A Liturgical Thought Experiment

Suppose for a minute (I know this will be hard) that The Church is RIGHT about the liturgy and the nature of the sacraments. Suppose that the Mass really is the memorial of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of God’s Only Begotten Son. Suppose it is the source and summit of our lives as Christians. More to the point: suppose that something actually supernatural and really (not metaphorically) divine is going on during the Mass.

Now suppose instead (I’m sure this will be much easier) that (either in addition to, or else in contrast with, this) that The Catholic Progressives are RIGHT about the liturgy. Suppose that the purpose is to teach and inform us about God and Christ, and to make us into a Worldwide community of love and unity, a revolutionary force to stand up against the greed and corruption of the world, and to care for the poor and downtrodden of the earth.

Now suppose instead that The Mainline Protestant Liberal Academics are RIGHT about liturgy. Suppose that the purpose is primarily instructive and cultural. Suppose there is no “magic” or actual supernatural efficacy, but that it’s important to preserve cultural and artistic practices that have been meaningful to previous generations. Religion is, of course, just a human-constructed metaphor- but (well, you know) it’s an important metaphor.

Suppose now (if your head isn’t spinning yet) that The Fundamentalists are RIGHT about liturgy church God, and that at any moment, the Second Coming is going to happen, and we are in SERIOUS danger of eternal damnation, and we need to understand just how small and sinful we are, how worthy we are of hell, and that only by God’s completely incomprehensible grace do we have any hope (no matter how small) of escaping the fiery furnace.

Suppose that Atheist Scholars of Myth and Psychology (Joseph Campbell, etc.) are RIGHT, and that the liturgy of The Church is simply one more among the world’s naturally-occurring religions. Suppose that the purpose of religion and ritual is to conform our psyches to the collective mythos so that we can function as healthy and productive members of society. Suppose that the shared metaphors of religion reveal the human person’s relationship with an inhospitable world, and that liturgy and belief serve to make that mysterious inhospitality understandable, allowing us to accept our eventual biological death without living every moment of our lives in terror and ignorance.

Okay… suppositioning over.

Questions for discussion:

1. In which of these understandings of the role of public worship in the life of the Church and society is “silly songs and folk dancing” an appropriate choice?

2. In which of these paradigms of liturgical worship would “making things up as we go along” be an edifying or helpful phenomenon?

3. In which of these modes or theories of liturgy (or any other one that is even vaguely coherent) would the ancient and traditional (and beautiful and terrifying) repertoire of chanted prayer be abandoned?

4. What am I getting at here?

7 Replies to “A Liturgical Thought Experiment”

  1. I'm not sure if this is what you're getting at, but I was struck by the fact that having ancient, traditional, beautiful, and terrifying chanted prayer would fit with

    1. the traditional Catholic teaching;
    3. the mainline Protestant culture-based view;
    4. the Fundamentalist insistence that we are sinners in the hand of an angry God;
    5. the Joseph Campbell notion of ancient religions having a common mythos for a common logos.

    The only one it doesn't fit with at all is #2. And similarly, silly songs and folk dancing would only fit with #2.

    I admit that #4 is hard to know what to do with, but at least in your description, the Fundamentalist is one who sees religion as a seriously black and white affair in which eternal salvation or eternal damnation are the only topics worth considering — and so, silly songs, folk dancing, and making things up would be massively distracting from what we should be thinking about. With 1, 3, and 5, there are intrinsic reasons for preferring what is traditional and ritually established over what is contemporary and free-form.

  2. 4. No clue.

    3. It isn't as though chant has been abandoned. Most Catholics alive today have never experienced it at Mass.

    2 & 1. It would help to have a conversation rather than make up silly answers.

    Todd

  3. Adam:

    It was easier to rewrite your suppositions in the light of how I believe mother Church sees it.

    The Church is RIGHT about the liturgy and the nature of the sacraments. The Mass really is the memorial AND a re-presenting act of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of God's Only Begotten Son. It is the source and summit of our lives as Christians. It actually is supernatural and really (not metaphorically) the divine appearing before us.

    Intrinsic to the Mass is that it teaches and informs us about God and Christ, and also makes us into a worldwide community of love and unity, a revolutionary force to stand up against the greed and corruption of the world, and to care for the poor and downtrodden of the earth. I believe this happens on a supernatural and mysterious level through experiencing and participating in the rite and probably less on an intellectual level. Imagine you are at the scene of the crucifixion. Not much talking there, was there? They were certainly participating in the event, however, even in stunned silence and tears.

    I do not believe it is primarily instructive and cultural. There is no "magic" but there is actual supernatural efficacy. It supersedes, absorbs and takes into itself cultural and artistic practices that have been meaningful to previous generations and it then transforms those elements into a universal norm. That is what the TLM is. "Religion" is simply the term some use to describe the imperfect practice that we as human Christians strive for in manifesting the epiphany of the one true faith, who is Christ himself.

    At any moment, the Second Coming is going to happen, and we are in SERIOUS danger of eternal damnation, and we need to understand just how small and sinful we are, how worthy we are of hell, and that only by God's completely incomprehensible grace do we have any hope (no matter how small) of escaping the fiery furnace. However, God is also requiring us to take responsibility through free will and the efficacy of the sacraments, because Faith alone will not save us. Each of us in the end will decide our fate to be with God or without God forever.

    The REAL DANGER is that we fall for the myth that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (and moreso, the Catholic Faith) is simply one more among the world's naturally-occurring religions and that the purpose of religion and ritual is to conform our psyches to the collective mythos so that we can function as healthy and productive members of society.

    The one true faith allows the human person's relationship with an inhospitable world to be like Christ and embrace the world without being a part of it, leading others to know Christ and in doing so, we bring about the Kingdom of God in our midst.

  4. The first two paragraphs present a bizarre and nonsensical antithesis. Surely you don't mean to suggest that the meaning of either one excludes the other? (I'd change teach and inform us about God and Christ to proclaim and celebrate the Word of God as an attempt to capture the purpose of the Liturgy of the Word — which the first paragraph perhaps neglects — but I don't think the version given in the second paragraph above comes nearer than my version to articulating the progressive view.

  5. The question is not whether (1) or (2) are compatible doctrinally. They certainly are; indeed they are symbiotic to some degree. When each option is diffracted through the prism of (5), the difference between progressive Catholicism and traditionalist Catholicism resolves into greater focus. The paramount issue is the function of liturgy, not the presentation of liturgy.

    By way of an example from another religion: the Jewish Reformation of the 18th and 19th centuries divided over the expectations of a Jewish person in the modern age. The Reform movement considered certain observances such as kashrut to be a barrier to assimilation into society. "Orthodox" Jews (that is, Judaism before the advent of denomination) considered observance of the dietary laws to be absolutely essential to the identity of a Jewish individual and the Jewish community.

    Substitute "function of liturgy" for "kashrut", and the crux of the current question of "What does it mean to be a Catholic in the postmodern age?" becomes more clear. For progressive Catholics, the praxis of liturgy is secondary to its didactic potential and sacramental form. Particularly important to the progressive liturgical zeitgeist is the ability to communicate the intellectual meaning of Word and sacrament regardless of the practical setting of the sacrament. For traditionalists, the late antique/medieval liturgy, didacticism, and sacrament are intrinsically bonded. The paschal mystery must be expressed through the ancient Mass as codified by Trent for the mystery to have any contextual meaning. For a progressive, sacramental form is the immovable star around which the praxis of Mass is shaped to accommodate the ever-changing sensibilities of postmodernism (which constructs and deconstructs itself continuously.)

    With regard to (4), Catholic traditionalism leans towards an personal judgment of humanity after death, while Catholic progressivism leans towards a universal salvation of humanity after death. These points are secondary or tertiary to the function and goal of liturgy.

  6. 1. In which of these understandings of the role of public worship in the life of the Church and society is "silly songs and folk dancing" an appropriate choice? Whenever you are just whistling past the graveyard. Probably Progressives, Protestants, Atheists. Maybe not Fundamentalists, because they are truly worried.

    2. In which of these paradigms of liturgical worship would "making things up as we go along" be an edifying or helpful phenomenon? Anywhere that performance and self-expression are paramount (possibly for mutual distraction, see: whistling past graveyard).

    3. In which of these modes or theories of liturgy (or any other one that is even vaguely coherent) would the ancient and traditional (and beautiful and terrifying) repertoire of chanted prayer be abandoned? (see: whistling)

    4. What am I getting at here? Enough with all the whistling.

Comments are closed.