Book Symposium: Futurity in Phenomenology – “Liturgy as Living the Promise,” DeRoo Responds to Gschwandtner

In the post below, Neal DeRoo responds to the Christina Gschwandtner’s profound reflection on his book Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida. Her post offered some very substantial thoughts on the connections between Neal’s work and the church community by focusing specifically on the topic of liturgy. Neal’s response is equally excellent. Jump into the comments below to interact with Neal.


Liturgy as Living the Promise:  A Response to Gschwandtner

Crina Gschwandtner’s response to Futurity in Phenomenology is very exciting to me. It takes what is admittedly a very academic, methodological, and challenging text, and opens it onto very concrete practices. With her discussion of liturgy, Gschwandtner has not only helped me see an obvious theological application of the phenomenological exploration of futurity and the promise, but has also helped me clarify some of my own questions/concerns with some recent discussions in philosophy of religion. In that regard, I found her response compelling, enlightening, and challenging.

First, I find the parallel that Gschwandtner draws between phenomenological futurity and religious liturgy compelling. It is so compelling, in fact, that I wonder why I didn’t think of it earlier. There is a clear connection between the liturgy’s ritual (re-)enacting of the complex dynamic between remembrance (“do this in remembrance of me”) and anticipation (“proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”) that constitutes the very heart of Christian worship, and the dynamic of the promise sketched out in Futurity in Phenomenology, and I thank Gschwandtner for bringing this connection to the forefront.

I am especially grateful, though, for her work in pushing this liturgical parallel beyond the Eucharist, first to other “Christian” actions (baptism, repentance), and then beyond that to the “self-understanding of communities and institutions.” As a Protestant—and a Calvinist one, at that—my own understanding of the liturgical work of the church is grossly underdeveloped. Liturgy was just not a word I was familiar with in the church I grew up in, and I admit that I had some of the stereotypical assumptions about liturgy that Protestants often have: empty ritual, artistic embellishments, superstitious nonsense grounded in history and tradition rather than in the gospel truth of Christ found in the Bible. I have come a long way in the last few years in my appreciation of liturgy and its positive, formative role in the church, but I still did not know that the word ‘liturgy’ grows out of a word that “originally designated public service performed on behalf of society,” and which was only later appropriated to designate “the ‘work of the people’ gathered around the promise of the Eucharist.” This etymology recovers a sense of liturgy, not as mere God-directed action, but as actions directed toward God through service in and to the world. The point of liturgy, therefore, is not to get us in ‘the right mood’ to encounter God, but to “shape me as a certain kind of self” and to “provide a vision for how I am to act in the world.”

While such statements might be laughably obvious to those of Catholic or Orthodox backgrounds (such as Gschwandtner’s), for Calvinists like me, they were quite a revelation. James K.A. Smith hastened this revelation revolution among a certain type of Protestants with his Cultural Liturgies series[1], which sought to re-emphasize the formative role of liturgy, and so restore the importance of liturgy for Christian worship and church practice. But I was always bothered by the fact that this recovered appreciation for liturgy seemed to be restricted primarily (only?) to practices that occur in church worship settings. Gschwandtner has given me the words to articulate this concern, and for that I am very grateful. For if liturgies are deeply formative of the self and of the communities of which the self is a part, then to restrict Christian liturgy merely to the practices contained in church worship—orders of service, communal prayers, preaching the lectionary, etc.—is to create an unbalanced situation: the cumulative effect of numerous hours of cultural engagement (everything from using cell phones to watching commercials) was somehow, I thought, to be countered by the one or two hours in church on Sunday.

My problem was not just that a few hours a week didn’t seem enough time to counteract the pernicious effects of a week of cultural (de-)formation; after all, given that God is uniquely present in the work of the Church, God shouldn’t need as much time to be effective as do the formative practices on display elsewhere. Rather, my problem was that it did not seem a sufficient understanding of the Church to think that its formative practice was restricted to those hours on Sunday. Indeed, it seems an insufficient account of ‘worship’ to think it’s only what we do in that communal time on Sundays. While I don’t want to downplay the central significance of that time (something Smith highlights admirably, I think), I don’t want us to be so focused on the central significance of that time that we neglect to pay any attention to the significance of the rest of our time here. If we can only worship at church, then most of our lives cannot be “spiritual acts of worship” (compare Romans 12:1). I want—and I think the gospel demands—a more holistic account of worship, and so a more holistic account of liturgy.

Gschwandtner’s brief exploration of liturgy—and her comparison between it and the phenomenological account of the promise—provides the beginning of such an holistic account. Beginning with Lacoste’s description of “our liminal exposure before the absolute,” Gschwandtner carefully traces out the relation between the eschatological vision of Christianity and the everyday practices of Christians. One can say that “liturgy ‘opens the kingdom’ and allows us to enter within it and make its promise present in our lives,” and that it therefore “provides a vision for how I am to act in the world” and still think of ‘liturgy’ only as what we do in church. In such a vision, liturgy becomes a way for us to be reminded (mentally) of our task, and/or to have our (spiritual) batteries recharged in a way that then orients us differently in the world. But if “liturgy is ‘doing the world as it was supposed to be done’ … in light of the anticipation of the eschatological promise,” as Gschwandtner describes it, and if anticipation is constitutive of every act of humans as constituting subjects (as described in chapter three of Futurity in Phenomenology), then this seems to imply that every constitutive act of the human—every way a person makes sense of the world—is a chance to ‘do the world as it was supposed to be done,’ and so is a liturgical situation, a situation where divinity, humanity, activity and passivity come uniquely together in complex ways. In this case, every act a person performs is an act of worship. This is not to denigrate the importance of what we do in church on Sunday, but is to lift up the value of everyday human practice, and enlarge the scope of what we mean by (the) ‘church.’

The promise of the Gospel, then, is not merely for part of our lives, nor is it merely given in one part of our lives to be ‘applied’ elsewhere. Rather, the promise of the Gospel is to be enacted, incarnated, in every part, every sphere, of human life. As such, we cannot confine the Christian tradition to the traditions of the church—or, if you prefer, we cannot confine the traditions of the Church to the tradition of religiously qualified institutions. To put it more bluntly, in addition to cultivating the traditions of the Christian church, we also need to cultivate traditions of Christian art, Christian business, Christian farming, Christian carpentry, and so on. All of these are, or ought to be, places of communal Christian worship, where God’s people come together in service dedicated to our Lord. Of course, worship will be different in each of these places—but all are places of worship, regardless. And we might even want to go so far as to say: if we cannot imagine a Christian community that did not have a Christian church that figured importantly in its communal life, then perhaps we should also not think of a Christian community that does not have Christian art, Christian business, Christian farming, and so on as important elements of its communal life. To counter-act the various secular liturgies we encounter, we must arm ourselves, not only with more thoughtfully constructed ‘church’ liturgies, but also with more thoughtfully constructed other liturgies as well, if the Church is to be more than just a church.

The play of activity and passivity at work in liturgy (which Gschwandtner highlights) is therefore at work in all human activity—perhaps because God is at work, in and through humans, in human activity. Perhaps the way to recover a broader understanding of liturgy is by recovering the sense of divine activity (and human passivity) at work in human activity. This is not to say that God is only human activity, or that God is totally captured in and by human activity; rather, it is to acknowledge the liturgical function of human living, that is, “the ‘work of the people’ gathered around” the creative, creational, promises of God. The eschatological promise inherent to the Eucharist is best understood in this broader context of liturgical, promissory life.

 [1] See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).


Neal DeRoo :
  • James K.A. Smith

    All very interesting. Just one minor quibble: what you describe as “my” view in the Cultural Liturgies project appears to be a bit of a straw man, for at least two reasons:

    (1) I already note that this is not just a “quantification” (i.e., time problem) in DTK. To treat it as such would actually be to “naturalize” Christian liturgy, which I fear you do here by thinking that expanding the range of practices that “count” will then be able to “counter” the amount of time spent in others. It seems to me that your account of liturgical practices unwittingly turns them into just those sorts of bottom-up human efforts that Protestantism has classically criticized. (I’ve addressed these themes explicitly here: .)

    (2) I also explicitly discuss “practices beyond Sunday” in volume 1, so I don’t “restrict” them as you seem to suggest. However, I do argue that those other practices are centered in the specifically sacramental worship of the congregation gathered around Word & Table. I suspect it is actually this sacramental commitment from which you demur–which just means, of course, that you are a good “Protestant” of a sort. I don’t expect we could settle the sacramentality question philosophically.

    Enjoying this series.

    • Neal DeRoo

      Hi Jamie,
      Thanks for your comments. I did not mean to suggest that you thought it was just a quantification problem–I was critiquing myself there, and how I was trying to make sense of it, and not your presentation of it. So, it was indeed a straw man–I was merely thanking Crina for helping me get a way of understanding how to get past what I knew was not the view you were espousing, but which I couldn’t help but hearing.
      And I freely admit that, coming from the background I do, I struggle immensely with keeping the full complexity of the interplay between divinity, humanity, activity and passivity in play when I think of liturgical action (the Creator-creature distinction was so pounded in to my head that I find it hard to think of the possibility of divine action and human passivity in human actions, for example). I guess what I’m looking for (and which I found Crina’s response to be helpful in thinking through) is a way of tracing out the connection from sacramental worship to every day life, so that we can avoid precisely the equation of human activity with (solely) human efforts that you suggest in point 1 above. Just because it is humans that distribute the elements, we do not assume that the Eucharist is somehow a human endeavor, a step on the process of ‘works righteousness’ meant to help humanity work its way to salvation (“if I just take the Eucharist every time, I know I’ll have earned my salvation”–a common Protestant dismissal of Catholicism, as you well know). Similarly, can we not discover a sacramental character to other ‘human’ actions? Can the Spirit not work through human hearts, and be expressed in human efforts in other fields as well, thereby making them other than ‘merely human’ efforts? So, I don’t want to disagree with your sacramental commitment (nor even its rooting in the activities of the church proper, which I think you are entirely correct about); quite the opposite–I’m wondering whether we can’t expand it. Why restrict divine activity only to institutions of the church? Can that sacramental activity not flow, through the bread and wine, into the heart of congregants, and then through their actions as well? Can God only work sacramentally through church office-bearers, and not through others?
      Forgive my ignorance of sacramentality, if these are foolish questions.

  • Jesse Pals

    A very interesting post indeed. I appreciate the general responsiveness of this post,
    particularly in how it articulates human flourishing amidst “our liminal
    exposure before the absolute” in worship(ing)(ful) freedom.

    “Perhaps the way to recover a broader understanding of liturgy is by
    recovering the sense of divine activity (and human passivity) at work in human
    activity.” This is a curious proposition and one that I am surely in favor of.

    Yet, I am left wondering what theory of culture undergirds some of Neal DeRoo’s
    presuppositions about the expanse of Christian worship? And also what kind of
    ontological considerations, if any, enable DeRoo to encourage the proliferation
    of liturgy in the ‘work of the people’?

    DeRoo seems to implicitly trace dichotomous spheres of cultural activity when expanding
    sacramental activity from the Church sui iuris to the secular sphere. For instance, DeRoo uses the subject “Christian” and “human” almost interchangeably in paragraphs 6-8 without significant variance in predicate. DeRoo states “To put it more bluntly, in addition to cultivating the traditions of the Christian church, we also need to cultivate traditions of Christian art, Christian business, Christian farming, Christian carpentry, and so on”. In the following paragraph “human activity” and “human living” are expressed in similar fashion.

    My concern is that without a realist ontology and a deep notion of
    sacramentality that imbues humanness with participation in the divine, liturgy,
    as encouraged here, can only amount to a superfluous distinction within a
    Christian cultural group. This may just as well result from differing
    philosophical commitments about sacramentality that Smith refers in his
    comments, however the lack of sacramental ontology here fails to provide a
    thick and rich description of “divine activity … at work in human activity”
    and instead resembles the agency of the Christian to exercise spiritual functions
    for the edification of others in communal life. Consequently, “traditions of Christian art, Christian business, Christian farming, Christian carpentry,” etc. become spheres not of substantive worship but rather of Christian insularity.

    • Neal DeRoo

      Thank you for your comments. As someone who grew up in an enclave of post-WWII-Dutch-emigrants, I share your concern about Christian insularity. In fact, it is precisely one of the things I’m hoping to avoid by the appeal to the liturgical nature of the activities mentioned. That is, I’m hoping to shift our understanding of ‘Christian’ activities away from “things done by people who put the word Christian in the name of their institution” and away from “things done as a result of certain theological presuppositions rationally applied to a particular field of endeavor,” and toward something like “things done in worship of God rather than in worship of something else.” In this regard, I would say my philosophy of culture is very similar to James K.A. Smith’s: cultural activities are liturgical, insofar as they reveal what is in my heart (or ‘gut’, if you prefer that translation of kardia). Christian cultural activities, therefore, are ones that express that God is in my heart/gut.
      As for ontological considerations, my viewpoint draws heavily from the Kuyperian tradition of Calvinism, which places a great deal of emphasis on the divine work of creation, still today. Ultimately, I think humanity is made to express the spirit that flows through its heart, a spirit it picks up from the creation it is always related with (and most notably from other humans and their cultural interactions). Ideally, this spirit would be God’s Spirit–but, post-Fall, that Spirit is mixed up with a variety of other cultural spirits that go for our hearts (I’m drawing here on the work of Herman Dooyeweerd, especially–but also the phenomenological notion of the lifeworld and various related ideas). “Christian” art (for example), would, then, be art that is done in worship of God, because it is art that expresses God’s Spirit at work in the heart of the creator(s) of that artwork.
      So, to get back to your main question, I’m hoping that recovering a richer, more creational account of the work of the Holy Spirit can help us make sense of a liturgical function to human living in general (which is NOT, let me repeat, to downplay the significance of church liturgies or their central role in the life of God’s people). I fear that, without that, we end up reifying some kind of inherent dualism that ultimately makes some parts of our lives less ‘spiritual’ than others, which is to say, ends up making God more or less irrelevant to some parts of our lives. This is the ultimate bogeyman I’m trying to avoid–but I don’t want to slide into the Christian insularity you mention, either.
      I’m curious whether you think the philosophical presuppositions I outline here seem to you a good avenue to avoid the outcome of insularity, or whether you (still) think I’ll end up running into that problem.

      • Jesse Pals

        Hi Neal,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate hearing about your background, it sounds similar to mine. I’m also a son of Dutch immigrants and a member of the CRC. It sounds like we both want to avoid use of the ‘Christian’ adjectival phrase to describe cultural activities, if only because it hints of such insularity. But understanding now a little more of where you are coming from has helped me appreciate your post anew.

        Perhaps, my concerns have more to do with the language in which these cultural activities are discussed. I feel that if we conceptualize “the dynamic of the promise”, as you refer to in your original post, in terms of Christian descriptors we say nothing of the ‘creational account of the work of the Holy Spirit’, that, I might add, does not go forth from our churches into the world and reclaim art, farming, business etc. Rather, these activities – human activities – are already infused and even cohered by divine activity. I really appreciate how you end your post with this thought. In fact, a similar line of thinking has catalyzed
        some new directions of theological inquiry and research for me.

        Accordingly, I would say to your query about your own philosophical presuppositions and the potential for resulting insularity, that you and I should avoid any danger of insularity, in theory and praxis, if our language reflects and moreover, emphasizes this divine activity at work in human activity. Does our expression of this phenomenon need to be changed in order to describe this more accurately?

        I propose we, as the Church, practice our varied and assuredly sacramental cultural activities with confidence in the creational sustaining of the Holy Spirit but I wonder if this cannot also opportune a substantive divestment of our capacities themselves. Namely, if we are to avoid even the appearance or potential for misunderstanding of ‘bottom-up human efforts’ I think we need to go further in ridding ourselves of accoutrements of any kind of methodism, and to resist
        the particular self-reference to acts as being ‘Christian’ in content. So then art can be art and business business without these ever having to become Christian first.

        Thus, perhaps to live liturgically is to express the Christ in whom all things hold together and in true Kuyperian fashion, heeding the
        temptation to cordon off even a part of our imagination from God’s grasp, there will not be “a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

        Thanks for your time Neal!


        • Neal DeRoo

          Thanks Jesse. I appreciate your claim that “art can be art and business business without these ever having to become Christian first.” I think that’s right–but at the same time, do we not need (somehow) to mark the different spirit at work in these endeavors if they are to express Christ, rather than expressing another prevailing cultural spirit (consumerism, individualism, etc.)? How could we mark this difference in such a way that does not lead to insularity, but still calls for discernment and an awareness of the Kuyperian antithesis?
          I think we need to avoid the idea that the antithesis somehow runs between people or between things: Christian on one side, ‘secular’ or ‘apostate’ on the other. If the Spirit is at work creationally, then everything we encounter will have some element of that Spirit within it, as well as some evidence of sinful spirits. This is just to say that the antithesis runs through the heart of people (and institutions, etc.), and not between different people or different institutions. So, labelling some things as ‘Christian’ could be misleading in this regard, I grant you. But do we not need to signal the necessity of discerning God’s Spirit at work in a given activity, as well as the need for humans to honor that Spirit, which may also entail dishonoring (or, better, restoring to their proper place of honor) the other spirits at work in that activity? That is, does the term ‘Christian art’, for example, have value, not as a descriptor of the content of the art, but as a shorthand for a calling to a way of doing art? And if not ‘Christian art’ (for the reasons described above, I agree we should probably avoid that), then how else to signal this calling? Or do we not need to signal it at all?

          • Jesse Pals

            Hi Neal,
            Your concern with marking the different “spirits” at work in
            our culture is important and I would like to think it should constitute an integral part of our mission as Christians.

            For instance, I write this on what seems to be the blackest of Fridays. Even 3 days ago I was being bombarded by ads about this nationwide shopping spree that falls upon the States every year. Over the last few years it has seemingly spread north and flared up with discount sales and widespread promotions here in Vancouver. I am connected with several Americans through social media and truthfully I was more aware of the impending Black Friday sales through merchant advertising and consumer
            anticipation than I was the upcoming, and now past, American Thanksgiving.

            One need not read Marx to understand that the hegemonic scale of capitalism and the insipid promises that are made to an ever-purchasing public pervert human flourishing and always come up short on delivery. Needless to say, I understand capitalism as but one of the various spirits of our time, defining, it seems, to the point of monopoly, so much of our human identity. This consumer event, black Friday, can be understood as a
            national pastime but I see it as a blot on our culture, a reminder that culture is not a benign backdrop to human activity, it is a constellation of assertions.

            So I understand what you mean when you speak of a prevailing
            cultural spirit, I would argue that capitalism, more often than not, is antithetical to human flourishing as pronounced in Christian scripture. The question remains; how do we demonstrate the marked difference between consumerism and Christianity, especially when these actors share symbolically inherited
            cultural conceptions, symbols, values and, I would wager, history (á la Max Weber)? I think we need to be purveyors of dangerous criticism. When consumerism keeps making promises it cannot keep we ought to call it out and scrutinize
            the zeitgeist that fills its sails. At risk of sounding triumphalist, I think we ought to defy the emperor more often and embark upon a critique of culture that does not (cannot) spare ourselves as the church (any temptation to reify the relation of Christianity and culture should be avoided).

            Rather than hedge our own,religiously prescribed, cultural activities over and against a prevailing spirit that continually lies to us about who we are as humans and what we should do, would we do better by affording a dangerous critique that seeks, as you say, to dishonor that which has been faultily exalted? As Christians we need to learn how to be an abject and obstinate affront to consumerism-as-gospel. In doing so I think we will avoid the insularity we have discussed because insularity, more times than not, constitutes a response in-defense whereas critique, as I have described, offers itself in offense (note the sacrificial language) as a living, iterative and fundamentally relational process.

          • Neal DeRoo

            I agree that we must do more cultural critique (including of ourselves), and that consumerism is a major competitor with God (i.e., an idol) in contemporary North America. However, I think we also have to be careful to recognize that the process of dis-honoring must be accompanied by a process of honoring; that is, the point is not to bring capitalism down, but to return it to its proper place. Any critique of consumerism, therefore, must also affirm what is good in consumerism, and in need of affirmation. The spirit of consumerism, like all spirits and, indeed, everything that exists, finds its ultimate provenance in God’s creative Spirit, and as such something of that Spirit continues to work in the spirit of consumerism. We must not neglect to discern and affirm that Spirit, even as we must continue to critique other spirits.
            And this critique cannot be merely academic. Indeed, I think the accont of liturgy that I was trying to build on Crina’s account here is, in some sense, a lived critique of consumerism: insofar as it affirms the divine at work in human action, it lives the truth of creatureliness, against the lie of consumerism that “it’s all about me,” that “I’m in charge of my own life,” and that I have therefore “earned” everything I have, and so, ultimately, I “deserve” everything I have. If it’s not all about me, and I’m not in charge even of my own life, then the rest of the trappings of consumerism soon fall away. But this does not mean that there are not some things to affirm in consumerism, including the importance of economic exchange, and the relativity of value. Of course, consumerism distorts these good things (while important, economic exchange is not as important as consumerism makes it out to be; while value is undoubtedly relative, it is ultimately relative to God, the creator, and His creation as creation, and not merely to human beings), and we must point out that distortion–but we must also point out the creational good it affirms. Otherwise, we miss the Spirit at work in the world.

          • Jesse Pals

            Hi Neal, Sorry for being MIA. I’ve really enjoyed this dialogue and have just begun to explore some of your work as a result. Thanks!

          • Neal DeRoo

            Hope you find the other stuff you read helpful. I’d be happy to keep talking with you, if you are interested in what I say elsewhere. Just contact me by facebook or email. All the best.