The God We Worship [Book Review]
Most of what passes for liturgical theology is really theological reflections on liturgy; rarely is a truly liturgical theology attempted. This is a driving assumption behind an interesting new book by the eminent philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff titled, simply enough, The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology. In his new tome, Wolterstorff examines the liturgy with a very particular project in mind: “to uncover the fundamental presuppositions of the Christian liturgy.” (17)
Wolterstorff relies throughout on a couple of guides for this task, one Orthodox and one Reformed. From the East, he frequently draws on Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s masterful little book For the Life of the World, a classic in liturgical theology originally written for Orthodox youth. From the Reformed tradition, the reader often encounters J.J. von Allmen, from his 1965 book Worship: Its Theology and Practice. The author references these two works regularly and plays them off one another in helpful ways. Moreover, the specific liturgies referenced throughout include a similarly ecumenical variety: the Catholic Mass, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and Orthodox Divine Liturgy are the most commonly examined.
At this point, you are likely tempted to think this is only of interest to those who practice and/or teach “high church” worship. To be certain, this is frequently the connotation that “liturgy” possesses, particularly among Protestants. On Wolsterstorff’s reading, however, this is a mistake. “Christian worship is liturgical when it is…the scripted performance of acts of worship,” he insists in the introduction. (8) Note that a “script” is not necessarily written down; liturgies, including highly regulated and written liturgies like Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer, often contain unwritten actions and gestures that are not written down and vary from place to place. Woltersorff goes so far as to claim, “I know of no body of Christians who get together for worship whose worship does not take the form of liturgical worship.” (9)
The God We Worship then unfolds in a logical sequence, focusing on what is, on Wolsterstorff’s reading, “implicit” in the liturgy. God is first worthy of worship (thus Christians express reverence, awe, gratitude, and other attitudes in the liturgy); God is vulnerable (for if God is worthy of worship and does not receive it, God has allowed Godself to experience injustice); God participates in mutual address, which in turn lends itself into an understanding of a God who listens (and then hears favorably), and who speaks. Wolstersorff concludes by ruminating on what understanding of God is implicit in the Eucharist. Here he draws heavily on Calvin, concluding “This is a form of communion that goes far beyond that which takes place in mutual address; indeed, it has no close analogue in human interactions.” (161)
From the description thus far, the reader who is interested broadly in worship and liturgical theology may note that this book sounds quite different than many books usually placed in those categories. That instinct is correct. Wolterstorff is, in a real way, treading new ground here. If he’s correct, making explicit the theology implicit in our common liturgies offers not necessarily a corrective on the broad Christian tradition, but a different accent.
“Liturgical theology does not contradict…other forms of theology; at many points, it overlaps them. But it has its own distinct configuration. Much of what it highlights, the others place in the shadows. Liturgical theology highlights God as listener and God as vulnerable. Conciliar-creedal theology says nothing about either of these.” (167)
Wolterstorff acknowledges in the conclusion that those initiated into the tradition of liturgical theology will find this volume “highly idiosyncratic,” and I would concur. He concludes by noting an assumption that is, shall we say, implicit throughout: most of what is usually called “liturgical theology” are really “theologies of liturgy,” including the master works of his interlocutors Schmemann and von Allmen. (169-170)
Time will tell whether theologians and liturgiologists will take Wolsterstorff to task for his innovation or not; at the very least, The God We Worship is a unique and ambitious treatment of liturgical theology. While not always easy to read, and with one vexing Wikipedia reference to divination that made me curse out loud when I read it, this is overall both a fascinating and important reflection. If Wolterstorff is right, along with others, that worship is quite simply what the church exists to do, we shall need more such guidance in the future, and the Body of Christ will be blessed should he and others continue to develop this new avenue in liturgical studies.
Thanks to Eerdman’s for providing a review copy of this volume.