Modern Liturgical Denial and UnBiblical Anthropology

I have been reading a lot about St. Benedict these days.  I’ve been curious about him for a while now, but I am now finding the need to immerse myself in his ways and his teachings.  For one, my family and I are coming into the Anglican fold and, in the process of seeking ordination, I am going to begin studying this fall at Nashotah House Seminary.  One of the incentives for reading St. Benedict is that my Anglican friends have the tendency to define their tradition as “essentially Benedictinism.”  On top of this I am learning that life on Nashotah’s campus is quite heavily ascetical in accordance with St. Benedict’s Rule.  So, as I mentioned, I am seeking to immerse myself in the life and thought of St Benedict in order to fully embrace that which I am stepping into.

In studying Benedict’s Rule, I am finding that he has a very strong emphasis on the notion of balance within the ascetical life.  The monks are to spend part of the day in prayer, part of the day in study, and part of the day in manual labor.  The logic behind this seems simple enough.  The human person isn’t just a mind, or a heart, or a body.  The human person is a multi-faceted being.  We learn from the Greatest Commandment that we are to love the Lord our God with “all of our heart, with all of our mind, with all of our soul and with all of our strength.”  There has been a lot of debate about how all of these components break down exactly and over what it is that actually constitutes the heart, the mind, the strength and the soul.  This doesn’t concern me here, though.  What matters to me here is the notion that the human person is holistic in nature and we are to love God with every facet of our multi-faceted being.  In other words, we are to love God with the totality of our being, giving Him all that we are.

St. Benedict seems to get this.  It is all over his Rule.  We are to direct all of the parts and pieces of who we are to God in loving affection and humble service.  Thus, we find different aspects of the human person being ministered to within the paradigm that he sets forth.  The human body, her physicality, is ministered to and redirected through manual labor.  The mind, her intellect, is ministered to and redirected through hours of diligent study.  The soul, however you wish to define it, is ministered to and redirected through praying the offices and private prayer.  In effect, St. Benedict’s way seeks to engage and transform the fullness of the human person for those who follow the path he has laid out.   

Then, a thought dawned on me whenever I got part of the way through the Rule: “Ancient and Medieval Christians got this…why don’t we?”  They understood that the human person is not just a mind or a heart or a soul and they sought to live accordingly.  Yet, modern Christian discipleship doesn’t seem to take this into account whatsoever.  For example, people join Bible study groups so that they can be “discipled,” not understanding that the form of discipleship they are pursuing is extremely fragmented.  The pursuit of intellectual sanctification is not the equivalent of forming the whole person because one is more than just a mind.  Of course, forming the mind is a great and necessary thing but not to the detriment of the rest of one’s person.  

Also, in terms of contemporary worship trends and innovations…God help us.  We seriously need to ask ourselves whether or not we are allowing the whole human person to be engaged through what we are doing on Sunday mornings.  This is where the endeavor to be non-liturgical or even anti-liturgical has shot modern Christian culture right in the foot.  Many church goers and church leaders have revolted against the traditional liturgies simply because they view them as being too repetitive, boring or archaic.  As a result, the richness of ancient liturgical life is traded out for bland fragmented substitutes.

The ancient liturgies (Eastern and Western Rite), however, truly engage the whole person.  In Anglican worship, for example, my body is engaged as I smell the incense, as I remain standing after the confession and as I kneel before the altar.  My heart is engaged by the beauty of the liturgy, the intentional aesthetic of the worship space and by the music and rhythmic flow of each litany.  My mind is challenged by the homily, the repetition in the litanies and by the Biblical content of what I am praying.

I once attended an Eastern Orthodox monastery out in the New Mexican desert.  They had worship services twice a day.  After the end of an evening service, which was around two and a half hours long, I quickly realized just how little I was accustomed to actually worshiping the Lord with the whole of my being.  The services there were long (morning services were three and a half hours long) and you stand for the whole duration.  On top of that, the first service of the day began at 4am.  This dynamic alone made it a physically demanding experience.  The services were also repetitive in such a richly beautiful way that I can still hear the monks voices singing “Lord, have mercy” in my mind to this day.  The repetition, however, challenged me.  Where I am somewhat accustomed to constant innovation in worship and the feeling that I need to be entertained by what is happening, I found that it took real effort to focus my mind upon the prayers and to give my heart to the words I was repetitiously petitioning before the Lord.  

At the end of my time there I felt a lot like one does after they haven’t worked out in far too long.  It is that feeling where muscles hurt in your body that you didn’t even know that you had.  You certainly feel it the next day (or week) but you also know that the activity pushed you in ways that you haven’t been pushed in a long time or ever before.  While I was exhausted by the end of my time at the monastery, it was also one of the most truly formative experiences of my entire life.

Monks get the notion of the total human person.  The Church Fathers got this.  I don’t believe that wider Christian culture gets this today, however.  Rather than seeking to engage the total humanness of our parishioners, the liturgies that we contrive only minister to people fragmentally.  Thus, an unbiblical notion of the human person is promoted (certainly inadvertently in many cases).  

For example, it is claimed by many people that the Reformed churches have a tendency to promote a notion of the human person as nothing much more than an intellectual creature.  Oftentimes, little concern is given for the aesthetics of the worship space because little is done to engage the heart or grip the imagination through the actual decor of the space.  For many Reformed people I know, worship doesn’t have to be beautiful or necessarily pleasing.  It just has to get the job done.  It is not seen as anything more than an appetizer to the main entree, which is the sermon.  Furthermore, the liturgy often has to be narrated and expounded upon in these circles while it is being participated in.  Thus, the priority is not given to the flow of prayer but to the intellectual understanding of what people are doing while they are doing it.

Other worship movements, particularly in churches that are akin to the evangelical mega-church/seeker sensitive movements, seem to solely focus on the heart and emotions.  In terms of the mind, it seems rare to find any doctrinal content that is being promoted which is worth truly pondering.  It’s all about Christian feel-good-ism.  These churches also engage the body but in the most negative and counter-productive ways possible.  Rather than challenging our physicality, the motto is, “come in, grab a Latte, sit down, make yourself at home, and just relax.”  There is no concept of standing before the throne of God, or participating in the heavenly worship, or engaging in the eschatological mystery of the Eucharist.  There is no physical posture which accompanies the confession of sin (if there is a time of confession at all).

Others may be a bit less generous than me here, but I am not at all saying that God cannot and does not work through worship environments such as these.  I have been running in Reformed circles for nearly a decade now.  I know God is at work because I have seen His power displayed in these circles.  I am saying, however, that it is quite difficult for those who are participating in these types of worship environments to respond to God with the entirety of their being simply because they are not being challenged to do so on Sunday mornings.  In fact, they are not given the invitation to actually do so in practice on Sunday mornings.      

The truth of the matter is that, while many churches may profess their belief in the Greatest Commandment that our Lord Jesus gives, they tend not to live out the reality of this belief in practice in corporate worship.  Too many people are participants (or spectators) in churches which utterly fail to minister to the whole human person liturgically.  Instead, these churches prop up unbiblical notions of what it means to be an image-bearer of God in practice whenever they solely minister to people as thinking things or feeling things…etc.

In the Incarnation, Christ took on not just our intellect, or just our emotions, or just our physicality.  He took on the fullness of our humanness.  He became unequivocally anthropos.  Yet, the shape of many of the services within Christendom (especially in Protestantism) would lead the curious bystander to believe otherwise.  The outsider looking in would not gather that God is concerned with the fullness of the human experience, but that He is only concerned with us simply thinking the right things, or just feeling the right things, or just doing the right things.  The God he would perceive as being present within the assembly would not be the God who took on flesh and fully became one of us.  Rather, the perception would be that this God is just the God of the mind, or just the God of the heart, or just the God of the soul…etc.  The truth of the matter is that while what we profess during these services may be fully orthodox, the shape of the worship experience itself may be fully heretical.  St. Gregory Nazianzen once wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.1”  That which is not taken on by Christ is not healed by Him.  While we may profess the Incarnation of Christ and believe in this truth intellectually, the structures behind our modern worship innovations testify to the contrary.  They say, “there are parts of the human reality which have not been assumed by Christ and are not being healed by Him.”     

There are many today who are being drawn back to the ancient liturgical traditions.  I have heard a variety of reasons for this: the beauty, the history, the Biblical depth, the Trinitarian focus, the flow, or simply because liturgical worship is in the Bible (yes, even in the New Testament).  All of these aspects are certainly true for me as well.  What drew me in initially, however, was the very thing that I have been writing about.  I sensed that God was both challenging and strengthening the different aspects of my being in ways that I had not experienced elsewhere.  There were weaker aspects of me that were all of the sudden being engaged and exercised.

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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