Saturday, September 11, 2010

Postmodernism and Liturgy

Last night Tim McConnell at the Center for Christian Study made the comment that in an era of postmodernism, many Christians, including evangelicals, are returning to more liturgical forms of worship, prayer in particular. In context, "liturgical prayer" means prayer that is not spontaneous, but rather written by someone else, to be prayed by an entire group of worshipers. The explanation he gave was reasonable. A revival of liturgical prayer is a reaction against the postmodern notion that your identity and beliefs must come entirely from within; there is nothing in the outside world to guide you. Liturgical worship is a firm response against this. Liturgy helps define our identity and beliefs from outside ourselves. We aren't simply making it up as we go along.

I encounter the word "postmodernism" most often among evangelicals, who tend to overuse the term. They talk about it most often like it is a prevailing ideology which is reshaping the entire way society is structured. It isn't. In fact, what evangelicals have to deal with the day is not so much the influence of thinkers like Derrida as the influence of their own tradition. "Postmodernism" should really be called "post-evangelicalism."

It was evangelical Christians who taught generations of believers that true faith is about a personal choice, that it must come from within, and that it is not a matter of reason, but of the heart. In terms of liturgical practices, anything that seemed like it could be done by rote was rejected in favor of spontaneous, emotionally charged response to God. Worship music became increasingly improvisational. The Lord's supper became a once a month or less event (you wouldn't want it to become less special, would you?). The sermon, even as it solidified as the centerpiece of evangelical liturgy, became something to evoke individual response; at worst we see in our own day sermons used as self-help motivational speaking, or simply as entertainment.. The logic behind all of these moves is the same: God can only be known inside, rather than outside. Any external means we use must simply provide a platform for a "genuine" response to God, where "genuine" always means something that comes from within.

This shows up in apologetics, too. Science, it is said, can tell us many things; but there is another, spiritual dimension of experience, and that is where faith is necessary. But if science studies the outside world, then what realm of experience is left for faith? The inside world, no doubt--the world of thoughts and feelings, where I define myself because no one else can tell me who I am. That world may really be important, as one can learn by spending some time alone with one's thoughts. But it is an awfully small space for faith to live.

Why, then, are Christians so surprised at postmodernism? If transcendent truth is all found in an individual's mind, then how transcendent is it, really? When you rely on personal choice for your epistemology, don't be surprised at philosophical pluralism.

What is postmodernism, anyway? As far as I know, it's simply a rejection of the idea that an individual observer can be objective. I think this view can taken to absurd lengths, but overall, I'm inclined to agree with it. No individual observer can be truly objective, because what we see always comes through the filter of our cultural heritage and personal experiences. Evangelical Christianity, then, cannot be an objectively true system of beliefs, so long as it remains individualistic.

No individual observer can be truly objective; but we were not meant to be merely individuals. Biblical faith is based on collective, not personal, experience. All of the Israelites together heard God speak from Mount Sinai (Ex 20). Hundreds of the disciples saw the risen Christ together (1 Cor 15:6). Real, collective experience is the basis of our faith. More than these experiences, however, we also have experienced the presence of Christ together in the Lord's supper, in singing songs of worship, and in listening to the Scriptures taught. These are rituals, rather than singular experiences; but as we experience them together, we learn more and more what they mean, and how God interacts with us through them.

Personally, I get frustrated with the individualism of evangelical theology, and I think lots of others do, too. For all the evangelical talk about how God loves you and you don't have to earn salvation, they sure make it feel like you do. What if I come to church, and I'm not moved by the sermon, I don't particularly care for the music, I don't feel the urge to wave my hands in the air while I'm singing, and I don't feel like my quiet time that morning was all that spiritual? What if I find myself incapable of conjuring up feelings inside that Jesus is close to me? Evangelical theology--not evangelical people with bad attitudes, not Christians who are judgmental or rude, but the very ideas they hold dear--simply destroy people who find that they don't have the same personal experience as others. I expect to experience Christ personally; yet I find my own personal experience is as small as I am, a mere human trying to make sense of the world. At least one of my assumptions must be wrong.

A liturgy that brings worshipers outside of themselves can alleviate these dangers. I don't have to conjure up "authentic" prayers within myself. I pray the words that Jesus gave us to pray. Or I pray the words that centuries of devout believers have prayed, carefully constructing them out of a multitude of experience. I sing hymns that have been selected after centuries of effort to make beautiful music to God. I let all of these things come from outside of myself. I hear them, consider them, repeat them, absorb them. If I am receptive, I will be changed. It might not feel supernatural, but it is God's grace at work.

The process doesn't need to happen one way. As I experience and absorb the liturgy, my own reflections on it will become present in conversations I have with other Christians. I will have the opportunity for my own response. I don't need to lose my individuality to be part of a whole.

The bigger picture is that spirituality is not simply a dimension of personal experience. If our liturgical practices reflect an attitude that God exists nowhere except in the mind, then we will have a hard time making our faith relevant in public life. If, on the other hand, our liturgical practices connect us with a collective memory of the presence of Jesus Christ in the flesh, then we will find ourselves witnessing more faithfully to his presence now. It is one thing to say, "I had a personal experience of Jesus." It is quite another thing to say, "I worship the risen Lord alongside 2000 years of believers." Which of these is a more powerful testimony to the power of God?

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