Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (8): Liturgies of Desire

Below is the eighth 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,

Thank you for your feedback. I can tell from your response that I didn’t communicate as clearly as I had hoped. But I am glad I perked your interest in reading James Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. I think that book will go a long ways towards clearing up some of the misunderstandings about what I meant.

You said you couldn’t grasp my point about the relationship between anthropology and worship. Let me try to explain it like this. If we have a cognitivist anthropology of the human person, then we will see the job of the minister as being first and foremost to educate a person’s mind in correct doctrines. What results is that church begins to have a whole feel about it which is more like attending lecture than ascending into the heavenlies. If we emphasize, even implicitly, that attending church is first and foremost about the teaching that is imparted and received, then this is probably because we have unconsciously imbibed an anthropology which assumes that our fundamental identity is cognitive. Such an anthropology cannot help but lead to an unbiblical ecclesiology, a subtle deemphasizing of the sacraments, and an inflated premium on doctrinal categories. (It seems that this has happened in much of the Calvinist tradition, despite “officially” keeping Word and Sacrament parallel.)

The alternative is to aim deeper than our minds at our heart, by nurturing a vision of the good life that seeps into our very gut. But this occurs by appealing first to our imaginations and aesthetic sensibilities through the habit forming rituals that are the fulcrum of desire. Many of the rhythms and rituals of the catholic tradition do just that. Practices like genuflecting, crossing ourselves and kneeling to receive the blessed Eucharist, are more than merely accessories to the really important business of preaching the Word, but are part of a communal expression of the good life that seeks to aim our desires through habit forming rituals involving our body. That is why practices like this can so deeply inscribe a certain vision of the world in our hearts, as James Smith suggests in this short video. Such practices get into our bones and prime us to a certain picture of human flourishing that penetrates deeper than cognition. To quote again from Smith:

Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses…The senses are portals to the heart, and thus the body is a channel to our core dispositions and identity. Over time, rituals and practices – often in tandem with aesthetic phenomena like pictures and stories – mold and shape our precognitive dispositions to the world by training our desires. It’s as if our appendages function as a conduit to our adaptive unconscious: the motions and rhythms of embodied routines train our minds and hearts so that we develop habits – sort of attitudinal reflexes – that make us tend to act in certain ways toward certain ends.

You suggested in your last letter that I was guilty of creating a false dilemma. I agree that if I am positing a choice between being thinking people vs. being people who love, then it was indeed a false dilemma. But that is not what I have been suggesting, nor is it what Jamie Smith has argued, as you will see when you get his book. Rather, the question is which precedes which and which is more fundamental to our identity. Human beings brush their teeth, but our lives do not revolve around tooth-brushing. Similarly, human beings are thinking beings, yet this is not the fundamental locus of our identity. We are what we love because it is what we love and desire that shapes our actions and thoughts on a precognitive level. Yet your discussion of worship makes it seem as if the human person is first and foremost defined by what he thinks. Thus, I suspect that our differences about ecclesiology are at root disagreements about anthropology.

Even on a purely historical level, the way you order things gets it wrong. The early Christians were worshiping Jesus long before their Christological theology was formalized. When they did come to articulate a formal theology, their conclusions were drawn largely from their worship practices, not the other way round. For example, the church recognized that it had been worshiping Jesus and therefore Jesus cannot have be a created being since nothing that is created can be worthy of worship. As Bryan Owen put it in his review of Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology:

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….The fruits cannot take the place of the root, but 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.

You ask why this is important to me. Here’s one reason. As I watch and observe what happens to young people who fall away from the faith, it seems that quite often it isn't for any lack of correct doctrine, but because another vision of the good life has been nurtured in their gut. The vision of the good life presented in the liturgies of consumerism, or the hedonistic liturgies implicit in so much of pop culture, grab hold of our young people’s imaginations, aesthetic sensibilities and desires through an appeal to the body. These rival visions of the good life seep into our very bones and gut long before they become cognitive, and the reason they are so compelling is they do justice to our materiality.

Now what happens if church is so self-consciously non-seeker-friendly that we neglect Her role in aiming for the gut not the head? What happens is that we simply cannot compete with these other liturgies – the secular liturgies that seduce us precisely because they are pre-cognitive and are designed to have aesthetic appeal. The un-sacramental, intellectualistic model of church which says, “We gather first and foremost to hear the preaching of the Word” completely misses the mark because it neglects to capture the heart on this deeper level. Such a model sees all the cadences of worship as primarily an “expression” of our worldview, which again falsely assumes this same top-down, ideas-first anthropology.

Am I making more sense now?

Blessings,

Canterbury Chris

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