”?

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  30. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Thanks Halden, I liked this post! It brings to mind I Cor 10.31 “Whether, then, you eat or drink [or liturgy or the Christian calendar] or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  31. Many thanks for this post Halden, not least beacuse it gave me something worthwhile to think about while I mowed the lawns tonight. I’ve posted a wee response here: http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/the-liturgical-year-training-for-life-in-this-world-and-the-next/

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  32. MikeK wrote:

    Halden,

    Count me among the rest here who are grateful for this thoughtful post you left. A few matters to reply to you about.

    Re: the absence evidence to support the empirical claims. I’m delighted you wrote this. This is one of my chief disappointments with Jamie Smith’s book on cultural liturgy: even though I tacitly agree with his thesis. But, I don’t have some community I can point to or listen to and respond: there’s the datum I was searching for. I had a spurious thought that we’re unlikely to find this community even within Scripture, but I’ll let that alone.

    Re: the focus upon God. Whew: finally, someone spoke up. I’ve met very few people in my life that embrace the church calendar as you described. (Is that good or bad?) But, they fit your description. In a more cynical moment, I wondered if any of their “tribal deities” could have substituted for the Triune God, as the whole of their embrace was about their performance of the liturgy for the appropriate season. My apologies for the cynicism: a few of them I know well, and they have names, and I have begun to break the ice with them about my problem with their communication and understanding their enthusiasm for their liturgical performances. Which brings me to my last reply.

    Re: “enthusiasts.” Halden, I don’t mean to incite you here, and I don’t know what’s on your heart- although from time-to-time, you articulate that well also!!! But, from the very first pass on the post through the re-reads, I found myself asking, “Who are these ‘enthusiasts’ that Halden is griping about?” To be sure some are authors: you are clear there. From your community? Others near and far? I took dan’s reply describing his question to Hauerwas to be a salutary example for me; he puts himself at risk for receiving a reply from Hauerwas!

    Thanks again for this great post…

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink
  33. Ben Sternke wrote:

    Thanks for articulating that. It gave voice to many of the background questions I’ve had for the three years since I started a community focused on worshiping with the liturgical calendar. I found myself disappointed with the lack of faithfulness and transformation in people’s lives.

    We still worship with the calendar, because I think it’s a much better way of organizing time than the American military or Hallmark calendar. But the journey has simply made me hungrier than ever for those “Zechariah in the temple” kind of moments where we come face-to-face with the presence of the Triune God.

    Inasmuch as a discipline (like the liturgical calendar) can help to open us to these kinds of encounters, they are helpful. When they becomes ends in themselves, especially ends we are particularly proud of, they are impotent.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  34. Well said, Nate. Completely agree. Though I’d like to see more use made of the category of witness — as in, e.g., the calendar as a mode of faithful witness to the apocalyptic event of Jesus Christ.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink
  35. Fantastic post, Halden! This deals very well with some of the things we’ve been talking about over at Theommentary.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  36. Jason Fowler wrote:

    Halden,
    I resonate with your thoughts here and would love to feature them on the Sustainable Traditions blogazine if you’re willing. We would give you full credit and a link back here. All I would need is a one or two sentence bio about yourself.

    Thanks and shalom!
    Jason Fowler

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  37. I remember several years ago, in the midst of my “younger evangelical” discovery of the liturgy, I was at a conference and met a fellow Chicagoan pastor, Fred Nelsen. He put me on his mainline-lutheran-pastoral knee and said, “Geoff, liturgy doesn’t do everything.”

    Of course, he was right, it can’t do everything. But that is not the same as saying it does nothing either.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink
  38. Halden wrote:

    Jason, by all means feel free. There’s a short bio of me here

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  39. Halden wrote:

    Mike, I primarily mean authors of certain books and their fans. I didn’t name anyone in particular here because I didn’t want to just pick a fight with someone. Also the body of literature is rather large so I didn’t have just one person in mind, really.

    One book that does some of the things I’m describing here in specific reference to the liturgical year is Scott Waalkes’ The Fullness of Time in a Flat World: Globalization and the Liturgical Year. Again, its not that I’m saying books like this are all bad or that they don’t at time point us to things that we might learn from the Christian year. Just that they expect too many, and sometimes the wrong things from such practices.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  40. roy donkin wrote:

    good post and wonderful discussion.

    here’s my take – spiritual practices do make a difference. They do help shape the vocabulary with which we encounter the world and live in it. Observing the church year or practicing a liturgy is not magic, but it must make a difference if we take it seriously. I’m reminded of the passage in A Year of Living Biblically where the author talks about the changes in his attitudes that results from engaging in spiritual practices like praying even though he is an agnostic. While it does not do everything that many seem to claim, IME, if taken seriously it does make a difference in how one frames the world… and that may make all of the difference

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  41. Nate Kerr wrote:

    David:

    Indeed. In fact, from that second sentence on, just about every time I typed the words “liturgy” and “work” I was thinking “witness.”

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  42. Jason Fowler wrote:

    Thank you!

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  43. Jason Barr wrote:

    I guess I would say I find the liturgical calendar helpful insofar as it is a way of allowing time, and particularly my and my community’s experience of time, to be regulated by the stories of Jesus Christ in the gospels and the present reality of the apocalyptic inbreaking of the reign of God in the world. On the one hand, I would hardly expect to see too much in the way of results that can be attributed to the liturgical calendar as such because its purpose is to witness to Jesus and, at most, be a part of a larger set of practices that, with the help of the holy spirit, enable us to re-narrate our world(s). On the other hand, there is no necessity in the church calendar. It isn’t like baptism or communion which have a direct mandate from scripture, and even those practices are neither nonproblematic nor straightforwardly “formative” in a direct sense apart from an understanding of the Gospel itself as that which re-narrates the world. The church calendar may help some communities in that sense, it may not help others. For some, it may even be malforming. In fact I would say any practice which is taken as its own self-evident good, apart from the gospel, does so.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  44. I can agree that the church calendar, like just about everything, can be said to be useful or not useful depending on what God and humans do with it. That doesn’t surprise me or even diminish my gratitude for inheriting the church calendar :)

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  45. Marvin wrote:

    I wasn’t aware that anyone was making the argument that the liturgical year can exorcise the demons of capitalism and militarism from the hearts of worshipers. That’s a fantastic claim that ought to be laughed out of court.

    I’m wondering if you could even make that claim for baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Is it not the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us, through ordinary means set apart for an extraordinary purpose?

    Also, I agree that the subject of preaching should never be the season itself but God. I hate it when sermons go meta. That kind of talk is better suited for an event outside worship.

    But the question remains, How should Christians mark time? The liturgical year can be of some help in Christianizing time, although now that I’m in school and not in the pulpit, I admit I’m far less aware of it than I used to be. The climactic seasons and the academic year hold my attention much better.

    And since I’m not above quoting myself:
    http://marvinlindsay.typepad.com/avdat/2010/02/to-lent-or-not-to-lent.html#more

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  46. MikeK wrote:

    Halden, thanks for your reply. I’m glad that you take on such authors, as it pushes back on them and the rest of us (the number of replies here testifies to this) to become clear about our expectations. And: I’m delighted you’re a participant-observer in this as well.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  47. joel hunter wrote:

    I agree that it is an odd claim that the implementation of traditional liturgical forms effects empirical change in our “loyalties, allegiances, priorities, and practices” vis-a-vis global capitalism, American militarism, etc. I’ve yet to visit an American “liturgical” church that doesn’t accommodate the latter, for example. But: it seems that such an overwrought claim must be driven in part by other factors. I can think of two.

    (1) This is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Americans love techniques that promise to fix stuff. Thus, this “liturgical turn” by evangelicals is a distinctively evangelical solution to its perceived problems. In other words liturgy is a technology for _______.

    (2) In spite of this deployment of liturgy-as-technology, there are real historical and sociological problems bubbling beneath these efforts. Some you’ve listed. Others might include the American ahistorical culture and consciousness. Or the substitute spectacle manufactured by megachurches and their imitators: the worship-circus performed all over the American evangelical wilderness. For many exhausted evangelicals, liturgical forms and practice are a Babette’s feast of gospel content compared to the diet of Cocoa Puffs and McDonalds moralism they’ve been fed.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  48. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    Great post Halden. It really pin points some stuff lots of people are thinking about. I suspect Jamie Smith would want to say that the question is not whether we mark time, but how, or whether we have a liturgy but which one. Ie rituals are formative even if their results are notoriously hard to assess in the mire of social science. Once we get beyond the all or nothing debate, perhaps we need to think about, for example, not merely whether a community uses the calendar or certain liturgical practices but whether they do it in a way appropriate to the expected interruption of Jesus Christ and the anthropological conditions he interrupts. I admit the difficulty of social science seems to leave us with a kind of empirical claim which is practically beyond falsification

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  49. Great post Halden, thanks, and so timely! Couple of thoughts. (sorry for the length, I am home sick and bored, can’t read, hopped up on drugs, watching Seinfeld reruns). I noticed today that one of the recurring themes in Seinfeld episodes is the inability of any of the characters to experience a lasting, committed relationship. In one episode Elaine’s boyfriend takes a phone message from her girl friend who discovered she was pregnant. Elaine questions her boyfriend’s lack of the use of a punctuation mark in the note! Hilarity ensues, and of course they break up! Not since Jerry’s breakup over his girlfriend eating her peas one at a time (though she scoops her corn nibblets?) has a relationship floundered over such trifles! Anyhoo, I have been a Godfather several times over, and thus have had to renounce satan and all his works, pomp, and what-not many times. And every time I do, I think of that great scene from “The Godfather.” One thing about that scene though, timing is everything! I mean if those elevator doors don’t open right when Clemenza is there with the shotgun, or if Tattaglia leaves the hooker in bed to take a piss right before Rocco comes in with machine gun blazing, or if Cici don’t trap Don Cuneo in that revolving door the split second he walks into it, well, you got yourself a whole different movie my brother. Of course, timing like that is just for the movies. Now, with all the kvetching on the blogs looks like that for many Christmas is a pain this year. I hear that! I got 3 churches to go to! Catholic Mass at 5, Assembly of God at 6 with one daughter, and Calvary Chapel at 7 with the other, (yeah, tell me about it, reformation ain’t doing me no favors!). Dark nights and Slick roads don’t help any either, so if y’all want to move Christmas to July and Independence Day to December it’s OK by me, or throw all the holidays into a hat and pick randomly every year that’s OK too (safer for fireworks, and strikes a blow at capitalism to boot!). Now I know it ain’t a traditional Christmas reading, but Heidegger’s essay, “The Fieldpath,” I think is relevant and timely. Let me post just a snippet and a link to the whole essay below (and try not to think of Heidegger wearing a swastika while your reading it). “The Simple preserves the riddle of the abiding and the great. Spontaneously it takes abode in men, yet needs a long time for growth. In the unpretentiousness of the ever-same it conceals its blessing. The expanse of all grown things which dwell around the Fieldpath bestows the world. It is only in the unspoken of their language that, as the old master of letter and life, Eckhart, says, God is God.” Seems a lot of posts treat of these same questions: When and how is God ‘unconcealed?’ What is the relationship between Being and Time? Is the ‘work’ of liturgy like a ‘Fieldpath?’ The fieldpath is familiar and well marked, a kind of habitual writing of many journeys, an unconscious following, a trace of absent fellow travelers, a rut; yet it is always changing to the rhythms of a nature we can’t control or understand and sometimes takes us to unknown places, we can encounter strangers there and warily pass them by or embrace them like brothers. Then again, maybe the liturgy and the church calendar is more like the marks a prisoner makes on the cell wall to measure the timelessness of his captivity. Or, maybe with those marks the prisoner is counting the days to his freedom! Who the hell knows? Maybe it all depends on how you eat your peas, one at a time, or do you scoop em?! Holyday blessings to all dear brothers and sisters, and have a great Arbor Day!!! obliged, Daniel.

    the link is: http://www.omalpha.com/jardin/heidegger1-eng-imp.html

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  50. Andrew wrote:

    Halden, I’m curious to know what sort of distinction you might make between the observance of the liturgical year and the bodily practices and rituals that may or may not be accompanied by the observance of the liturgical year.

    In youth ministry circles (and perhaps in worship-as-theology circles at large) it is often argued that that worship practices (i.e. kneeling, candle lighting, making the sign of the cross, prayer, singing, etc.) have immense formative power. Basically, when people engage in worship practices that are either ritualistic or involve some form of repeated bodily activity (for example) they enter a formative space in which they are (emotionally, spiritually, physically) more in-tune to the work of God in their lives.

    For my own part, I have seen this phenomenon play out in numerous ecclesial settings (Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Nondenominational, etc.) in which the faith lives of young people are transformed in part through the work of God via bodily rituals and worship practices. So I guess I’m just curious whether its the calendar per se or the ritual practices which you see as having little effect in the lives of most Christians.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  51. Halden wrote:

    Andrew, all of the items you mention are what I have in mind when I talk about liturgy/the liturgical year. Ultimately I don’t think they have any power to “do” anything at all. I realize that isn’t fashionable to say these days.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  52. Andrew wrote:

    Sorry if this has already been asked but what specific sorts of criteria would you propose for empirical observation of the effectiveness of liturgy (practices or calendar) in Christian faith formation?

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  53. Halden wrote:

    I’ve kinda been waiting for proponents of their effectiveness to propose some criteria, actually.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  54. Andrew wrote:

    I’d have to think on this but my immediate response would be that the criteria for the “effectiveness” of liturgy would be the same as the criteria for Christian discipleship in general. Of course, that begs the question of whether such criteria exist. It’s easy to turn to biblical passages “do justice, love mercy,” or “love thy neighbors.” So, I’m just curious, what would you consider to be the criteria for Christian faithfulness in general? Does a concrete, empirical measure of lived Christian faithfulness actually exist (that is, outside the context of a worshiping community of followers of Christ)?

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  55. Halden wrote:

    I guess it seems to me that it is liturgical enthusiasts — the people who claim that liturgical practices as such actually change people, making them and whole communities capable of resisting capitalism and embodying an alternative form of poilitcal existence — who are the ones on whom the burden of proof lies to establish their claims.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  56. MFB wrote:

    I’m not sure how profound an example you’re looking for, but I do remember Bill Cavanaugh writing about how liturgy orients public space (one congregation in particular investing in local farmers towards the end of establishing a living wage). His article in BC to Christian Ethics.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  57. kenny chmiel wrote:

    Just spent my first Christmas in Oslo, Norway. The wife and I went to the “juleGudstjeneste” (Christmas service) in the State Lutheran Church and the liturgy caused a deep sense (empirical enough?) of community and connection to the Lord and his Body, which snapped me out of my winter depression (it is really cold here and dark). Point is, Couldn’t really support “capitalism” by going to the stores for those Christmas gifts after service (like I did in America) being that that demon is chained (everything is closed) in a Socialist country. Second point is, it takes a whole society (Church and State) to fight “capitalism” if fighting “capitalism” is what we are really trying to accomplish as graced humans. Church Liturgy and Ethical State Laws Seem to have a pretty powerful effect on the people here.

    Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  58. “Advent is the Christian New Year.”

    It would have been more accurate to say “Advent is the western Christian New Year.” You may not be aware of it, but a substantial part of the Christian world begins its year in September. To assume the western year as normative strikes me as just a little imperialistic.

    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  59. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, you’re right. I was addressing a particular “conversation” in contemporary American theology that takes the Western year as normative. And yes, this is a problem.

    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  60. Sonja wrote:

    Halden, this and the previous are great posts and help articulate some of what I’ve felt recently, too. I was Methodist before I became Catholic, and I changed in large part because I was tired of Methodist services being so obviously constructed in order to “be meaningful,” “creative,” and “welcoming.” I wanted ritual, and as Catherine Bell has pointed out, ritual doesn’t work without “misrecognition”–some degree of willful ignorance that our own agency is playing a part in what we are doing; hence the attractiveness of the lectionary, the liturgical year, fixed prayers, rubrics, etc. I was and still am rather enchanted by the idea of liturgy being the practice of an alternative ideology, but it’s hard to continue believing that when I sit through crappy liturgies every week that are shot through with exactly the kind of “Americanism” that I thought liturgy was supposed to obliterate.

    Sometimes I wonder whether my enthusiasm for liturgy is the same as the enthusiasm you see in “defenders of the humanities”–people who are convinced that studying the humanities really does make you a better person, whether in the global citizen or the virtue ethics sort of way (I’d be the latter). But when you remind these people that many of the worst acts have been committed by people with classical educations, there’s not much they can say other than that they and the humanists they admire would never do such things. And maybe those few people are enough to exonerate the humanities. Mutatis mutandis for liturgy. Is that a good response? I don’t know; it’s probably the one I’d make.

    Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  61. Sven Scrøtumsen wrote:

    Let me add my own voice to the chorus of assent: as someone who grew up in a high-church liturgical setting who has subsequently come to see the “impotence” of liturgy to effect what many say it does, I found this post not only encouraging, but enlightening. Your post really drove home for me, in a way I couldn’t see before, that if we are to be faithful to the Spirit’s call to holiness (“in the world but not of it”) we must do so in a mode of discipleship over against the institutional church – and especially in refusal of all claims to possession of God’s presence by way of the finite mechanisms constructed and corrupted by human hands (could we not perhaps be bold enough to say that the institutional church and its highpriests are nothing more than the purveyor of idols?). The only way to remain faithful to God’s call to holiness within the institutional church is to evacuate it of all human “traditions and trappings,” which means – precisely as you are suggesting – to stand outside it and against it. It is only a certain facile ecumenism that will settle for a “unity” of compromise at the expense of holy discipleship; it was Christ himself who reminded those who would follow him, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” There is a cost to discipleship, as Bonhoeffer recognized, and that cost in our time must be the handing over of all the worth that the worldly theologians of glory attach to the institutional church, to ecclesiology, liturgy, ecumenism – all those human means for domesticating the wild grace of God that breaks into our midst and disrupts all our best laid plans. It is true that Jesus called us his sheep, but that doesn’t mean we should resign ourselves to being an irrational herd, a collective of dullards, deluded by our own ecclesiocentric conception of truth; Kierkegaard rightly attacked such a “crowd” mentality, and especially because he alone could see that “truth is subjectivity,” which also meant he alone in his time could also see the demand for “standing out against” Christendom — which today means the institutional church — and all of its claims to “truth.” May we also have the courage you and others are calling us to — to boldly stand against the church in the name of the truth of subjectivity! The theological task must be one that radically refuses to accept all claims to possess God or reduce God to any “presence” within this world – the presence of Christ in our midst is always as the one who disrupts, interrupts, and reconfigures our attempts at conforming him to our projects. So, many thanks for this fantastic post – it opened my eyes to the real need to cling to the void left in the wake of Christ’s invasion into the cosmos, and to witness to that void (the true absence of God in any and all of our claims to the possession or reception of grace, especially qua some “presupposed datum”) in all those places in this world that continue to cling to idols. Amen!

    Sven Gunnar Scrøtumsen

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  62. roger flyer wrote:

    @Roy-
    Yes, but what is the ‘difference’ in this ‘re-framing’? And does liturgy re-frame the picture so that we are happier, healthier, more just kind and loving?

    That, for me, is the question.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  63. roger flyer wrote:

    Daniel-Sorry that you’re not feeling well, but grateful, as always for your erudition and unconventional wisdom.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  64. Thanks Roger I am feeling better and back to work, and my wife is doing better as well (and though I can’t prove it to Hume’s and Halden’s empirical satisfaction, I think a Novena and the prayers of brothers and sisters really helped!). BTW, I checked out your music and enjoyed it, I wish you lived close and we could work on some music together! I am working on a few things that could use some more professional input. Have a blessed holyday, obliged.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  65. dan wrote:

    Best name yet to appear in a blog comment!

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink
  66. Hill wrote:

    To be fair, you actually need to cite specific arguments by specific people or no such burden exists.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  67. Charlie Collier wrote:

    what Hill said

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  68. Halden wrote:

    Ok, fine. I have no stake in making sure that I have some such burden of proof definitively established by listing citations from all the relevant works. Some such works have come up already in the comments here, and I don’t think my basic summary (namely that liturgical practices have inherent formative power in terms of political and economic life) is any too controversial. There’s a pretty wide body of literature making such claims and I think most folks are aware of it.

    But sure, by no means do I imagine that I have “proved” something here or that I think people of different perspectives are now duty-bound to answer my questions about their claims. I have no interest in trying to control the discussion that way. I just thought it fair to ask questions about the actual concrete reality of certain (to my mind) well-known arguments about the theopolitical weight of liturgical practices. But by no means did I intend to imply that, by the mere fact of raising that issue, I had somehow definitively turned the debate or something.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  69. mike d wrote:

    [wading in a bit late] One reason that specific arguments would be helpful is that it would be helpful to know if liturgical enthusiasts in mind claim:

    1) Christian liturgy fundamentally has “formative power in terms of political and economic life” so that just by its nature it forms us for or against certain political and economic ends.

    or

    2) Given the situation of late modernity we may be able to mine the tradition and and think of our liturgy as having something to ‘say’ about empire, capitalism or whatever.

    2 seems like a more modest claim and leaves open the idea that the formative aspects of liturgy need some conceptual backbone to get going even while still maintaining that the practices can actually be formative.

    The discussion also seems to have drifted back and forth between the general effectiveness of liturgy and the more focused theopolitical discussion – that is whether or not liturgy forms us towards certain theopolitical ends. I think the more focused theopolitical discussion is what Halden had in mind.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  70. Charlie Collier wrote:

    It’s just that the argument of the post stands or falls on the accuracy of the composite picture you paint of certain liturgical mechanicalists, for lack of a better term. And the burden of proof for the accuracy of that composite picture does in fact fall on you, since it’s your composite. That’s all I’m saying (and I think it’s what Hill was saying).

    I’m honestly not sure who you’re referring to here. Hauerwas? Smith? Cavanaugh? All of them? Someone else, or some others? It’s too dodgy to say we all know who you’re talking about. I don’t.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  71. Hill wrote:

    I’m not saying you are right or wrong, but it is literally impossible to have the kind of conversation you would like to have about this, because no one really knows what you are talking about. I mean I get the general picture, but in order to get in to the kind of forensic analysis that you are proposing (and that would be helpful at this point) requires specific arguments made by people that actually find them convincing. It’s not clear to me, specifically, what liturgy is supposed to do, and so coming up with criteria that would define whether or not it succeeds in to this isn’t possible. It’s already two steps removed from a highly condensed and general summary.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  72. Gilbert Keith wrote:

    Mr. Scrøtumsen,

    When you put it that way, I wonder if what we have to do with in “clinging to the void” is not only the singular note of Christianity-as-subjectivity, but also of all genuine Paganism, the note of the highest of humanisms, which has been the genius of historic mysticism. I fear your kind of clinging to the kernel of Christianity while discarding the “husk” of its religious trappings is not only to have left you without anything really resembling Christianity, but to have left you superstitiously suspended over the chasm of what I can only call a “generous idolatry.” There is no more paradox in accepting Christ without the religion than there is in accepting the scattered fragments of secular truth which Christianity gives without its historic institutional forms. The real paradox, the real miracle, is that Christ can be received in faith only if historic Christianity — indeed, the Holy Mother Church — can be trusted to have revealed itself in history as a truth-telling reality. The fact that the best of human experience — or, should we say all “empirical testing” — here testifies against me only heightens the fact that belief in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is the only genuinely subjective truth, the one genuinely absurd objective uncertainty! The one stammering and faltering but oh-so-miraculous infallibility of historic institutional Christianity is the one single frame for the very subjective truth you seek! Oh, what a paradox! For contemporary philosophy the case is quite the opposite: this strong and courageous and bold proclamation of subjective freedom cloaks what in secret can only be described as the greatest of despair.

    Sincerely,
    Gilbert Keith

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  73. Halden wrote:

    Ok, I’ll pull together a list of quotations from various sources if that’d be helpful. It’ll need to be its own post though, so be patient.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  74. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Halden, I have been formed by the liturgy of Advent, which automatically makes me the sort of person capable of patiently resisting nothing less than the hegemonic powers of capitalism. I think I can handle you dragging your sorry feet for a few days. :)

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  75. Halden wrote:

    But, my blog is free, so does that also mean that Advent trains our affections for proper participation in a true cyber-economy of gift-and-reception (post-and-comment)?

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  76. Hill wrote:

    Looking forward to it.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  77. Scrotumson has distilled the issue for us. ‘Clinging to the void…in the true absence of God,’ is about as trenchant as it gets. And I would guess many here have experienced being broken down by suffering and tragedy that have left one feeling that terrible ‘void.‘ I don’t mind telling that I have cried so hard at the hospital bedside of one of my children that it left dried salt stains on the linoleum. At those times with our faces on the floor, between cursing and apologizing to God in a single breath, a primal Pagan unction arises and one is willing to bargain away one’s own life or cast a virgin into a volcano or chop of fingers to feel the shadow of the presence of a god, any god, if only it would offer some meager sign that it had heard our prayer. “Clinging to the void,” poetic, really, though not the kind of thing one might be trained to offer as a hospice chaplain, but, presented as a paper at some theological conference and titled: “You say ‘Apo,’ I say ‘Kato’ (-phasis that is) Human Agency and Divine Subjectivity in the Writings of Dionysus the Aeropagite,” well, your really on the tenure track now (and see how wall street trembles!). What we are really lacking is more ways to articulate God’s absenteeism (like battered wives making excuses for abusive husbands; ‘he’s under a lot of stress at work right now, I should know better than to bother him during a football game’). So, I have no adequate answer as to why Christendom hasn’t made me a better person, with or without ‘going through the motions.‘ Moses tarries on the mountain but gold is fungible, ounce to ounce a golden calf is worth as much as a cross, but Grace can’t be measured (hasta la victoria siempre! Che’), obliged.

    Friday, December 31, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  78. Sven Scrøtumsen wrote:

    Mr. Chesterton,

    I have only come in from the tundra for a bit of respite before the long, cold work ahead of me in the new year. Your comment demands the briefest of responses before I must depart again from my family again, before Spring thaw.

    I’m afraid I only understood about half of your comment and I still don’t understand your criticisms. It does seem to me that your attempt to continue the conversation shows you haven’t grasped what Halden, and I believe I am trying to say. The philosophers do end up in emptiness, but, their emptiness is still their own emptiness. They (and I believe you) have not recognized the one most necessary demand! You seem to be saying that the only true paradox is the absolute affirmation of the absurdity that the institutional church is true, right? But isn’t this what Halden said and I simply agreed with? I fear you may have overlooked this connection because you don’t understand how I’m using the concept of “void.” There is no “kernel,” no existential access to the truth beneath institution, tradition, ritual. No, I am agreeing with Halden (and Nate Kerr) when they point out that the coming of the God-man – the only “real paradox” – is the perpetual interrogation of everything. To truly “cling to the void” we must do exactly as you say: cling to the institutional church – not because it mediates truth, but because it mediates the void itself.

    We can only be true, then, in our opposition. The sacraments of the church mediate the closure of all conversation because all attempts to mediate “truth” are put to an end there: all we have is the crater, the lingering emptiness of his rupture of our meager attempts at controlling the direction of history, of getting a handle on our pathetic existences to squeeze out the best of possible outcomes. As the “work of the people,” liturgy is the “witness” to that emptiness, the hollowing out of the institution that brings its emptiness into full view. This is the dispossession that is the mark of holy discipleship: of being set apart, pure and blameless, pointing away from everything “good,” thereby ensuring that we can rightly receive him as the rupture of all that we can earn or bring about. Our purity, our holiness is this deadlock where all conversation, indeed all worship, ceases in the Apocalypse of the institutional void.

    Nathan Kerr is spot on in his description of a genuine “liturgical act”:

    <blockquote cite=“Such “dispossession” is the experience not only a kind of death to the historical and spatial temporalities according to which we might schematize in advance how “Jesus” will present himself in a given context (though it is certainly that). But more concretely it is the church’s “non-possession” of itself, of its own “identity”…If “mission makes the church”…then “Jesus” cannot be delivered to us through a given institution, or a set of achieved practices and habits, but only received everagain as the gift of another, at once unpredictably new yet recognizably strange, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, 179.”>

    What can this mean but that the practices of the church are meant to show us what Halden so rightly called their “impotence”? As Halden put it, we must “have literally no hope if God is not coming to us in a way exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could [ever] ask or think.” We can only truly fail in our possession if and when we know that God is truly impenetrable to our sacraments, our liturgies, our practices.
    Halden sees this well. Referencing Zechariah in Luke, he says, “While burning incense, going about the usual liturgical practices of their calendar, this priest was confronted, unprecedentedly with the Word of God in a meeting that terrified, overwhelmed, and left him literally speechless. It is in this coming of God, this free coming that we must place our hope, not in the ‘work’ of our fragile attempts to offer praise. To the extent that our ‘work,’ our liturgy becomes our answer to the problem of Christian faithfulness, we offer a different answer than that of the gospel.” It is clear that this means we only “have” so-called “sacraments” – liturgical calendar, Baptism, Lord’s Supper – as conveyors of this holiness and purity only when we stand against their claim to be something, that they are transformed into witnesses of this emptiness that marks our entire existence.

    The problem is not simply that philosophy ends in despair. It is that it is deluded into thinking it doesn’t need the church, that the void can be known apart from a stance against the institutional church, against liturgy. Only in this way will we be given eyes to see not only reality in its givenness (datum), but in its will-have-been-given (datus erit) aspect…in the here and now.

    My work here is done. I must leave behind this refined air of theory and venture back out into the cold air of concrete historicity.

    P.S. I don’t know whether “marking time” is typically associated with the liturgical calendar in theology circles, but outside these circles it usually just means marching in place. Not that this matters.

    Friday, December 31, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  79. roger flyer wrote:

    Daniel, great to hear your wife and you are better and that you are at work. Andthanks for the short review of the music! The internet does allow for collaboration via mp3 files, you know, but it would be lovely to make your acquaintance in real life, I’m sure.
    Do you have music up anywhere?

    Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  80. roger flyer wrote:

    Sven, that son of the sac, said:
    “…(could we not perhaps be bold enough to say that the institutional church and its highpriests are nothing more than the purveyor of idols?).”

    Wait! Is this what is being said? I thought Dostoevsky covered this ground already.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  81. roger flyer wrote:

    (Roger presses FB ‘Like’ button and runs away to find more of Gilbert Keith’s rants against these bloody 21st century heretics!)

    Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  82. Halden wrote:

    For those who are interested, “Gilbert Keith” is a pen name sometimes used by Nate Kerr.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

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