March 29, 2014

A Liturgy of Literality… Uniformity in Language… & Protestant Positivism

The more Christians turn away from liturgy, the more they turn toward literality, because the less people assemble around doing things in a uniform manner, the more their group identity must depend upon saying things in a unified manner. Thus, to abandon the active rituals of worship and gathering, to some degree or another, is inevitably to move in equal measure towards the ritualization of words, whether that takes the shape of emphasizing details of doctrine, or requiring allegiance to a more carefully worded creed, or a full on verbal legalism, or a strict focus on mission statements, or requiring that certain prayers always be said with the right words and approved phrasings, or any similar pattern. These kinds of expressions seem righteous to some and peculiar to others, but the fact is that such forms of verbal uniformity are every bit as endemic to human groupiness as any traditional uniformity of liturgical custom. However, what takes this all one step further is the quixotic desire held by many “low church” Protestants to avoid thinking of themselves as “religious” or “liturgical” or “ritualistic” and so forth, which requires an alternative way to justify their increasingly mundade and repetitive speech-acts as both proper and necessary. If the human dynamics of group activity can’t be allowed to justify a modest amount of acceptance for ritual, then the required explanation is bound to contrive a divine requirement for their strain of verbal fixation, and this leads naturally to insisting on things like strict verbal interpretation, literalism, positivism, and precise definitions of words, all of which belies the true nature of what words actually are, which is tools. Eventually, instead of using words reasonably and flexibly – to refer, to allude, to describe, and to label – some social circles develop customs in which certain words serve as nothing more than tags for a collection of ideas, placeholders for concepts, which become further removed from any basis in reality.

One offshoot of all this is to understand better why Fundigelicals, who trust the scripture so fervently, have such little regard for the Story of Scripture, unless by that we mean repeating mostly verbatim whatever the scripture has already said. This verbal rigidity in understanding the past is the very seedbed of Positivism, by which one views the past (“History”) as being equal to what the text says, and only what the text says. This is how a conservative scholar at the Society of Biblical Literature proudly defends himself as a Positivist because to him this testifies that he believes in the text, but he does not appear to be cognizant of the fact that he fails to consider the actual world represented by that text. At least, he has reduced that world to the words of the text. He fails to consider that world as being larger. He cannot consider the text as being in any way limited. As much as words are his world, so his world is but words, and the observations by scholars of literature seem distracting and off based. They are, he believes, the ones who lose the proper relationship between words and the world, because they do not appear to believe that “words always mean what they say”. Tragically, ironically, and perhaps indefatigably, it is not the real world this Positivist has failed to understand, but his own words. Or perhaps more accurately, what the Fundigelical scholar continually fails to grasp is the sophisticated relationship between words and the world.

The Patristic ‘Fathers’ found it distasteful when Tatian cut-and-pasted the Gospels together but their contemporaries passed along a succinct historical summary in The Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Council concurred with this method of practical synopsis when they authorized their own version of key events to remember. For that matter, the Gospel writers themselves had not been strictly perfunctory in reporting particular things in precisely uniform words, and regardless of who wrote before whom and who had or hadn’t read which works, the Gospels tell their versions of the Eucharist story and Paul tells a different version in his letter to Corinth. At the very least, this reflects that stories of that event must not need to describe it with any verbally uniform pattern. As the Jewish Passover customs were then and are now replete with variant haggadahs, retelling multiple versions of the one same Exodus story, so the early Christians apparently found various ways of describing their updated Passover saga. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus did and said many things. We could never write them all down.

Today’s protestant churches typically do no more to represent Christian Origin Stories than to read scripture aloud and produce yearly nativity pageants, which survive largely because it’s a nice thing to do for the children. However, it should be unsurprising by now that the Nativity pageant as a custom did not originate within Protestant churches, just as it should be unsurprising that the same is true of the Stations of the Cross. More interesting still is the way Catholic tradition gets curtailed in the rare cases when Protestant churches do incorporate the Stations in the seasons of Lent and Easter. A bit of research on the Catholic rendition turns up much more detail, constructed over the centuries from extracanonical sources and simple logical deductions. But while their more “biblical” cousins may feel justified in paring down these events – Protestant Stations of the Cross stick to nothing but Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – what should be celebrated about the Catholics' historical imagination is their recognition of the fact that a Story is always greater than any past words anyone used to tell that story. Regardless of whether non-cannonical sources are worthwhile, and aside from opinions about how we ought to handle scripture (or history, for that matter), what’s most wonderful about the Catholic Stations of the Cross is that it recognizes that Jesus and his Life were and are larger than scripture’s description of things. All of life is much larger than words about life. Comparatively, Protestants don’t seem to understand that as easily. “Why do we need Stations? We have scripture.” At that point, who’s more beholden to legalism and ritual? The ones who produce extra-scriptural customs and partake in them? Or the ones who slavishly stick to the scripture, verbatim?

With or without ritual, and with or without legalism, it’s the “low church” forms of Protestantism that are known for this emphatic verbal fixation we sometimes call literalism, and they do not seem to realize how it damages our view of scripture more than uplifting it, because literalism defies and denies the variety and complexity of what real life in the world is really, actually like. Much of this is not news. What I begin to see, more and more, is that attacking this verbal fixation is not attacking a symptom of the Fundigelical condition, but attacking its source. The more Protestants moved away from sharing common forms in public worship, the more we came to NEED a common emphasis on words. The requirement that a congregation (or faculty) must uniformly adopt verbal statements about doctrine is NOT a BYPRODUCT of what makes them who they are. That requirement is the ONLY thing that makes them who they are. Group identity is inevitably about shared activity, and by de-emphasizing the Catholic “rituals” they necessarily exalted these uniformities of verbiage. To consider doctrine more carefully, it’s obvious the Catholic church also has official teachings, but in common practice their ministers are not remotely uptight about enforcement, but very confident and relaxed about allowing people to wrestle with each of those things in their own time. The reason we all know lots of Catholics who don’t believe all the teachings of their church is because whether they do so isn’t remotely what determines who they are as a body of people. Contrast that with any group who insists on precise doctrinal verbiage, or who eschews ritual for the most part but who reserve unique power for a special vocabulary. The reason why certain ministers feel the need to insist absolutely on specific verbal agreement is because they have nothing else holding them together. They insist upon particular uses of words because their experience of the world is built entirely of words. And God help us. We need to be more than that.

One last point about Catholics, Protestants and Academia: 

A lot of academic work is focused not so much on discovering the world as determining what to say about it. Quantum Physics is apparently an exercise in describing the indescribable. Zoology and Biology have their facts presently straight but research focuses on constructing stories to explain how changes may have occurred. Economics attempts to predict the unpredictable but necessarily spends as much of its time trying to classify as to quantify. Likewise, Mathematicians know all the numbers, but invent words with which they can theorize new categories within which numerical patterns appear to behave in somewhat similar ways. In Academia, generally, the focus isn't so much how to find what we don't see of the world, but how to say what we do find in the world. Experiments have been finished long before someone figures out how to write the paper describing what happened, and what the results may or may not mean. So, too, work in History is often less focused on events of the past than on how to say anything justifiably about what those events may have been like. Cutting edge historical study today is entirely focused on how differently we perceive and express the various relationship(s?) between words and things.  We argue not at all about whether an American Revolution took place, quibble a bit about how and why it came to be in the first place, and debate quite a lot about what types of pronouncements may be reasonably professed in considering all such things. So shall academic work ever be.

Now, as far as this regards the intersection of Christian churches with the academic study of Christian Origins, we may not yet have begun to see the real fireworks spark off from this methodological conflict… but we have long since recognized that the Catholics are far better prepared for the inevitable implications and diverse repercussions. Today's post gives some reasons why I think that is so. While I’m not about to swim the Tiber, myself, I dearly do wish that all of us were so well prepared.

Lord, teach us to say

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