This is the eighth post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule, along with links to previous posts, can be found here.
As a pastor, most of my thinking on a day-to-day basis is concerned with applied theology, not contemporary philosophy. Yet, my vocation calls me to be deeply concerned about Christian apologetics, to which contemporary philosophy has something to contribute. Although this chapter was a challenging read for me, I have learned that Lacoste’s work provides a profound apologetic, with serious implications for the way we conceive of (and experience) worship and spirituality.
While most people perceive liturgy in terms of simply a worship service (be it “high” or “low”), Lacoste presents a philosophy of liturgy that speaks to the very nature of humanity (thus, making his work also anthropological). Liturgy he defines as a state of “being-before-God”, contrasted against Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world.” Heidegger argued that humans are already aware of a “world” before they begin to conceptualize or reason about anything explicitly. Lacoste thinks our awareness can be deeper. This can be seen in his explorations into what he calls “self-limit experiences” such as prayer, the sacraments, praise, and vigils, to name a few. These phenomenological experiences or “liturgies” broaden our understanding of experience, time, and place. Moreover, they radically inform our understanding of the knowledge of God and truth; the existence of God is not conclusion of a proof, rather someone we can be aware of at a fundamental level. In the end, Lacoste provides an intriguing redefinition of what it means to be fully human, one that is shaped by “being-with-God” in the world.
But what is such an experience like? To answer this question (which is at the heart of Lacoste’s work), Gschwandtner first draws our attention to Lacoste’s fundamental convictions surrounding the experience of liturgy. Quoting Lacoste:
No one enters into liturgy without wishing for God to visit him. But no one experiences liturgy without comprehending that God is never there present to consciousness in an entirely obvious way.[i]
This introduces a wonderful tension (often displayed throughout his work) between the intelligibility and the obscurity of God. That God or the Absolute (Lacoste’s common reference) is real, yet a mystery. Any liturgy then, which does not take the mystery of God seriously is only seeking a purely rational and, hence, incomplete knowledge of God. This mystery respects God’s prerogative “to appear” by whatever means God chooses. Thus, true “faith” for an individual is having the ability to appreciate “the clear, but obscure” dichotomy when it comes to God’s revelation of God.
Since God is not limited to the confines of one mode of revelation, Lacoste’s definition of liturgy expands to one’s entire relationship with God. Liturgy breaks through the barriers of all forms of this-worldly and other-worldly dualisms. Lacoste infers that when one is liturgically alive, and most fully human, he or she understands their identity as always before God. He explains:
Liturgy, understood in its broadest sense, is the most human mode in which we can exist in the world or on the earth. And it is in the world or on the earth that it responds, once and for all, to the question of the place proper to man: beyond the historical play between world and earth, man has for his true dwelling place the relation he seals with God or that God seals with him.[ii]
This “being-with-God” liturgy can best be discerned as a topology or “place” and is redefined. Using the recluse, hermit, and the pilgrim, Lacoste illustrates how liturgy leads to the rejection of attachment to a particular place in favor for our acceptance of our true “ground.” The focus being that in liturgy there is no preference of “place” because “all places” are spaces where liturgy can occur. More specifically, however, the world is redefined as a “place” that is not one’s home but still a space requiring the engagement. Tension rises as one wrestles with presently being “in the world” but “not of the world” or as Lacoste describes it “being in the world, or rather, being in a different kind of world.” The latter statement is yet another critique of Heidegger’s analysis of “being-in-the-world” where the spiritual life is excluded from and thus does not inform one’s relationship with world. He concludes, therefore, that although humans exist without God (God’s full, literal presence), they still can be present to God liturgically. This informs one’s relationship to their redefined “place.”
Closely associated with the idea of redefined “place” is his concept of time. Lacoste suggests that the Parousia is anticipated in liturgy. This is yet another “self-limitation” mentioned in his work. In liturgy, language (whether in reading or prayer) is used that expresses a desire to be in God’s presence. Yet, no matter how heart felt and fervent the prayer, God is not present (in any literal sense). This will only take place at the Parousia. So liturgy by its nature is paradoxically ambiguous, because is promises something (in its words of hope) that is not presently experienced, at least fully. Lacoste suggests that this paradox present in liturgy challenges the human experiences of time, through liturgy one is “disinterested” in the world. As in his discussion on place, this liturgical time gives human beings space to not only challenge the assumptions of the world, but also to become more fully human within it. To be clear, Lacoste, in mentioning the Parousia, is not actually suggesting that there is or isn’t an afterlife. His point is that eschatological anticipation brings the vision of a reality of future time into this present world. That vision carries with it hope. Lacoste comments that:
the concept of a plenary present is not that of an eternity, liturgy exercises no power over the eschaton; liturgy can only precariously transmute the worldly reality of divine presence, and welcome it as one would welcome the Parousia. There is, however, no theoretical exaggeration in saying of him who prays that his liturgy’s hermeneutic site does not first live on this side of death, and that, in a certain sense, he has already survived death.[iii]
This is a direct challenge to Heidegger’s claim the most fundamental mode of existence for humans is a “being-toward-death,” i.e. the loss of all possibility. Lacoste, again disagrees with Heidegger. He advocates that liturgy introduces a new way of being in the world that takes one beyond the anticipation of death. This he understands as being fully human within time, while simultaneously anticipating something beyond it.
In summary, Lacoste’s liturgical phenomenology provides an apologetic for Christianity. Using the tools of phenomenology he flushes out a “holistic” understanding human experience. Lacoste envisions the individual as constantly “being-before-God,” which is the most fundamental form of human experience. Therefore, his work is deeply anthropological and, surprisingly, theological.
This reading raises several questions for me as a local pastor. First, if Lacoste is correct in his understanding of liturgy, how does this positively or negatively inform the Adventist definition of liturgy? Second, how can the church do a better job of helping people to live more liturgically, in Lacoste’s sense of “being before God”? Third, how does Adventist eschatological theology positively affect our sense of place and time? Last, Lacoste assumes that a tension exists within our best understandings of God/The Absolute. He perceives God as being knowable, but not fully comprehensible. How can this “theology” of God co-exist within Adventism’s cultural framework of understanding “the Truth” as being something primarily intellectual that we “possess”?
Kurtley Knight, M.Div, pastors the Hillcrest and Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pittsburgh and Uniontown, PA. He currently attends George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, OR, pursing a Doctor of Ministry degree in leadership and spiritual formation.