Liturgical Reflections from Robert Jenson

Miscellaneous Liturgical Reflections from Robert Jenson

A. The Liturgy and Embodiment

The disappearance of ritual and art and physical expression from our ordinary communal life is the heart of our practical atheism.

from Visible Words (Fortress, 1978), 28.

Why has the church always said we should absolve by putting hands on the head of the person being absolved? That sounds like a rather silly procedure, as if some kind of fluid flowed from one to the other — so now in Protestant churches we do not do it that way. Instead we confess everyone once just before the service and absolve them in a mass. And nobody feels forgiven: that this absolution is directed to me was the point of the hands of the priest on the penitent. Or why at a football game do we not sit down to cheer? Because you cannot cheer sitting down: the motion of the body is part of the act.

Liturgy, with its sitting, standing, parading, gesturing, and so forth, is the most comprehensive example of the way in which the body belongs to our communication with each other. Those who have been so misguided as to try to make the liturgy more personal and intense by eliminating the standings, sittings, paradings, crossings, and kneelings achieved, of course, the opposite result. It is exactly in these motionless liturgies, where we just sit for an hour and fifteen minutes, that it becomes impossible to experience rhetoric about “God” as in any way true about us. [43]

B. The Liturgy as Art

The liturgy is the church’s specific art form. Let me in this connection draw only one conclusion from this essay’s positions: the reality of the Spirit in worship, the spiritedness of the church’s praise and petition, is not another thing than the beauty of the church’s worship. Labor on the liturgy’s beauty is not accidental to labor on its authenticity, and what may be called liturgical aesthetics is a vital part of the doctrine of the Spirit.  [155]

from Essays in Theology of Culture (Eerdmans, 1995).

Book Notice: James K A Smith

I’m just now getting to a 2009 Baker title that I’d been neglecting: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by the Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova). It’s the first of a projected three volume series in “Cultural Liturgies.” The second volume is also already available — Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker, 2013) — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first volume offers enough material to occupy our attention for the present moment. To give you a sense for its flavor and aims, here’s a longish quote from the introduction:

“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly — who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship — through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.

“The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines. […]

“This, I’m going to argue, should make a difference for how we think about the nature and task of Christian education — and thus what’s at stake at a Christian college. … In short, the Christian college is a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church.

“This vision of the mission of Christian education requires a correlate pedagogy that honors the formative role of material practices. Thus, … education at Christian colleges must be understood as liturgical in more than an analogical or metaphorical sense. Or perhaps to put it more starkly, … we need to move from the model of ‘Christian universities,’ identified as sites for transmitting Christian ideas, to ‘ecclesial colleges,’ understood to be institutions intimately linked to the church and thus an extension of its practices. If Christian learning is nourished by a Christian worldview, and if that worldview is first and foremost embedded in the understanding that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship, then the Christian college classroom is parasitic upon the worship of the church — it lives off the capital of Christian worship.” (32-4)

Not at all a bad start! My first impressions have been largely affirmative. I’ve got quite a bit of patience for a project like this. So far I’m liking these dimensions in particular: (1) its impatience with tired rationalist accounts of human nature; (2) its counter-anthropology that promotes instead human agency — brought to view in the objects and quality of our loves — as the saner entry point for thinking the human animal; and finally (3) its eye for the implications this whole discussion bears for Christian tertiary education (and, arguably, the Church’s catechesis and evangelism, though Smith doesn’t press this). The textbooks would call this a work in philosophical anthropology. Whatever the label, I’m looking forward to reading what else Smith has to say.

Robert Jenson on theodicy

Robert Jenson on theodicies

“All theodicies must eventually fail, whatever wisdom they may yield on the way. The evil and sin in God’s creation will always be reason to deny him; Luther’s rationalist will always have arguments for his conclusion. If we join the creeds against nihilism on the one hand and gnostics on the other, or against contemporary fusion of the two, our confession of a good Creator is and will remain a great ‘nevertheless,’ a defiance of what we would otherwise conclude. We may, however, explore the ‘nevertheless’ from within. […]

“Would any one sin or any one of history’s horrors have had to happen? No. Would the world have been another world without any particular selection of these? No. For sins and for horrors we can only repent and weep. Nevertheless we may give the last word to Maximus the Confessor, a man better acquainted with horror than most, and to the story of Jesus: ‘The one who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb, knows the reasons of things. The one who is initiated into the infinite power of the Resurrection, knows the purpose for which God knowingly created all.’

“Maximus’s knowledge is that of initiates, into a mystery-event. Those who are baptized into Christ’s death and say ‘Amen’ to the Eucharist’s prayers and behold the Fraction of the bread that is Christ’s body, these are the ones who know the goodness of the creation, also as it is plotted by Christ’s suffering, and so also, somehow, as it is plotted by the sin for which he suffered and the evil that he suffered. The great ‘nevertheless’ cannot finally be resolved from the conceptual outside; but it can be liturgically inhabited.”

From Systematic Theology: The Works of God, Vol II., (OUP, 1999), 23-4.