Mark Searle on Liturgy as Critical Pedagogy

Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical RenewalMark Searle, the late Roman Catholic liturgist, has written a number of deep and thought-provoking works. Reading a collection of his essays a few months ago — Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal — I was immediately struck by the quality of Searle’s scintillating explorations of the various topics that he addressed. Whether one agrees with him or not, each one of Searle’s essays provides much food for thought. For various reasons I was prompted to revisit one of his essays yesterday and I thought that I would make a few comments on it.

In ‘The Pedagogical Function of the Liturgy’ Searle explores the manner in which the pedagogical process of the liturgy works. He observes that the liturgy is often perceived in the light of the teacher/taught model of pedagogy. Those following this model will focus on ‘such opportunities as the liturgy provides for explicit teaching: introductions, Scripture readings, commentaries, sermons, exhortations.’

This model is called into question by those who appreciate the broader socialization that takes place during the liturgy. Much of the training that the liturgy provides us with is received by us in unreflective and subliminal ways. The process of education that takes place in the liturgy is a lot less structured than some might suppose it to be.

In the modern environment, the ‘socialization’ that the liturgy gives has been problematized by the pluralism of modern society. There is always a danger that the world into which the liturgy of Christian worship socializes us will be marginalized by the many other worlds in which we are participants. No longer is there the ‘total community’ that once used to exist.

Appreciating the unconscious and subliminal ways in which the liturgy socializes us, many Church leaders and liturgists have sought to determine the content of the liturgy and use it to inculcate the values that they hold to. In many respects this raises the problem of the character of the relationship between Church leaders and theologians and the Church as a whole. If the content of the liturgy is selected by the leaders of the Church as a means to socialize the members of the Church in a particular way, doesn’t the liturgy become an ‘exercise of power’?

In exploring this issue, Mark Searle gives a lot of attention to the thought of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire writes as a committed Christian who has been clearly shaped by the thought of Marx, but seeks to moderate this influence. Freire contrasts the human person with the animal. The animal has an instinctual relationship to the world around it; in contrast, the human person has an openness to ongoing development. We can become more. Searle writes in summary:—

Consciousness enables us to transcend nature and the transcendence of nature leads to the creation of a human world of culture. This happens through the triple process of externalization (images of reality separated from reality in thought and imagination: that is, symbolization), objectification (images are translated into reality in turn through human activity and create a new reality which then confronts us as objective), and internalization (the new objectivity of human artifacts then, in turn, shapes and defines our consciousness). In this way, human beings are constantly transforming the world of nature into a world of meaning by interaction with the world.

As we transform our world in such a manner we will find ourselves confronted with a new socially constructed reality in which objects are defined for us and we are taught to see, interact with and speak of them in a particular fashion.

There is always the danger that this process of development may be abandoned. When this happens, ‘naïve consciousness’ or ‘naïve realism’ is the result. People presume that the world really is as they perceive it to be. ‘Instead of the response to the world being questioning and reflective, it becomes automatic and conditioned by inherited interpretations.’ For naïve consciousness the world is almost entirely predefined and people respond instinctively to it. People cease to appreciate the degree to which their reality is constructed by language.

Freire applies these insights to the situation of Brazil. As a colony, Brazil had a foreign language, social structures, form of religion and the like imposed upon it. This was a ‘reality-construct’ which reflected the world of those in power. This reality-construct soon became normative and led to the development of ‘cultures of silence’, certain ways of seeing and experiencing the world that even the oppressed no longer recognized, since they had taken on the language of the oppressors. The oppressors were even less likely to recognize the tension between their reality-construct and reality itself, as the success of colonization and the manner in which they profited from the reality-construct blinded them to any discrepancies that might exist.

As time goes on the oppressed internalize the consciousness of their oppressors — as the language of the oppressors comes to be regarded as ‘natural’ — and start to imitate the style, values and goals of the oppressors. Even their failure to live up to these values and standards began to be explained in terms of the oppressors’ language. As a result they become alienated within themselves. They work on the terms of their oppressors and cannot ‘externalize’ that which is unique to their own memories and imagination.

Freire argues that, in order for this to be overcome, a ‘distancing’ must first take place. ‘By this he means that the culture which conditions knowledge and subsequent action must itself become the object of knowledge, so that those who have been conditioned by it can recognize its conditioning power.’ People need to learn to recognize the structures in which they live for what they are.

There comes a time in the development of a society when changes in the infrastructure of society make the tension between the way things are and the way that things are described more obvious. This period is one of painful transition. Whilst new realities and questions are addressed, the old conscious can adapt itself to the new situation and persist, seeking to keep any adjustments within the existing framework. Recognizing that cracks in the system are starting to come to light, those in power will seek to salvage as much as they can of the existing order. This is often done through ‘populism’, which involves including people to speak for the masses within the existing power structures. Through ‘populism’ the masses are invited to perpetuate the system and the reality-construct remains largely unquestioned. Contradictions and tensions remain, primarily in ‘the areas in which palliatives are brought to bear by means of pension programs, schooling, health and welfare programs.’

The only way beyond this stage must come through critical reflection on the contradictions that have been masked to that point. The danger is that this process will be hijacked by the Left or the Right, each of which has a predefined future that they want to impose. Rather than seeing the need for continued redefinition of reality and an open-ended future, to be constructed through the process of critical reflection, both the Left and the Right generally believe that they know the way that the future should be and are determined to put it into effect.

Searle goes on to comment at length on the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church imposed a Roman consciousness upon local churches and in which people began to experience alienation as their life experience was not given voice. When individuals failed to live up to the standards of the Church, they were trained to explain it in terms of personal inadequacy and their only hope was to return to the sacraments, which merely reinforced the problem. There was no idea that the very reality-construct that the Church had established might be the problem; for the naïve consciousness the Church’s reality-construct simply is reality and the failure of their experiences to fit in meant that they were somehow less ‘real’. This in turn contributed to a religious/secular divide. These problems, Searle argues, cannot be solved merely by ‘more aggressive instruction and discipling.’

The leaders of the Church should beware of any attempts to predefine the future, but should allow the future to be shaped by the engagement of the whole people in a process of ‘critical reflection and praxis’. The role of the leadership of the Church in this model is more one of enabling. ‘…[I]nstead of being plyers of ideologies and capitalists of grace, they will become facilitators of critical theory and critical praxis in the Christian community.’

How do we go about developing a critical pedagogy? Freire distinguishes between two types of teaching: education as inculcation (the teacher/pupil relationship) and education as liberation, which works as an empowering of those who learn. Either education indoctrinates the pupil into a given reality-construct or education empowers the student to deal critically with their own experience. In a teacher-pupil model, the pupil is the object of the activity of teaching. In the other model, which Freire obviously advocates, the student is seen as the subject of an activity. Learning is a common enterprise, in which others may lead and enable us, but ought not to dominate us.

This mode of teaching makes us aware of the operations of ideology, rather than indoctrinating us with ideology. We are freed to think critically and not just in a naïve manner. Searle returns to the question of the liturgy. He questions what a ‘critical liturgy’ might involve. It must first involve, Searle claims, ‘critical reflection upon the liturgy itself.’ It must also involve the use of the liturgy ‘as a form of consciousness-raising, … an exercise in critical praxis.’ Critical reflection on the liturgy itself serves to reveal the manner in which the liturgy itself has perpetuated oppression. Within the second stage the liturgy serves ‘as the focus of the Church’s continual transformation.’

Searle outlines the process of critical pedagogy that Freire puts forward. The pedagogy is dialectical in character: it moves from action to reflection, from a reflection on action to a new action. There are a number of key stages to this pedagogy. I will list them as briefly as possible.

The process begins with the selection of a ‘generative word’. This word is one like ‘alcoholism’ or ‘unemployment’ which represents a ‘generative theme’ which has thrust itself upon the educator as they have lived among the people. A ‘generative theme’ is one that represents clusters of experiences that represent contradictions in people’s lives. An object (film, story, picture, etc.) representing the ‘generative theme’ is then presented. This enables the situation to be objectified so that participants can ‘transcend the “theme” that they are usually quite immersed in.’ The participants then list the experiences and feelings that they associate with the object.

As the object is discussed, the participants verbalize the themes in their lives. In the process they distance themselves from their naïve consciousness and are able to reflect on the reasons why they may have acted in particular ways. They learn to think more critically about things that they have previously taken for granted.

That which is dehumanizing in the existing situation is then denounced and the possibility of change is announced. This process represents a commitment to ongoing critical praxis. The participants acknowledge the possibility of changing or humanizing the world and then commit themselves to following a specific project, ‘chosen and defined in the process of denouncing and announcing’. The project itself and the process by which it was arrived at must then become the object of critical reflection. In theory, such an approach allows for continual development and change and trains people in a critical consciousness.

Searle looks at the Church and its liturgy in the light of the model presented by Freire. He begins by observing the manner in which the OT assembly was confronted by the judging word of God from time to time and called to commit itself to action to realize a vision for the future. This critical approach to history was lost as the Church became increasingly established. The Church gradually ceased to play a critical role and began to reinforce the status quo.

Searle draws parallels between the liturgy of the Church and Freire’s model. The liturgy of the Church is a public undertaking for the common good, rather than just for the sanctification of the individual alone. Within the liturgy we acknowledge the whole of our reality as ‘call and gift’. This gives us a critical awareness as speech replaces silence. Myths that we are taught about our reality are exposed in this process.

Within the liturgy we renounce sin, Satan and all of his works (apotaxis). We formally commit ourselves to Jesus Christ (syntaxis). This corresponds to the process of denouncing and announcing. Within the liturgy we transform reality through the celebration of the sacraments. People and relationships are transformed in this process. Every member of the Church should know him or herself to be an active participant in the celebration of the Eucharist.

In the preaching of the Word we reflect on the past and are judged and in the Eucharist we anticipate the future kingdom and work towards its future realization. The past is ‘appropriated critically’ in the preaching of the Word and then we act into the future in the celebration of the Supper. The ‘habit’ of the rite prepares us for our ‘critical praxis’ within the world. It helps us to objectify the world and to critically appropriate reality. Through this critical appropriation critical praxis becomes a possibility.

In our celebration of the liturgy, we commit ourselves to a utopian practice. We are not concerned with the mere extension of the present, but in hopefully moving towards an alternative future. By faith we re-describe our reality in a manner that is inescapably critical of current ideologies. This re-description is narratival in character and challenges us to live out a larger Story (N.T. Wright’s Shakespearian play analogy comes to mind here).

As we reflect on the possibility of critical liturgy we can begin to realize the degree to which liturgy has been used as an ideological tool in the past. Searle lists a number of important areas where this can be observed.

Individualism. The Church and its liturgy, which began as cultural phenomena, have become focused on the salvation of individual souls. The ‘reality-construct’ that many Christians now live within has little space for manifestations of sin and grace on the broader corporate level. Many people become alienated within themselves as a result.

Dehistoricization. The Church gave up its orientation to the future. Present social structures were underwritten by appeal to the past and any critical challenge that the Church could pose to these structures was removed as the Church was depoliticized, by becoming almost entirely focused on the eternal destiny of the individual. As the eschatological tension was lost sight of, the impetus for the historical task was lost too. The need for transformation of the present order was no longer clear.

Reification of the real. The ‘really real’ is projected outside of the realm of historical and social development to a somewhat disengaged parallel reality. Access to this reality was limited and could only be achieved through ‘channels of grace’ controlled by a few people. The Church begins to think of the kingdom of God in terms of static, spatial categories, instead of temporal and eschatological categories, supporting a hierarchical and static society.

Searle contends that the Church is only faithful as it is committed to ‘utopian praxis’, by which it calls all other reality-constructs into question. He concludes by commenting on the style of our Lord’s teaching, which was largely ‘nondirective’. He taught as one who subverted people’s worldviews and ideologies by inviting them into new ways of viewing the world through signs and parables. He raised questions, named things and told stories that enabled people to see the truth about the world and their lives within it. He exposed the oppressive systems that people had internalized for what they were. Searle argues that this is the sort of approach that the Church should seek to follow.

I have found Searle’s treatment of these issues to be very helpful in a number of respects. I have a few brief comments arising from it.

Firstly, it is important that we realize that true freedom is participatory in character. We do not free someone by merely acting upon him as an object, but by enabling him to become incorporated as an active subject into a shared communal process. This truth is rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity. We do not possess freedom as individuals, but share in freedom in community. However, freedom has an arche within the community, as it were. The leader of the community is to facilitate and secure the freedom of others within the particular community. When we are seeking to free people from bondage to oppressive structures we need to make them participants in that process. In the Church we need to enable people to become participants in the process whereby they are freed from destructive ideologies.

Secondly, Freire’s model for a critical pedagogy is, on reflection, a model that explains the most effective ways in which I have been freed to address sin in my life. All too often sin can be a theme without a name in our lives. Giving sin a word like ‘sloth’, objectifying that sin, identifying and exploring its various manifestations in our lives and then repenting from that sin in those particular manifestations and committing ourselves to the fostering of the virtues that will replace that sin is a very important way in which we can radically attack sin in ourselves. By speaking in generalizations about sin or falling into habitual ways of avoiding responsibility for our sin we can leave sin unaddressed.

Thirdly, I believe that the Church has much to learn about the manner in which we have imposed reality-constructs upon people from outside and prevented them from giving true voice to the reality of their lives. I think particularly of the role of women in the Church. I believe that feminism has much to teach us about the manner in which men have imposed their reality-construct upon women. Many early forms of feminism, by striving to be equal to men, retained the male as the norm. Post-modern feminist thought seems to be more aware of the degree to which women internalized male ways of looking at the world. Whilst there is a lot of rubbish spouted by some feminists, I think that they do have a number of very important things to teach us. Somehow, through a process of critical praxis, women in the Church need to be trained to critically distance themselves from the patriarchical structures that so often exist within the Church and give voice to ways in which the current situation might be changed. Although I am completely opposed to women priests and bishops, I believe that the role of women within the Church has been seriously undervalued for a long time.

Similar things could be said about certain other groups within the Church. I think of the Church outside of Europe and North America. All too often we have imposed our reality-construct upon churches elsewhere in the world. We marginalize other parts of the Church by the way that we speak of them. We speak of ‘African’ or ‘black’ theology; we do not speak of our theological work as ‘American’, ‘English’ or ‘white’ theology — we just do ‘theology’. When we look at theologians in other parts of the world in terms of such terminology we can think of them as people who are reading the Bible in a very particular setting that quite devalues the relevance of their work for us and yet we think that they should adopt our sixteenth or seventeenth century creeds or confessions!

In the past I have spoken of the place of singleness in the Church (part 1, part 2, part 3). Within those studies I observed the manner in which singles were alienated by the imposition of a narrative upon them. Singles who are ‘alienated’ in such a manner often experience the pain that results as a failure on their part to get married and ‘follow the script’. They often fail to realize that a significant degree of the pain (not necessarily all of it, of course) may be created by the reality-construct that has been placed upon them and may not be due to failure on their part at all.

Finally, one thing that has often struck me is the multifaceted vision of pedagogy that the Church can give us. The Church is a place of catechesis, of exhortation, of mutual discipline, of discipleship, of mentoring, of example of various kinds, a place of critical pedagogy, etc. The Church is a place of continual and communal learning. The learning process incorporates many participants, none of whom have ‘arrived’. The learning process is intergenerational and is not limited to one’s peer group. Much more could be said. However, I think that the sort of vision that the Church can provide for education is one that is not rivalled anywhere else, whether by the State, the family or any other institution within society. The interests of the State will all too often be in the inculcation of a particular ideology, rather than in training in critical praxis. Any tendencies that the Church might have against critical praxis will be even more pronounced in the State. It seems to me that the manner in which the Church can present a vision of many styles of pedagogy and, in particular, a vision of ongoing critical pedagogy, should teach us the importance of Church schools, independent of State control.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to Mark Searle on Liturgy as Critical Pedagogy

  1. Joseph says:

    I think the idea of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is significant in this regard. The church’s liturgy (Orandi) determines its teaching (Credendi). Whereas certainly the liturgy is an expression of the teaching of the church leaders, that liturgy determines what the belief of the church will be down the road. It is no wonder, for instance, that sacraments have been marginalized in our systematic theologies and seminaries, since our liturgies have been teaching us to do the same week in and week out. It is no wonder that the common understanding a person’s relationship with God looks more like a dating relationship, since every week we naval-gaze individually rather than presenting ourselves before God corporately. Probably the greatest means for teaching a thorough-going Christian worldview (reality-construct) is through weekly rituals performed in the church’s liturgy.

  2. MichaelO says:

    From what i read so far, what i find interesting is that Searle – as a Roman Catholic – seems to be affirming what the Reformation tradition has been saying for the past 500 years; that upholding Semper Reformenda – as a ‘critical pedagogy’ w/in the Church should be a paramount concern for all disciples – both church leaders and lay people. So, in that regard he’s showed up 500 years to late to the debate :-)[It seems that the real ‘naive consciousness’ is to remain Roman Catholic under these redemptive historical conditions :-)] However, i do have some reservations about his dichotomy of teacher/pupil education and education as liberation model. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as he makes it out to be. A teacher could be just as oppressive and manipulative in ‘enabling’ the student in the process of learning to uphold his or her respective ideologies as a teacher who pours his knowledge into the student via the teacher/pupil model.
    As far as i’m concerned what determines the outcome of whether there is too much ‘exercise of power’ in the respective models is not a revamping of the socializing schemes inherent in both of them – which just makes it all a complicated tangled web that nobody really understands – but, a return to a gospel proclamation (that the Reformers understood as eschatological and final Word of God) that actually gives the freedom and empowerment in the forgiveness of sins that all men need. Putting first things first, the problem as i see it is not how we may be exercising too much arbitrary power in imposing ‘reality constructs’ upon people who’s life experiences don’t match those constructs, rather the problem is w/ greedy, power hungry wolves in sheep’s clothing who have used the gospel and sacraments to fleece the sheep for their own sordid gain, and who have secured this power and privledge – to be above rebuke – by elaborate clerical titles and honors. And the Roman Catholic Church has made it entirely too easy for such charlatans and hypocrites to hide. I think Peter Leithart said it best when he said that the reason there is still a Protestant *protest* in the world is because the Roman Church in Her conventions and Traditions still veils the gospel Word – which is the only delivering, freeing, empowering, and critical/real Word in this world and present darkness. Arguing about the socializing effects of the liturgy – and how to reform them – while in the belly of Babylon is akin to trying to put out a forest fire w/ a garden hose.

  3. MichaelO says:

    Also, i don’t believe that the common man is so foolish and naive to not see how language – and the way language can be manipulated – can create and inform our reality. (Just look at all the lawyer jokes out there. 🙂 )The problem here again is not ‘naive consciousness’ in general, but that most men are so pre-occupied by the daily grind that they don’t have the time nor energy to get into it. Men can be simple beasts. Give us our daily bread and a comfortable couch after work and we’re content. I think the problem is power-hungry men and laziness and a full belly – not naive consciousness. Just my two cents:-)

  4. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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