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Friday, January 30, A.D. 2009
The Contrast of Orthodox Worship

Yesterday, in “Calvinism Redux,” I addressed some concerns by commentator Jack soi-disant the Ripper about Calvinism. In this post, I would like to field his questions about Christian worship.

In the comments section of “Steve Harvey and Dionysian Protestantism,” Jack writes:

Also, what exactly about the crowd makes you believe that they have swung too far the other direction than Calvinists? It seems that you are ascribing a moral standard to a matter of personal preference: Joseph would like his worship services to be slightly more active than the Calvinists, and slightly more subdued than the Pentecostals. “Greek Orthodoxy Rocks!”

Jack accuses me of making my personal taste the litmus test for correct worship. As a personal accusation, it demands a somewhat personal answer. With regard to such, Jack has the causality backward. My personal preference for a “worship style” was not a factor at all in my conversion to Orthodoxy. To be blunt, I did not really care for worship at all. Having been nourished in a Calvinist culture, I was not interested much in worship. I wanted truth. I rejected the religious traditions of my ancestors because I believed, based on the evidence that I considered, that they had corrupted the gospel of Christ. My conversion was completely intellectual in origin and in substance. I remember quite clearly an episode where I was walking on campus with an Orthodox priest, having a discussion about the faith. I had just visited his parish, and he wanted to know what I thought of the worship. I told him that it was fine, but that I was not very interested in worship. It was not what drove me. He laughed and said that many people convert because of the worship. He then somewhat scolded me and said that being an Orthodox Christian was mostly about worship. The central Christian act is worship. I acknowledged the truth of such—in the abstract. Of course, I reasoned, it is proper that the object of man’s attention is the highest possible object—namely, God. Thus, in agreeing with the priest, I continued to disagree with him without realizing it. It was only after several years in the Church that I came to see what others see immediately. The pagan emissaries who visited Constantinople knew that they witnessed heaven on earth when they attended the divine liturgy in the great Cathedral of Holy Wisdom. For they were pagans. I had been largely raised according to Calvin’s instructions, and the splendor was mostly lost on me. I loved beauty, and I loved order, but I did not grasp the transcendent quality of liturgical worship. Having finally experienced it, I cannot dismiss it as a personal preference.

Orthodox worship, like Orthodox doctrine, is not a casually suggested preferred option for the faithful. Its form is the way that it is for the salvation of souls. The way that Christians worship God echoes the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the days lived with the savior by the apostles themselves. Its organic evolution over the centuries reflects the wisdom and sanctity of generations of saints having lived, prayed, and worshiped God in the light of Christ’s resurrection. Like the rule of faith, the rule of worship exists for a reason. It is the proper diet for the soul for its orientation toward the eternal God.

Hence, Orthodoxy “doesn’t rock” because it is my personal preference. Rather, it has become my personal preference because I have come to see how its doxological regimen best trains our souls to relate to God. “Slightly more active than the Calvinists, and slightly more subdued than the Pentecostals” has nothing to do with it. They are not primary realities between which we must find a mean. Rather, they are both far removed distortions of the ancient Christian manner of worshiping God. With the latter, worship lacks measure and control. Emotions are ever poor guides in life, and connecting spirituality with emotion opens up a path toward dangerous and demonic delusions. You may know of Pentecostals whose religious life manically swings high and low, as they trust their fragile psychological states to be accurate measures of their spiritual progress—of their “blessedness.” Such is a recipe for prelest and despair.

With the former, worship devolves into an intellectual act. Calvinists historically have attempted to remove all non-cognitive aspects of worship from their services and from their architecture. The sermon became the central act of a Christian service; instead of the holy mysteries, Calvinists receive unending catechesis. High walls were built around family enclosures so that the congregants could only hear the preacher’s words. Visual representations of Christ, the saints, and the holy stories were banned and destroyed in iconoclastic fits. The body no longer was useful for such cerebral work. Only the voice—and mostly the voice of the preacher—was allowed to excel in its natural talents to glorify God. I suspect that many crusty preachers in their secular academic robes—note well the relevant fact that Calvin did not wear vestments to his services but rather his university robe—considered hymns a condescension to human weakness. What perversity—but how fitting a perversion for the new Cartesian modern man of only mind and will. Whereas the Christian temples of East and West testify of God the creator, maker of heaven and earth and of all that is therein, whereas they celebrate in color, in glass, and in stone the providence of God throughout history, from Adam unto our very days, whereas the worship performed in them addresses men as bodies, souls, and spirits, Calvinism reduces the Word to words and worship to harsh Sunday school lessons.

I reject worship that rejects man and his nature. Jack asks if it is “possible to strive for an authentic faith, spurn the cultural draw of ‘social morality,’ and yet still resist a charismatic form of worship?” Of course, such is possible. The ancient prescription for the Christian life aims for such a goal.

If Nietzsche is correct in his understanding of the human need for what he calls the Apollonian and the Dionysian, then I can see reflected in the Christian tradition that complementary meeting of the two. In Christian worship, the Apollonian element is unmistakable. Christian hymnography is intelligible; it speaks to our mind as well as to the lower parts of the soul. It is controlled. It is balanced. It is sober. It reflects the ancient insistence on apatheia—the tranquility of the soul, unmoved by the passions, ready and prepared to hear and to respond to the truth of God.

At the same time, the Dionysian element exists in Christian worship. Besides the Dionysian quality of Russian church bell ringing, the tonal system in the Church has meditative trance-inducing qualities. The rhythm of the chant subdues the soul as a lullaby. For instance, the Cherubic Hymn is marvellously worded, set, and placed. As the sabbath is made for man, so are worshipping conventions of the Church divinely designed to treat our diseased souls. The joy and the sorrow of the music (sometimes simultaneously, as during Holy Week) affect the passions and force them to coalesce around the message that the mind intellects and that the heart understands. Moreover, the oneness of the Christian community—the unity of Christ’s body—the unity of Christ himself—as symbolized in the Eucharistic act, is the fulfillment of all Dionysian longing.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, January 30, Anno Domini 2009
Religion | OrthodoxyLiturgyProtestantism • (1) Comment
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