Sunday, June 5, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (7): A Question of Anthropology

Below is the seventh installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I agree that we should think about leaving the topic of images, yet I must say something in response to your comments about idolatry. You wrote, “Even if the use of images in worship may not always be idolatrous in the strict sense, the mere potential for idolatry to creep in is itself sufficient grounds to object to such practices.”

Certainly idolatry is always a danger whenever a good thing is embraced. However, to try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates you to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us. How far are you willing to take your argument?

It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. Anglicans like myself love to talk about the dangers of dualism just as modern evangelicals love to talk about the dangers of externalism and ritualism, while fundamentalists like to focus on the dangers of liberalism. At some level, such polemics can function to obscure the idols in our own midst. Applied to the question before us, we would do well to question whether the paranoia among Calvinists against the alleged idolatry of using visual objects in worship has obscured the Gnosticism, Docetism and semi-Manichaeism in their own camp. (OK, I’m being intentionally polemical.)

You go on to write that all this stuff about an embodied faith fails to take into account the primary role of preaching the Word. “Worship” you say, “should flow out of correct doctrine. It is crucial to remember which precedes which in order to keep our liturgical practices from lapsing into empty ritual or even idolatry.”

I think this serves to highlight one of our fundamental differences. The problem with seeing worship as first and foremost an expression of worldview or doctrines is that it assumes what James K. A. Smith has described as a top-down, ideas-first anthropology. It assumes that doctrines are the gas that makes the engine go, whereas doctrines are really just like the car’s oil. The thing that gives life to the whole show – the gas that drives the engine - is our loves not our doctrines.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I refer to a rationalistic anthropology I refer to those constellations of practices and assumptions which assume that human identity is primarily cognitive, that what we think defines who we are. I am arguing, on the other hand, that it is our desires (what we love not what we think) that gives us our fundamental identity as human beings. And here’s the rub: our loves are cultivated through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desire and, in so doing, shape our identity on a level far deeper than the cognitive mind is even aware.

If you have read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom, you will see that I am very much tracking with him here. Referring to the rationalist model of identity which I feel you have implicitly assumed, Smith writes:

“While this model of the person as thinking thing assumed different forms throughout modernity (e.g., in Kant, Hegel), this rationalist picture was absorbed particularly by Protestant Christianity (whether liberal or conservative), which tends to operate with an overly cognitivist picture of the human person and thus tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian. . . . It is just this adoption of a rationalist, cognitivist anthropology that accounts for the shape of so much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on messages. ... The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas.”

Smith contrasts this cognitivist anthropology with secular liturgies, such as those which surround consumerism and nationalism. The appeal inherent in the mall, or the seductive pull of American nationalism, is that these things are advertised by those who understand that the heart is the portal to a person’s allegiance, and the body is the portal to a person’s heart. They advertise their vision of the good life by recognizing that our fundamental identity – that which drives our desires – is not first and foremost cognitive, but bodily. Smith goes on to write that

"... while the mall, Victoria's Secret, and Jerry Bruckehimer are grabbing hold of our gut (kardia) by means of our body and its senses - in stories and images, sights and sounds, and commercial versions of 'smells and bells' - the church's response is oddly rationalist. It plunks us down in a 'worship' service, the culmination of which is a forty-five minute didactic sermon, a sort of holy lecture, trying to convince us of the dangers by implanting doctrines and beliefs in our minds. While the mall paradoxically appreciates that we are liturgical, desiring animals, the (Protestant) church still tends to see us as Cartesian minds. While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria's Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds. While secular liturgies are enticing us with affective images of a good life, the church is trying to convince us otherwise by depositing ideas. ... We may have construed worship as a primarily didactic, cognitive affair and thus organized it around a message that fails to reach our embodied hearts, and thus fails to touch our desire."

I would argue, George, that you have implicitly assumed a cognitivist anthropology of the human person when you write about the job of the minister as being first and foremost to educate a person’s mind in correct doctrines. Now if your implicit operating assumption is that we are primarily defined by what we think, then we will view church as first and foremost a vehicle for preaching the Word, for giving doctrinal instruction and for equipping the saints for another week of thinking correct thoughts. On the other hand, if the anthropology I have sketched above is correct, then it makes sense to adopt a more sacramental and liturgical view of worship, one which recognizes that our loves are cultivated not primary through hearing correct doctrine but through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desires and, in so doing, shape our very identity.

Now I don't want to make a false dilemma between things that are really two sides of the same coin, but the reason this is not a false dilemma is because there can be a priority of emphasis in two things which are both true. I use the phrase “first and foremost” to emphasize that this is not an either/or situation, but a matter of what receives more emphasis and which comes first. It's a question of what is the more fundamental locus of our identity.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this.


Canterbury Chris


carl jacobs said...

I am arguing, on the other hand, that it is our desires (what we love not what we think) that gives us our fundamental identity as human beings.

There is an interesting equivocation on the word 'love' in this sentence. That parenthetical insertion was not an afterthought. It was crucial to carrying the argument for it allows love to ennoble desire. But a Christian does not think of Love in terms of desire. He thinks of Love in terms of action. It is a biblical imperative. One cannot command desire. The Lord Jesus did not desire the Cross. And yet Love is commanded in Scripture with regularity. We see then that it is not the cravings of desire that define love, but rather the selfless actions that transcend desire. As it is written "No greater love has any man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." We dare not say that this statement refers to desire devoid of thought. In fact, the reverse is true. A man may prefer one option or another. He may like a particular liturgy, or a particular form of worship. Even so, he cannot love it. A man can love God. A man can love other men. A man can love his idols for to him they stand in the place of God. Surely we should not make a liturgy into an idol.

Now it so happens that there exist many such churches that follow this strategy. They are often successful in filling the building. They appeal to the senses. They entertain. They avoid dark concepts like sin and atonement, and speak of Jesus the Life Coach who has a wonderful plan for your life. They say God wants you to be rich and materially successful. They adopt the marketing strategy of Victoria's Secret and discover it works. It is the easiest thing in the world to attract men through his sensual nature. But as a wise man once told me, "What you win them with is what you win them to." Win them with the senses and they will demand you entertain their senses. They did not come to learn doctrine. They will expect you to play a tune that they may dance. They will expect you to play a dirge that they may mourn.

Paul did not come playing a tune. He did not leave for us in Scripture a model liturgy to entertain the senses. He did not build upon a marketing strategy vetted and approved by the best advertising firms. He came preaching the foolishness of the Gospel, and it seems that this is what is really being rejected in favor of the sensual. Do we really believe that the proclamation of the Gospel has the power to change the hearts of men? Is it really the power of God for salvation? Or must we supplement it with slap and dash lest men turn away in boredom. Remember that it is God who draws men to Himself. We do not seek Him. He seeks us.

The first responsibility of an elder is to teach right doctrine and correct wrong doctrine. This is not to say that a Christian worship service must be ugly and harsh. But in all things it must first and foremost teach right doctrine. It must proclaim the Gospel. Better the 45-minute didactic sermon that expounds the Word than a carefully constructed sensual assault that appeals to desire devoid of thought. A man must know what he loves.


ToniDeCali said...

It is a mistake to think that human beings learn through purely propositional means, the sermon is not the only or even primary means of 'teaching'. The ritual, that is the words used in the liturgy, the music, the ceremonial, that is the action, all these form or 'teach' christians in a way that a sermon may not.