Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Form and Content DO Matter

I loved this piece by Alison Miller on "fresh expressions" of church. (Thanks to Debra Dean Murphy for the link, by the way.)  Those of you who are familiar with ecclesiology will recognize "fresh expressions" to be, well, not so fresh -rather reeking of an old, old paradigm of "church growth movement" combined with "marketing tactics".  Well obviously - isn't the church a business?  (I snorted out loud in class in a very unbecoming way the day a student of mine insisted that the church was the oldest business there is. Ahem.  There was no convincing him otherwise, even though his hypothesis is achronistic, at best, and certainly a-theological.)

But what I especially love about the Miller piece is its suggestions further down the post: "Using Wittgenstein, we argue that form and content of faith are not so easily separated. In seeking this separation, the language and identity that forms us communally is quite lost because the meaning lies in the practices and not beneath them."

Yes!  I love it when things I tell students in class actually have theological (and philosophical) import as well.  I also love it when I can annoy Philosophy PhD Husband - he happens not to love Wittgenstein as much as I do ;-).  I hadn't made this particular connection till reading this essay, but readers of my blog will know that I do emphasize both form and content in my classes.  Form matters because it relates to content. Like Marshall McLuhan famously wrote: "The medium is the message." 

I know this about my writing: I use far too many commas and in the wrong places.  When I was working as a writing tutor, my supervisor was forever telling me "NO COMMA!" but I could never see what the difficulty was.  I use commas like I speak - where I would put a pause in my speaking, so I do in my writing.  I recognize that can make my writing difficult to read and probably also makes any presumed content seem hesitant, like I'm afraid to make an argument.  Secret revealed: I do fear staking my claim sometimes.  It's something I'm always seeking to overcome.  I think conversely that means my arguments come across more strongly than I'd want (and with less nuance) precisely because I'm working so hard against that fear of having nothing - gulp - to say.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, proclaims Miller.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  Form and content both matter.  Or rather, isn't this the theological equivalent of the chicken and egg argument?  Which came first - the prayers we pray or the beliefs we proclaim in the creed?  As we might expect, liturgical theologians often say that it is liturgy and prayer that come first, and so they emphasize this theologia prima.  Others, canon lawyers in my acquaintance especially, emphasize belief as coming first.  How can one pray if one doesn't know how to pray rightly?   Geoffrey Wainwright does notable work in providing substantial doctrinal discussion in relation to liturgy and so avoids this impasse.

My students prefer to jump over the impasse rather than work through it.  They will sometimes say, "But I don't believe everything in that prayer" and therefore they won't pray it.  Just as in Miller's article, "The "Fresh Expressions" movement sees Christianity quite abstractly as a set of ideas, which can be separated from their embodiment and then inserted into a new culture."  Somehow on their view, the doctrines are just old-fashioned things that don't really relate to their lives, and the prayers are therefore useless because they contain the old-fashioned doctrines.  (And on this, see this article on Facebook killing Churches in relation to doctrine...)

I get that, I do.  I used to think that evolution and creation conflicted and so I couldn't "believe in" creation, or in any hymns, prayers or homilies that related to creation.  I think it is God's funny joke that I now spend good portions of every.single.class I teach discussion Genesis 1 and 2.  Somehow it's always important, whether the class is medical ethics, or Augustine, or sexual ethics, or contemporary theology.

But I also have seen how important habits of the church are.  Kneeling DOES make my three year old respond differently to her world, see it in a different way, act in different ways.  And truth be told, the more often I kneel, the more I do too. (I'd like to think I'm becoming more peaceful and humble, but since I'm telling you this, that is probably not yet quite the case ;-))  This is not simply a question of doing something by rote - in the beginning each individual action seems a bit like a chore, like a constriction.  But the longer one does a practice, the more it becomes part of who you are and the more you begin to see how to use those actions rightly.  The narrow door does become quite wide; the "freshest" expressions are also the ones that have that kind of depth perspective in them.

I am reminded of the day a friend came to tell me that his mother had died.  At such intense moments, when we don't have the luxury of supposing a separation between doctrine and practice, or form and content, the importance of our practices are all that make sense.  I heard the news, and immediately he and I knelt as we had often done, and prayed together.

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