Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Postmodernism and liturgy

In my previous post, I discussed an irritating and silly philosophical mistake made by a lot of people who ought to know better. Yes, our impressions of the world around us are dependent upon our idiosyncratic viewpoints as individuals; no, this does not imply that objective knowledge is impossible. Our experience of the world may be coloured by our own flaws and limitations, but at bottom it depends on an objective experience of reality that can be communicated to others. And I'd argue further that this is a good thing. Postmodernists, influenced as they are by post-1960s liberal politics, tend to associate any appeal to epistemic objectivity with an intellectual hegemony perpetrated by Dead, White, European, Heterosexual Males. Seen from this viewpoint, objectivity is merely a thinly veiled excuse for a power grab; indeed, the very concept of an objective viewpoint is indelibly associated with repression and violence. There are many points that can be made against this viewpoint, such as that it is paranoid and silly, but the most pertinent one is this: only by appealing to some common reality beneath our individual viewpoints can we overcome violence and build a better society. If I really believed that our ideological differences were incommensurable, that I had no possibility of genuine communication with the elderly gentleman in my congregation, or the woman on the bus, I would be quaking in my boots; for where the evils of European imperialism, racial hatred, or even National Socialism were at least circumscribed by a shared ideology, there is no limit to the violence and destruction that can be done in the name of Nothing.

I dwell on this point at some length because I increasingly believe understanding these presuppositions to be essential in effecting any sort of change. People are lazy, to begin with; they are overly fond of their own comforts and preferences; they are creatures of habit. Given an ideology that convinces them further that their every disagreement is a reflection of irreconcilable ideological presuppositions, that every position they might take is "just their own opinion", we can expect little positive change to be achieved, and much decadence and stagnation.

A clash of this sort occurs within most congregations surrounding the subject of liturgy, expressed crudely as some people wanting "more liturgy," and others wanting "less liturgy." As the so-called "worship wars" continue to take their toll, the faithful have increasingly taken to voting with their feet - moving between churches in the same denomination, or different denominations, until they find the "amount of liturgy" that is "right for them." It isn't my intention to cast aspersions on this process as such - for many people, certain forms of worship can be a genuine barrier to spiritual growth - but to point out that the entire discussion is miscast. There is no possibility of escaping from liturgy, or even of having a greater or lesser "amount," but merely a choice of different forms of worship. Consider, for example, the following liturgical text, found in a variety of denominational settings:

V. Good morning!
R. Good morning.

In most churches, this versicle and response is proper to all Sundays and holy days, falls immediately after the processional hymn or entrance antiphon, and is recited in the same tone of voice at its every appearance (with the congregational response usually at least 30% less enthusiastic). The Gloria in excelsis comes and goes with the changing liturgical seasons, the musical settings of the Mass change around, but "Good morning" stays. This level of liturgical standardization, of course, exceeds anything to be found in the Roman Missal. Given the prevalence of this response across all faith backgrounds, it is surprising that composers have not considered it for musical setting.

My example may seem rather facetious, but the broader point is this: liturgical patterns are not restricted to antique formulae found in missals and breviaries. Liturgy is nothing more or less than a corporate expression of our human need for routine and predictability. Denominations which attempt to eschew formal liturgy, whether a megachurch service of the Willow Creek variety or the "informal" youth service in the Anglican church basement, quickly settle into predictable patterns. The essence of liturgy is found in any circle of close friends, where conversations keep returning to the same old inside jokes, or a favourite topic of discussion. We liturgize our own environments instinctively, establishing a communal routine. This sort of routine is not to be derided; it comforts us, orients us toward our central values and interests, and causes differences from the pattern to stand out more clearly. Easter Sunday would not be so different from a normal Sunday if not for the innumerable ways it was precisely the same.

If there is no escape from liturgy, then, it follows that our task is to determine who determines the forms we use. Some portion of the liturgy will inevitably be determined by the particular worshippers and their unique traditions and habits. Another portion will be determined by the individual habits and mannerisms of the priest. But the rest of the liturgy is up for grabs: will we follow a particular historical pattern to the letter, will we allow some individual or group to create a liturgy as they see fit, or will we let the service fall together in a more or less inchoate manner? Your answers to these questions will depend on your theological stance, and may not be arrived at easily, but the question of liturgy suddenly seems much more difficult and more complicated than it did when liturgical matters were "just my opinion." The choice of what to eat for lunch is "just my opinion," and is therefore of no conceivable interest to anyone; the choice of how to celebrate a worship service, however, is of wide interest precisely because it is subject to objective discussion and debate.

There is a deadly facetiousness in the way many people, including clergy, approach the liturgy. We imagine liturgical form to exist in a content-free neverland, in which there is no reason whatever except personal preference to prefer a Mass following the Sarum Rite, a Mass following the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, or a Mass in Pig Latin. There is something remarkably wooly-headed about this: it requires you not only to believe with the postmodernists in the irreconcilability and immutability of individual preference, but also to profess a quasi-Gnostic idealism about human activities. (Our actual words and actions, according to this view, are wholly irrelevant and carry no meaning; the only real meaning is inside our minds, or our hearts, or perhaps on a cloud somewhere.) Such people are impossible to argue with; they simply smile at you and say that yes, your opinion is perfectly valid, and then continue to think up other equally valid liturgical innovations, perhaps involving cotton candy machines.

Let us, then, disagree about every aspect of the liturgy; let us reconsider the most basic elements of worship from the most elementary theological standpoint; let us argue for hours over the smallest detail of the service; but if we must go through all of this, let's do it because liturgy matters, because our actions as a community shape the way that we think, and because the way that we think is, at bottom, based on a common experience of an external reality.

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