A theologian once told me that philosophy and theology are two approaches that have the same object of knowledge, truth, but they come toward it from different directions due to their respective natures. According to him, philosophers stretch their hands toward heaven, playing with their fingers in the sky. On the contrary, theologians stretch their hands from heaven toward the earth. Coming from two different places, the fingers of philosophers and theologians become intertwined. Brian A. Butcher’s volume, Liturgical Theology after Schmemann. An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur, takes place on the stage of this encounter, bringing into dialogue Orthodox theology and contemporary philosophical problems.
Such an endeavor, while truly needed, always proves to be difficult, primarily because one needs to explain the benefits of this encounter between philosophy and theology. Does liturgical theology benefit from philosophical work? Do we understand a philosopher’s ideas better if we apply them to the study of the liturgy? The answers to these questions bring to surface both the virtue and the inherent problems of Butcher’s volume. On the one hand, his work is a remarkable excursion into Paul Ricoeur’s work, which emphasizes themes that remain at the core of theology: personhood, memory, symbol, and interpretation. On the other hand, it is difficult to establish whether we are dealing with a work in liturgical theology or one of philosophical exegesis. The double nature of the work is suggested by the two parts of the title: first, the impression is that we are dealing with a book that discusses the future of liturgical theology after Alexander Schmemann’s work; second, we are told that the author focuses mainly on an Orthodox interpretation of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy.
Be that as it may, the connection between Ricoeur’s philosophy and theology is an appropriate one. Even if Ricoeur ‘s work referred to the liturgy only tangentially, as Butcher’s acknowledges, his analyses of memory, symbol, metaphor, or personal and communal identities “offer liturgical theology a plethora of resources” (2). I take it, though, that this work of bringing together Ricoeur and liturgical theology generates a question: whether the use of these philosophical resources improves theology, or whether it shows that philosophical methods and theological methods may arrive at similar conclusions. Butcher’s book does not engage this question directly, and this leads to some lack of clarity as to how it should be read. It takes as its starting point liturgical theology as developed by Alexander Schmemann. One should not expect, however, that Butcher writes in the vein of Schmemann. In fact, Butcher criticizes him and his alleged claim that, throughout history, it is not the liturgy that has changed, but its interpretation. Butcher is in accord with various critiques of Schmemann which accuse him of rejecting prior interpretations of the liturgy because they are interpretations instead of revelations of meaning, while he, Schmemann, does not acknowledge that his work is an interpretation as well. I think, however, that Schmemann’s claim that we have departed from the liturgy is interpreted too radically by them, which has led to a misunderstanding of his work. I take it that Schmemann starts from the idea that we can find the meaning of the liturgy in the experience of the service itself. His critique was directed toward those who, in his perspective, considered the liturgy a symbol removed from that which it symbolizes. For him, however, liturgy is similar to an icon: it does not represent reality, but rather it makes reality present. If I am correct in assessing his approach, we can say that Schmemann advocated for a partaking of truth in the analysis of the liturgy and criticized what he perceived a discussion of the liturgy as a mere symbol.
Butcher departs from Schmemann and is more interested in finding a philosophical methodology that is applicable to theology. After the initial critique of Schmemann’s thought, he engages it only in passing, focusing rather on Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach found in his philosophy, and thus analyzing how his methods of studying a text can be applied in liturgical theology.
The first obvious concern is the appropriateness of using Western philosophical tools for Eastern theological discourses, and Butcher engages this problem in his first chapter, arguing successfully for his approach. He emphasizes that Ricoeur’s work has already borne fruit in some Western theologians’ analyses of the liturgy. He believes that Ricoeur’s work can enrich the field of theology because the French philosopher shows that the nature of symbolism, “liturgical or otherwise, [is] to engender nolens-volens a multiplicity of meanings” (15). Butcher continues, “this is so because symbols, particularly as represented verbally through the work of metaphor, do not merely adorn a meaning equally accessible in a nonsymbolic, or nonmetaphorical manner. Instead, they give rise ex opera operato, so to speak, to original thinking, to a creative redescription of the world” (15). This attribute of Ricoeur’s approach can lead us, Butcher believes, to a liturgical theology that goes beyond that of Schmemann. The author’s perspective is well described by the quote I just mentioned and it shows the difference between his and Schmemann’s views. Butcher follows Ricoeurian thought, and so he begins from the perspective that symbols are meant to produce a creative redescription of the world. Schmemann is not interested in descriptions, but rather in how symbols bring in people’s presence the reality of the Kingdom. He should not be read as claiming that symbols have only one valid interpretation, but that any interpretation is irrelevant in the absence of communion between man and the deeper reality that the symbol brings forward. For Schmemann, I would argue, symbols do not interpret reality, but rather allow us to commune with it.
The two approaches are not contradictory, and we would be mistaken in placing them in opposition. Instead, they approach the same thing from different directions, as in the image with philosophers and theologians stretching their hands towards the sky. Nevertheless, I think that clarifying the difference between the two of them would be helpful. This is particularly so in the second part of Butcher’s volume (chapters 3 and 4). Here, the author analyzes the role of the metaphor in religious language. First, Butcher offers a convincing description of Ricoeur’s application of metaphor to the biblical text, emphasizing the polyphonic naming of God. God, for Ricoeur, becomes a limit-expression, “i.e., an expression that cannot be fully thought specifically because it dwells at the frontier of thinking” (73). Butcher dwells on this idea and develops elegantly the directions in which it can go, pointing to the perennial question of what kind of truth can be expressed in a metaphorical utterance. In the fourth, the author continues this approach, providing a rich discussion on metaphor.
When analyzing Biblical texts, one must always clarify how one understands the connection between that which is expressed and the expression itself. Butcher points out that Ricoeur’s analysis of metaphor is useful because the Bible speaks of events that are ineffable. The question is whether language can foster a connection between these events and the one who reads about them. Butcher gives the example of the Incarnation (92). If it is completely ineffable (92), then there are no accounts of it. “But if ineffability does not altogether preclude description (and, in turn, inscription) then the resultant texts—whether treating of the Incarnation or the Shoah—ought to be duly subject to analyses in keeping with their genre” (92-93). But one may allow for the possibility that we can look at these “descriptions” not as representations of some events, but rather as openings toward them. If we apply this to the liturgy or to sacred texts, then we could claim that the liturgy or these texts can be understood as places that make present the Kingdom of God on earth. Butcher does not travel on this path, though. It is true, however, that the effort of these pages is concentrated on clarifying Ricoeur’s thought and defending it against accusations that his view on metaphor (1) ignores “the uniqueness of the events attested in Scripture,” (2) subverts “the due authority of the Bible by making this authority a function of the believing community,” and (3) subscribes “to a perilously subjectivist notion of biblical ‘truth’” (91).
Butcher rejects this criticism (proposed by Graham Ward and others), emphasizing primarily that Ricoeur is not a subjectivist. Consider, for example, the claim that Ricoeur’s philosophy entails that the authority of the Bible is subordinated to the believing community. As a consequence, the community takes precedence over the sacred text. Still, even in a Ricoeurian analysis, one may say that the Bible has precedence even if, at the same time, the Bible must be read within a community, and this is because the community is the one that receives the revelation, and not because the community, as an entity different than an individual member of the community, tells him or her how to read the Bible.
Butcher, however, says that, “because Ricoeur appreciates the historical process by which the Bible was produced and canonized, he is reluctant to speak of its authority apart from the community integral to this process” (93). The possible implication of this is still that the community establishes what is true and not true in the Bible. The solution arrives in Ricoeur’s claim that “metaphor by its very nature points to the unsayable” (101). If this is the case, then even if the sacred text points to the unsayable, it does so within a specific community, and thus it depends on the community while it is connected with a truth beyond it.
The discussion on whether it is possible to meaningfully say something on Divine Being is not new. The question has often been raised, in theological as well as philosophical discourses. In philosophy, it becomes this: is it possible to have logos about the Logos? Is it possible to ever understand the deep structure of reality? Is it possible to ever reach an understanding of God?[i] Butcher moves immediately to the difference between the kataphatic and the apophatic ways. It may prove helpful to also consider a distinction between studying as observers and studying as participants. The observers contemplate their object of study and give more or less complete definitions of it. The participants cannot distinguish themselves from the object of study because there is no such object to begin with, but rather only relation in communion. Consider this example: if we were to claim that our role is to understand the divine being in Trinity and thus offer definitions of what nature and personhood are and how these definitions can be applicable to the three divine persons, then we place ourselves in the positions of researchers who study an event (again, using the notion loosely) from the outside. Similarly, those who study the song of birds describe the various sounds they make, the sequence of the sounds, the movements, the relations between them, but are never able to sing with them. The birds themselves do not “understand” the Song—they are in the middle of it; they are living it. They have it in their hearts. The birds’ song is not their Song, but it is the Song that is sung in them on different voices. The Song takes place in their midst only when they are coming together with their own voices. But one can see here that the Song is both the beginning, the source of their singing, and also the end. The Song is that which nourishes them and that which is expressed in their communion. The Song is that which lives each one of them—the Lord in their hearts. At that moment, the personal logos is nothing else than the glorification of the Logos, its joyful expression. In the tradition of someone like Vladimir Lossky (to whom Butcher will refer in the third part of his work), Orthodox theology has this precise aim: to glorify the Trinity in the union between the “knower” and Divine Being.
If Orthodox theology contemplates the divine being, this contemplation cannot be done from the outside, but from the inside. This means that the contemplation of the Trinity is not analysis of it, but its glorification: the birds sing not their song, but rather the Logos of the universe. Vladimir Lossky says that Christian apophaticism transforms rational speculation into “a contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity” (50). The negative way of apophatic knowledge cannot be, though, only this, a negative way. If it is understood as a method, apophaticism inscribes itself in a list of methods from which one may choose in one’s attempt to achieve knowledge. In some respect, apophatic knowledge stems precisely from a preference for a way of approaching knowledge. However, if it is to be Christian, apophaticism begins in love. Contemplation of the divine stems from the thirst for being, if I may use Mircea Eliade’s phrase (64). If we consider the example with the birds, contemplation of their Song stems from the thirst for this Song which awaits its birth in them.
In fact, any time we approach metaphor and truth, we are also called to give an account of knowledge, and Butcher does exactly that in various parts of the book. In Chapter 6, he shows that the notion of truth at work in the liturgy “constitutes just that kind of truth eligible for the designation ‘attestation’” (138) that we have in Ricoeur. Attestation is not knowledge in the sense of episteme, but neither is it belief in the sense of doxa, in the sense of opinion that has no given justification. Attestation goes beyond these categories—it does not lack justification in the sense that justification is not applicable to it. As Ricoeur proposes, “attestation belongs to the grammar of ‘I believe in’” (see Butcher 138), and so it corresponds to testimony—I would even say to glorification. Butcher reminds us of Ricoeur’s important discussion about the one who engages in attestation, the witness. In “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” the French philosopher shows that the agent of attestation is the figure of the martyr. Butcher cites Ricoeur saying, “Testimony is also the engagement of a pure heart and an engagement to the death” (Ricoeur, Essays in Biblical Interpretation, see Butcher 141). Ricoeur’s observation is remarkable and it engenders a discussion about the recognition that takes place in the liturgy, which, according to Butcher, is best seen in the exchange of gifts, the moment of the kiss of peace. There are various aspects that Butcher mentions here, and I think they can be furthered developed. First, the exchange of peace takes place between persons who recognize each other as witnesses by the very fact of participating in the liturgy. At the same time, the exchange is personal: it is performed with someone who maintains his ipse-identity, different than mine, and different than any other person’s, and thus making the exchange unrepeatable. This idea correctly leads the author to mentioning Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of face, which, as he says, reveals the otherness of the other (147). But Butcher rejects too hastily that it is possible to behold this “Levinasian” face because, “all that is unveiled, as with Moses on Mt. Sinai, is the shekinah or glory of the Lord—and this from behind” (147). I think, however, that in a liturgical context, the one who is revealed—and the one to whom people also give testimony—is the ultimate Other, Christ. One can also find scriptural textual support in Jesus’ own words, in John 14:7: “If you had known me, you would know my Father as well. From now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Since Jesus proclaims that he himself is the truth, as Butcher reminds us, perhaps one could find here even more reasons to point to attestation. The one who testifies to Christ in the liturgy, the ultimate Other revealed in the face of any other, testifies also implicitly to the Father, the one whose shadow was seen from behind on Mount Sinai.
The third part of the book is the strongest and most germinal. It focuses primarily on self-identity and how Ricoeur’s notions of self apply to the interpretation of the liturgy. There are two reasons for its germinal nature. On the one hand, the text abounds in information, and the author has some powerful intuitions. He proposes that Ricoeur’s analysis of memory can “chasten the hubris of a facile historicism” (151), such as the one proposed by Michael Aune, who believes that liturgical theologians would have to focus more on historical research. Calling on Vladimir Lossky’s discussion of the Church’s tradition as holy memory to support his thesis, the author reminds us of Lossky’s view of Mary’s life “as the paradigm of anamnesis” (160). However, while Butcher agrees that a historical approach may “yield a wealth of insights” (160), he also shows that this cannot “replace the qualitatively different, existential engagement with the past that is memory; the past as lived from within” (160). In doing so, he places himself in the tradition of a Lossky or a Schmemann, and he does so by summoning Ricoeur to his defense: “According to Ricoeur, the former [the “objective” historical approach] depends in great measure upon the latter [subjective memory]” (160).
On the other hand, the text abounds in questions that need further elucidation. The author has a habit of proposing interesting avenues by asking questions that suggest an answer already formed in the author’s mind. But the connections the readers should make between what is stated and what is implied are not always that evident, and are in need of a deeper analysis. For example, on page 163, at the end of the section, “The Crisis of Testimony: Experiences ‘At the Limits,’” the author asks two questions. He begins, “Do not ‘incredulity and the will to forget’ threaten the memory of the magnolia Dei that Christian worship attempts to preserve through a manifold deployment of poetic and aesthetic resources?” Then, after just a few lines, another question ends the section: “Does not this dichotomy impel the very mutation and multiplication of forms of worship to which liturgical history bears witness, while also occasioning the atavism within this same history of iconoclastic (and fundamentalist) movements—as well as the perennial presence of mystical currents eschewing corporate prayer altogether in favor of silence and solitude?” (163). Both questions purport to be rhetorical, and asking such questions seems to belong to the author’s style. Nevertheless, their frequency throughout the book can be frustrating.
The final section focuses on the Great Blessing of the Waters, the liturgical service that is best suited to a Ricoeurian analysis. Indeed, while one may say that a liturgy is the revelation of the body of Christ, the Church, that is formed in the coming together of worshippers, the Great Blessing of the Waters has a revelation at another level as well: it is the moment when, according to Tradition, the Trinity is revealed. Both God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove attest and witness to Jesus’ divinity. To my mind, this service can provide the occasion for an analysis of human work of attestation in the likeness of the divine self-attestation, but Butcher does not go in this direction.
Butcher’s volume is a tour de force, in which the author exhibits a wide awareness of the scholarly work in liturgical theology and Ricoeurian studies. While I believe that it leaves certain aspects not fully developed, focusing, perhaps, too much on a description of various responses to Ricoeur’s work instead of deepening the analysis of the ideas that the author proposes, it certainly emphasizes the need for an increase in dialogue between contemporary philosophical work and theological studies.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Orlando: Harcourt, 1987.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
[i] I acknowledge that, taken separately, each of these questions can be understood differently in its own right. At the same time, the use of Logos is quite liberal; I do not imply here Christ, but rather the Logos used in ancient philosophy, the one of Heraclitus, which one may not utter, but may hear behind the various particular utterings of people.