Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liturgy as Primary Theology

Back when I was working on my "Anglican Studies" certificate at The School of Theology in Sewanee, TN, I took a Liturgical Traditions class taught by Neil Alexander (now the bishop of Atlanta). We were required to write a book review, and I choose to do so on Aidan Kavanagh's book On Liturgical Theology. I was very pleased to receive an A+ for my review with the comments: "One of the fairest, clearest, most complete reviews I have read of AK, including the published works." In spite of my critical assessment of the book, I still think that it is a great resource for thinking through what it means to affirm the principle that praying shapes believing.

On Liturgical Theology. By Aidan Kavanagh. Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical Press, 1992. xiii + 205 pages.

For persons trained in the oftentimes abstract and technical language of philosophical and Christian ethics, a reorientation to the grassroots level of Christian identity can be a welcome change in perspective. After all, before we are Christian theologians and ethicists we are simply Christians. And being Christian makes no sense apart from the shared practices, languages, symbols, rituals, memories, and hopes of the Church. If we forget this order of priority and value, our work as Christian theologians and ethicists may fail to connect with the life-world of the Church – that web of relationships, practices, and beliefs which form and sustain the Church as a worshiping community of faith. Such lack of integration between theory and practice entails the alienation of theology from the Church, to the detriment of both.

Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology seeks to provide a critical account of why a bifurcation between theory (academic theology) and practice (liturgy) stymies the Church’s faithful witness to and worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Kavanagh’s argument concerning the role and function of liturgy in the life of the Church and theological reflection is at times insightful and at times outrageous. Either way, he challenges readers to think critically about the place of liturgy in the life of the Church. Rather than simply rehash the terrain Kavanagh covers in each chapter of the book, I want to focus on a few central ideas for the sake of examining the strengths and weaknesses of his argument. In particular, I will focus on Kavanagh’s distinction between primary and secondary theology, and the moral implications that follow from his understanding of liturgy.

Primary versus Secondary Theology
Perhaps the central contribution of Kavanagh’s book is his distinction between primary and secondary forms of theology. Most people think of theology as primarily the domain of academically trained professionals. As such, theological discourse seems far removed from everyday experience both within and outside of the Church. According to this widely-held view, the experience and effects of the liturgical acts of worship can be understood as theology in at best a secondary sense only.

Kavanagh argues, however, that this puts the cart before the horse. Theology understood in the academic sense as systematic reflection on religious experience and the exposition of doctrine constitutes theology in a secondary sense (theologia secunda). As such, academic theology is a second-order discursive reflection on the primary experience of liturgy. It is not the case that the disciples first engaged in theological reflection on the resurrection as a means of reaching the conclusion that “Jesus is Lord.” On the contrary, Kavanagh would insist on just the opposite scenario: the disciples responded to the resurrection by proclaiming in worshipful adoration that “Jesus is Lord.” Only subsequently were the theological implications spelled out in doctrines and creeds. Liturgical response to God in Christ preceded theological articulation of the doctrinal meaning of God in Christ.

It follows that academic theology, properly understood and practiced, grows out of the liturgical action of worship. Liturgy is the root of the Church, Jesus Christ the vine, disciples are the branches, and theological reflection is one of the fruits. The fruits cannot take the place of the root, bur rather are dependent upon the root for their very existence. Put differently, the liturgical praxis of the Christian community is the seedbed for the more cognitive and reflective aspects of belief. Although Kavanagh acknowledges that theory (academic theology) informs and shapes practice (liturgy), he takes a consistently negative view of an overly dialogical interplay between the two. “Secondary theology,” he writes, “even at its best, seems to approach the liturgical worship of Christians with a certain condescension” as though worship exists “to serve secondary theology” (p. 90; emphasis added). The shoe should be on the other foot, with secondary theology subordinated to and restrained by the actual practices of liturgy.

Kavanagh’s conception of primary theology provides a warrant for the patristic maxim: lex orandi est lex credendi et agenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief and action). “In keeping with this principle,” notes theologian Christopher Morse, “dogmatic statements are often said to be ‘doxological,’ in that if they truly are teachings decreed by God they praise God and do not simply state information about God.”[1] Adoration precedes assent to dogmatic propositions. This is the reason why Kavanagh insists that “orthodoxy,” rightly understood, “means first ‘right worship’ and only secondarily doctrinal accuracy” (p. 3).

The distinction between primary and secondary theology grounds Kavanagh’s understanding of the liturgy as the “church’s faith in motion” (p. 8). Through liturgical praxis, Kavanagh maintains, the Church engages in “an ecclesial transaction with reality” (p. 88). This bears an affinity with the pragmatic and dialogical conception of liturgy articulated by Marjorie Proctor-Smith:

To be precise, the liturgy claims that when its work is being done, participants are engaging in dialogue with God. The claim of encounter with God gives the liturgical event its power and its truth. Liturgical “truth,” then, is not at all an abstract or purely intellectual truth, but an engaged, embodied, and particular truth, a truth that cannot only be talked about, but must be done.[2]

Liturgical truth is not a static “thing” or set of abstract concepts and doctrines. Rather, liturgy emphasizes the performative character of truth. The truth of Christian faith is more fundamentally something that Christians do rather than something Christians merely believe or give intellectual assent to. As the active expression of Christian faith, liturgy mediates a “graced commerce” between God and human beings in the Church (p. 120).

The experience of doing liturgy or primary theology, Kavanagh argues, brings worshipers “to the edge of chaos” (p. 73). Using finite objects, symbols, language, and gestures, liturgy provides a window through which persons catch a glimpse of the mysterium tremendum – a God whose presence both sustains and limits possibilities for human fulfillment. Liturgy, in other words, provides an experiential warrant for the biblical claim that human life is fundamentally dependent upon and claimed by God. Liturgical experience thus unmasks “the sovereign individual” – that concept so central to the modern ideology of liberal society – as an illusory attempt to evade the sovereign claim of God (p. 26). Inevitably, Kavanagh maintains, liturgical experience changes people in both conscious and unconscious ways (p. 76). In response to the awe-ful reality of the One to whom the Church addresses its liturgical practices, the worshiping assembly undergoes a process of adjustment and adaptation. The process accounts for the evolution of liturgy over time.

Liturgy and Ethics
Another strength of Kavanagh’s book is his insistence that liturgy – the worship of God – is an end in itself (p. 152). As an intrinsic good, liturgy must not be reduced to serving therapeutic or instrumental ends. Kavanagh rails at the loss of liturgy’s integrity in a world in which goods and ends are subordinated to the desires and preferences of “the sovereign individual” (p. 26). Under such conditions, the Church loses its power to effectively witness to the way of life called into being by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a way of life at odds with the desires and values of a world driven by violence and materialism.

As a Christian ethicist, I find Kavanagh’s attempt to articulate a balanced relationship between liturgy and the moral life laudable. Kavanagh rejects the view that liturgy and the moral life are completely unrelated. This view reinforces an escapist view of worship in which liturgy insulates persons from the joys and sufferings of the world. Such alienation of liturgy from everyday life lends credence to the Marxist charge that religion provides an opiate for the masses or to the Freudian view of religion as an infantile illusion. At the same time, Kavanagh resists construing liturgy as merely a function of ethics. This runs the risk of making liturgy relevant while simultaneously usurping God – the supreme center of value – to human goods and utility values. Kavanagh clearly does not want to reduce the Church to just another special interest group or lifestyle enclave. On the contrary, Kavanagh is bold enough to proclaim that, without the liturgical witness of the Church, the world cannot know itself as sinful and abnormal in God’s sight.

Citing the baptismal writings of Basil of Cappadocia, Kavanagh suggests that a renewed sense of liturgy as the fundamental theological practice of the Church entails two moral implications that pit the Christian way of life against the ways of the world. These include “evangelical poverty” – or the renunciation of the pursuit of wealth – and a commitment to “nonviolence or nonresistance to evil” (p. 156). Both of these norms, Kavanagh argues, follow from the liturgical act of baptism. Orthodoxy (right praise) defines orthopraxy (right action). Baptism provides a ritual gateway for living into “the tension between love of God’s world and adamant critique of what we have made of it” (p. 7). When the Christian life resolves this tension in favor of love for the world, the Church loses any vantage point from which to critically evaluate worldly practices. Orthodoxia – right praise of God in the community of faith – provides the lens for rightly seeing, interpreting, and responding to a world that, in its violence and lust for wealth, remains “abnormal by its own choice” (p. 159). The Church’s failure to live the connection between praise and praxis – and to require its members to live this way – is a sign that liturgically grounded Christian moral norms have been compromised in the interests of peace with the world.

Critical Response
As a basis for his conception of primary theology, Kavanagh claims that participation in liturgical acts effects “deep change” in the lives of participants by bringing them “to the edge of chaos” and back (p. 73). This appeal to the language of “chaos” clouds more than it clarifies about the nature of liturgical practices as the primary theology of the Church. One may concede that participation in liturgy effects deep change. The real question is whether or not a conception of “chaos” helps make the case. Empirically speaking, it is difficult to see a connection between a highly structured Anglican or Catholic liturgy and any experience of “chaos.” If anything, such liturgical traditions run the risk of routinizing the mysterium tremendum of God’s presence. Kavanagh’s argument might make more sense in churches whose worship life entails a fundamental posture of openness to the Spirit (e.g., many Pentecostal and Holiness churches where persons are “slain in the Spirit” and/or handle snakes).[3] Far less dramatic and more in accord with experience is the claim that repetitive acts performed over the course of a substantial period of time form habits that shape virtues (or vices) of character. An Aristotelian/Thomistic moral perspective provides a better framework for understanding the pragmatic effects of liturgical acts than this rather dubious theological “chaos” theory.

Kavanagh’s primary/secondary theology distinction may also be criticized. Although he claims that he wants to effect a “reconciliation” between primary and secondary theology through the mediation of liturgical theology, the overall tone of the book suggests the author’s desire to keep academic theology in its place (p. 178). In response to the subjugation of liturgy to academic theology, Kavanagh inverts the hierarchy. This has the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing rather than ameliorating the bifurcation of the parish and the academy.

The connection between liturgical theology and primary theology remains somewhat fuzzy in the book. At times one gets the impression that Kavanagh thinks that, because it is closer to the liturgical practices of the Church, liturgical theology is the most adequate articulation of primary theology. Primary theology is the liturgical experience of “the assembly’s regular baptismal and Eucharistic encounters with the living God” (p. 93). This leads to forms of adjustment and adaptation that are the proper domain of inquiry for liturgical theology. Liturgical theology, in other words, emerges out of the praxis of worship.

At other times, however, Kavanagh describes the work of liturgical theology in ways that suggest as much distance from primary theology as any form of academic theology. This confusion emerges in the claim that primary theology itself entails not just experience, but also “reflection” and “reappropriation” (p. 93). The problem is that reflection and reappropriation imply a certain distance from the original experience. Indeed, reflection is a function of second-order activities. To say that primary theology entails adjustment to the experience of God through critical reflection is tantamount to saying that secondary theology is already at work in the act of primary theology. Indeed, the very distinction between primary and secondary theology is itself removed from the experience of liturgical practice. The distinction is a more or less adequate construct for interpreting and understanding the differences between worship and theological reflection. This is an example of how liturgical theology can be itself an instance of secondary theology.

Kavanagh’s privileging of praxis (primary theology or liturgy) over theory (secondary theology) is also problematic. For example, privileging primary over secondary theology might lead one to assume that the breakdown of the classical unitive rite of Christian initiation was due to the influence of academic theologians on liturgical practice. Perhaps in attempts to come up with a theological rationale for why bishops needed to lay their hands on the newly baptized, they inadvertently undermined the rite’s integrity. However, the breakdown was not due to the impact of secondary theology, but rather was a natural outgrowth of the liturgy’s response to the fact that the bishop could no longer be present at every baptism. Only subsequently did theologians respond to the changes in liturgy by attempting to give a theological rationale for what would become the rite of confirmation. In short, accidents of history often play a more determinative role in shaping the liturgy than encounter with God.

There is also another reason why privileging practice over theory is problematic. It runs the danger of reinforcing myopia with regard to the moral and/or religious adequacy of the Church’s practices. Theologian Bryan P. Stone persuasively argues that both the bifurcation of theory and practice and/or the subordination of either one to the other is dangerous. In particular, allowing experience to be the primary or sole determinative factor in shaping (secondary) theology truncates possibilities for practice to inform theory and theory to inform practice in mutually edifying ways. Stone notes that “when we fail to be self-critical about the way our context and practice shape our beliefs, it is all too easy for our beliefs to become strictly determined by our context and practice.”[4] Translated into Kavanagh’s terms, one could say that when we fail to be self-critical about the way our liturgies shape our beliefs, it is all too easy for our beliefs to become strictly determined by our liturgies. The subordination of theology to liturgical experience reduces theology to “a mere rationalizing of what we already do and where we already stand.”[5]

This leads, finally, to a point about the connection between liturgy (orthodoxia) and the Christian moral life (orthopraxis). I believe that Kavanagh is right to note the inseparable connection between Christian worship and Christian ethics. This view is an important corrective to the tendency among Christian ethicists to privilege abstract principles over the substantive particularity of the Church’s practices. However, Kavanagh’s conception of the connection between praise and praxis is too narrow. While he accents the role of evangelical poverty and nonviolence, he also leaves readers with the impression that worship is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of the Christian moral life. The moral example of Christians at worship ascends into the foreground while the struggle for peace and justice in a broken world recedes into the background of Kavanagh’s discourse. In response to the danger of believing that praise alone fulfills the moral requirements of Christian discipleship, we do well to remember the words of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NRSV).

Kavanagh correctly highlights the inaccuracy and absurdity of the view that an elite corps of theological professionals first think up theologies of this or that and then apply them by creating liturgical acts to give the laity something to do in church. He also rightly maintains that “the liturgy is not something separate from the church, but simply the church caught in the act of being most overtly itself” (p. 75). In spite of occasional lapses into rhetorical excess and the problems internal to his conception of primary theology, liturgical experience, and the relationship between liturgy and the moral life, Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology provides a thought-provoking account of why Christian theological and moral reflection cannot be adequately understood apart from the liturgical practices of the Church.


[1] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 52. Morse appeals to the patristic principle lex orandi est lex credendi et agenda as a criterion of consistency with worship that serves as one of several tests of doctrinal faithfulness in the Church.

[2] Marjorie Proctor-Smith, In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition (Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 13.

[3] See, for example, the account of being brought to the edge of chaos and back in a Pentecostal, snake-handling service in Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

[4] Bryan P. Stone, Compassionate Ministry: Theological Foundations (Orbis Books, 1996), p. 5.

[5] Ibid.


Perpetua said...

This is why changes to the liturgy are so significant. Over at Stand Firm, a parishioner in the diocese of Northern Michigan is writing that the priest now proposed for bishop, its only nominee for bishop - The Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester frequently omitted the Creed:
"I will say once again ::big sigh:: the issue is that his Buddhism is causing him to alter significantly the theology and liturgy in the diocese. If he wants to meditate and chant whatever that is his business but in his responsibilities to the members of this diocese he has thrown out the BCP because it contains references to atonement theology with which he strongly disagrees so he takes the eucharist prayers as models and rewrites them to HIS satisfaction. He doesn’t believe there is a place for sin/redemption, he doesn’t believe Jesus died on the cross to absolve our sins, all this comes from his Buddhist beliefs. For most of last year he removed the creed from the service for the same reasons. He does not see a middle way - he sees his way and it is strongly influenced by his buddhism to such an extent that I don’t see how he is still “Christian.” and yet he will likely be the next Bishop. This is wrong and I encourage you all again to speak with your bishops and speak with your standing committees and see what can be done to have this decision brought to General Convention because it was made very clear in this diocese that that was to be avoided at all costs - the schemers knew they would have a difficult time pulling the wool over the eyes of the entire church with this so called “new process” that Kevin Forrester devised which put him in as lead candidate."

Bryan Owen said...

I don't have personal knowledge of the situation with this priest in Northern Michigan, Perpetua, but if what this commentator is saying is true, it is, indeed, imperative that this person not be made a bishop. Indeed, this person shouldn't be a priest either.

The irony is that, if this person is made a bishop, the primary theology of The Episcopal Church will rebuke him in the ordination service. For in that service, after the examination of the bishop-elect, the Presiding Bishop says:

"N., through these promises you have committed yourself to God, to serve his Church in the office of bishop. We therefore call upon you, chosen to be a guardian of the Church's faith, to lead us in confessing that faith" (BCP, p. 519).

In response, and as the transition into the consecration, the bishop-elect leads the gathered assembly in reciting the sufficient statement of the Christian faith: the Nicene Creed.

I do not believe that a priest who frequently omits the Creed from the liturgy (in violation of his/her ordination vows) should be nominated to serve as a guardian of the faith when he/she clearly has no intention of being such a guardian. It's rather like going through with a marriage ceremony when the guy makes it quite clear that he has no intention of being faithful to his wife, perhaps also that he's currently in a relationship with another woman, and yet he's still willing to stand before God and the gathered assembly to make the marriage vows.

Joe Rawls said...

Now I've got to add Kavanagh's book to the list of pending coffeehouse reads. One hears of mainline seminary professors who never go to church on Sundays. Of course, they don't do as much damage as priests who sabotage the liturgy by getting rid of the Creed.