To be honest (and the ninth commandment states that I should be), these two chapters are my least favourite thus far. Chapter 7 does, however, bring up some interesting discussion points, so I will spend the majority of my time there.
In chapter 7, Chittister addresses the place of worship in human life. Well, actually, she addresses the place of humans in worship life (thus my very clever flipping of her chapter title). She states that humanity struggles between two emotional magnets: abjection and arrogance (p. 44). Leaving aside the fact that neither arrogance nor abjection can be properly described as emotions (sorry, I found it hard to leave off my editor hat while reading these two chapters), this is, I think, an apt description of the human “problem.” Chittister phrases it this way: “Are we, in our humanity, something glorious or are we, at base, actually nothing much at all? Of the two alternatives, neither is really adequate; both are dangerous” (p. 44).
What Chittister is driving at here, is the human condition of being made in the image of God, but marred by sin; although, interestingly, she never quite describes it like this. Instead, Chittister chooses to describe the human condition without any real reference to scripture, leaving the impression that it is more a matter of arbitrarily assigning either good or evil to the human race. She doesn’t delve beneath the problem to its source: that humanity is good by God’s decision (being made in His image) and evil by human decision (having decided to reject that image and create a new image for ourselves).
What I like about this chapter is Chittister’s answer for this condition. She states: “Only awareness of a universe whose Creator is outside and above the boundaries of humanity can save us from either the curse of futility or the devastating consequences of self-satisfaction unfulfilled” (p. 46). Placing ourselves, rightly, under God’s reign, Chittister asserts, gives us both the assurance of being of value, and the humility of knowing that our value is not unbounded. Her position would be stronger here, however, if she had first gone to the root of the problem: God’s image tainted by sin. What is actually at work in acknowledging the lordship of Christ is that we place our value in Christ’s hands and recognize our need for his redemption. This addition would not, I think, contradict her position – but it would add needed depth.
Chittister then asserts that “it is this awareness of the place of God in life on which the liturgical year turns,” suggesting that the liturgical year not only allows us to walk the line between abjection and arrogance, but also to assist the world to do so (p. 46). Echoing Ian’s earlier comment in response to my post on chapters 1-2 (“is this ‘retracing’ of Christ’s own earthly life really the best/only way to make me a better disciple?” see full comment under Have an Uncomfortable New Year), I wonder whether the liturgical year is the only way to do this. While I do agree that the liturgical year can be a valuable tool as we seek to understand our position before God, I think there are other valuable “helps” for this task, not least of which are the Spirit of God, and the word of God.
My final query regarding chapter 7 regards Chittister’s apparent definition of worship toward the end of the chapter: “Worship is the natural overflow of those who, with humble and grateful heart, understand their place in the universe and live in awe of the God who made it so” (p.48). While there is nothing “incorrect” in this definition, I am disappointed that Chittister doesn’t go further. By this point in the book, I feel that a more thorough working definition of worship (and how worship connects to the liturgical year) would be helpful. Worship is a wonderfully complex concept (as I say in my post What’s in a Word, I could study for fifty years and still only be able to say that I had begun to approach a definition for worship), but quick pat statements like the one above (actually, it’s more a statement about what drives worship than it is a definition) often encourage us to view worship as simplistic and static. This is, of course, one of my hobbyhorses – but I think it’s also a valid critique.
Finally, I would like to briefly address chapter 8, in which Chittister addresses the question of why different Christian traditions celebrate Christmas on different calendar dates. With my editor’s hat on, I would like to suggest that a full chapter on this subject was not required, nor is it helpful. Chittister basically argues that the exact historical date is not important, as we focus on the meaning of the event rather than its exact moment in history. This content could have been easily and quickly dispensed with either in the introductory material, or in the chapter on Christmas. Unfortunately, the expansion of this material into a full chapter adds confusion, as Chittister comes very close to implying that the historicity of Christ’s birth is unimportant, and that the incarnation itself is of lesser import than the death and resurrection of Christ. My hope is that the confusion this chapter creates will be resolved as we enter chapters dealing with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – as I don’t think Chittister would agree with the conclusions that chapter 8 might lead one to draw.
I’ll conclude this post with a few questions to my respondents (which could be anyone who is reading this – but definitely includes Ian and Andrea, my partners in this discussion).
- Do you agree that the inclusion of the concepts of “the image of God” and “sin” would have made chapter 7 stronger?
- What do you think of Chittister’s evaluation of the human condition, and how do you think the liturgical year addresses our condition?
- What is your own working definition of “worship”?
- And did you find something of value in chapter 8 that I missed?