Secular Worship

What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol.  This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole.  This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:

But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas.  Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan.  No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament.  And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.

It seems to me that the  elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.”  As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!”  Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols.  There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market.  Schmemann concludes this section with the following:

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is.  He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship.  And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)


Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation.  I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp.  I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans  – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe.  Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.

12 thoughts on “Secular Worship”

  1. Tom, thanks for stopping by. Fair point. I think my issue is the assumption that the sacraments are “only” symbols. They are certainly symbols, but they also much, much more.

  2. Generally my Christmas Eve, Easter, and Holy Week services are center around a “theme” in their liturgy. I fail to see why that’s a bad thing. For a more focused Eucharist example, is it wrong to add to the Great Thanksgiving depending on which liturgical season we are in, as the Book of Worship does?

  3. Cynthia, I don’t have a problem with either category in regards to the Eucharist but I appreciate the distinction. Certainly Communion is a sign that points us to God’s full reign, to that Kingdom where all are fed by the lamb, where hunger and grief and injustice have been defeated completely. And certainly the sacrament is highly symbolic: the bread and wine as body and blood, the breaking of the bread as the brokenness of Christ himself given for us, the open hands that receive the bread symbolizing our hearts that receive God’s love in thanksgiving. I think the point of contention with the Radical Reformation is whether these things – they would say “ordinances” – are only symbolic, and have power only insofar as they point us to something else. That does not seem to me to be anywhere close to how most Christians have understood the effectual work of the sacrament, which conveys grace (though, as a good Wesleyan, I am content to affirm that precisely how this occurs is a mystery).

    JB, I share your concern about sometimes enjoying having a “theme.” I think the question is whether the theme has anything to do with Jesus, or whether it is something altogether secular for the sake of “relevance.” The examples he gives seem to be themes that have little do with the narrative of God’s activity found in Scripture. I have no problem with, and frequently use, UM Eucharistic resources for particular times of the Christian year. I confess, I used the Great Thanksgiving for the 4th of July this year and last year, and I am less comfortable with that. It just feels out of place.

    Thanks to you both, and I welcome further feedback. I also highly recommend this book.

  4. I appreciate what you have to say about symbols and your critique of Zwingli, but I don’t agree with your associating Zwingli with the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformation should refer to anabaptist groups like the Mennonites and Hutterites, not to Reformed groups like the Zwinglians.

  5. Also, I highly recommend you read James K.A. Smith on secular liturgies in *Desiring the Kingdom* and *Imagining the Kingdom.* I think you would enjoy him.

  6. Shaun, thanks for the correction. It has been noted in the now edited post. And I want to read Smith’s work. He is going to be at Convocation at Duke this year and I hope to see him. Thanks, and blessings on your ministry.

  7. Paul Tillich made the distinction between a sign which merely points to another object or condition, and a symbol which participates and evokes the reality which it symbolizes. The sacraments of the Church to not merely point in a rational manner to ideas or concepts, they evoke, make present the reality which they express. The Enlightenment elevated reason above intuitive knowledge and emotive imagination. When worship is approached as ‘education’ it is seen to be to instruct people in ideas or moral values. When worship is sacramental, it is entrance into the Holy of Holies, into the presence of God. In that setting our agendas fall away and we are there to worship and adore, and be transformed as God sees fit, not as we as clergy may want or intend to happen. We enter into God’s story which changes our own stories so that we begin to see the world as God sees it. So set aside your agendas for educating people, and pray to worship and preside so that people sense they are in the presence of the Holy One. To do that, you yourself must be willing to go there first.

  8. Sara, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am not generally much of a Tillich fan but I think his distinction is helpful. This was best explained to me using the example of the American flag: it not only points to something else (it’s not just a sign), it is a symbol, participating in the reality to which it points. To disrespect the flag is to disrespect the country in some real, though hard to define way.

    You are absolutely correct that worship is either about dying to self and entering into God’s narrative or it is about self-aggrandizing narratives that may help, may entertain, may tickle ears – but cannot save.

    1. Pastor Mack and Sarah,

      I tend to understood the distinction between signs and symbols (at least as regards worship) to be between signs, which are static, and symbols, which are not. I think such as distinction, which has to do with phenomenology, is less slippery than Tillich’s. A “symbol” is an act in which sign and thing signified interact, thus action is implied. To give a contextual example, I would understand the bread of the Eucharist to be a sign, while I would understand the act of partaking the bread to be a symbol.

      Tillich’s example of the American flag is flawed, I think, because he mis-locates the source of the symbolizing. The flag is a sign; the interaction of that sign and our own use/understanding of it constitutes the symbol. Tillich says that symbols “participate in the reality of that to which they point.” (Dynamics of Faith). That definition presumes that the meaning of the symbol is created not in a uni-directional but interactive fashion. Thus symbols cannot be static, as signs are.

      Ow, my brain hurts.
      Jonathan Hehn

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