Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom Book Club: Liturgy and Culture

Linking up with Mystie for this week's reading of Desiring the Kingdom.   Go to Week Eight for links to more discussion. 

I missed two weeks' reading and discussion while @Disneyworld/ # familydownwithsevererhinovirus so I had a fair bit of reading to catch up on.    However, the past couple of sections have basically all on the same train of thought -- the manifestations of "liturgy" in the secular arenas of the mall, the military/entertainment complex, and the university -- so it went pretty easily.

Smith critiques these secular liturgies for their insufficiency and disordered nature while also making what he calls an affirmation of "apologetic contact" for them.    They are vanities, but in some way we are seeking ultimate things in them even while losing our way in the shadows.   In this way he reflects Augustine:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.
Smith says:
Secular liturgies don't create our desire:  they point it, aim it, direct it at certain ends.
I will here admit that though this book is very thought-provoking, I get into some conceptual difficulties with some of his thinking.   In this reading, it was helpful for me to mentally substitute the words "enculturation" or "culture" for "liturgy".  I think this is because I tend to think of liturgy as a formal rhythmic or ritual manifestation of embodied doctrine, while the influences he talks about seem more parallel to cultic brainwashing to me.

A university has a culture.  The college my kids went to has a very different culture than the one described in the book.   A society has a culture.  The society we live in the present US is more like Brave New World than 1984.    A family has a culture.   Parents have a responsibility to shape the family culture. 

Perhaps it adds up to the same thing, liturgy and culture?  I am not sure about that.  Liturgy in the sense I am accustomed to is by its very nature directed to something higher than myself.  It invites but does not compel.    It provides a structure but not so much a propulsive force.    It is a series of actions rather than a submersion. 

The forces Smith describes in some of his examples remind me more of a bacchanal or a Roman circus, which is a surrender to something essentially lower than oneself but also more powerful.  

Now that I have said this, I will perhaps rethink my use of the word "culture."  Culture partakes of both of these, perhaps, including both the "lower" (sensory) and the "higher"(philosophical/meaning).  Culture is something like what Husserl called lifeworld or lebenswelt, the milieu which we swim in whether we are consciously aware of it or not.   Perhaps it relates to what Charlotte Mason called "atmosphere".    Culture is a complete experience and thus has a tendency to shape our thinking even while we are shaping it, but it does not directly co-opt it.  ... in a way, it is an embodiment of our desire and in that way our collective "child" but in another way, in that we are born of a culture, it is our parent.

I think this "culture as parent and child" is a useful way of thinking of our individual selves as a kind of nexus.   We can't choose our parents.  But we do choose what kind of parents we will be.

To put it another way, Chari and I have often discussed how we "educated ourselves" as children.  Growing up in the slightly ridiculous public schools of the 70's, we consciously chose something different.   In my case, this was partly due to the influence of my parents.  In Chari's case, not so much so.  We couldn't say that we weren't affected by our milieu, but we could both say that part of the effect was to point us away from it.  The point is that there is a dynamic between what happens to us and what we make of it.   Augustine talks about the flaws in his pagan schooling and family background but he also claims responsibility for what he did himself.    

Since this probably sounds a bit far from the point of this section of Smith's book, I will try to go to literary specifics.  

When Smith describes Charlotte Simmons' university experience in Tom Wolfe's book, which is very far from what she expected of a university as a sort of intellectual waypost of Athens, he is describing someone immersed in a milieu which rolls over the rational mind and forms the perspective in spite of one's interior resistance.   Charlotte feels herself losing her identity, her sense of self, in the barrage of physical and moral culture in the university.  Again, Smith uses the example of Winston in Orwell's 1984, who is compelled ultimately (by torture and brainwashing) not only to profess but to experience love for Big Brother.

This is what I would call the "cultic" experience in the modern sense of being brainwashed and overwhelmed by an environment consciously designed to subvert your freedom of will.  

This seems to me to contrast with Smith's other literary examples, of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited and Tom More in Love in the Ruins, of men in the more Augustinian situation of chasing shadows of the divine reality.  Tom More loves women and whiskey more than God, but realizes that his weak "cupiditas" is a corruption of  true"caritas".  Ryder recognizes in his relationship to Sebastian an archetype or glimpse of what lies beyond and only can be seen in glimpses.    In this examples, the "enculturating" element takes a back seat to the idea of human as affective, desiring creature in search of something transcendent.... as a being who worships.

In the university and Big Brother examples, the "true" nature of the human is overwhelmed by force.   Charlotte and Winston are opposed to the environment they live in, but their inner integrity is basically violated in spite of themselves.  In the Brideshead and Love in the Ruins examples, the true nature of the human is disordered, easily turned from "Beauty Ancient and Ever New" to vanishing and unsatisfying worldly things of beauty.    So one example parallels Augustine's discussion of the rape victims in City of God, while the other parallels his discussion of his relationship with his mistress and the birth of a son as discussed in the Confessions. 

What both types of examples have in common is the acknowledgement that humans are more than minds, they are beings immersed in their environment and affected by it, that our "interiority" isn't as separate from our milieu as we might like to think -- that we are not dualistic "minds in machines".  Augustine can't be a saint while he is living with his mistress.    A rape victim's sense of self is deeply shaken even though she knows she did not consent to the act.  

But I think the "cultic" and "affective" examples given by Smith are radically different in that the cultic ones seem pessimistic about the essential nature of free will (which is what really annoyed me when I read 1984 a long time ago) while the "affective" examples actually hinge on free will and where we aim even while they take place in a concrete, physical environment.      I also couldn't help noticing that Orwell and Wolfe are secular social commentators, so their interest is more about what society does to individuals,  while Waugh and Percy are both Catholics and though social critics, are also more focused on what we might call Augustinian themes on what man does in light of his transcendent destiny. 

This is interesting stuff, though I haven't really pulled out anything practical yet to use in my little homeschool.   It made me think that in some ways, this concept of the human as more than a mind comes very intuitively to most homeschooling moms I know.     We are confronted, immersed in affectivity every moment of every day.   A baby is an icon of the affective nature of learning.    A mom is essentially the "kardia" of the family, the one who keeps things running and working.    According to some "attachment" theory, one of the caregiver's (primarily mom's) most essential roles is to "regulate" the child's affectivity, by providing a kind of emotional rudder that helps him bring order to the chaos of his environment.  I am not talking about lecturing or punishing, either -- the mom's very heartbeat as she holds an infant close helps regulate his own, and much of mothering is just this kind of "ruddering". 

In fact, it only occurred to me now, but Smith's train of thought quite seems to dignify the role of the wife as described in the controversial Ephesians passage which I have discussed before.    According to what he seems to be saying, the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world -- or if the wife and mother is the heart of the home, she is the one that in many ways essentially keeps the rest of the organism going.    I noticed while I was recovering from illness last fall that my testosterone-heavy household (all boys and men besides me) really felt the lack even of my sort of abstracted, vague, undemonstrative kind of presence.

It also made me think of how we don't want to "compel" our children per se --  that is not how God treats us.  He invites us, as in my opinion traditional liturgy invites us, to go beyond ourselves.    Charlotte Mason also talks about how we shouldn't appeal *exclusively* to our childrens' lower desires to influence them to do the right thing.  I like her qualifier there because, for example, Plato thought learning should be accomplished by way of games for the young, and Jewish teachers (so I read somewhere) gave pupils honey to taste on their first day of school so they would associate learning with sweetness.

Following through this is a semi-practical thought -- that my habits and daily work adds up to a kind of "liturgy" if I can only see it that way.  Too often like Charles Ryder I only get a glimpse, which is why I often have to remind myself.     It comes to my mind that this is one reason why our affective natures have traditionally thought important but also inextricably subordinated to our rational natures.   Affective impulses are often very fleeting.  How many people, like Augustine, have said, "Grant me continence, but not yet?"  It is our will (basically an intellectual appetite) and our reason that firms the impulses into resolve and thoughtful action.     This is another thing I have to revisit constantly:  ordering my affections properly and using them to help me to right thought and action.  

Head over to Simply Convivial for more discussion of this reading


  1. I have gone back and forth over what I think about his use of the word liturgy as well. On the one hand, I appreciate it. It has made me think a little bit more about what I do and admit that practices are never neutral. I think that is why he can justify using the term in this way -- because they are not *neutral* then he declares them *religious* and so there is a sense in which he can call them liturgy.

    But, in reality, it is a stretch, and I think you are right that liturgy is the domain of the Church and the embodiment of formal doctrines. With that said, I really like the idea of stepping back from my life and asking what doctrines my practices embody!

    "Enculturation" has been our word of choice around here for years. When Ephesians uses the word "paideia" in the passage where fathers are commanded to rear their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, that word is the word for the Roman educational system, and it acknowledged not a classroom, but the entire way in which the children were made into the ideal citizens for the Empire. Now, we could debate over whether or not they actually accomplished that goal, but the fact remains that they called it this, and they meant the child's whole life, what he experienced as he walked to school -- the art he saw, the conversations he heard, the smells of the market or the food. The whole thing made him. It was very earthy.

    And you know what? For some reason, after reading all these posts, I feel like the best thing I could do is to take more nature walks!

    1. Yes, I agree with you that all our practices are aimed towards something, and it is good to be aware of what values they are directed towards... or embody, as you say!

      We need to take more nature walks, too.... ;-)

  2. I like your example of a mother "ruddering." Our children do learn how to respond to things by watching us respond to everything.

    I, too, wouldn't use the term liturgy outside the context of this book. I'm glad I found the word habitus, which is similar to paideia, but since it's similar to the English word habit (and so also hints that it's about small, repeated practices), it's a little more accessible.

    1. I like that word, too!
      I think you and Brandy are both right that one of the privileges of writing a book is to use terms creatively in order to build up or embody a concept one is trying to convey. This seems like a very common practice in philosophy. To some extent it parallels the way one uses words in a very specific but rich way in theology, but philosophers seem to have more freedom to use terms creatively. Mortimer Adler talks in How to Read a Book about how getting a sense of how the author uses his own set of terms within a book (and across books, often) is a key to understanding the work. Off the topic a bit, but I do think even we bloggers have our set of terms that are invested with significance -- leisure and rest and habit and poetic are a few of the terms that probably have entirely different connotations to the person on the street! : )


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