Monday, February 9, 2015

Sitz im leben

My previous post seems to have provided the catalyst for a modest discussion, most notably at Fr. Anthony Chadwick's blog - at which Fr. Chadwick himself gave me the undeserved and unexpected honor of writing a full response.

Liturgical issues are often the most frequently viewed posts on this little outpost. There is a profound link between liturgy and ecclesia, and, under close scrutiny, questions regarding the liturgy often times hover over deeper ecclesiastical issues. When writing about the uncertain state of the liturgy in Western Church, one cannot help, if one wishes to be honest with our contemporary context, touching upon the delicate state of the historical model of Western Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and, I would argue, certain parts of the Lutheran communion.

The blunt fact any interested party has to account for is that, by and large, the major players in the Western Christianity are a) long into a process of modernization and b) overwhelmed by the unrelenting secularization of the culture it (largely) formed.

For the better part of its history, Western Christianity has existed as the cultural assumption in its host culture. Even amidst the enlightenment, it could claim that it was (still) the key influencer behind the worldview of the masses. The Western Church can no longer hold such assurances. Christianity is not the foundation of the worldview upon which the culture rests. It is at best relegated to a sentimental mythology or a type of psycho-socio therapy, or, at worst, consigned to complete irrelevance. In any event, it is one of many extraneous propositions vying to contribute to an already well defined alternate worldview.

Depending upon one's perspective, the leadership decisions of the dominant churches in the West have only exacerbated the challenge of secularization. From Vatican II, to decisions regarding sacerdotal and episcopal ordination in the Anglican Church, to the ecclesiastical maneuvering of the current bishop of Rome, the leadership decisions in the West have been largely reactionary to aggressive secularization as opposed to proactive.  The leaders of the churches associated with a traditional model of Western Christianity have followed liberal or conservative reactions to the challenge of the age without seriously reflecting upon the nature of the age. In so doing, it has failed to propose to the age what Christianity has to say to it, and how Christianity may address the very well known and readily admitted problems of the age. The late Alexander Schmemann, in my estimation, offered a profound insight into the secular age, seemingly in response to the dominant suppositions of Western Christianity. It is not, in Schmemann's reckoning, that the secular world rejects God, or even religion. Rather, it rejects worship, at least organized/hierarchical worship. If I may extrapolate just a bit further, the secular world's affirmation of an autonomy that covers the expanse of all the aspects of an individual's life makes post-modern Western man inherently alienated from organized religion. Post-modern Western man finds the notion of any mediated access to God vehemently contrary to every other aspect of his or her life, in so far as he or she believes that the mediators of the quoditian life (academic, business, theraputic, etc) are all temporary. All of them could be displaced by oneself should one acquire competency in a given area. For the most part, the experience of life in the post-Modern West affirms this supposition, and this extends to matters of God and religion. If, for example, one were to look for one common denominator between the various occult revivals of the 20th century and the emergence of new age in late twentieth century, one would quickly notice that "anyone" can take on a position of religious or spiritual authority. There are varying qualifications. The Golden Dawn and Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis have numerous ritual requirements. In the new age, the qualification process is a bit more nebulous, being noticeably less defined by ritual requirements compared to occultism. Nevertheless, both feature the ability to go from being a believer to a practionor to an authority. This mirrors the experience of the Western world, where we may have the fluidity to go from being a user, consumer, or beneficiary of a given area and progress, should we choose, to a professional in said given area, taking on a degree of authority in the process.

We can further state that the permutation of Western Christianity that experiences appreciable growth are those (largely) Protestant bodies that have, in one way or another, demonstrated some appreciable sympathy with the overarching presumption of self determination in the culture. Mostly of "low-church" and/or charismatic or Pentecostal flavors, these new manifestations of Western Christianity are notable for an emphasis on what may be described as "self improvement," "self growth," and "self determination." This emphasis is supplemented by more fluid channels of acquiring spiritual or religious authority. The authority is not centered upon having a recognized ecclesiastical ministry. One need not be a pastor or minister and, in point of fact, one need not acquire any observable church status. The authority is charismatic in the very original sense of the term; how well one fills one's niche or gift, and how well one is received, has a determinative role in whether or not one becomes an authority. These new models of Western Christianity are not without there problems, although their problems are hardly the object traditional forms of Western Christianity need to focus on. What distinguishes these forms of Christianity from the mainline Western types (i.e., Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) is that there are more avenues to move from a passive/receptive role in the religion (being a consumer of the religion, if you will) to becoming something one can more accurately term a practioner of the religion, to becoming an authority in the religion.

Now, the above is not meant to endorse such models. It is meant to offer, in my own inadequate way, some interpretive insight as to one of the many profound changes that has impacted Western Christianity. To use jargon from the business world, in culture that no longer takes the Christian worldview as a given, the success of any Christian group rests in its ability to enable its adherents to "own" the religion. In other words, the ability to transform from a passive role to an active role. The corporate world often speaks of "ownership of a position." The phrase is so overused that it has become a parody of itself. Nevertheless, in successful companies, the phrase has retained the thrust of its intention. The objective is to get everyone in any position to take on a sense of pride and responsibility for its successes and equal portions of shame and responsibility for its failures. This is not to say that more mainline Western churches don't try the same. The difference is that the corporate world offers ways to actualize the ownership; all due notice taken of the necessary politics that comes with the corporate world, the successes brought by "owning it" can eventually be measured and one can chart one's professional development as a result. In a certain sense, the new models of Western Christianity have something similar in their make-up. One can ask, if one is a Roman Catholic and one "owns" one's faith, what tangible difference does that make? This may seem a brash question, but it is a necessary one that traditional churches need to ask themselves.

The praxis of Christianity must have relevance to one's life. Anyone who has spent enough time with the writings of John Cassian or Evagrius should readily understand this. Cassian, of his part, masterfully described the progress of the monk through the conquering of vice and mastering of virtue, progressing to purity of heart and, eventual, the contemplative vision of God. Of course, this wasn't a purely spiritual process concerned with invisible things. It should lead to tangible results in the monk's life. Importantly, the monastic praxis eventually confers upon the monk authority, with which he trains other monks and may even acquire a broader leadership role. The substance of the monastic teaching was never diffused into normal Christian life. That is, when the topic of virtues comes up in the normal Christian setting, it is seldom given little more force than keeping oneself from sin, at times (and this is where I agree with Freud) to the point of developing neurosis. The praxis of the Christian life in the writings of Cassian is presented as being of very tangible consequence. We may rightly ask what mainline church in the West says anything similar? And if does poster itself as making such claims, what mainline church can say that they are anything other than the most base threats of discipline and punishment? Simply put, barring a politician from communion or guilt by association for someone's voting preference does not sufficiently constitute the application of a model of Christian praxis in a non-monastic setting. Furthermore, arguments centered on the development of interior piety no longer suffice. A priest, for example, can no longer say that we must practice virtue to abstain from sin to receive the Eucharist and then receive a myriad of countless invisible graces. He can no longer say this because piety build upon the promise of invisible graces has never quite managed to figure out what those graces are, let alone define grace, a term that, next to "love", has been so overused in Western theology so as to have lost the force of its original meaning.

Christianity, at this moment in the Western world, must demonstrate why it is to be practiced and what benefit it has to offer in development of the self. Shallow cries of "individualism" and a "throw away culture" are not a substantial defense. Arguably, any culture that gets to a certain level of economic development and acquires a measure of self determination evolves into Western society. This fact, that Christianity should actually have to answer for something, that it should be able to justify its adoption, shakes traditional churches to their core. Whereas many branches of Orthodoxy had to justify their existence under centuries of Muslim rule, Western Christianity, until recent times, had unparalleled success. It is now in a position of having to justify itself. This is a role that the Western Church has long since forgotten how to play.

Liturgical questions matter. If, however, one wants any hope of acquiring a reasonable perspective on the liturgical crisis in the Western Church, one has to understand the much larger crisis in which Western Christianity finds itself. It is a period of profound disorientation in the Western Church. It is tempting to read this in Manichean terms, seeing the contemporary world as some tidal wave of godless perversion that is sweeping away many a soul. Doing so, however, does little justice to any party involved. The contemporary Western world has a worldview undergirded by many non-exclusivist principles. Everything else is supplementary to the worldview. Anything that would be demonstratively exclusivist must present its rationale and justify its acceptance. In many respects, our world has many parallels to the world in which Christianity first emerged and we would do well to ask how and why Christianity thrived during late antiquity. Amid this period of profound disorientation, church leaders have sought to establish some functioning base upon which to stand on in the culture, all the while not getting an adequate sense of the topography.

The Western liturgy has served as a visible manifestation of this process. I can write of the Roman liturgy as that is the one that I am most familiar. The impact of historical study, anthropology and sociology all weighed upon the twentieth century reforms of the Roman liturgy, culminating in the Pauline liturgy. To cite only one example of this, one may find a number of articles in liturgical journals during the 1950s that demonstrated the influence of anthropology on scholarly discussions of the Roman liturgy. What Lauren Pristas sees as an unfortunate occurrence, the redaction of Roman orations in light of contemporary anthropology, previous liturgical scholars felt compelled to advocate. One sees the final results in the orations of the Pauline Missal, a liturgical product that has reduced the Western liturgy to its bare skeleton and is readily adaptable to local situations. Where this has proven itself a boon to Africa, in West it has provided a venue for confusion as the modern Roman liturgy gives expression to numerous (and often conflicting) fractured streams in the Roman Church. It can be seen as liturgical pluralism on the one hand, demonstrable confusion on the other. At root are deeper questions of ecclesial self-understanding that the Tridentine model of Roman Catholicism was unable to sufficiently address, partially because the Tridentine model was itself the product of a worldview that had become thoroughly obsolete in the West. It is fanciful to believe the Church (however one wishes to define it) is untouched by culture, that every component of its institutional makeup is somehow pure and untainted by "worldly" concerns and ideals. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that Christianity eventually defined itself between Orthodoxy and Catholicism demonstrates how terribly inadequate such romantic notions are, both religious systems being the product of cultures in the two halves of the Roman Empire. Similarly, the contemporary world is impacting the Western Church in a manner that has yet to be sorted out.

If anthropology and sociology were not enough, Christianity has been impacted by the scholarship surrounding its origins and evolution. Now, this is an area for which I have detectable sympathy, coming as I do from such a background. From the scholarly perspective, much of what constitutes the functional mythology of Church origins needs to be abandoned on account of data that suggests otherwise. This area is no easy argument to have, in part because the scholarship is viewed as being either inherently deceptive or in part because there is seldom much effort given to understand the nuiances of it. Yet, most anyone thoroughly knowledgable of the scholarly method can and will tell you that the data is impressive. Thus much of what passes as history, theology and ecclesiology in faith circles is roundly discarded in the scholarly community. This is not due to the arrogance of the intelligentia, so much as it is the in ability of much of the established religious framework to demonstrate its grounds in the area of higher criticism. The results of the critical research into the origins and evolution of Christianity have been the subject of a reactionary response by church leaders and adherents, which has been enough to shake the confidence in the traditional narrative framework. I suspect that should the reaction ever die down, there would be considerable change when the data is filtered and assimilated. When we final come to grips with, for instance, all of the literature utilized by the New Testament authors and accept the rather wide view of "Canon" they had during the presumably apostolic period, we may find ourselves with a significantly broader Canon of Scripture. When we accept that cultural context has played a long role in the formation of Christian self understanding, we may then accept that development of Christianity away from its Jewish origins into a largely gentile religion had a significant role in reinterpreting the religion in its early centuries. Though these are but two examples of things that may be down the line, the possibility that they could come to pass has been enough to contribute to the general disorientation of the Western Church.

Context is everything; there is no man or institution that can escape its context. What has been discussed here is only a fraction of what can be said of the context of Western Christianity. Yet, if we are to understand anything that pertains to the uncertain state of the Western Church, we must understand the context in which it has found itself. The West is moving, continually progressing to some unknown destination, perhaps only to be slowed down by sheer exhaustion. The Western Church struggles to keep apace, eyes wide and jaw dropped as its intellectual ground keeps shaking under its feet. Roman Catholicism experiences this confusion in an acute way. Aspects of its self understanding largely defined in the late medieval and Tridentine periods are subject to internal and external critique, causing a resultant polarized defense of these elements. The critiques may range from broad deconstruction of the Christian narrative (as is often found in popular presentations of the Nag Hammadi corpus), or more subtle self-criticism, such as re-examining the Latin text of the Bible, which, though seemingly innocuous, has profound implications for distinctly Roman dogmatics.

More profound, perhaps, is the re-orientation of Western thought that has caused an inner sense of disorientation in the Western Church. Had I the time, and inclination, this is an area I would thoroughly explore, if only because it negates a certain naivety that imagines the (Roman) Church is something apart from culture. Clearly, Catholicism (and any other religion for that matter) are (or eventually become) deeply woven into the culture. Neo-Conservative or neo-Traditionalist fantasies of Catholicism somehow being counter-culture or transcendent of culture (in reference to the American culture) may provide an apologetic springboard, however, in personal and institutional praxis Roman Catholicism is part and parcel of the culture. It is part of the general flow of things carried by influx of cultural re-orientation experienced in the West.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this lucid, concise and enlightening presentation that explains why the traditional Western (Roman etc) narratives or traditional presentations do not have traction today and do not look like they ever will again at least not without some change.