Liturgy, sacramentality, and nominalism
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In 2004, after arranging a ‘Snow Mass,’ where the ‘Eucharistic’ elements were snow and ice water, rather than bread and wine, then theology student Gyrid Gunnes said, “The liturgy is an artistic expression that can be experimented with.”Though her views are extreme, I think we can find tendencies towards this, though in less extreme ways, in Reformed thinking around what is called adiaphoron or adiaphora. In ecclesial circles, an adiaphoron is someting considered neutral and often not necessary. It deals with what does not belong under the Church’s esse, her ‘being’ or ‘essence,’ but (only) under the Church’s bene esse, her ‘wellbeing.’ While something might be good on this view, it may not be necessary.
In Confessio Augustana 24, we can read about certain changes made in the Mass in Lutheran congregations after the German Reformation. But the justification of these changes is not principally theological but pragmatic: “For ceremonies are especially needed in order to teach those who are ignorant.”While there is some truth to this, behind this attitude lies, conscious or not, a reductionist idea, and it is an idea I, as a Lutheran priest, find clear problems with, though it should be said that the confession makes a distinction between the liturgy itself and the various (cultural) forms through which it is ans has been expressed.
Since the late Middle Ages, and further into the Reformation, Western intellectual life has been characterised by a reductionist and nominalist idea in which people do not only distinguish between the ‘transcendent’ and the ‘concrete’ or ‘visible.’ No, these are utterly separated. Nominalism comes from Latin nomen (‘name’). It says that terms and universals have no real existence or worth. They are useful, but they do not refer to or participate in anything beyond itself, anything real.
We can see this reductionism or rationalisation also in the Church, particularly around the Eucharist. In my own Lutheran context, some reduce the sacrament is reduced to a function of the Word and that it only exhibits what has already been given. In 2009, the Norwegian missionary magazine Utsyn had an issue on the Eucharist. In it, Torleif Belck-Olsen states that the Eucharist “is wonderfully strong educational. It is handed to me, I accept, taste, chew, and get it into my body.” Anne Marit Riste states that the Eucharist is “Gospel preaching for the body.” And Arild Ove Halås states that the Eucharist “is a sacrament where you get to receive the forgiveness of sins that you already own through faith in Jesus.”While all of these statements are true, particularly if you understand that reception of the Eucharist is for the baptised, who have received forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of initiation, there is a reductionistic tendency behind this. The Eucharist is not merely a (nominalistically understood) ‘image’ of faith or the Word.
Together with the Word, the sacraments form the centre of the Church. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we believe that the the Eucharistic elements, together with Christ’s word and command, and by the Holy Spirit, constitute an ontological reality and that Christ is really and substantially present. But the liturgical attitude that comes from nominalism ends up ‘intellectualising’ them, turning them into pedagogical tools without substance. This attitude, which I like to call a postmodern desacramentalism, is the ‘gnosticism’ of our time, i.e. an intellectualised enmity towards the tangible, corporeal and material. One rationalizes away the sacramental, and says that this is only ‘symbolic.’ The Eucharist becomes a ‘symbolic’ memorial meal. And Baptism becomes a ‘symbolic act,’ almost like being initiated into a fraternity. But this reorientation reveals, in my opinion, a fundamental mistrust of words, signs, and symbols, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are.
The mistrust is that these cannot tell us the truth. But words, symbols, and signs mean something. To use C. S. Lewis’s distinction, these are things we look (or hear, smell, feel) along.It is something which points to something else, not by pointing away from itself or to itself but by participating in it and by bein that through (or along) which we can see transcendent realities.
The blessings we share in through the sacraments are, of course, spiritual. But they do not therefore stand in opposition to the tangible, corporeal and material, but must be confirmed by it. We can only know the ‘essence’ (the inner) through the ‘form’ (the outer).The sacramental signs are not just signs of a deeper truth, but they participate in it. Alexander Schmemann states that “the purpose and function of a symbol is not to illustrate ... but to manifest and communicate what is manifested.” Symbols and signs do not therefore stand in opposition to reality, but manifest and confirm it. We are bodily creatures. And even though God, in His essence, is beyond being, we cannot encounter Him ‘beyond’ concrete signs. We cannot know God’s nature in ourselves, but He can reveal Himself in our fellow human beings, in nature, in symbols, in signs, in language, in bread and wine.
It is important that we understand that sacramental life of the Church is a logical consequence of the incarnation. As St. John Damascene puts it:
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.
When God becomes man, becomes matter, we can – we must – relate to Him in bodily ways and with concrete means. In fact, we would have to even if God did not become a human being because we are not angels or spirits; we are corporeal beings. And through Christ, our bodies are transformed into temples of God, of the Holy Spirit.And because of this, we can offer our bodies to God, in the liturgy and in all else we do, as St. Paul states in Romans 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is absolutely central, and it cannot be overstated that a properly Christian conception of liturgy and worship, and our relation to God, must take this into account. We are bodily creatures and we must express ourselves and receive God in bodily ways.
In Norwegian: “Liturgien er et kunstnerisk uttrykk man kan eksperimentere med.” See Annette Orre, “Brennende tro, kalde engler” (Universitas, 11th February 2004).
For the English translation, see The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds., Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 27-105. For Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed., Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). I use the English translation of the Latin, if not otherwise noted.
Utsyn, no. 1/2009, pp. 9-10. In Norwegian: “[Nattverden] er fantastisk sterkt pedagogisk. Det rekkes meg, jeg tar imot, smaker, tygger og får det inn i kroppen” (Torleif Belck-Olsen), “Nattverd er evangelieforkynnelse til kroppen” (Anne Marit Riste), “… er eit sakrament der du får ta imot den syndeforlatinga du allereie eig ved trua på Jesus” (Arild Ove Halås).
C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 230-236.
To read more about the very unfortunate separation off ‘essence’ and ‘form,’ see Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1997), 53-60.
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist (Crestwood: SVS Press 2003), 38.
John of Damascus, “In Defense of Icons” (Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University).