Real Absence

It is popular these days to ask how traditional Christian beliefs and practices are faring in a postmodern world. A book that offers a postmodern reflection on liturgy and sacraments, especially one written by an esteemed liturgical scholar from the University of Notre Dame who is also a columnist for the magazine Worship, is therefore bound to generate considerable interest not only among academics but also among church professionals and the laity. They will find, however, that this book is not quite what it claims to be, and its content is problematic.

Nathan Mitchell’s Meeting Mystery is billed as “an introduction to liturgy, worship, and the sacraments, for beginners.” The book is structured like a course. Each chapter discusses a topic, ends with a “conclusion” that recaps what was said, and supplies questions for reflection and books for further reading. Mitchell is known for displays of erudition, and Meeting Mystery fairly bristles with quotations from poetry, fiction, the literature of postmodernism, theology, papal statements, church documents, the Talmud, the Bible, and books about Eastern religions.

What may dazzle graduate students, however, does less well as a book intended for “beginners.” The trouble begins in the first chapter, where Mitchell relies heavily on the work of the French postmodernist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) and his psychoanalyst collaborator, Félix Guattari (1930-92). Deleuze and Guattari are controversial figures: Deleuze for his metaphysics of difference and his insistence on violence as characteristic of all genuine thought; Guattari for his radical politics, from his early Trotskyite days to his late post-Marxist attempts at “soft subversion” of capitalism. They are also controversial because of their practice of intentionally misrepresenting facts about other philosophers in order to draw novel conclusions. Alas, the ideas of these thinkers are visited upon the reader without caveat or context.

Indeed, Mitchell embraces uncritically their notion that the postmodern world must be viewed through the metaphor (“optic”) of crabgrass. Yes, crabgrass. Rhizomes such as crabgrass have complicated root systems, are variously connected, and spread out in all directions. Thus the crabgrass “optic” supposedly reveals the world as antihierarchical and multicultural, a random and unregulated web of connections. Following Deleuze and Guattari, Mitchell presents the alternative metaphor of trees (“arboreal thinking”), as not only outdated and false, but also actively productive of evil ideologies.

What are the consequences of the crabgrass “optic” for liturgy and sacraments? Beyond the rather slender observation that many aspects of worship are interconnected, the long buildup to this new vision does not really get us anywhere. Does Mitchell foresee that the postmodern church will abolish hierarchy, quit striving for visible unity, and abandon the notion of tradition? He does not say so explicitly, but perhaps this is a bit of “soft subversion.”

There are very few data about actual liturgies here. The book is a study of concepts, and it is sometimes unclear what the real-world referents of these concepts are. The words ritual, liturgy, and worship are used interchangeably, and at times even metaphorically to refer to interactions normally termed ethical or social. Most beginners I know would find the book confusing and put it down by the end of the first chapter.

Those who persevere will find that, despite reference to many, varied sources, the thought of Deleuze and Guattari underlies almost the whole work. In their view, all real thought is violent and subversion is key to growth. Thus, we are told liturgy is a place where “meaning is banished,” and that to participate in ritual one must be ready to “stop making sense.” Metaphors “tell the truth by lying.” Liturgy is “meeting” not meaning, and the meeting is a violent clash. What worshippers “meet” in liturgy is absence, not presence. The empty tomb is crucial, whereas the Resurrection appearances serve only to point out Jesus’ subsequent disappearance.

Later chapters present Jesus as a cultural critic whose behavior redefined social relationships. Jesus is a “nobody” who spoke in parables intended to shock. Ultimately, though, the greatest shock liturgy has to offer is Christ on the Cross. In his suffering and death, Jesus is the opposite of what God is supposed to be. If Christian ritual effects a meeting with the crucified Christ, it must confound its participants. Thus, Mitchell claims, liturgy resembles the transforming moments that Flannery O’Connor painted in many of her grotesque stories and novels. It slaps you in the face.

Once Mitchell has dispensed with any consoling presence in liturgy, with any intimation of God’s nearness except through abandonment and absence, all that is left is the slap in the face. If, having been thus assaulted, the faithful reach out in service to the poor (why they would is unclear, but that’s the thesis), this “verifies” the liturgy.

Many problems merit attention in all this. I will highlight only three. First, in the book’s scheme of things, the poor are presented as the object of the church’s solicitude, but rarely as the church itself. The call to serve the poor verifies the liturgy, but the poor are not presented as the liturgy’s agents. In real life, of course, the poor make up a great proportion of the church. They are in fact the majority of Catholic worshipers. If one reckons with the real church, any analysis that presents the liturgy as a prophetic assault on the privileged must be rethought.

Second, although the gospel inevitably challenges human pretensions and sin, is there not a foundational experience of grace that precedes and indeed enables human beings (and communities) to rise to that challenge? The many dimensions of the liturgy as a vehicle of grace are obscured by the decision to focus almost exclusively on the dynamics of shock and subversion.

Finally, and most important, readers will rightfully ask not if the book is entertaining or thought-provoking, but if what it says about liturgy is true. Unfortunately, in many instances the answer is no. People do experience consolation and divine presence in the liturgy, metaphors are not appropriately described as lies, and liturgy is not very much like crabgrass.

Meeting Mystery sets out, Mitchell alerts the reader, to be daring and to say what is not said in other books about liturgy. In the final analysis, however, the book ends up being willfully idiosyncratic and not particularly helpful.

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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