Monday, September 30, 2013

Rationalism and Liturgy

I am barreling down to my self-imposed thesis submission deadline. All along the way, this fairly focused study has offered up many opportunities for rabbit-trails, tangents, and distractions. Some of the “side bar” details show up in footnotes. Some show up on a list of ideas I’d like to explore post-thesis. This past week, something I read stopped me in my tracks.

Outside the scope of my thesis, but very much behind the motive for my thesis, I have had this nagging feeling that in the church generally (that is, the kind of churches I have served) we have a suspicion of the Enlightenment world view; specifically, we reject (or at least distrust)
* the human subject as the center of our studies –
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.
The proper study of mankind is man.
Alexander Pope
* scientific materialism – only what can be measured is what is real
* physical causation – if one cannot “connect the dots” then one cannot know
* empiricism – knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience
The Romantic layer to the Enlightenment is seen in the cult of “Genius,” and the triumph of sensuality (meaning, at one level, the celebration of the senses, though of course this resulted/results in a heightened focus on sexuality). I would point, again, to the delightful Evening in the Palace of Reason for a very readable account of the conflict of this world view (represented by Frederick the Great) with that of the Reformation (represented by J. S. Bach).

So, anyway, when set out like this, we tend to say that the Enlightenment – the door into Modernity – was not, in the end, a friend to the Church.

And yet, it has seemed increasingly clear, to me, that in one area, in one arena, in one field – namely, music –  the Church (mirroring our culture) has embraced both the Enlightened and Romantic world view. The most evident manifestation of this embrace is the claim that music is incapable of containing meaning, it is not interpretable; music is neutral, or amoral; and so music itself (i.e. without words) is insignificant. It doesn’t matter what music we choose for the words we sing; it’s all a matter of taste, or (worse) preference.

Let me interject that I am not (here) arguing against that conclusion. I simply offer the previous paragraph as a précis of my reading of “the problem of music in the church.” Yes, this is one of the Big Ideas I want to follow up post-thesis. It may well be that even if everything else about the 18th and 19th century philosophies were questionable, the conclusions about music would be valid. In that case to argue against this conclusion re. music would be ad hominem: “that can’t be right, because it comes from a source whose character is questionable.”

Still, this is the way I think, and I realize I need to do more work on it. But, with that in mind, imagine my surprise when in my reading last week I came across the following:

In his ground-breaking study, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, Günther Stiller portrays the vibrant Lutheran church life in 17th century Leipzig. Old churches were restored, worship services included catechistic features, attendance exploded, the number of communicants at Holy Communion swelled. This was the condition of the churches in Bach’s time there (1723 – 1750). At the same time, in Bach’s day, the clergy were coming under the influence on the Enlightenment. It is fair to say that some of Bach’s conflicts with church leaders and city fathers rose out of this changing world view, particularly as it related to music and the liturgy. What happened in the second half of the century? Based solely on the attendance figures at Holy Communion, during the period 1785-1815, when the churches were superintended by Johann Georg Rosenmüller, who “always tried to introduce the worshipers to the ideas of the Enlightenment.” (158). During this time participation in Holy Communion dropped from thousands (annually) to less than 100.

What happened during that time? The historic liturgy was gradually shortened, then parts of it were eliminated, in favor of longer sermons. The role of the service was instruction, and what did not serve that purpose was minimized or excised. Even the reading of scripture at the center of the liturgy was curtailed. During that time, a vibrant culture of multiple weekday services gradually diminished, total attendance across the city went into steep decline, people stayed away from church. Stiller notes: Nothing else but the figures provided can so clearly show to what an extent rationalism had a negative effect on the Leipzig liturgical practice and a disastrous influence that eventually – which means even now [1970] – led to a real “neglect of Communion.” It is apparent that Lutheran orthodoxy is in no way to be blamed for this misfortune, but rationalism alone. (165-166)

Don't get me wrong - I never argue against preaching at the center of Christian worship. But now I have another theme to explore regarding the church and the Rationalism. Is the dominance of the sermon to the exclusion of other, congregational, participational, expressive elements of the service also a legacy of the Enlightenment? And, is that OK? (By which I mean, does that square with the rich New Testament evidence about gathered worship?)

And then, here’s the real stinger, for me. Eleven years into this “reform” of the Leipzig churches, one of the preachers noted: “Our city churches have in recent years registered smaller attendance than previously,” and proposed that this was . . .

wait for it . . .

due to the use of the old hymnbook.

There is nothing new about church life. Ever.

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