The Liturgical Turn: Worshiping Among The Chaos

Earlier this week, David Gelernter posted a really good article over
Big Questions Online that caught my attention. It did so because I recently
had a conversation with a friend of mine, who works as an aerodynamicist for a
major NASCAR team, that centered on the relationship of entropy to
eschatology.  That is, if the world
is subject to disorder and decay (Romans 8:20, yes I understand that there is
much more to that verse) then what does that mean for the new creation? 

Anyway, Gelernter argues that “the rituals we perform teach [us] more than the Second
Law [of Thermodynamics]: they teach us to defy the Second Law.” It does this by
having a constant theme in the midst of a seemingly shapeless system.  That theme, in both Jewish and
Christian liturgies, is
separation.  He argues that separation defies nature
by defying death.  Which I take,
for him, is the great equilibrium toward which all chaos runs. 

a really good post, but I’d like to go further by saying that worship / liturgy
/ ritual is much more than simply drawing a defiant line in the sand.  In worship we participate in the
overcoming of chaos; the new creation in
the making. 


liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh argues that in worship we are regularly
brought to the “edge of chaos” resulting in “deep change” in the lives of the
participants.  These changes or
“adjustments” are sometimes obvious and sometimes imperceptible, but the fact
is that the worshiping community leaves differently than it was before.  Like the Spirit that brought form out
of chaos, through baptism brings new life out of chaos, the Spirit brings a new
creation through worship. 
This is
what happens when God “recreates the World not by making new things but by
making all things new.”
In fact this is the task of the Church and what happens ultimately in liturgy.           

Kavanagh goes on to suggest that before modernity, cities used to be
places of “transactions with ultimate reality.” They were places where ideas
were formed and arts were made. 
With the coming of secularization, the city became profaned and no
longer seen in reference to the world. 
The church, he suggests, offers a different view of humanity, the world,
and the city.  Kavanagh suggests
that the Church because of its liturgy is the “central workshop of the human
City, a City which under grace has already begun to mutate by fits and starts
into the City-of-God-in-the-making, the focal point of the world made new in
Christ Jesus.”
[2]  In other words, it is both the Church
and the world that have been redeemed by Christ.  The church’s task is that of the reconciliation, which God
did through Christ between Him and the created world. And
more so, to be the embodiment in the world of the world to come, of the
Kingdom, of the new and final age. What he calls the “church doing world” or
enacting a “normal” world as opposed the abnormality of a chaotic world. I would
argue that the normal world is not subject to chaos, (but I could be convinced

In Political Worship, Oxford
theologian, Bernd Wannenwetsch takes up this notion of the church offering a redeemed
world through its liturgy. He suggests that through the liturgy we see a
“double becoming of the world.”
The first is the negative becoming, distinguishing the world in a
post-lapsarian sense from a good creation, and recognizes itself as that which
does not worship God.
[4] The second, is
a positive becoming of the world, which follows from the first and has real
political significance.  Insofar as
worship shows the world its sinfulness, it “simultaneously makes it possible
for the world to find a different kind of self-understanding, a new identity.”
[5]  This new understanding is that the
world is bound to the church’s worship as that which produces it.  It causes the world to rightly order
itself in order to make space for the church to be the church.  Without doing so the world ceases to be
itself.  He notes that
this does not cause the world to become the church, but allows it to become
“the world which is no longer hostile to God and now reflects the Creator’s
original will.”

There are differences between Kavanagh and Wannenwetsch.  The former wants to say that the ‘world’
that is done
is the church’s worship,
whereas the latter wants to talk about the ontological world and its
reordering that “springs” from the worship. For my purposes, I think they both help
us see a fuller picture of what is going on when a (specifically Christian) community
worships. It witnesses and participates in the new creation which (among other
things) overcomes chaos with goodness and order. 

I suppose it could be argued that order and chaos don’t necessary
equal goodness and badness respectively. 
But in response to Gelernter, if chaos is defied in liturgy, why not go
further and show how it is overcome it? 
Perhaps it comes down to the difference between a Jewish and
Christian eschatology?

[1] Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, p. 50.

[2] Ibid., p. 42. 

[3] Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship: Ethics for Christians,
trans. Margret Kohl
(Oxford: Oxford
University Press: 2003), p. 247.

[4] Ibid., p. 248.

[5] Ibid., p. 249.

[6] Ibid.

  • geoffrey holsclaw

    very interesting post. I love it.
    maybe from chaos defied, we could think of liturgy as chaos deified.
    And that double becoming of the world is so important. It so often is lost is discussions for/against liturgical practices as central to the church.

  • Eric Speece

    Geoff, Thanks!
    I really like that. I think deified is the right concept here, especially in a sense of “reconciling all things”and having chaos taken up and transformed. Perhaps, ‘overcoming’ chaos is more along the same line as ‘defied’.
    On another note: I need to make one revision. As was pointed out to me this week, Kavanagh isn’t saying that worship ‘is’ the world, but that it is done ‘in’ or ‘through’ worship. For example social barriers are torn down (rich and poor eating together). Which then puts Kavanagh and Wannenwetsch more on same page then I originally thought.

  • Miroslav Miskovic

    Scientific-technological revolution and the historical consciousness.The way how the mankind developed through last 40 000 years,expressed in terms of semiotics.

  • Igor Miguel

    It’s from Brazil.
    We’ve discussed that issue a lot here. We should reply the post-modern worldview with an appropriate liturgy and not a neo-pentecostal a-liturgical way of life. I’ve loved your
    approach about liturgy as already-but-not-yet drama of recreation.
    May I translate that to Portuguese?
    Thanks a lot,
    Igor Miguel

  • Eric Speece

    I’m glad you like it. Absolutely. Feel free to use it in whatever way will be helpful.