In confirmation class in 7th and 8th grade my pastor taught us physical positions that we could pray from. Keeling, prone, hands high, etc. The idea was that humans are peculiar. It isn’t enough to give mental assent to something, but rather for full effect we need to commit our bodies, too. Not putting our bodies ‘through the motions’ actually detracts from the reality as the mind experiences it. This is really anti-gnosticism and it is an important truth about the human being. CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters accurately characterized humans as amphibians- both physical and spiritual, and God called it good.
Now, for hundreds of years churches have followed a liturgical order which employs a similar principle. In some places, you even hear it called the ‘Divine Drama.’ The idea is that from the beginning to the end of the ‘church’ service, one’s whole body participates in the grand scheme of God’s plan of redemption. There is confession, there is absolution, there is proclamation, etc. Sit, stand, sit, stand, stand, stand, sit… in the church I was raised in we even kneeled… stand, sit, depart.
Much abuse has been heaped on the liturgy over the years. Scorn has been reserved for mere ‘ritual’ and ‘tradition’ and the rites of man. However, if the insight is true- if true spirituality is not divorced from the movements of our bodies- then we begin to see why something like the liturgy is valuable. Indeed, we begin to see how the liturgy- or the lack of one- or any ritual (or anti-ritual) actually can mold and produce a certain kind of person. It is not enough to throw off the manacles of the liturgy and imagine that in doing so one steps out of their amphibian nature- throwing it off itself is a bodily act which reacts in turn upon the mind, producing a certain kind of person. In dispensing with the liturgy you participate in one of its functions.
Having said all this, I suppose that many readers will expect at this point to hear a stout defense of the traditional liturgy and the type of individuals it produces. Readers who know me better know better.
It isn’t just the historic liturgies of the Church that mold people but also our daily routines and the societal rituals and the general context of our lives that mold us, too. The liturgies employed (in churches that use them deliberately, anyway) were born hundreds of years ago, if not in some cases more than a thousand years ago, and life was much, much different.
In the past, the liturgy was entrusted as the primary tool for transmitting the Christian faith. In many places, it still is, at least insofar as the raw truth is that the most interaction that most Christians have with their Christianity is the one hour on Sunday where they sit, stand, sit, sit, stand, sit, (maybe kneel), depart. If the liturgy succeeded in the past it was certainly in large part because there was very little competition as far as world views go and the people, being generally illiterate, relied on the bodily movement through the Divine Drama in order to understand it.
Today, however, there are world views created every two seconds and with the high literacy rate it is easy to learn about them. In other words, the context today in which the historic liturgies are expressed is utterly different. It is easy to ‘mold’ someone when you are the only one at work on them. It’s a different thing entirely when the minute you’re done twenty others set to work on them. The next day hundreds of hands have been laid on them.
We must ask ourselves: “So exactly what kind of Christian is the way we do ‘church’ generally producing?”
I say ‘generally’ of course, because there remain positive examples here and there.
If anecdotes weren’t enough, the deluge of statistics from groups like Barna make it clear that our current strategies are fueling apathetic, wishy-washy, woefully uneducated, and hopelessly nominal Christians. By the bushel. By the truckload.
Now, most informed Christians understand that the statistics do not bode well. Certainly those who understand and appreciate the historic liturgies understand this. Yet I do not think it has occurred to anyone yet that the fundamental problem is how we do ‘church.’ We are running people through a process which, on account of the law of human nature already discussed, inexorably produces (generally) people of a certain sort.
And statistics tell us what that sort is and we know that’s not the sort we wanted.
Something to think about. And before you Emergent or similar minded folk begin to snicker let me just say that the bush I’m beating around is still you barking up the wrong tree.