A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench

Friday, July 19, 2013

Liturgy and the Postmodern Soul

 Acknowledgement: I have wanted to write a post about liturgy for a while now, but a conversation with my friends Kate and Johnny is what helped me clarify what I wanted to say.

I have always found it surprising, if not strange, that so many of my generation are finding their spiritual home in the liturgical tradition.  Postmoderns revel in story and uncertainty.  Our parents and grandparents think us “wish-washy” when it comes to ethical standards and doctrinal creeds.  And yet, many of us find ourselves drawn to the historical church, to the traditional creeds, the candles, the prayers.  What is it about liturgy that captivates the postmodern soul? 

While I cannot speak for an entire generation, much less a philosophical epoch, my own experience seems to resonate with many others.

I. Liturgy provides in anchor in the storm of epistemic uncertainty

While many young Christians who take their faith seriously have rejected the ethical and metaphysical relativism of the postmodern worldview (if such a thing exists), we have accepted a fairly strong dose of postmodern epistemology.  We may believe there are such things as Truth and Right and Good, but we are not as confident as our grandparents about our ability to discover them.  We are acutely aware of how limited we are by perspective, and of how many other sincere Christians disagree with us.  At times this results in deep struggles of doubt and uncertainty.  Even when we believe things, we say that penal-substitution may be part of what is going in in the atonement; that amillennialism makes sense of some of the biblical data; that we believe that the woman can be priests.  After all, even if we do know them, we doubt that we can know that we know them. 
Personally, I think such epistemic modesty is one of the crowning achievements of postmodernism.  It is probably a proper response to the epistemic hubris of the modern era.  But it leaves those of us who embrace it with a significant feeling of insecurity.  While we may believe something today, we don’t live with the certainty that we will believe the same thing tomorrow, because we might be wrong.  And someone might show us why we are wrong.  Or we might come to know something that causes us to doubt what we believed yesterday. 
            In such a stormy sea of epistemic insecurity, the great creeds of the faith, the prayers, the symbols--they all give us something to hold on to, something that has been tested by time, something that is non-negotiable.

            We believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty.

in our darkest hours

            We believe in the forgiveness of sins…

when we haven’t a clue which theory of the atonement is correct. 
And when our eschatology is in shambles, we hope in…

            …the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

We stand with the Church through the ages affirming these truths.   We may struggle with them, at times even doubt them, but we will not give them up without a fight.

II. Liturgy gives us words, when our story leaves us speechless.

Postmoderns long to have their stories heard.  We need someone, something, to give us a voice, especially when our stories become too heavy for us to bear and when our faith is too weak to manifest itself in a spoken word.  The historical prayers, ceremonies and symbols of the church give us those words when we cannot find our own.  This became vividly clear to me during two experiences.

When I was living over seas, I started taking a seemingly innocuous drug for indigestion…that ended up causing severe anxiety, panic, and near psychosis.  Every waking moment for over a month was filled with inexplicable and debilitating terror.  I spent my days controlling the overwhelming urge to run away from I-knew-not-what, screaming in horror.  Any object of thought became an object of fear. This including God (though, thankfully, not my husband).  I could not find the words to pray.  I didn’t even know if I wanted to.  But somehow I found myself repeating pieces of liturgy that I remembered from my Anglican church back home.  I wasn’t sure if I believed them (there wasn’t much room in my terrified thoughts for notions like belief).  But I had enough of my sanity left to hold on to them.

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
 you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
 and you have fed us with spiritual food 
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood...

It didn’t really matter that I had not actually taken communion.  Just maybe I was a living member of his Son even though I couldn't believe that I was.  The church gave me words with which to worship when I had none of my own.

The second time was when my friend passed away last month.  The sorrow, the pain, the regret, the anger all silenced me.  My heart was broken for my friend's wife, also a dear friend. I mourned all the dreams he never fulfilled—all of the profound insights he would never share with the world.  And I didn’t know how to pray.  But at his funeral the liturgical order of service gave expression to all of my fear, sorrow, and longing.  It gave expression to the deep darkness as well as the rays of hope.  It gave all of us words when we had none of our own.

There are a dozen other reasons why I love liturgy.  It is beautiful, and poetic and sacramental.  It is profound and rich.  It is familiar, like the old blanket you wrap around your shoulders during a storm.  It reminds us that we are indeed part of the great communion of saints.  These are all reasons why this postmodern soul so finds its home in the liturgical tradition.