Hard to hallow

Apr 24, 2018 by

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Richard Beck is a blogger whom I have been reading for quite a while now. He’s a psychology professor and “progressive Christian,” although he seems to have a level of distaste for the term that approaches my own. He has, in my experience, an ability that is rare among progressives — the ability to be unflinchingly self-critical and to acknowledge the challenges and inconsistencies that are bound up with many forms of “progressive Christianity.”

Beck recently wrote a post called “Living Within a Sacred Matrix” in which he noted some of the difficulties for faith presented by our present cultural moment:

[W]e… need sacred weight and texture. We need seasons and rituals to hallow time, events, people, promises, values, places, life transitions, tragedy, and loss. Even atheists hallow funerals and marriages and light candles at sites of national tragedy.

 

And yet, in the day to day grind it’s hard to hallow in our secular, disenchanted age. We don’t have a sacred matrix. And this is one of the reasons why I think faith is so hard for many of us. Instead of living within a sacred matrix that gives our lives holy weight and texture, we experience belief as a choice to be made moment by moment, day after day. Faith is in our heads, an intellectual thing, rather than as the sacred texture filling our lives.

I think that what Beck describes as a “sacred matrix” the late Peter Berger would have called a “plausibility structure.” All human beings live in a particular context that works for or against religious devotion in various ways, where some ways of understanding and living in the world just inherently seem more plausible than others. Every cultural context offers its own “defaults,” its own things that are taken for granted, whether we’re talking about faith or economics or politics or whatever.

Beck isolates an important feature of how Christianity is experienced by many of us in the postmodern West: “as a choice to be made moment by moment, day after day.” Or not. The air we breathe, the entertainment we consume, the priorities that are rewarded (or punished), the vices that are implicitly (or explicitly) praised, the forms of daily life that are normalized — all of this (and more) inexorably leads to a default view of “religious faith” (even by many of its professed adherents) as “something that I do with my discretionary time” or “something that I find personally meaningful” or “a good place to experience community (on my terms)” or “a place to get together with people who share my values.” Or not.

In a cultural context where the individual is sovereign and where our outlook on most things is conditioned by consumerism and entertainment, religion takes its place on the fringes, offering a bit of spiritual ornamentation to the ongoing project of self-construction and maintenance. This is a “secular matrix” that I suspect many of us recognize. And it is one in which, as Beck says, it is very “hard to hallow.”

Beck’s response to this challenge is a familiar one:

This is one of the reasons that, as a Protestant, I’m so attracted to Catholic aesthetics. The sacramental aesthetics of Catholicism — the candles, statues, beads, icons, incense — helps create a sacred matrix. I think Protestants who struggle with faith can learn something from this.

 

If you struggle with faith, think levitically. Get out of your head and live within a sacred matrix.

I understand this response very well. I, too, am increasingly drawn to more “high church” expressions of worship. I, too, find myself increasingly frustrated by overly wordy forms of worship that pay little attention to aesthetics and more tactile expressions. There is an “embodied-ness” to many non-Protestant forms of Christian worship that I find immensely attractive and theologically compelling.

Recently, I was reminded of this via firsthand experience. A Syrian Orthodox priest is visiting from the besieged city of Homs. He’s here to see the families that our group of churches sponsored a few years ago. Consequently, I have been invited to three consecutive evenings of Syrian house blessings (with at least one more to come!). These nights tend to unfold in a familiar manner. I stand beside Father Lukas in the living room. He is robed in black; I am wearing jeans and a collared shirt. I read a gospel story in English; he follows in Arabic. There is then incense and holy water and singing and chanting and call-and-response jubilation. The Syrians move through the house repeating this process. I am left to ponder the scene. I have no robes or holy water or incense or thurible or rosary. I can’t sing the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. So I stay back in the main room, alone with my words, consoling myself with the fact that I will soon have a Mediterranean feast to take my mind off things.

I simply do not inhabit the same sacred matrix that my Syrian friends do. I remember having a conversation with one of them recently about their puzzlement when someone in Canada asked them “which God” they believed in. The question was almost literally incomprehensible to them. What do they mean, “Which God?” It’s just God. Growing up in a rural Orthodox village in Syria, their matrix would have been an uncomplicated one. And it would have been sacred, reinforced by countless daily practices and assumptions. My faith does not have the “taken-for-grantedness” that theirs seems to. It is not governed in the same way by assumed practices and non-negotiables. It stubbornly requires that I keep choosing it, keep redefining it in terms that are palatable, keep reimagining and re-presenting it to attract the disenchanted inhabitants of our secular matrix. It all seems somehow less — I don’t know — settled than with my Syrian friends.

Beck says that the answer to all of these frustrations is to get out of my head and “live in a sacred matrix.” Sounds good, I suppose. But in the end, it still comes back to me, doesn’t it? I choose a bit of Anglican liturgy to spice up my barren Mennonite spirituality. I choose a smattering of Orthodox incense and chanting to add some exotic gravitas to my overly-cognitive faith. It’s still mostly about me and my preferences. No matter what I choose, it is still me doing the choosing. I can’t inhabit a “sacred matrix” in the same way that my Syrian friends do (at least for now — their children will obviously have to make their way in the same secular matrix that the rest of us do). It’s very complicated to re-enchant what has been disenchanted.

It is, indeed, hard to hallow.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.


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