Much of the exasperation with what people term “organized religion” comes from the fact that the Christian church has often given so much weight to doctrinal accuracy that the life-giving potential of worship, and faith itself, gets lost in the shuffle, made all but inaccessible to the skeptical multitudes. The poet Jonathan Holden epitomized a common attitude when he stated in The American Poetry Review that because “religious doctrine delivers us an already discovered, accepted, codified system of values–official truth,” a truth he defines as “static,” it can never attain the authenticity of a well-made work of art.–Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
I for one am grateful to profit from the great work of the saints, theologians and philosophers who have gone before me and have done so much to clarify the teachings of the Church. But I see Holden’s point here.
There is a danger to inheriting an accepted, codified system of values. We Catholics can lose our hunger for the dynamism of faith, a dynamism that is fueled by challenges, doubts and arguments. It is a gift to have to hand well-thought-out stances from the Catechism and Canon Law, but how do I know if I understand them properly? How can I be sure that I am applying them in the correct contexts?
An example I like to use is the “universal call to holiness.” This is a good, solid teaching rooted in the one baptism that all Christians share. It became obscured with the rise of a type of clericalism in the Middle Ages, along with the rise of the religious orders. Before the Second Vatican Council, it could appear that the Church had two levels of holiness, the religious and ordained ministries, and then the laity. The Council Fathers stated clearly that all members of the Church are called to holiness.
In my experience since the Council, this teaching is often misinterpreted, ironically enough, because of a lingering bias toward clericalism. “The priests had their turn to be holy [meaning occupying privileged places at the liturgy and elsewhere] and now it’s the laity’s turn.” What should have been a call to greater self-renunciation and prayer appeared paradoxically to call for greater assertiveness and personal privilege for persons who “felt called.” The universal call could even be used by religious as an excuse not to engage in holy practices, since these might reinforce the distinction between religious and laity and suggest that we still had a two-tiered structure of holiness.
What went wrong? The term and the teaching are correct, but the context in which the universal call is heard and interpreted causes a distortion. What is this context? We can describe it in many ways. Our cultural situation inclines us to atomistic individualism and its attendant focus on personal rights and equality, and our ecclesial situation, at least in the years immediately following the Council, inclined us to a “professional” understanding of the charisms, an understanding based in an overemphasis on the Church as the “Perfect Society,” and exemplified by the priest as certified dispenser of sacraments, reporting to the bishop as CEO of the diocese.
What is the correct context, then, and how do we find it, if we have to live in a culture that causes these distortions? The answer is found in the liturgy. Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. “That the law of praying established the law of believing.” Often this more exact phrase is rendered more simply, “Lex orandi lex credendi,” the law of prayer is the law of belief. In either case, we see that the “already discovered, accepted, codified system of values” should be in-formed by the practice of the liturgy, in which we conform ourselves to the high priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. This is what Kathleen Norris is after when she contrasts doctrinal accuracy with “the life-giving potential of worship.”
This also connects with what I was attempting to explain in yesterday’s post. Church teaching has not recognized same-sex marriage, and the weight of tradition is against such recognition. But how do we understand and live the truth of this teaching? As I wrote yesterday, I don’t really know, and I’m not sure that anyone is all that sure. We are in uncharted waters, and the biases of my own culture are against me [see: The first engagement with culture is at the level of thoughts]. I need a renewal of my mind and heart and I need the power of God to do this. So I must be content with my weakness.
The liturgy is the exercise of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. When we enter the liturgy, it is Christ Who is the main ‘agent’ (which is why so many discussions about ‘active participation’ are confused), and we are all participants in His action of praising the Father in the Spirit. We are caught up in a world being brought into being, a world in which the True Light enlightens our minds and hearts that we may discern what is God’s will and carry it out with courage. At the liturgy, it is alright to be weak, because there God is strong, and this becomes our default stance toward the world. Liturgy is also full of a lot of confounding rites, texts, vestments and stimuli at once disorienting and reorienting. In this space of conversion to a new orientation toward Christ in all things, we have the chance to reassess argument, to hear anew the Word instructing us. We also see and experience the persons to whom we must first submit our ideas for living a new life. The liturgy sets the bounds of the community of faith and gives us our first audience for a new understanding.
More to come.