Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Liturgical Rent in the Fabric of Western Civilization

There is a liturgical rent in the fabric of western civilization. There is a split in Christianity between those traditions that are liturgical and those which are not. This split goes all the way back to our roots among the children of Abraham who were split among the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Sadducees in Jesus' time. I suspect it was the split between Peter and John on one hand and Paul on the other.

This split is important in two fundamental ways for our understanding our world and our culture.

Firstly, we in the United States are the products of a Puritan culture. We need to understand this if we are to understand ourselves and the culture through which we perceive the world and all that is in it. I use the word "Puritan" very narrowly. Puritanism had nothing to do with sex. The Puritans, good Calvinists that they were, wanted to purify the liturgy of the Church of England of its Papist trappings. Thus we were from the start an anti-liturgical people or at least an aliturgical people.

Since our or any people's culture is the set of unspoken assumptions and presupposition with which we act and interact with each other, our culture is intellectually invisible to us. Like the air we breath or the action of our heart, we are not conscious of our culture unless something brings into our consciousness. It is the meta dialog within which our ordinary dialogs take place. Living and breathing an anti-liturgical culture blinds us to the power of liturgy. Words like "sacrilege" or "communion" may be metaphors, but they convey no reality to us emotionally or existentially.

Secondly, there is the myth of bloody religious dogmatism that poisons our public discourse. This myth is a misunderstanding of the true nature of the conflict in the sixteenth century "wars of religion." This myth is one of the powerful shapers of our understanding of what is needed for a liberal, democratic society.

What is this myth? By "myth" I mean a story that colors our understanding of history and what history implies for the possibility of civil society. The story runs like this: religion is a powerful impulse of mankind. Religion makes man dogmatic. He irrationally believes in dogmas and will violently try to impose those dogmas on others. During the Reformation both sides burned their opponents at the stake for their differences in belief. The Thirty Years War is depicted as two sides slaughtering each other to impose their opinions on each other. Given the true horror of the Thirty Years War, a conflict that caused the death of a quarter of the population of Germany and set her back culturally a hundred years, the Enlightenment drew the implication that religion is too dangerous to be given an equal footing in civil discourse. For civil society to exist in peace, religion must be banned from the public square.

To demythologize this story requires a lengthy analysis. I will just sketch it here.

Firstly, the story ignores the political dimensions of the Thirty Years War. It does not explain why Catholic France entered the war on the Protestant side. It ignores the motivation of the Lutheran princes to free themselves from Imperial control: If sola fide; sola scriptura provides the means of freeing us from the Emperor, we will latch ourselves onto this Augustinian monk.

Secondly, the story misses the fact that this war was the first modern war. Literacy had freed many of the participants from the existential constraints much less the ecclesiastical constraints on pre-modern war. This was the first war when modern professional armies fought and fought a total war.

Thirdly, the story ignores the true tinder that set off the firestorm of passions and fueled the fire's fury. This was a conflict of a literary culture against a liturgical culture. Here our Puritan culture blinds us to the the emotional power of this conflict.

What do I mean by a "liturgical culture?" Catholicism had baptized time and place. It had made places and seasons and days and actions sacred. They were no longer random meaningless things, but sacramentalized. First the humanists and then the Protestants exalted the ability of unaided reason to make sense out of things and particularly the texts of scripture. Neither the church, nor the sacred seasons, nor the sacraments, nor physical objects and places that had been sacralized were necessary, but only faith. And faith, that graced gift of God actualized in the life of the believer, could too easily degenerate into each man's ideosyncratic interpretation of the texts of scripture. Once faith becomes an intellectual relationship between man and a text, the sacralizing of physical and human reality becomes idolatry. And his reading of those texts lead him to the conviction that those idols must be destroyed.

The deep urge to sacralize physical reality draws on a powerful law written into men's psyches. I think of C.S. Lewis who, in the Witch, the Lion, and the Wardrobe, has Aslan refer to "the deep magic" sung into Narnia before the world began. When the reformers desecrated the churches and the sacred vessels, they were simply expressing the logic of their literacy. To the liturgically formed psyche, they were committing sacrilege. To us, formed in a literary, Puritan culture, the word "sacrilege" has no emotional power. We are blinded to the raw emotional power that sacrilege evokes. Sacrilege provokes an emotional response similar to sense of violation we associate with rape. It engenders a violent reaction. These acts of vandalism are not simply the expression of an opinion, they violate something sacred, holy, and precious. Consequently, we try reduce this conflict to "a difference of opinion." That is a category that exists in our way of thinking. We then conclude that religious opinions are too dangerous to allow them an equal footing with other opinions in civil discourse. They caused the Thirty Years War after all! But our conclusion misses the point. The passions engendered were not issues of "opinions" they were reactions to acts of sacrilege in a world that had not learned to speak politely through the written word.

No comments: