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The Politics Of Liturgy

Noah Millman has an interesting meditation on the connection, or lack thereof, between liturgical form and theological/moral content within American Judaism. Excerpts: As I observe the Jewish world from my admittedly limited vantage point, the trend, pretty much across the spectrum, is in a broadly conservative direction liturgically speaking. Orthodox congregations, of course, never abandoned […]

Noah Millman has an interesting meditation on the connection, or lack thereof, between liturgical form and theological/moral content within American Judaism. Excerpts:

As I observe the Jewish world from my admittedly limited vantage point, the trend, pretty much across the spectrum, is in a broadly conservative direction liturgically speaking. Orthodox congregations, of course, never abandoned the traditional liturgy, but the generational trend has been towards greater stringency in observance of the particulars, and, more recently, towards the revival of the peculiar traditions of Sephardic and Mizrahi practice (which, a generation or two ago, had been somewhat suppressed under pressure from the Ashkenazi majority, at least in Israel). But for a generation now Reform Judaism has also been moving in a traditional direction – bringing back Hebrew, for example, and emphasizing the traditional forms and order of prayers. Their approach to tradition is far freer than in the more traditional streams of Judaism – they view tradition as a resource to be used rather than a constraining form – but within the context of that freer approach, the trend is to use more, rediscover more, learn more. The situation is more complicated in Conservative Judaism, where a generation that was very close to modern Orthodoxy and a high level of implicit knowledge is passing away. But the young Conservative Jews I know are more interested in – and knowledgable about – the liturgy than the prior generation, and the trend I see anecdotally is toward greater congregational participation.

And yet, that liturgical conservatism that I perceive within the liberal Jewish movements doesn’t portend a political or social conservatism at all.

One of my closest friends from high school was raised a Reform Jew, but discovered modern Orthodoxy (Jewish, that is) in college, and became quite observant. He is also devoutly liberal in his politics. Among Christians, some of the most liturgically conservative churches are also some of the most liberal, in terms of their cultural politics, at least — and, conversely, the most culturally conservative churches tend to be those that are liturgical kitchen-sinks, or even anti-liturgical (I’m thinking of Pentecostal and Evangelical megachurches).  Orthodox Christians take a very high view of the liturgy, but this says nothing much about the politics of an individual Orthodox Christian.

In fact, Latin Mass Catholics, archconservatives who prize the pre-Vatican II liturgy, are probably outliers here. They are the ones who make us think that liturgical conservatism goes along with moral and cultural conservatism, but it’s just not true. It seems like it ought to be true, but somehow, it isn’t. In my experience, high-church Episcopalians tend to be quite liberal, but hold on to the more conservative liturgical practices because of their aesthetic beauty. When I lived in DC years ago, the most gay-friendly, liberal Episcopal parish was also the one known for having the most elaborate liturgies. Which makes its own kind of sense, if you think about it.

Still, it makes intuitive sense that people who felt strongly about maintaining the liturgy unchanged, or at least little-changed, would be people who had a strong sense of holding on to the fullest version of the religion, despite changing times. It’s just not so, though. Noah gets to the reason why when he says that Reform Jews see tradition as a resource to be used, not as a constraining form. That attitude makes all the difference. It’s post-modern, in the sense that it sees tradition not as something to be constrained and shaped by (pre-modern) or to be overcome (modern), but as something from which one can pick and choose, according to the felt needs of the individual or community. Here’s more from Noah:

Attachment and engagement with the tradition requires you to care about the traditional forms, words, music, etc. To properly debate whether to bring this back or change that, you have to know what “this” or “that” are, what they signified then, and what they might mean now. But that attachment and engagement doesn’t necessarily mean – shouldn’t necessarily mean – an uncreative fealty to the received way of doing things. It means caring enough about that inheritance to want to pass it on in better shape than you received it.

I think I understand this, but the nub of this question is what “uncreative fealty to the received way of doing things” means. Noah is right to say later in his post that for a tradition to live, it has to be engaged subjectively, both by individuals and the community. Otherwise it becomes rote formalism at best, and at worst, a whitewashed sepulchre, the beautiful shell encasing a dead faith. I think of Jaroslav Pelikan’s wise observation: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

On the other hand, everything depends on the disposition of the individual and the community towards the liturgy and, more broadly, the entire tradition (I mean, theologically and morally, as well as aesthetically). A liturgical tradition that we feel free to pick and choose from is an unstable one, because its content and its expression can change according to the felt needs of a community, or a generation. A couple of Sundays ago, I went back to the Methodist church in which I grew up to be present when my niece was confirmed. Liturgically, the service was very different from the service with which I grew up. I don’t know when the change took place, but it’s not the same thing now. Whether that’s better or worse is not for me to say; I’m not part of that congregation or tradition any longer. But it was striking to me how very different it was. If it can change that much in 30 years, what will it look like 30 years from now? Radically changing the liturgy, it seems to me, gives implicit permission for all kinds of experimentation with the tradition. Even incorporating more conservative forms into communal prayer is, in its way, an expression of liberalism, in that it demonstrates that the liturgy signifies nothing more than an expression of the congregation, as distinct from existing primarily to instruct and to bind the congregation.

I suppose I would feel more comfortable with liturgical liberty, however personally averse to it, if our culture were more stable. Mucking around with the liturgy in our time and place seems to me like trying to renovate one’s house in the middle of a hurricane. Still, I can’t help but be pleased that older liturgical forms and practices are being revived here and there; perhaps through them, people will want to learn more, and go deeper. And I have to recognize too that my decision to embrace fully the Orthodox Christian tradition, liturgical and otherwise, is very much a postmodern act. But for those of us born into the shipwreck of modernity, what else is there?

My orientation toward the liturgy is that the Orthodox liturgy has survived largely (but not wholly) unchanged across many cultures and many eras. It has something important to teach me, and I need to conform my own understanding and conduct to the truths it contains. True, the liturgy (or liturgies) of the Christian East were not handed down from heaven in their current form, but before we change anything, we had better deliberate on it long and deep, and in community. In this time and place, with everything in so much flux, it is critically important not to change a single thing about the liturgy. It is, in part, a roadmap to Truth, given to us across time by our ancestors, and if you were lost in a strange wood, you would change the map at your peril.

When Noah says that a living tradition requires “passionate engagement,” he’s absolutely right. But the attitude we bring to that engagement makes all the difference. My own attitude is that if I don’t understand something about the tradition (liturgical or otherwise), then the fault is mine, and requires me to pray more, study more, contemplate more, until I understand why it is that this prayer, this hymn, this moral teaching, etc., was given to us, and has survived so long. The idea that I, or my community, might change it, is foreign. Change ourselves, not the liturgy, is my conviction. Maybe this is the difference between a conservative and a traditionalist.

(Would love to know what Orthodox Daniel Larison thinks about all this, and Anglican Alan Jacobs too, and for that matter, traditionalist Catholic Michael Brendan Dougherty.)



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