Worship and the Cartesian Man

James K.A. Smith writes:—

I had the opportunity to “experience” a version of one of these services in Geneva (Service 10, “Queer”). This was going to be my first “emerging” worship experience, so I came with much anticipation. And I was not disappointed (I still have the shard of broken tile I took from the service). However, I was struck by one thing: the service was remarkably Protestant. By that I don’t just mean to toss out an epithet or a label. I mean it as a shorthand. By describing the service as “Protestant,” I only mean to say that I was surprised at how “heady” the service was, and how text-driven and text-centered the worship was. (Granted, we were just a few yards from John Calvin’s church, so maybe the sermon-centric vibes of the Reformation had wafted over.) While the service included key affective elements (the man’s body being marked by epithets, the very tangible pieces of broken rocks and tiles we could touch), this was happening around a very textual, cognitive, rather sermonic center. Granted, this wasn’t your grandpa’s “three point” sermon or anything, but it still required the sorts of cognitive processing that characterizes text-centered Protestant worship.

Now, why does this matter? Why focus on this point? Well, I think one of the key paradigm shifts that took place in modernity (particularly after Descartes) was the adoption of a new model of the human person that considered the human to be primarily and essentially a “thinking thing”—primarily a cognitive mind that, regrettably and contingently, inhabits a meaty body. As a result, the primary and most important activity that thinking things can undertake is, you guessed it, thinking. This shift manifests itself in the life of the church with the Reformation, which displaced the centrality of the Eucharist (a very tactile, affective, sensual mode of worship) and put the sermon (the Word) at the center. The heart of worship becomes “teaching,” and the shape of worship becomes driven by very cognitive, basically rationalist tendencies. This develops to the point of caricature in the evangelical worship service centered around bullet points on the PowerPoint presentation.

Despite the “postmodern” critiques of religion offered by Derrida, Caputo, et. al., I find that they continue to exhibit this modernist paradigm insofar as they still think that religion comes down to a matter of knowledge (or rather, not knowing). And I wonder if we don’t see the lingering effects of this in the liturgies sketched in Part 2 of How (Not) to Speak of God. Granted, this isn’t a pure rationalism—there are aspects of affective embodiment, and they are ‘liturgies,’ after all; but I do wonder whether they’re still not primarily “driven” by quite heady, cognitive, didactic concerns. In this way, they tend to reflect the kinds of wrestlings and wranglings of a certain class who have had the opportunity to get to have such doubts.

Perhaps I can put a point on this: for me, one of the tests of whether worship is properly “holistic” (and thus animated by a holistic, non-rationalist model of the human person) is the extent to which my children can enter in to worship. (Because of a certain worshiping community I’ve been a part of, I’m also attentive to the degree to which mentally-challenged adults can participate in worship as a criterion.) In the “Queer” service, my kids—who are, I think, pretty sharp—would have had a hard time ‘keeping up,’ had a hard time understanding what was going on. They would have been intrigued by the curiosities of the “marked man,” etc., but there was ALOT of words to process and they would have been lost in a sea of ideas.

I would contrast this to the affective simplicity of a traditional Tenebrae service on Good Friday (a “service of shadows”). While the service is organized by Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, there is not much else text or commentary. Instead, there is the simple amalgam of words, candles being gradually snuffed, sounds and silence. My children, from when they were little, sit enraptured by this service. Its affective simplicity testifies, I think, to a pre-modern understanding of the person as an affective, embodied creature—rational, sure, but not primarily rational.

This is why I wonder whether, for the future of the church, we really need to invent something new, or rather creatively retrieve premodern sources. While some are trying to imagine a new future for the church “after” modernity, I’m betting that the future is Catholic.

I am not sure that I would go quite as far as Smith does here, but I think that he makes some important points. In particular, I think that he is right in observing a connection between a particular — and rather questionable — understanding of the human being and the manner of worship. Protestant worship (and Reformed and Puritan worship in particular) often operates on the assumption that man is primarily a thinker. The rationalism that underlies many Protestant conceptions of worship has been observed by James Jordan and others like him a number of times in the past. The irrationalism that characterizes much contemporary evangelical worship is also largely a reaction to the rationalism that is seen to be the alternative.

Operating with a rationalistic definition of the human being, the worship service must downplay the body and focus on addressing itself to the mind. Candles, incense, clerical vestments, kneeling, processions, silence (except as a time for thinking), fine church buildings, and even in some cases music itself, are seen as distractions from rational worship, which should be removed. Elements of worship such as the Eucharist become increasingly treated as affairs of the mind. The Eucharist is reduced to a sign to be verbally explained, mentally interpreted and reflected upon.

Significant changes in my anthropology and in my view of worship over the last few years are by no means unrelated. Study of the Scriptures, self-reflection and engagement with others have progressively disabused me of any belief that I once held that we are primarily rational creatures. God addresses us at levels far deeper than our rational consciousness. I also believe that the idea that Scripture chiefly addresses us at a rational level should be questioned. The idea that Scripture always speaks first to our minds just seems wrong to me. This does not mean that the Scripture bypasses our minds altogether. However, it means that when the Scripture commands, exhorts, rebukes, comforts or encourages us, our minds are not the primary part of our make-up that God wants to engage with what is being said. God’s Word often addresses itself to our chests, before it ever speaks to our minds (or even to our hearts).

The narratives of Scripture are not primarily there to be picked at by our intellects, but to reform our imaginations. Intellectual reflection on the typology of biblical narratives, such as that which often takes place on this blog, is always a secondary activity, an articulation of something that should be grasped by the trained instinct of the person whose imagination is steeped in Scripture. There is always the danger that people will presume that the mind can substitute for the imagination. Reading a lot of books on biblical typology and symbolism will not reform your imagination in the manner in which attentive and receptive reading of Scripture can (although books on biblical typology can help you learn to be more attentive and receptive).

This is one reason why I like when passages of Scripture are read in Church services without being expounded in any way. Preaching is undoubtedly important, but if God’s Word is only encountered in the form of the preacher’s text — or as something to be rationally expounded — we can miss the point. The reading of passages apart from a preached explanation can encourage us to engage with the Scripture with our imaginations, just as we engage with other narratives and stories.

In my own personal reading of Scripture I often read and reread the same passage half a dozen times or even more. I try to practice listening attentively to the text and try to resist the urge to immediately explain it. I have found such an engagement with Scripture to be of great help in enabling me to imaginatively engage with the text. I begin to pick up things that I would have missed had I adopted a more scientific approach to the study of the text. I might later try to articulate these things in a more ‘scientific’ form, but they were not arrived at by a regular scientific method. It is precisely through holding my rationality back from immediate engagement with the text that I begin to understand it at a deeper level.

In understanding the fact that man is not primarily a rational being, it is helpful to remember that most human communication is non-verbal. This is why liturgical training of the human body in posture, gesture and vesture is so important. As human beings we were designed to communicate with the entirety of our bodies and to receive communication with every part of our make-up. Much of the communication that we give is pre-conscious, as is the manner in which we receive much that is communicated to us. Often the most significant truths that we communicate or receive are the ones that we communicate or receive without even knowing that we are doing so, or without even thinking about it. Good liturgy can train us to communicate in Christian ways subconsciously, not just consciously. It can also communicate powerfully to the youngest person present in a way that a rationalistic service cannot.

There is a common polarization between the heart and the body in much popular Protestantism. It is presumed that if worship is primarily a matter of the heart then the body is relatively unimportant. The problem with this view is that it is quite unscriptural. The Scriptures frequently teach us what we need to do with our bodies. The separation between heart and body is one that exists because of sin and hypocrisy. The Scripture calls us to an integrated loyalty of heart and body. It calls us to a ‘hearty’ performance of bodily actions.

As I argue in the post that I linked to at the start of the previous paragraph, in the Scriptures heart and body are bound together to the extent that the heart cannot truly communicate itself apart from the body. To the extent that rationalistic Protestantism resists ‘body language’ in prayer (kneeling, arms up-raised, prostration, etc.), for example, we must ask to what extent it is failing to pray as truly as it ought.

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.
This entry was posted in Quotations, The Blogosphere, The Emergent Church, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Worship and the Cartesian Man

  1. Jim says:

    When the reader becomes the object of concern or the center of interest in connection with the Biblical text, the Reformation has been abandoned.

  2. Matt says:

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here.

    But some, such as Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin, are quite aware of this sort of critique from JBJ et al, but continue to promote the centrality of preaching on Biblical grounds. They say that the church we see in the book of Acts is indeed engaged preeminently in teaching and instruction, and this is because it has reached a stage of maturity that was lacking in earlier eras. Schlissel uses an analogy: we don’t just throw the New York Times into an infant’s crib, but we read picture books to children and let them play with painted letter blocks. If the child never progresses beyond the blocks, there’s a problem. Just so, he would say, symbolism and physicality in worship is important if we are to avoid being gnostics, but the preached word really does have primacy of place in the inter-advental church. That is, he attempts — successfully or not — to ground his logocentrism on the Biblical narrative, not on Cartesian or Gnostic folly about the mind and heart.

  3. Al says:


    That is a fair point. I firmly believe that preaching has a very important role to play in the Church and that its neglect cannot but anything but detrimental. Whether it is to play the central role is something that I think needs to be debated. I have yet to be convinced, but am open to being convinced on this point.

    As I said in my post, I do not want to go as far as Smith does, although I believe that he makes an important point. Downplayingthe significance of the preached Word is not the way to go.

    There are further things that need to be unpacked here, before true discussion can take place. What is preaching? Part of my point is that preaching all too often is rationalistic. It need not be. The forms of preaching that have been popular since the Reformation have not always been healthy. Good preaching addresses the Word of God to the human person in a far more ‘holistic’ manner and thus avoids much of the critique that I have made above.

    My big point is to question the centrality of the mind in worship to the exclusion of the other elements of our human make-up. This position is not necessarily incompatible with a belief in the primacy and centrality of preaching. Logocentrism is not necessarily the same as the centrality of the mind.

  4. garver says:

    Rambling commences…

    There does seem to me, in Scripture, to be a relative contrast between word and image – the spoken and the visual, faith and sight.

    It is certainly only a relative contrast, since the divine Logos himself is the express Ikon of the Father, the one whom John says their eyes had seen and hands had handled – and it is he who is the content of the Gospel.

    Moreover, the architecture of the tabernacle and temple suggest that the visual is not irrelevant, though it does seem de-centered, radically so alongside the idolatry of the pagans surrounding Israel. So, as de-centered, the visual image seems to take up a role circum sacra in service to the sacred center, rather than at the sacred center itself, which is reserved for the Word.

    But here’s where things get interesting. From Genesis 1 onward, the divine Word is always an active, creative Word that, together with its effects, takes the character of an event. And that event is also, at the same time, the personal presence of God himself.

    We see this come together in the Person of Jesus as the incarnate Word, who does not merely speak, but also enacts the presence of God and is himself at the same time the personal presence of God to his people.

    Liturgically this seems to me to suggest that Christian worship is irreduceably Word-centered, but that biblically speaking, the Word of God comes to us not only as spoken-word (proclamation, preaching, absolution, blessing, etc.), but also as event-word (baptism, eucharist, anointing of the sick, laying on of hands, etc.) and person-word (the assembly itself, liturgical dialogue, the peace, etc.).

    Since it is God’s Word that comes to us in liturgy – actively re-creating and renewing us as the people of God – we need to take care to place at the center of our worship those ways of speaking, acting, and one-anothering that Scripture authorized, models, and inculcates, for these are the means that have God’s promise to be present and to save attached to them. But when these are at the center, it seems to me that some kind of balance can be achieved that doesn’t neglect the human person’s wholistic integrity.

    That doesn’t exclude, I think, various sorts of circum sacra that are contunuous with, consistent with, and support the Gospel Word (e.g., vestments, advent candles, various gestures). But the Word of Gospel itself (coming to us in speech, action, and person) is the norm by which such adiaphora must be shaped and assessed.

    This is where certain sorts of “emerging” worship (or Anglo-Catholic worship, for that matter) strike me as problematic when they begin to eclipse these central, biblically authorized manifestations of God’s saving Gospel Word.

  5. Al says:

    Helpful thoughts, Joel.

    I must confess to a dislike for many forms of emerging church worship. Many seem to involve a failure to aspire to a Scripture-governed worship, something that seems to me to be fundamental. I also fear that the rituals explicitly detailed by Scripture can be lost amidst the unhelpful accretions. This is one reason why I found it difficult to agree entirely with what Smith said in his post; he seems to be far less committed to the principle of Word-centred worship.

    Properly used, I believe that candles, vestments, incense, fine music, beautiful church buildings and the like represent a scriptural glorification of worship and that such glorious worship is something to be aspired to. However, as you point out, our worship must always be Word-centred. With that, I am in 100% agreement.

    My problem is that to far too many people ‘Word-centred’ means ‘preaching-directed-at-the-mind-centred’ and is also seen to necessitate minimalistic worship with no allowance for glorification according to an ‘analogical principle’. As you point out, God’s Word comes to us in many different forms and even in the form of the spoken word, I would argue, it is, maybe even more often than not, not addressed primarily to our minds.

  6. benjamin says:


    The wrong attribution on my site has been corrected. The internet can do strange things to a man’s mind.

  7. Benoli says:

    I like your comments. However, do you ever question if you are not caught up in seeing man as primarily a rational being also. I love your blog, but doesn’t it primarily communicate to the mind and not the imagination and “chest”? We are all to some degree products of our time. I have difficulty not thinking like a disciple of Decartes. I would rather spend my time reading blogs like yours than reading poetry or novels or going dancing.

  8. We have been discussing similar things over at ReformedCatholicism.com of late and the above comments certainly add some amount to our discussions about these things.

    I would be more inclined to give preaching a more central place in liturgy if in fact the preaching that goes on today were the sort of preaching it should be. No doubt the service of our worship and the celebration of the sacrament comes pre-packaged and wrapped in the proclamation of God’s Word but to say that preaching is somehow the end result or the hearing of God’s Word preached is the culmination of worship is an error in my view. Even in the book of Acts we see the early Christians gathering daily for prayer and communion with one another and with God. No one is saying that the preaching that took place is somehow unnecessary or to be downgraded to the level of optional, but even the sermons and preaching are tilted towards union and communion with God and not mental assent and propositional knowledge of the gospel.

    If the Word truly is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, we must have a preaching and proclamation of God’s Word that reflects such a reality. Sitting on a stool and doing it Mr. Rogers style, pretending that an object lesson is what is required as faithful to a biblical view of preaching, exegeting the Westminster or other Reformed confession, or micro-exegeting passages line-by-line with heady appreciation of what the ‘original languages’ have to say just won’t cut it. There has to be a kerygmatic presentation of Christ and His work and a recalling of the mighty deeds of our Lord God. When sermons start to surface on that level and with that sort of focus, I’ll be ready to move over just enough to talk about the centrality of preaching once again. In other words, when sermons return to a biblical focus that presents Christ to us as powerfully as the sacrament does, more power to those who would call the preaching of God’s Word central to the liturgy.

  9. Al says:


    Yes, you are right: even when we reject Descartes it is hard not to have our thinking shaped by him. I am not sure, however, that there is anything wrong per se with a blog that primarily addresses the mind, provided that the writer seeks to develop all aspects of his person in a Christian manner and the readers don’t merely engage with God’s truth on a mental level. That is to say, hard intellectual theology is good in its place, but it badly needs to be complemented by many other activities. Of itself it is quite incomplete.

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