I have been asked to give a talk on Benedict’s XVI’s theology of the liturgy. I am not quite sure why, since I am not a liturgist, nor much of a theologian for that matter. But on considering material for the talk I reflect that the study of liturgy as a discrete specialisation is a relatively new discipline in the Church. Like other specialisations (literary criticism springs to mind) it can become narrowly self-referential. The strength of Benedict’s writing lies in the way that all his observations about the “what?” of liturgy are derived from a “why?” He affirms the ancient maxim lex orandi, lex credendi. Worship and the rule of faith are intimately bound together, or certainly ought to be, which is why a reform of the reform is needed.
There is a philosophical problem which must be confronted by all religious faiths, namely: how does an eternal, immutable God interface with finite human creatures? For the Catholic, the question is addressed by the revelation that man is created by God out of love and redeemed by God through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, so that through God’s gift the creature is to be brought into the community of love which is the Blessed Trinity.
It’s the old Catechism answer to the question, ‘‘Why did God make me?” God has revealed himself in our history to show that we should respond to God in word and deed. Christianity takes the philosophical idea that God must be the ‘‘ground of being’’, and dares to affirm that this being also desires a relationship with me.
Benedict says that the Trinity is another way of describing the truth that God is relationship, relatedness or love. The fact that Jesus Christ has taken human nature to God’s right hand means that there is, says Benedict, ‘‘human speech, word in God’’. Here is our ‘‘interface’’ with the Eternal and the reason why liturgy has meaning and purpose.
Now this might sound obvious, but it isn’t: not to Asiatic religions, nor to the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, which rejects the idea of anything in the universe being affected by prayer or cultic worship.
‘‘A rationally conceived world is determined by a rationally conceived causality,’’ says Benedict. The God of the Deists is not influenced by man’s prayers or worship to change anything. In a rationalist system what applies to God must apply equally to man who is also thereby reduced to an element of mechanical causality.
If God is not relatedness, if neither personality nor freedom are present within the philosophical ‘‘ground of being’’, then personality and freedom are both merely products of mechanical necessity. In a bold statement Benedict concludes: ‘‘Thus the issue of prayer is ultimately linked with those of freedom and personality: the question of prayer decides whether the world is to be conceived as pure ‘chance and necessity’ or whether freedom and love are constitutive elements of it.’’
Such a philosophy – a ‘‘demythologised’’ God – has entered into much modern Protestant theology. A good example would be John Robinson’s book Honest to God, which rocked Anglicanism in the 1960s. In such a system prayer and worship can remain, but in the spirit of something Aristotle said: “The prayer which fails to reach God fosters what is best in us.’’ Prayer is no longer dialogue, but ‘‘self-transcendence’’.
In such a world, all prayer and worship becomes equally meaningful, since all are valid human modes of seeking the “ground of being”. Without the revelation of Jesus Christ, this unknowable ground of being becomes whatever you make of Him/Her/It and God becomes a ‘‘predicate of man’’. Prayer merely ‘‘says something about man in the area of relational communication’’.
And I suddenly realise how much modern liturgy reflects those attitudes. I realise why I cringe when the celebrant starts Mass with ‘‘Good morning everyone,’’ thanks them for coming and then thanks everyone who has ‘‘played a part in our celebration and especially those behind the scenes [sic]’’. It’s why I loathe it when people clap organ voluntaries, when the children line up with their backs to the altar and tabernacle to read their bidding prayers at the congregation though a