Christina M. Gschwandtner: Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy

Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy Book Cover Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy
Christina M. Gschwandtner
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $75.00
352

Reviewed by: Andrew Oberg (Associate Professor, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kochi, Japan)

The Crucifix and the Candle: Gschwandtner on (Lived) Orthodox Liturgy

I. Stepping into the Narthex

For those of us unfamiliar with Orthodox Christian modes of worship, or indeed those unfamiliar with Christian worship in general, Christina M. Gschwandtner’s text provides an introductory route in while pointing to phenomenological possibilities for a study thereof, but also an account that at times presumes perhaps too much reader background knowledge of ritual form, and hence will have one reaching for a good dictionary (…if online does one still “reach”?). To give the reader of this review some idea of my own inadequacies, I admit having to look up, amongst many others, the term “narthex” – but then used it in the section title here, so that at least is something.

Gschwandtner gives us many somethings in her book, broadly divided into seven distinct topical chapters and framed with unnumbered but important introduction and conclusion chapters. The topics, in order of appearance, are: Temporality, Spatiality, Corporeality, Sensoriality, Affectivity, Community, and Intentionality. Each chapter opens with an overview of the pertinent theological issues as discussed in the Orthodox literature, moves to a review of relevant philosophical concerns from phenomenological thinkers, and then lastly to Gschwandtner’s application of the latter to the former, now finding relevance and now not, seeking to enlighten via her own analyses and personal experiential and/or evidential references. Although there is no sole overarching argument that could be considered singularly sustained (other than, perhaps, that liturgy can be studied phenomenologically), the focus on Orthodox liturgy as lived by its adherents does provide a naturally unifying (although rather broad) thematic thread, and Gschwandtner mentions that in this her work fills a gap heretofore left open by the preponderance of other such studies’ almost exclusive concerns with Roman Catholic perspectives. In the below I should therefore like to more or less follow the roadmap Gschwandtner lays in her chapter divisions, summarizing and commenting along the way, before finishing with some general remarks on the book as such. Let us begin.

II. Standing in the Nave

1. Introduction

In her Introduction Gschwandtner seeks firstly to equip her enterprise with a properly phenomenological methodology by making the case that despite the tradition of dividing religious experiences (and those of God in general, inside or outside religious settings) as transcendent or absolute and therefore apart from the working portfolio of phenomenology – a tradition started by Husserl himself, reinforced by Heidegger, and re-reinforced by more contemporary (French) writers like Marion, Lacoste, and Falque – the tools themselves match perfectly well to the task. Criticizing what she takes to be a false dichotomy (religious experience from the “science of phenomenology”), she states that:

it is hard to see how this neat division can be fully maintained. On the one hand, is it possible to speak about something like an experience of the “Absolute” without the religious structures and practices that give some content to what that might mean? Without some reference to how the Absolute actually has been or currently is encountered, how is this any more than a purely abstract thought experiment rather than the examination of “the thing itself as it shows itself”? (10)

There of course arises here a question of whether it is even possible to write of the “Absolute” (and note that Gschwandtner herself uses those quotation marks/inverted double commas) as itself (or rather, “Itself”?) experienced instead of e.g. the idea of the “Absolute” as experienced, and this query indeed is very much in line with Heidegger’s general objection regarding religious experience as ontic but not ontological – hence fair game for one type of analysis but not another. This is important and is a point we will return to, as does Gschwandtner in her book as her considerations go on, but I raise it here at the outset more to highlight a certain underlying friction than to confront it in depth. That can be – conveniently perfectly Husserlean – “bracketed” for later.

Suffice it to conclude that Gschwandtner’s emphasis is on the essential impossibility of a genuine objectivity as academics’ dissections will inevitably be colored by their own personal religious backgrounds (to whatever degree); her working methodological definition is therefore given as: “As long as it maintains the attitude of the reduction – allowing phenomena to unfold rather than imposing scientific parameters upon them – and investigates the structures and meaning of these practices rather than simply describing particular empirical instantiations, it remains phenomenological.” (12) I am inclined to agree, and whatever his ontic/ontological stance in the matter, I think that Heidegger’s more robust “world” expansion of Husserl’s “lifeworld” concept makes the necessary room available for a reading of this type to be made and position taken. We can arguably consider liturgical structures in similar ways to those we do for other structures of social being, and hence perhaps more accurately put the case as one in which we analyze empirical experiential involvement with notion-related/notion-building praxes aligned with (transcendental) abstractions instead of claiming an explanatory capability for the “Absolute” as such. It is the doing, and the effects thereof, inherent in religion; I believe mentally framing it thusly allows us to agree with both the Husserl/Heidegger cautionary side and the Gschwandtner embracing side.

2. Temporality

On the element of time (Temporality), Gschwandtner writes that liturgical practice involves both memory and anticipation as it is inherently cyclical and repetitive, and that it moreover fuses future and past in the present. The liturgical “world” (or liturgical life or living) is not a linear one, and nor, argues Gschwandtner, is linearity the only way to experience time. (Instances of déjà vu come to mind for me here, where the past seems to spiral into a re-introduced now in a way both remembered and yet felt as entirely new.) Gschwandtner also makes what I consider to be the very apposite point that the rites and rituals involved in liturgy are not merely repeated from one’s personal past but are portions of a legacy stretching for centuries (at least in the Orthodox tradition), and thus the acts themselves are transcendent, we “are thrown into it [i.e. liturgy], and we always come to it in media res.” (55) We might combine these thoughts such that liturgical time is/has become participatory and beyond participation, identitarian and ever-identity (re)forming, and the deeper the heritage received the more deeply so.

One issue of contention I did have in this section was on Gschwandtner’s frequent expression of liturgical references as being to (specific) historical events, which to me as a reader indicated that assumptions were being made about quite controversial historicities, and furthermore seemed to foreclose without discussion that such might be (“only”) narrative truths instead of historical/empirical truths. This is unfortunate, I think, as when it comes to a topic such as described religious experience a narrative truth (by which I mean a non-literal accounting held to be “true” in the soft sense of the ideational truth it imparts – e.g. whatever the veracity of what the New Testament gospels relay about what came out of Jesus’ mouth the tales, if we accept them, could help us live in a manner that may prove beneficial or partially beneficial) would be no less valuable than an historic/empirical truth, and indeed such would likely be more valuable as they would not face the risk of crumbling should the empirical edifice(s) be removed by further discovery.

3. Spatiality

Spatiality is dealt with by Gschwandtner along the pleasingly novel lines, suggested by the Orthodox theologians whose writings she considers, of cosmoses and microcosmoses. The architectural church itself mirrors the “realms of heaven and earth” and the Church’s teachings state that what happens within its walls influence the wider physical world, it is “weighty” space filled with memory and pre-habited by previous worshipers and the presence of the multiple icons that are greeted and venerated upon entry. All of this, Gschwandtner writes, leads to liturgical spaces (those set aside and regulated areas in which defined practices are appropriately performed – a necessarily public aspect) that is intuitively meaningful to believers, but “this ‘meaning’ becomes possible because it is ‘intentional’ space, because it has been prepared by the ‘intentionality’ directed towards it and organized in concrete ways that allow for an intuitive experience to occur.’ (72-73)

One does wonder if by this assertion Gschwandtner does not think it possible for a non-Orthodox Christian or non-Christian altogether to be able to intuit meaning from participating in (to whatever extent is allowed for an “outsider”) – or perhaps only by observing – the liturgy since at least some shared intuitive reactions appear possible given what is common across religious and/or sociolinguistic lines, yet an argument is not forthcoming and the question is probably anyway not pertinent enough to warrant one. For those in the Orthodox “world” or “lifeworld” the sacral space adds layers of experiential content that become meaning-making while being always reinforcing of the doctrine the faithful have accepted as participants, with subsequent experience rising or falling by the degree, one would think, of that acceptance. The more fervent one believes in the veracity of what one is engaged in while within that specialized area the more potently it is likely to be felt.

4. Corporeality

In her highlighting of the performance aspects to liturgy Gschwandtner makes a case that these result in a form of training, aimed at an alteration in adherents’ lifestyles, which is centered in the present act of doing and thus is neither a threshold nor a crossing (e.g. into another way of being). The transformation (or “growth”) that is espoused here is evidently an evolutionary one, attained over a long(ish) period of time through repetitive physical practices that “through” the body also affect the “mind, emotions, and affects… [teaching or training one] to be ‘bent into’ a shape that allows it [i.e. the body; the rendering of such as “it” is revelatory and we will need to comment on this] to be receptive to the call addressed to it in liturgy.” (92) Gschwandtner moreover argues that the penitent stances taken in Orthodox liturgical acts like bowing to one another, hugging one another, confessing before one another, et cetera, amount to a manner of being that is more authentic than the one Heidegger has famously promoted because it is more revealing of the self than a defensive or protective mode would be, and that this “more authentic” way “may not ultimately be about a resolute grasp of one’s own being (as Eigentlichkeit in Entschlossenheit), but instead an exposure and offering of one’s self to the other – whether divine or human.” (97)

I have some real problems with the thoughts in this section, but the most minor first. I am not sure why a less personally defensive attitude/behavior vis-à-vis the social realm would by itself be more authentic in a Heideggerean sense, and without further defining what she means by “authenticity” I am afraid we must conclude Gschwandtner is using the term in this same Heideggerean manner (particularly given her references to him). If so, then why her version should be perceived as more (or greater) than the “self-examined, self-sufficient subject, in charge of its own life and thought” (as she relates Heidegger’s “authentic self”, 97) at least requires some form of argumentation beyond the assertion that exposure of oneself drops the “covering up” typical of everyday being, that mode (the “everyday”) that is inauthentic. There may be good reasons for this, but I should like to know them from Gschwandtner’s point of view before considering the point further.

Another, and deeper (at least for me), issue I have with this chapter is that I sense an unacknowledged dualism lying behind Gschwandtner’s account. As indicated above, her phrasing of “it” (the body) as conduit through which mind, emotions, et cetera, become reformed or reshaped implies the body being understood in a “vehicular” sense as regards the mind, and even perhaps segregating “emotions and affects” (and I would like the latter defined as well if they are to be cut out from the former) further yet. This is certainly not the place to enter fully into the discussion, but the centrality of the mind/body question in philosophy historically and still (perhaps more so) today calls, I think, for a more delicate treatment than is given here. If we reject a Cartesian model we find ourselves approaching instead one where mind is emergent in some way from the workings of the brain, and the brain is clearly (merely) one part of the body, thus mind is not something to be trained “through” the body, it simply is body and the training of one is the selfsame and simultaneous training of the other (although there is no “other”, really!). Thus it is only a single training of a unitary node, and if we insist on delineating mind out of body (or affixing labels like “mind-body unit” rather than “person”) we only perpetuate the Cartesianism we thought we had left behind. All of this naturally requires argumentation as well, and again sadly this is not the place for that, and it may even be that Gschwandtner accepts Descartes’ account, but she does not state so and does state that the corporeal is centrally important. Hence as a reader I find myself left wanting.

This dimension of mind/body, or mind-body, or mind and body, raises my final objection, one that falls along experiential lines. Gschwandtner writes that “We do not leave the world behind in prayer – at least not in any way that would be phenomenologically discernible” and “to assume that encounter with the Absolute [i.e. in liturgy] constitutes a radical break with the world is a theological interpretation, but no longer a phenomenological description of actual liturgical experience or of the overall structures it displays.” (96 and 97, respectively) These quotes occur in the context of arguing against Lacoste’s position in his Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man (trans. by Mark Raftery–Skeban. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.), and Gschwandtner’s objections are valid and interesting as far as that goes, but purely with regards to the actual phenomenological situation engaged in prayer or the thoughtful (willed) practice of liturgical ritual I take them as amiss since in deep prayer it does feel like we leave the world, break radically with it, and this I think is what generates the ontic side that is phenomenologically discernible and describable as such. Indeed perhaps the structure of liturgy when viewed from an external Husserlean observer (or the like) framing does not, but that is distinct from the experience one undergoes when directly executing that structure and/or pouring oneself into prayer (as opposed to only mouthing the words emptily, for example). Once more aspects of mind are relevant, and will too, which actually is Gschwandtner’s final main chapter (Intentionality), and so let us now behave like the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and leave the body by the wayside, carrying on down our road.

5. Sensoriality

This chapter deals with the spectacle, as it were, of Orthodox liturgy, and of especial interest was its treatment of icons and the Eucharistic meal. Gschwandtner describes how in Orthodox churches the sheer multiplicity of icons makes one feel as if one were being viewed by them “from everywhere”, and how due to the inverse perspective employed by the images this aspect of “watched” is further enforced, as opposed to a more Western approach of outside or objective contemplation (we might shorthand this as “being before” versus “standing before”: in the former we are present perhaps with entirely other considerations, in the latter we are present purposely to enact an observation). The notion of oneself as passively surveilled by surrounding holy icons is an intriguing – possibly disturbing – one, and Gschwandtner adds that liturgy can even be overwhelming with its sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes. Yet, she also warns, “the bedazzlement comes from the sensory experience itself, not obviously from a ‘phenomenon of revelation.’ Certainly the experience can be interpreted in that way, but that is an activity of interpretation, not the immediate phenomenological experience.” (118) Furthermore, on this aspect of interpretation and specifically in regards to one’s reception of the Eucharist, that:

What ought to be clear up front is that phenomenology makes no metaphysical or ontological claims about what the eucharistic [sic.] body “is”; language of substance and accidents or of a correspondence between the material of the bread to the sacrificed body of Christ cannot be sustained phenomenologically and are not really experienced, even when they are “believed”. (121)

I think Gschwandtner is certainly correct on the first point here but I am not so sure on the second. Interpretation is another issue altogether from the phenomenological peruse, whether about a potential revelation or the ontology of the bread and wine used in a Eucharistic rite, but on my analysis a fervent belief in X would be sufficient to generate an experience of Y: the qualia would all be there, it would “feel like” one were eating the “sacrificed body of Christ” in a way that would be altogether separate from the physical taste sensation involved yet would nevertheless still be there experientially. It might be objected that such would only be psychological, but is not the psychological just as much a part of human phenomenology as taste or touch? Again, we must come to terms with mind/body, mind-body, mind and body, what have you. An “as”, I think, can without question feel enough like an “is” that whatever the abstract definitions may indicate, for the subject in her being an equality is established.

6. Affectivity

On this central area of feeling we continue. In this section Gschwandtner distinguishes between the emotions an individual has (or may have) during the time spent in liturgical ritual and the constructing mood(s) of the ceremony itself, that “one can say more fundamentally that the experience of liturgy is never ‘neutral,’ but always characterized by an essential ‘atmosphere’ that is sensed on multiple levels”, and moreover such become foundational parts of what is the “fundamental phenomenological liturgical attitude of openness to each other.” (138 and 140, respectively) It is clear that Gschwandtner hereby establishes two stages upon which liturgy operates (or within which a worshipper engages): the personal and the communal (which indeed is her next chapter: Community), and it is interesting to think as well that the latter might be emergent from the former in at least some ways even while it influences and generates particular affects in its participants, differing, one would presume, in degrees that are highly dependent on the many other embedded factors involved in each believer’s wider life. On the whole Gschwandtner emphasizes the shared experience inherent in liturgical feeling (if we may compound a phrase like “liturgical feeling” – would these not simply be “standard” feelings that happen to be experienced in or generated by the activities of liturgy?), and exalts this process somewhat by declaring that it “acknowledges our finitude and frailty and gives them room for expression in the various demonstrations of guilt, sorrow, and even despair”, and then furthermore adds that it also “allows for a redirecting and even transforming of disabling and destructive emotions and directs them toward a deeper underlying affect of contrition, desire for forgiveness, and determination to change. It cultivates new dispositions…” (141).

The Aristotelean-type virtue ethics implications at the end of that last quote match her earlier remarks on the self-building potential of liturgical practice, but again such are contended to occur “across and via the body and expressed through and by it” (141), appearing at first to maintain either by an unacknowledged default or with purpose the dualism we previously saw presented. However, Gschwandtner does state thereafter that “These elements [i.e. emotions, affects, dispositions] are always already intimately connected, separated only in thought or description, not in experience.” (141) While I would like a clearer parsing of her usage of emotions, affects, dispositions, moods, feelings, et cetera, and how she might consider them differentiated, the more holistic approach to mind/body as evidenced in this chapter is quite welcome. Emotions, as one portion of our ever-ongoing biological functioning, are after all an excellent example of the difficulties involved in (and undesirability of) trying to force a dividing line between the mental and (other dimensions of) the physical.

7. Community

As alluded to immediately above, Gschwandtner places much emphasis on what is experienced in common within liturgical settings, and naturally rightly so. In this her portion on the communal properly considered, she evocatively reminds the reader that the very term “liturgy” means “work of the people”, that it is plural and is something designed expressly to make of its parts a unified whole. What is perhaps of especial interest is the claim – justifiably, I think – that this “plural” is both a before and an after, constituted by one’s (either literally familial or “familial” in a looser co-religionist way) ancestors and predecessors in the faith, and too an inheritance that one will oneself someday bequeath, assuming that one brings one’s children into the same grouping or otherwise engages with others’ children who have been so brought in. The cycles of doing the same things with the same people at the same time of year, year after year, cannot but act as an adhesive, garnering strength by and for the social.

The social may, however, cut both ways. As her topic is within Christianity Gschwandtner calls in the notion of sin to argue that liturgy does not accuse but rather opens space for the recognition of fault and its necessarily – or so she asserts – corresponding loneliness into a re-entry of community, forgiveness, and transformation (see especially 165). I admit that I find this a bit too generous with regards to that heavy idea of “sin” (and guilt) that we in Western cultural traditions are so (overly) familiar with. By its very remonstrations and recognitions of what is wrongdoing and requires (demands?) the requesting of forgiveness from the divine and/or one’s fellows liturgy very much acts in an accusatory role, supporting and based on the reinforcement of dogma which functionally establish the defining features of “sin” and without which one would have a very different (or none at all) conception of personal fault. Is polyandry a sin while polygyny is not? How would the community react if one sat (and stood and knelt, et cetera) with one’s multiple husbands in an Orthodox liturgical service? Of course multiple wives would not be accepted in this instance either, but I do not raise this counterfactual imagining to compare matriarchal societies with one approach to marriage versus patriarchal societies with another, I simply wish to highlight that however much the liturgy might claim “all have sinned” or employ phraseology like “I am the worst of sinners” uttered in unison (examples Gschwandtner references), the fact of the matter is that one will have individualized guilt pressed upon one in a liturgy that includes such abstractions as “sin”. Possibly this is rightly so, possibly it is extremely beneficial for human sociality and modes of existence to be structured in this way; my argument is not against that (but neither is it for it), I mean only to point out that in such religious settings as the various Christianities execute in their liturgies (of course other religions too) accusation will not only occur but be inevitable. Orthodox Christianity might have a milder version of accusation – I honestly do not know – but it will be present. If such further builds the community it might be a price some consider worth paying, but that is an issue beyond our scope and Gschwandtner does not raise it.

8. Intentionality

The final main chapter in Gschwandtner’s work concerns itself with the question of will in experience and the phenomenological (study) role thereof. Initially she makes what is probably the rather self-evident case that within a liturgical context a hermeneutics will always be bound up with an experience, that whatever a believer might take from a period of liturgy and then apply to their thinking and living as an instance – a gift – of revelation, a previously held prejudice towards such an interpretation is required. We come into liturgy with certain expectations of interaction on spiritual planes and not only community ones – sometimes they are met and sometimes not, but for such to ever be met they must first already be there. Note that this does seem to close out miraculous interventions like Moses’ encounter with the burning bush as relayed in the third chapter of Exodus, and this “pre-packaged” stance is affirmed by Gschwandtner when she writes that, “God does not come in entirely unforeseeable, unpredictable, utterly overwhelming fashion, but whatever is experienced in liturgy is experienced in temporal, spatial, corporeal, sensorial, affective, and communal ways that have been prepared for us and precede us.” (181)

Many believers may wish to take umbrage with Gschwandtner on this, and the Biblical record at least does contain many narratives of God doing precisely that and appearing out of the blue, but our concerns in the present are more down to earth. The notions of will and expectation have already been broached in our thoughts on the Introduction, and here we return to them. There is undoubtedly a manner in which the conceptual set held by an individual will act to influence and/or produce the perceptual within that person’s “lifeworld” – Husserlean horizons, core to any decent phenomenological undertaking – but how Gschwandtner approaches this makes one think immediately of Heidegger’s “ontic but not ontological” objection to the study of religion, and in that we find ourselves having looped right back to Gschwandtner’s opening arguments for the methodology she employs, only this time now questioning whether she has not been on shaky ground all along.

Moreover, I think it fair to raise the facet of meaning here too, because even if these liturgical/revelatory experiences are purely self-generated they would remain as experiences for the experiencer, and in that one would think deeply personally meaningful and meaning-generating. Such would also remain, whatever metaphysical status may or may not be attributed by others to the reported instantiations of revelation, the divine, or more broadly numinous. We find ourselves pondering these queries when Gschwandtner then rescues herself and us along with her through the riposte that, “Phenomenology instead (albeit not in opposition [that is, to hermeneutics]) examines how such [interpretive] expectation is marked in human experience, how it shapes the self, what it does to our bodies, minds, and emotions.” (182) Save for the repeated buried dualism lingering in a segregated triad like “bodies, minds, and emotions” we appreciatively agree.

9. Conclusion

Gschwandtner’s summary largely focuses its attention on what she considers the perceived benefits of liturgical practice to be (self-transformation, self-opening, finding the “sacred” or “holy” in the everyday, discovery of transcendence, et cetera), but she does also directly return to Heidegger’s comment on appropriateness (i.e. theology is “merely” ontic while phenomenology is ontological), answering it with: “Religious expression – maybe especially engagement in ritual practices – do reach a primordial level of human experience (assuming levels must be distinguished in this way in the first place.” (201) Again, this is intended as a rejoinder to Heidegger’s stratification, but as far as I can understand the distinction being made, Heidegger’s emphasis is on defining and not reaching. However that may or may not be (and I might be off mark myself), what I take Gschwandtner’s very apposite final thought to be is that any phenomenological concern with experience of the divine is one for and about human experience, and that “can be examined as such, without theologically extrapolating in regard to the existence or nature of God.” (202)

III. Peeking Under the Altar

Finally I would like to make some very brief general comments on the book as such, as a book. Gschwandtner writes with a welcome transparency and obvious wellspring of knowledge that runs extremely deep, especially when it comes to phenomenologists in the French tradition, and her chapter structuring of firstly reviewing background Orthodox theological concerns, background phenomenological concerns, and then applying each to her own concerns vis-à-vis liturgical praxis was clear and easy to follow. It was also, however, unfortunately rather surgical and I found myself engaged with the text only in rare instances.

There is a tendency too towards repetition, in which a particular point is made and then immediately remade via rephrasing; both this aspect and the general style adopted made me think that the work is perhaps aimed at an undergraduate audience, meant to be used as a course textbook. Naturally there is nothing amiss with that, and anyone teaching a subject where this might fit could well benefit from its inclusion; I mention it only as an impression imparted. What would really have helped my reading experience (phenomenology!), however, would be the inclusion of a glossary for the detailed and undefined Orthodox and/or broadly Christian terminology that Gschwandtner frequently uses. I am not sure why the publisher did not include a listing at the back or a similar device (I presume this was an editorial decision, but perhaps it was an authorial one), but terms like troparion, kontakion, Theotokos, Pascha, ekphrasis, Aposticha, parousia, eschaton, and kenosis will in likelihood only be fully understood by a small set of readers, whereas a text internal guide or reference would be gratefully accepted by all. Those issues aside, scholars of whatever sort will find food for thought in Gschwandtner’s work and an addition to the subfield of the phenomenology of religion that is ready for comparison with other studies that either do not overtly cover liturgical matters or do so from a differing tradition.

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