16 July 2007

renewing liturgy and theology

Laurel drove out to her sister in York late last week to drop her mother off so her mom can spend vacation with them before returning to Florida.

Now, at last, I find myself free of travel, conferences, house guests, faculty workshops, and so on. My summer break can really begin - that is, I can begin the summer break where, with other obligations at a minimum, I start to work systematically through the mounting list of projects I'd like complete or at least have underway before classes start up again.

As I was organizing some paperwork today, I ran across a quotation I'd used recently from the French Reformed liturgical scholar Jean-Daniel Benoit. He writes,
It is therefore necessary to have a constant control of liturgy by Scripture. The liturgy must not deviate from Scripture. In fact, the valid liturgical developments are those which spring spontaneously from the piety of the Church, enlivened by Scripture and in its fidelity to Scripture…the deciding factor is Christian judgement – the Church, not necessarily in its hierarchy, but in its experience and living continuity. In doing so the Church uses a certain spiritual tact, a certain discernment, a certain evangelical sensitivity. There are some liturgical texts and experiences which the consensus of believers accepts, and others which it rejects. In so doing it acts naturally, organically, without needing a council or ecclesiastical decision. It is in this living conscience of the Church, and more especially in its worship, that we must seek the continuity of its tradition. The more the Church is nourished on the Bible, the more surely and spontaneously does it effect this process of assimilation and elimination, by which its tradition is formed. (Liturgical Renewal SCM 1958: 67-68).
It strikes me that this kind of discernment - a sort of practical wisdom - is a much broader habit in the life of the church than merely in liturgical tradition, development, and contextualization. It is also the task of theology which must continually find ways of effectively speaking the ever-same Gospel in to ever-new situations.

The Benoit quotation reminded me of another. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, in his significant work The Drama of Doctrine (WJK 2005),
The church can neither stop time nor development. One need not be a follower of Heraclitus to see that things change. This is why the church cannot simply repeat what has been said and done in the past. To repeat the same words in a new situation is in fact to say something different. The challenge is not to resist change so much as to change in a way that would be faithful to, even though different from, Christian beginnings. Tradition is the church’s attempt to negotiate this tension between "sameness" and "difference," an attempt that aims at a kind of non-identical repetition. (125)
He later follows Ricoeur in distinguishing idem-identity from ipse-identity. Identity of the idem variety is an unchanging sameness over time, without difference or development. Ipse-identity, on the other hand, is the sort of identity a person has over time, the one and same individual present in a variety of circumstance to which she much adapt and respond in new ways.

The danger with an overly static view of tradition - whether that be liturgical, theological, confessional, or another sort of tradition - is that it can devolve into a sort of idem-identity that remains content with mere preservation of the past as sufficient for the present. Vanhoozer writes,
The danger in equating identity with unchanging sameness is that tradition becomes an immobile traditionalism that preserves the past by seeking to reproduce it. Holding fast to past formulations, however, does not provide sufficient direction for the church. Consider, again, the Arian controversy. Whose Christology, that of Arius or that of Athanasius, had better claim to being the "same" as that of the Fourth Gospel? Here is a case where simply repeating the same biblical words is not enough...Idem-identity encourages uncritical, uninformatiove, and unimaginative repetition of the past. (217)
Vanhoozer goes on to talk about ipse-identity in terms of "improvisation," not in the sense of sheer novelty or originality, but in terms of the ability of well-trained and faithful imagination, rooted and rehearsed in the Scriptures, to discern what is appropriate in any given situation. Such improvisation is necessary for the Gospel to remain the same Gospel as it is ministered into ever new situations.

While Vanhoozer primarily has doctrine and theology in mind, I would suggest that what he says is just as much the case with regard to liturgy, bible translation, preaching, evangelism, and all the other ways in which the church missionally engages the world with the Gospel.