Idol Factories – by Paul Bosch

The human mind is an idol factory.”  The sentiment is from John Calvin, the great  reformer.  I recalled his words as I composed my thoughts for this blog.
My original title for this piece was to be something like this: “Frontiers in Liturgy.”  Calvin’s pithy quote seemed more attention-grabbing. 

But “Frontiers…” is indeed what I want to get off my chest.  I’m recalling here an early mentor of mine, who argued when I began my ministry that the frontiers in worship these days are not in history:  “The Mozarabic Rite proposes such and such…”

They’re not either in theology, strictly speaking: “This liturgical act or ritual means such and such…”

They’re not, as I was taught now 60 years ago in Seminary, to be found in aesthetics:  “The Finer Things in Life require such and such in worship…”

Each of these worthy pursuits has its place, and each is fruitful for the fullest comprehension of what it is Christians do together when they gather on Sunday mornings.
And I’d be willing to argue that the frontiers in worship are not – Heaven forfend! — in Market Research:  “Baby Boomers are looking for such and such in worship…”  Although I suppose, begrudgingly, even Market Research could be a useful tool for a contemporary understanding of worship.

No, my mentor was arguing.  The real frontiers these days are not in any of the above.  Where are they?  In phenomenonolgy.  In inter-faith religious studies.  In anthropology.  It asks the question:  How do religious communities express themselves in their rites and rituals?   What may a completely secular person perceive when that secularist walks into a Christian assembly on Sunday morning?

There’s a theological assumption behind that question, of course.  And it’s Calvin’s:  “The human mind is an idol factory.”  The assumption is this:  All people are not only spiritual.  They are also religious.  There is an Organizing Centre in everyone’s life that gives that life meaning and cohesion.  It may well not be Christian – it most certainly is not  Christian, in many if not most cases.  But no human being is fully human without that Organizing Centre.

You could call that Centre by the traditional term “God”.  Or you could go with Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being.  Or you could claim an Infinite Absolute. 

It does not have to feature a majestic old man with a white beard and a crown in the clouds, although Michelangelo seemed content with that vision in his Sistine Chapel.   As have countless cartoonists in The New Yorker ever since!

But people are irrepressibly religious:  Homo Religiosus.  Not simply vaguely “spiritual”, but actually religious.  I’m stretching here the definition of the word, needless to say.  But I’m with Calvin.  “The human mind is an idol factory.”   He does not mean that as a compliment.

Yes, I’d argue, everyone is religious, no one is an atheist.  And everyone has – as I call them – some version or other of the Four C’s:  Creed, Code, Cult, and even Constitution.   

Creed:  That’s your beliefs or convictions, your value system.  There’s not a human being without some set of principles to live by.  You don’t have to call them doctrines or dogmas or even beliefs.  But there’s no one without them.

Code:  That’s your set of ethical principles, your code of conduct.  How you act out the beliefs you profess.  How you live out your Creed.

Cult: That includes the rituals, private and corporate, that support your Creed and Code.  How you ritualize.  The “religion” called “Sports” is full of them.  So are the “religions” – the idols – of Patriotism or Finance or Science or Sensuality.  Christian liturgy is essentially this kind of thing.  Phenomenologically.

Constitution:   This is my cypher for how you organize all the above.  If you don’t have Curia or Bishops or Presidents or District Superintendents, then surely you have FIFA or the NHL or the IOC, or Parliament or General Assembly, or the Corporate CEO.  This is yet another collective manifestation of a basic human religiousness.  (Jesus says “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there you will find…a President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer.”  Hah!)

Here’s an example of the phenomenological approach to worship my mentor was suggesting.   You walk into a room full of people.  All are seated, except one figure, who is standing.  What’s the inference to be drawn here?  What’s going on here?  A lecture?  A stand-up comic doing his schtick?  A musical performance by a soloist? 

In Western cultures at least, you’d have to conclude there’s some kind of power or authority differential here, between the one who stands and all the others who sit.  

Now:  Is that the message we want to be sending in Christian worship?  Here’s one good reason – out of five! – for all in a Christian assembly to stand:  for prayers, for song, for liturgical responses. 

Christian worship is not hierarchical. (“Priests first!”, in literal translation.)

It is not presentational.   (“I’m presenting something you need.”)

Christian worship is instead participatory.  All are invited “on stage”.   For a leader to stand while others sit – for hymns, for prayers, for liturgical responses –  sends the wrong message.

There are similar implications to be drawn, similar messages to be discerned, from our architectural arrangements, from our vestments, from our leaders’ postures, gestures, and position relative to worshipers.  Almost everything we do and use and wear in worship sends a message.  All of these arts are Media of Meaning.

We’d better be listening to what they say.   + + +



Paul Bosch is a retired Lutheran campus chaplain.

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