Liturgy and Materialism: Recovering Authentic Community

By Andrew M. Haines
July 31, 2013

In his recent piece critiquing "evangelical Catholicism" à la George Weigel, Aaron Taylor teases the point that religious liberty, when situated in the context of a primarily personal faith, becomes not just a political good, but a "religious and moral ideal."

Religious liberty to adhere to our own private, personal faith (rather than religious unity or adherence to religious truth), becomes the highest good of the political community, because we no longer believe that religion is fundamentally communal. Indeed, religious liberty itself becomes a kind of shared religion.

This is problematic, says Taylor, since despite the individual good things toward which such a version of religion compels us, it fails to consider or even to sense the possibility of a common good. Moreover, he notes, this type of liberation "inevitably lapses into materialism, because while individuals may be brought out of themselves by service to the community, the community itself is not directed toward any good that transcends its own collective self-interest."

Taylor goes on to conclude (very astutely) about the social impacts of "evangelical Catholicism." Yet his scenario serves double duty, setting up another point of entry for the discussion: one regarding the sort of community that results from "good religion"—community that is opposed de facto to the materialist impulse which he suggests of its "bad" counterpart.

altar-frescoWhile criticisms work well in the abstract, building up alternatives usually do not. Happily, the Church offers a paradigm for good religious community that's easily enough unpacked—since it is eminently practical in nature—and which is discernible (at least in large part) by the light of natural reason: namely, the sacred liturgy. If there's a clear response to the impulses that lead to a "shared religion" of "collective self-interest," the liturgy should be it.

To speak of liturgy as community will, perhaps, be considered somewhat trite. "Community worship" is a hallmark of the very sort of bad religion Taylor denounces, and it has therefore been rendered mostly meaningless. (How many different types of anti-Christian—or at least amoral—worldviews flourish under the banner of "community worship"?) Yet liturgy is something more; we know, as a point of fact, that liturgy simply is the epitome of community life. What dimensions of authentic community, then, that have been lost to "collective self-interest" in popular liturgical practice shall probably best be regained by focusing on and enacting its opposite—whatever that turns out to be.

The simplest way of determining where our practice of liturgy succeeds or fails is by isolating the fruits of self-interest that Taylor identifies: i.e., materialism. Of course, this term can mean a variety of things; here , I take it to mean (and I think what Taylor suggests in the social sphere is) a sort of dialectical materialism with a final synthesis of self-gratification and spiritualized "output." Examples of this might include (let's start with something obvious) a deconstructivist trend in liturgical arts, a strong emphasis on "relevancy" in worship, and a general desire to deprecate transcendence in favor of immanence. These are all things taken as part and parcel of "contemporary" liturgy, which no doubt also places a strong emphasis on accommodating pluralism. Nevertheless, they are all features of the curious synthesis mentioned above.

As it happens, familiarity with the dialectical principles in question—just as with Marxism—allows one to better understand their faulty resolution. In the case of liturgical community, some axioms might include: a) liturgy is glorification of the one true God, which leads to the vivification of man (cf. Irenaeus); b) liturgy is a foretaste of heaven on earth; c) liturgy is "work by and for the people" and is therefore eminently practical and mundane; d) liturgy and the sacraments nourish the soul so that we may do good works in our lives; etc. It is not hard to see how any combination of these principles could result in a synthesis, like "the liturgy is a source of gratification and a spiritual effort."

The materialist trend cuts both ways, too; and as Taylor remarks, this isn't to be scoffed at: "My argument is not that the Catholic Church should return to the confrontational political stance it adopted during the Counter-Reformation era, a stance excessively concerned with legal form over theological substance." This translates, of course, to the liturgical sphere as well (although the faulty synthesis would be given somewhat differently).

Perhaps there is no better example than that of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to help us realize it. In the days following his election, I wrote a short piece—provocatively titled, I admit, "The Pope's Painful Liturgies"—wherein I lamented the new pontiff's "clear lack of affection" for liturgical niceties. As it turns out, and as I mention in the article, the real source of my agony had less to do with the pope's ars celebrandi, and much more to do with my own desire for fine Masses at the expense of fostering an apostolic heart. My conclusion was that the joy I witnessed in Francis's affection for people had begun to drive my own joy from the liturgy—not because the liturgy begets anything short of participation in the divine life, but because absent to my conception of the liturgy, I became aware, was a genuine love for those with whom I participated.

My own experience will have to do, here, as an example of what materialist sentiments look like on the backswing. In short, materialism in community always isolates the individual—either by liberating him so thoroughly that "he" ceases to be, or by constraining him so tightly that he ceases to "be." Materialism opposes the person, who is one in relation.

Realizing these pitfalls shows us more clearly the path that authentic liturgical community intends: it is not a synthesis of traditional liturgical axioms, but rather an accommodation and appreciation of them all, insofar as they are true. Moreover, this method extends to any community—even the societal one, of which Taylor speaks—which benefits from the inclusion of all individuals, so long as inclusion is a feature of some universal and reliable standard. The greatest standard, of course, is love—the very nature of the Trinity, which is at the same time Beholder and Beheld.

If standards for social and political inclusion vis-à-vis religion are vague, then looking to the good practice of religion should offer a key. The nature of liturgy is, after all, community in practice. Most importantly, while liturgy has suffered the same materialistic maladies as socio-political community, it retains in a particular way its own cure: i.e., the constant, essential tension created by moving toward others and, at the same time, toward Unity.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.