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).