Against the Liturgical Optimists

Within American Christianity, and especially within American evangelicalism, we have seen a rise of interest in liturgy. Taking a quick look at InterVarsity Press’s site, one finds recent titles such as The Liturgy of Creation, Liturgy of the Ordinary, and The Liturgy of Politics. At Conciliar Post, Wesley Walker has compiled a list of articles such as “#OccupyWallStreet: A Liturgy” and “The Quiet Liturgy of Fred Rogers.” These are just a few examples; the word ‘liturgy’ is everywhere, often in unexpected places.

One author who has focused greatly on liturgy is James K.A. Smith, a Reformed philosopher and theologian at Calvin University. Smith has published a series of books on ‘cultural liturgies’; in the first of these books, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith argues that human beings are best thought of as liturgical creatures whose desires and affections are shaped and formed by liturgical enactment. Smith sums up this view early on in the book:

Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall—the liturgies of mall and market—that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, page 25, emphasis added)

It could be said that American Christianity, and especially American evangelicalism, is taking a liturgical turn. Where the philosophers of the 20th century linguistic turn shifted focus from the world itself to how we represent the world with words, some theologians of the 21st century are shifting focus from rules, worldviews, and creeds (the cognitive, intellectual component of our faith) to the liturgies we act out and live in. For ease of reference, I’ll call the thinkers who have made the liturgical turn liturgical optimists. Roughly, liturgical optimists tend to view the world liturgically, and they believe that Christian liturgy has the ability to cure certain social ills. The problems of modern economics, or of politics, or of the busyness of the everyday, can be alleviated by refocusing on the power of the Christian liturgy and by reconceptualizing all of life as liturgical — or, at least, so say the liturgical optimists.

Those of us in the Anglican tradition, with our emphasis on common prayer and right liturgy, could be encouraged by this renewed emphasis on things liturgical — but, I believe, there are reasons we should be skeptical of the liturgical turn.

To the carpenter with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And to liturgical optimists, everything looks liturgical. A cynical reading of these books — primarily from evangelical publishers and authors — would say that American evangelicals recently have discovered liturgy, and now they want to use liturgy to frame their analyses of politics, of desire, and of everyday life. Paradoxically, this overestimates and underestimates the power of liturgy.

How does this overestimate the power of liturgy? The desire to broaden the concept of liturgy to include folding laundry, going to the movies, and taking long walks overestimates the ability of liturgy to shape our lives. Yes, in liturgical Christian circles we often say that the liturgy is powerful, and that liturgy is a form of catechesis. I believe this is true. But evangelicals looking for a way to form the conscience and instruct the congregation in right doctrine would do well to note the weaknesses of liturgical traditions. Lay Anglicans and Roman Catholics, especially in the United States, are not especially known for their knowledge of the Bible or their ability to speak in depth about matters of the faith; children raised in these traditions seem no more likely to remain faithful into adulthood. From this observation a simple point follows: one can attend a liturgical church from birth and still remain woefully ignorant about the Christian faith and unable to resist the temptations of the broader culture. Liturgy alone does produce the kinds of Christians we ought to aspire to be. (This point, sadly, was made in the pages of Christianity Today in 2014, but it appears to have been ignored.)

It is helpful to take a step back and consider a classical source: Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle mentions time and again the power of habit, and especially the importance of well-formed habits for the ethical life. The virtuous man may be able to provide a rationale for his actions, but he primarily acts out of habit — that is, virtue is something that we train ourselves to enact. But a student who is being raised virtuously will need to do more than simply repeat the actions of the man who is already virtuous; he needs to be guided, instructed, and corrected as he grows. Repetition alone does not lead to good habits. Only under the careful instructor of an expert can he really expect to flourish.

Following Aristotle, a core thesis of the liturgical optimists is that habit formation is important. We can agree with Smith that what we do shapes our desires — we may even agree with his slogan that we are what we love. But the liturgical optimists then go on to speak as if liturgy just is the more general practice of forming habits through repetition. This is a mistake. Liturgy is more than repetitive action — it is a special, particular kind of repetitive action, and like all repetitive action it needs to be complemented with guidance, instruction, and correction.

When we have made clear the Aristotelian assumption behind the liturgical optimists’ writings, their points about what I’ll now call non-liturgical actions (such as political engagement, going to the mall, or eating ice cream every Sunday night) make more sense. All actions contribute to our formation of habits. On this we can agree with the liturgical optimists. But we need not conceive of the non-liturgical as liturgical simply because non-liturgical actions contribute to habit formation. The formation of habits is a feature of action generally, not liturgical action in particular.

We have briefly covered how the liturgical optimists overestimate the power of liturgy; they also underestimate its power. The power of the liturgy lies not in its ability to shape our habits, but in the way that the liturgy allows us to directly experience and worship God. By widening the meaning of ‘liturgy’, we make this less clear; we forget the true purpose and power of liturgical worship.

There are many good actions which are not liturgical. We should be clear that by classifying some action as non-liturgical we in no way relegate it to some lower class of goods. Loving one’s neighbor is commanded of all Christians; in fact, this command is second only to the command to love God. And yet, loving one’s neighbor is not a liturgical action. So there are many goods in the Christian life, some liturgical and some non-liturgical. We do not denigrate the non-liturgical by categorizing it as such.

We do, however, lose sight of the true power of the liturgy. Most often when we speak of the liturgy, we mean the ceremonies surrounding the Eucharist. In the Anglican tradition, we have always confessed that in the Eucharist we encounter Jesus Christ directly — the Articles of Religion, for example, say that ‘the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ,’ and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer speaks of eating the ‘flesh of [the] dear Jesus Christ.’ In this sacrament we are fed directly by God; the Lord’s Supper is a place where the believer meets the fullness of Christ. The liturgy is the ancient Christian tradition of congregating, praying, worshipping, and feasting — because of this radical togetherness with God, it represents an action completely unlike the non-liturgical. In our other rites, and especially in our baptismal rite, we also see this: the actions we take are intended to place us in proper orientation to God.

By sharply distinguishing between the liturgical and the non-liturgical, we are able to speak more clearly about the role of the liturgy in the Christian life. And we can see that while liturgy is formative, it is not uniquely formative — our other practices will also form our habits and, thus, our desires. The liturgy instead offers a reorientation of our lives — placing us in the proper orientation to God, not the world — but we will not succeed in maintaining this orientation without other Christian practices.

We need not look far for these other practices. Christian history is full of saints, and we have many examples of the proper Christian life. We have Jesus Christ, our ultimate exemplar. We have St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism. We have Julian of Norwich, anchoress, mystic, and true lover of God. We have Martin Thornton, the great pastoral theologian of 20th century Anglicanism. All of these people have something to teach us about a foundational concept in the Christian life: asceticism.

Ascetic is a word we often associate with monastic or hermetic life — we imagine the Desert Fathers and Mothers in isolation, living with little, contemplating God, or we recall stories of the earliest Franciscans spurning material possessions and begging for food. These Christians clearly were ascetics, and perhaps they represent asceticism in its purest form. But we should not conflate asceticism with monasticism or hermeticism. If we do so, we ignore the fact that all Christians are called to asceticism; we all must practice self-denial as we seek to follow Jesus Christ.

The liturgical optimists — those interested in understanding liturgy expansively and formatively– have, I believe, lost sight of this crucial concept of asceticism. This is a shame, for a few reasons.

First, by practicing a life of asceticism, we better appreciate the gifts of the liturgy. Through fasting, we come to better appreciate the feast, and by fasting before communion we let our first meal of the day be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Our calendar of feasts only makes sense with its corresponding calendar of fasts and seasons of abstinence. Advent enriches the meaning of Christmas; Lent enriches the meaning of Easter. If our goal is to better understand, live out, and experience the liturgy, then we must be ascetics.

Second, asceticism is as formative as liturgy, and perhaps even more so. Smith is concerned with the ‘liturgy of mall and market’ — but the solution to this problem is not an expansion of alternative liturgies (perhaps the ‘liturgy of home and hearth’), but rather an intentional rejection of the mall and market as a part of the ascetic life. By denying ourselves the instant gratification offered by the mall and market, we form our habits and form ourselves; to use more of Smith’s parlance, we change what we love, and thus we change who we are. The liturgy of the home-cooked meal is not the alternative to the liturgy of McDonald’s; the willful, intentional choice of having less, eating less, and ultimately striving to desire less is.

Third, asceticism lends itself to a broad definition. That is, when we want to talk about formative practices in the Christian life, most — though not quite all — fall under the heading of asceticism. Julian of Norwich’s self-isolation is an act of asceticism, and St Benedict’s Rule is an ascetic one. Martin Thornton argues in English Spirituality that the Daily Office, by making available a monastic practice to the laity, encourages an ascetic life in all Anglicans. Private recitation of the Office, especially when contrasted with watching television or browsing the internet, can be an ascetic act. So can fasting for a period, abstaining from certain food and drink, giving to the poor, committing acts of mercy, and choosing to sit in silence. Asceticism is the readily available broad category for acts of self-denial and formative practices.

Thus, we have no need to reinterpret liturgy broadly as the liturgical optimists do. We do not need to classify all that is formative of our desires and habits as liturgical. We can retain an appreciation for liturgy as the liturgy, and we can draw upon the riches of the Christian tradition for guidance in our ascetic life. There is no single solution to the problem of living as Christians in the contemporary age — but the Church has never offered a single solution to any problem. Throughout history, the Church’s solution to all manner of problems has been to offer a completely different way of life. The liturgy, properly understood, grounds and centers this way of life; asceticism preserves it.

Jared Henderson, PhD

Jared Henderson is a writer based in Austin, TX. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut.

'Against the Liturgical Optimists' have 3 comments

  1. October 9, 2020 @ 11:45 am Ben Jefferies

    Amen, Amen, Amen and Amen!
    I have been waiting for this essay in an Anglican circle ever since I read You Are What You Love. Thank you, Dr. Henderson!
    It is so tiring to hear all the over-sell of the liturgical optimists (who are always converts to the liturgical tradition, taking for granted their earlier formation in the Bible)
    Doubtless you have read David Fagerberg? As well as echoing the necessity of asceticism for formation, he also is *brilliant* at explaining how ascetisicm “unlocks” the formative-powers of liturgy, thus synthesizing the twin pillars of this essay very pleasingly.


    • October 9, 2020 @ 1:25 pm Jared Henderson

      Fr Jeffries,

      Thank you! I haven’t read Fagerberg, actually, but he’ll be going on my list immediately. I also think much more could be said about Martin Thornton’s focus on asceticism and the three-fold rule in Anglican spirituality.


      • October 10, 2020 @ 8:18 pm Jonathan Kanary

        I want to second Fr. Ben\’s recommendation of Fagerberg. \”On Liturgical Asceticism\” is one of the best books I read last year, and ties in very strongly with the last part of the article.


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