Friday, February 26, 2010

Schleiermacher and the Evangelical "Worship" Obsession

I've only just read the great 18th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher for myself and don't claim to be an expert on him, but it is pretty alarming to me how much common ground the contemporary evangelical worship phenomenon finds with the worst trajectories of his religious philosophy and how little it seems to have heeded the best correctives of his theology.

In response to the "cultured despisers" of religion, pastor/theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher defended the thesis that neither metaphysics (philosophy) nor morals (ethics) provided adequate ground for a unifying theory of humankind (something which was more of a concern for people in the 18th century than it tends to be now). Humanity needed and had a third category, which he called "religion", which enfolded the others and also kept each from swallowing the other.

Now, to understand this you need to understand what "religion" meant for Schleiermacher. Heavily influenced by literature and Romanticism, the essence of "religion" was for him the intuited feeling which lay at the heart of the most transcendent expressions of humanity, and yet was itself tainted the moment it transitioned into the necessary but fleeting language of human expression. Some have equated his definition of "religion" with the realm of art, or aesthetics.

Regardless of how it is classified, for him, the "sense of the transcendent" (my term) was the unifying principle in which human thinking and acting could productively cohere. It was an experiential moment that was ruined by trying to hold too tightly, and yet which was worthy of all seeking. If one could live or abide in that experience of absolute dependence upon the intuited, one would be experiencing the true religious life. Schleiermacher felt that Jesus Christ embodied this life for humanity.

As Schleiermacher's theology developed, his focus went more and more away from the character of the divine and more and more on that feeling of absolute dependence which divine faith so constructively produced in the pious. God was effectively reduced to being the "source of the feeling of absolute dependence"---so that the ecstasy and the penitent humility of faith, of absolute dependence, became the heart and focus of his "theology".

In my opinion, this is the perilous edge that the contemporary evangelical worship phenomenon has encroached upon and in countless situations crossed. It is the obsession which has overtaken the evangelical ethos at its worst, with catastrophic results that are felt both in the "successes" and the "failures" of the church growth movement.

It has infected the traditional church, the seeker church, and the emergent church alike where it has made the spiritual experience (however engendered by notions of Christ) the leading edge of its acts, attitudes and goals. Seen in this light, each of these types of churches, for all their claims to have improved upon one another, appear at this point to be suffering under different strains of the same disease. The experiential product is simply tailor-made to a different target audience.

I am not seizing upon Schleiermacher to make this point in order to blame him. In fact, from what I've been reading he seems to have wanted to avoid this problem, at least early on. A crucial element of his explanation of the religious experience was that it had to be given, and could not be reproduced or manipulated on the human side. In fact, it was just such endeavours of encapsulation or reproduction that corrupted religion!

Thus it is that, while he may in some ways be the father of today's so-called "worship" movement, a corrective lay in some of Schleiermacher's own statements as well. For instance, consider the following caveat he gave in the heights of his promotion of "religious feeling". Regarding what we might call today the "spiritual high", Schleiermacher wrote:

“If I could create it in you, I would be a god; may holy fate only forgive me that I have had to disclose more than the Eleusinian [inititiatory] mysteries" (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 113).

To be fair, we're touching here upon the catch-22 of Christian ministry and expression: How to speak of God without playing God? I think that this is the very thing that seems to have struck the prophets Jeremiah (on whose tongue the scroll was bitter sweet) and Isaiah (whose lips cried out for the purifying burn of the coal). I count myself among the worship leaders, preachers and theologians who must wrestle with this.

My concern, however, is that we have so often left it up to each individual minister to do this wrestling alone in the secret turmoil of their well-intentioned and important ministry preparations, while week after week they serve up the best product possible and let the experiential fixation of our evangelical ethos prevail.

Where the focus on being inspired and reproducing an experience has so taken over, one wonders if it can even be called worship other than if God accepts it---much like a father accepts from a son a birthday present that is clearly meant for the son's own enjoyment. But one has to wonder how long before us children grow up.


Anonymous said...

Last Sunday I was at a bigger church in the city for my Nephew's dedication - and I thought I was over all the "megachurch-hard-feelings" that I once had - but the SLICKNESS of the worship just killed me.
And I understand the argument about excellence and stuff - but I just couldn't handle it.

Yet, at the same time, all I'm doing on Sunday mornings is a form of "sloppy-slickness". I still have every sentence and every word carefully prepared, but I do it with authenticity in mind. It is any better - or just different... man, I don't know...
Can we really "grow up" in our worship?

"My concern, however, is that we have so often left it up to each individual minister to do this wrestling alone in the secret turmoil of their well-intentioned and important ministry preparations, while week after week they serve up the best product possible and let the experiential fixation of our evangelical ethos prevail."
Yeah. I've been finding that on weeks when I'm speeching, I really have to force myself and get out and interact with people - it's healthy. The longer I do this job, the more I believe that the role of a "preaching pastor" is a big mistake.

Jon Coutts said...

oh no, I think the last thing that should go is the preaching pastor. that said, when I stepped up to preach last week all I could pray on the way to church was that God would forgive what I was about to say.

i'm not necessarily saying there is anything wrong with the care in preparation of things. its that it is preparing to create an experience.

Anonymous said...

Well, to clarify what I meant about "preaching pastor" is the idea that one person should be "freed from the everyday pastoral work" so he/she can solely focus on preaching alone. I think that kind of separation makes for some unhealthy and disconnected encounters with God and the Scriptures.
Personally, I need A LOT of time to prepare when I speak, but I find it's the everyday "interruptions" that inject the worth and value in what I'm crafting.

As for "creating an experience" I'm wondering how liturgy fits in? Is your aversion to crafting something or just a certain type of something - the slick something?

Anonymous said...

Also, I wonder how it would go over if I started out my sermon on Sunday praying your "forgive-what-I'm-about-to-say" prayer.
That's maybe even a little too authentic for me...

Jon Coutts said...

I think it is what you ought to pray.

I figured that's what you meant about preaching, glad you clarified.

Liturgy is providing good words, prayers and confessions. It has the Bible in it, and has been thought through for its theology.

But that is all separate from my main argument. Liturgy could also be susceptible to the "fabricated experience obsession", but let's face it, its a long way off. Unless we admit the irony that for many, liturgy serves the flip side of the problem by fabricating a distant and uninvolved experience for those who would like to keep God at bay.

But when it comes to evangelical churches, I think we need a couple years of liturgy to cleanse and purge us, not to mention restore us to some proper theology.

Jon Coutts said...

You can see how hard it is going to be for me to find a job when I get home eh?

I should point out that I'm being theologically blunt, but I recognize each situation has pastoral, ie human, considerations. You push the envelope in a way that is loving and respectful of the people, and intelligent about the situation, not black-and-whiting the whole thing. (I'm being black and white here because, well, we're talking about what's good and bad here, and in principle, this whole movement is bad, for the reasons I've mentioned and more).

I should also mention that it is no corrective to just go ahead and fabricate an "authentic experience" either, with sloppiness, or red-faced embarassment, or what have you. Where the emergent churches are just doing that they are just one more strain of the epidemic. I have to watch for that in myself, being as allergic to slickness as I am.

So there might be reasons not to pray 'forgive me what I'm about to do' before preaching. You wouldn't want people thinking the wrong thing, even though you'd mean it rightly.

Jon Coutts said...

it makes me nervous when i post stuff like this because i have had a lot of people tell me they read my blog, who never comment, and yet i KNOW this sucker has got to rub people the wrong way. oh well, i assume folks who read are just mulling it over and giving me the benefit of the doubt. i'm certainly not trying to stir the pot for stirring's sake. I really think this, and have been thinking it for some time. And this isn't the same as when I thought it, but realized that I only thought it because I didn't LIKE the worship. This is a way different point.

Anyway, all the best. God love the church!

Jon Coutts said...

let's put it this way. Read AB Simpson's "Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord". Even Matt Redman's "Heart of Worship". The fact that these are songs means that even the most ardent experiential preachers and worship leaders have gone through a crisis of the type that I'm thinking all of evangelicalism needs. The trouble is that whereas Simpson and Redman wrote their songs after long wrestling matches with God, in Redman's case involving a long fast from playing worship music at all . . . in our church's cases we think we can give a short sililoquy about what its all about, sing one of these songs, and assume we've got it sorted out. I'm not so sure. Redman and Simpson both felt like God gave them back their music, the blessing, the experience, better than they had it before, and in its proper place. I don't know if they held on to that. That's not my point. But if we go to church for a feeling of absolute dependence, what makes us any different from any other religion? What makes that Christian?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the added comments, Jon. It really helped clarify what it is that you're getting in this post.
A couple more observations/questions:
1) In my own life, I think that my experience of being so uncomfortable during worship events stems back to this. But, you're right, it sure it tricky to know how to approach it though - because when it's challenged, people will often just chalk it up as a "taste in music" issue.
2) I think you'll be able to find a pastoring job just fine... keeping that job will be a whole other thing though!
I kid... kind of...
3) I'm wondering if there is a time and a place for walking people through an experience though - mainly when I think of the service of lament that we did here a while ago. By no means was it perfect... far from it - but when it's a first time thing like that, I'm not sure how else we could have done it. In that service though, I felt like I was more partnering with God (leading people into something where they could encounter God) than trying to walk people through a controlled experience... but I guess that's what pretty much any worship pastor would tell you as well. I don't know.

Also, after giving it some more thought, I understand what you meant by your "forgive-what-I'm-about-to-say" prayer - and you've got me convinced. Whether I call it speeching, testifying, or preaching - it's participating in an act that no one is adequately qualified to do.
It's a tension though, because on the one hand, I think we've all got to admit that our best efforts at speaking of God are always going to fall short - yet, at the same time, we've been commissioned to be witnesses - to testify to what we've seen and heard - and to teach those who've been entrusted to us.
The best it seems we can do is to be humble, authentic, honest, and diligent in our search. And to clearly communicate this conclusion to the people we interact with. (For me, although I didn't pray that exact prayer out loud on Sunday morning - it's a truth I try to get across at least once-a-month in some way or form).

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for engaging Jon, you've said some really good stuff here, I appreciate it.