Hauerwas on Liturgy: Take 2
Published: May 23, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
It seems that putting up a provocative Hauerwas quote without explanation is a bad idea. Which is fair because he usually requires some explanation and context</a>. So, in lieu of a reply to a comment, here is simply "Take 2" on Hauerwas.
Here is the quote:
One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.
No, Hauerwas isn't joking. He may be exaggerating for effect, something at which he is particularly good, except that he, and I, think that there is truth in what appears to be a rather extreme association.
I must admit, I ran across this quote and am citing it completely out of context. It tickled my perverse funny bone. So, I will take a stab at giving it some context, albeit Orthodox rather than the methodist or episcopal context of Hauerwas.
Hauerwas firmly believes that liturgy, how we worship, shapes who we are and how we are. This theology is deeply embedded in the Orthodox understanding of liturgy. WHO and HOW are almost synonymous, in that we are what we do. In Orthodox language, to be virtuous is to participate in God by participating in the attributes of God (Gregory of Nazianzus). We learn those virtues in our liturgy by the words we say or sing, the way we stand, kneel, process, etc. The problem arises when our liturgy fails to teach us virtue, whether because it cannot be understood (not in the vernacular) or because its content isn't worth understanding (sappy), or when our liturgy embodies practices which are simply wrong (hmm...the exclusion of women?). Poor liturgy teaches us something, but it might not be virtue.
The key is the word 'eventually.' I suspect that even Hauerwas would acknowledge that there are many steps between a sappy song and murdering your best friend. But bad liturgy puts us on a trajectory towards vice just as good liturgy puts us on a trajectory towards virtue. Of course it is more complicated, and because the liturgy is hardly the only place in which we learn what it is to participate (or not) in God, good liturgy does not guarantee virtue and bad liturgy does not guarantee vice. But eventually?
A example is the Elevation of the Holy Cross (Sep. 14th), a major feast of the Orthodox Church. Virtually every special hymn of the day refers triumph of the Orthodox over their adversaries. The emphasis of the day is on Helen's finding of the cross. But part of the context of this historical triumph was the defeat of the Persians by the emperor Heraclius. Interestingly enough, the GOA description of the feast downplays the Persian defeat; the OCA website does not. Precisely what are we asking for when we sing the Troparion:
O Lord, save Thy people,
And bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victory to the Emperor [or "Thy people" or "the Orthodox Christians"]
Over the barbarians, [or "their enemies"]
And by the power of Thy Cross
Preserve Thy commonwealth. [or "estate" or "habitation"]
Who are the barbarians, our enemies? By what means do we achieve victory? Precisely how does this match up with Jesus' command to turn the other cheek? Violence is a part of our history. We were attacked by Saracens. And we invited in the crusaders, and in turn, were pillaged by Christian soldiers returning from battle. Maybe not our best friends, but at least friends, yes?
And that is Hauerwas' point, to juxtapose the most unlikely of events, sappy songs and murdering your best friend, in order to jolt us into awareness of how seriously we should take the content of our liturgy.