Philosophers and their religious practices part 14: Experiencing the presence, love, and forgiveness of God through the liturgy.
September 11, 2015 — 5:31

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

This is the fourteenth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 45678910, 1112 and 13. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.

This interview is with Michael Rea, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.  Most of his work to date has been in metaphysics and philosophy of religion.  The project that is currently occupying most of his time is a book, and a corresponding set of lectures, on the hiddenness of God.

Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?

When people ask me about my religious upbringing, I usually say that I grew up in a liberal PC-USA church with a renegade conservative Calvinist youth minister. That characterization is misleading in certain respects, but there is more truth than falsehood in it.  Probably the best way to illustrate the divide is with a story.  The church was (and still is) located in Redondo Beach, California—just a couple of blocks from the ocean, and just 26 miles by boat from Catalina Island, where we held our summer youth camps every year. Our camp was popular; every year some 100+ high school students attended; many would commit or recommit their lives to Christ around the campfire at the end of the week, and the ranks of our youth group were accordingly swollen for months afterward.  Some of the students at camp thought that it would be extremely cool to be baptized in the ocean right there at camp; and so one year, our youth minister—not yet ordained, and not yet even a seminary graduate—obliged them.  (“See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?”)  Predictably, the youth minister was brought before the elders of the church. His defense appealed to scripture: Philip did not wait to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church before baptizing his Ethiopian convert; so why should he?  The response from one of the elders was, “Don’t bring the Bible into this.”

Our youth minister was a charismatic leader; he captured the hearts and minds not only of the high school and junior high students, but also of the twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, and even some of our parents.  We were, in effect, a conservative evangelical congregation within a more-or-less liberal mainline protestant church.  The pastor to this congregation—our youth minister–was a five point Calvinist who embraced the absolute inerrancy and authority of scripture, the absolute sovereignty of God, the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer, and the importance of living a life unashamed of the gospel and actively striving toward growth in the fruits of the spirit.  As the baptism story would suggest, he—and many of the rest of us—were much more about trying to follow the leading of the spirit in obedience to the word of God than about respecting Church order.  Our concept of prayer and worship were (as is typical in conservative evangelical congregations) deeply relational:  when we had a choice, we sang contemporary love songs to God rather than the old, theologically rich hymns; we preferred spontaneous prayers rather than pre-written ones. (Even the Lord’s Prayer was considered by some to be “empty recitation”.)  The best liturgy was no liturgy, for then the spirit could move.

Fast forward a few decades.  I now find myself in a Christian Reformed Church—Dutch Calvinism rather than the Scottish Calvinism of my Presbyterian roots—one that places high value on a thoughtful, artistic liturgy, and one whose music is a blend of contemporary love songs and old traditional hymns.  In this church, the various ritual elements of Sunday worship, the texts of the Common Lectionary, and the seasons of the liturgical year and the various different practices that have traditionally gone along with them are all seen as vehicles through which the spirit moves and in which God is present to believers.

One of our congregation members, a historian whose research focuses on the history of American evangelicalism, has characterized our church as one that tends to attract highly educated people with somewhat conflicted relationships with their conservative evangelical backgrounds.  That is a reasonably apt description of me.  I still identify with the Reformed tradition.  Thanks to the still-lingering influences from my youth, I have always been most at home in Calvinist (as opposed to, say, Wesleyan, Anglican, or Lutheran) churches.  I still tend to self-identify as evangelical, too. This is mostly because I embrace very traditional views about God, Jesus, and the gospel message, as well as traditional views about the nature of scripture (as divinely inspired, and as true in all that they teach). But there are quite a few stereotypically evangelical views about what the Bible teaches (e.g., about human origins, gender roles, and so on) that I reject.  Herein lies my unease with the label.


I’d like to ask you to elaborate on the ritual elements of Sunday worship you mention, and the other practices. Could you say a bit more about how you experience those practices, and maybe a bit more about the practices themselves so non-Christians/Calvinists can get a sense of what happens? 

Every church that I’ve attended has some kind of regular order of worship.  In a very minimal sense, that order of worship—whatever it is—is a liturgical ritual.  In some churches, it is merely the order—e.g., welcome, songs, sermon, more songs, offering, announcements—that comprises the liturgy; in other churches, the regular elements are more formalized, and often more complex and detailed.  The high-church/low-church distinction might be roughly characterized as the distinction between churches whose liturgies contain relatively lots of formalized and complex regular elements and churches whose liturgies don’t.

I say all of that by way of preface to this:  My current church is maybe mid-way between what I think of as ‘high-church’ and ‘low-church’; and I think that several of the ritual elements might not even be recognized as such by a lot of people who might attend or hear a description of the service.  It’s pretty common for “low-church” congregations to think of themselves as having no real liturgy.  I think that’s a mistake, but it’s an easy one to make if for no other reason than that it might seem a bit overly dramatic to describe the “Welcome” or the “greet-your-neighbor” time as a ritual.  Part of what I appreciate about my church, though, is that it has helped me to recognize a lot of the ordinary-seeming activities of our church as genuinely important liturgical acts. Here are a couple of examples.

In our church, the “greet your neighbor” time goes under the label “Passing the Peace”.  Passing the Peace follows the corporate Prayer of Confession and the Declaration of Pardon.  Altogether, it goes like this:  The liturgist offers some brief thoughts by way of preface to the prayer of confession (and this part is always written by whichever person—pastor or layperson–happens to be serving as liturgist that day); then together we pray aloud a rather generic prayer of confession (which often includes a moment for silent confession too); then the liturgist declares, in the name of God (and on the strength of what we all know from scripture) that our sins are forgiven; and then we turn to one another, saying “The Peace of Christ be with you.”  Now, we all have plenty of mornings where this happens mostly by rote, our minds are wandering, and so on; and I’m not going to pretend that this is a deep experience for me on every Sunday or even most Sundays.  But when I enter into it in the right frame of mind, it means a lot to me.  I must first own up to myself and then to God that the things being said in the prayer of confession are true of me; then someone reminds me in the Declaration of Pardon that I am forgiven; and then—this is can be particularly powerful—I turn to whomever is sitting near me, maybe someone with whom I happen not to be entirely at peace that day, and say to them (in full mind of my own sinfulness and the fact that God has forgiven me), “Peace to you” or something along those lines. It reminds me that we ought to be at peace with one another; sometimes it contributes to the creation of peace where previously there was strife.

Here is a second example: Different churches do communion (the Eucharist; the Lord’s Supper) in different ways.  When I was growing up, we always passed it around in trays: ushers would stand at the end of each pew with trays of bread and juice (often Protestant churches don’t use wine, though I’ve never bothered to investigate why) and we’d pass them one to another taking the elements as they come to us.  In my current church (as in lots of other churches) communion is served up front:  members of our council (elders and deacons) stand holding baskets of bread and trays of juice; congregants line up, approach with hands out as supplicants, and receive the elements.  When the lines are exhausted, the people who have been serving the elements to the congregants then turn to one another and take turns holding their hands out as supplicants and receive the elements from their partner.  It doesn’t have to go this way, of course.  The people holding the elements could serve one another first instead of last, and they could refrain from approaching in quite such a supplicatory posture.  They could do any of a variety of different things. But precisely because they could do it in different ways, I’m moved by the way that our church does that last part.  What seems to be communicated is that nobody is elevated over anyone else; all of us, ministers and congregants alike, receive the sacrament from our fellow fallen creatures, coming forward as supplicants, hands out to receive (as is said in the liturgical script leading up to the communion) the “gifts of God for the people of God”. That’s not to say that doing it differently would communicate something bad of course; it’s just to say that I’m particularly moved by what is communicated by the way that our church does it.

So far I’ve been answering the “how do you experience these” questions by gesturing at how the symbolism of the ways in which we do these things impacts me. I haven’t said much about finding the presence of God in these liturgical acts.  That might seem an especially glaring omission in the case of communion.  In Catholicism, the elements are the very body and blood of Christ; and many other traditions teach, at the very least, the “real presence” (even if not the substantial presence) of Christ in the Eucharist.  I think that many people in my own church would affirm that, in some sense, Christ is present in the Eucharist; even more would affirm that it is a “means of grace”. I’m not even going to try here to say anything philosophically rigorous or satisfying about what these claims mean; that’s too much to try to accomplish in a blog interview.  But I will say that my experience of communion (or other aspects of the liturgy) as vehicles by which I receive some kind of grace or in which I experience the love, forgiveness, or bare presence of God varies with the degree to which I approach these activities attuned to the fact (as I believe it is) that God’s love and presence can be experienced in them. It’s sort of like this: I have some artwork that my daughter made for me for my birthday. I can experience her (and her love) in that artwork or not; but doing so depends a lot on how I look at it.  It’s also sort of like this: There is a mental illness wherein people come to believe that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors. I think that if I were to come to believe something like this about one of my family members, there is an important sense in which I would cease to experience their personal presence, even though I would obviously still experience their physical presence.  When I bring the right sorts of background beliefs to various aspects of my church liturgy (or to my own personal prayer time) I genuinely take myself to be experiencing the presence, love, and forgiveness of God.


You say that in the church liturgy, with the right frame of mind, you are experiencing the presence, love and forgiveness of God. In the literature on divine hiddenness, one of the questions is why there is a lack of such experiences. Given that you are currently working on a book and series of lectures on divine hiddenness, could you say how you see the relationship between hiddenness and liturgy?

I think that part of the problem of divine hiddenness is the fact that unambiguous experience of the presence of God seems not to be widely or readily available.  I don’t, of course, mean that it is wholly unavailable.  The Bible seems to present God as talking with Abraham and Moses in just the way in which you and I might talk to one another; and the writings of mystics like Hildegard of Bingen or Teresa of Avila also describe extremely vivid experiences of God’s presence—dramatic visions, audible voices, intense ecstatic experiences, and the like.  Many contemporary Christians also report hearing from God in one way or another. It is not uncommon for people to talk about God telling them to do this or that, for example; and often enough these kinds of experiences are accompanied by something like a vision or a voice.  However, I think that relatively few people nowadays have what philosophers would describe as a completely unambiguous experience of the presence of God; and I think that even the people having the experiences I have just described would acknowledge that it is not as if just anyone can have such an experience whenever they want to.  And this connects up with the problem of divine hiddenness in the following way:  if you think that someone loves you, you naturally expect that they will make their presence readily available to you (when it is in their power to do so; when you are receptive; etc.); but it looks as if God hasn’t made God’s presence readily available to us; and so it looks as if we should not think that God loves us.  (Those familiar with the literature on hiddenness will recognize this as a rough presentation of line of reasoning developed much more fully and carefully by J. L. Schellenberg.)

As I see it, however, the liturgies of the church are one vehicle through which the presence of God is more widely available.  Not universally available, of course, since many do not have access to the liturgies of the church, and many who do have access to them still do not quite know how to find the presence of God within them.  Even so, the establishment of church liturgy is, I think, one component to an overall answer to the question of how God has given us access to God’s presence.  Experiencing the presence of another person is heavily dependent upon what we believe about whatever it is that mediates their presence to us—whether it be their body, a telephone receiver, ink on a page, or something more unusual like a work of art or the orderly arrangement of objects in a room.  Absent the right sorts of beliefs about the medium, we will fail to experience the presence of the person—even when the medium is their very body.  With the right sorts of (true) beliefs, however, there are all manner of ways genuinely to experience the presence of another person.  And so it is with the liturgy.  To the extent that one truly believes that God speaks through the liturgist in the Declaration of Pardon, or sits as audience to the songs of worship, I think that one can genuinely experience the presence of God in these things.

I admit that, at least initially, this isn’t the sort of answer one might hope to get to the question, “How can I experience the presence of God in the liturgy.”  One reason is precisely the ambiguity to which I alluded earlier:  my experience of God as audience to my worship songs is certainly no less ambiguous than the more vivid experience of the charismatic who “hears” God during prayer tell her to go serve as a missionary somewhere. Part of the problem all along was that clear, unambiguous experiences of the divine presence seem not so readily available. So it might seem unhelpful to point out that experiences of God’s presence are available through the liturgies of the church if it turns out that those experiences are no less ambiguous than various others that people are reporting.  Another concern is that many people go to church believing that God is there as audience to the singing (say), and believing that they can experience God as audience to the singing, and yet fail to have any experience that they recognize as an experience of God’s presence. Most of the time, I am one of those people. So there is a lot more to be said here—more than I can say in this venue, obviously.  Part of what I’ll want to say in reply is to challenge the idea (latent in the concerns just raised, I think) that differences in the ambiguity of people’s experiences of God derives from differences in the manner in which or degree to which God is present to different people. I’ll also want to argue that experiencing the mediated presence of another person requires more than the belief that they are (somehow) present and that the medium can mediate their presence; it requires something deeper—a certain kind of openness to the person’s presence, and maybe a certain kind of trust that the medium will successfully mediate their presence. But, again, this is only a start; and I haven’t yet worked out all the details. The full story, in any case, will likely take a couple of book chapters or more.


You and some of my other interviewees (Terence Cuneo, Amber Griffioen) explore the significance of the liturgy for philosophy of religion. Yet it has been traditionally neglected, a fact that I find surprising given that the average church attendance of philosophers is very high, about once a week or more. Given that liturgy is such an underexplored topic, what aspects of liturgy do you think could be further explored through philosophy?

You’re right that liturgy has been largely neglected by analytic philosophers of religion; and there is surely a great deal to explore. So far as I am aware, the main issues that have been explored to date concern the nature and function of liturgical acts—the metaphysics of liturgical acts, as it were. Moreover, the literature has tended to focus specifically on Christian liturgical acts. But there is a broader conversation to be had, one that explores the nature and function in human life and development of ritual more generally, as well as the particular importance of ritual in the evolution and development of religion. There is, of course, a substantial literature on these issues in religious studies and the sociology of religion; but, as far as I know, both the topics and the literature thereon have been largely neglected by analytic philosophers of religion.

Another issue that I would like to see explored further by philosophers concerns the nature of sacrament and the sacramental presence of God. Sacraments are, roughly, liturgical acts that have a special status as signs or vehicles of divine grace. What counts as a sacrament varies among denominations, and there are interesting questions to ask about what might reasonably account for the variance. There are also interesting questions to ask about what it means for a sacrament to constitute a “means of grace” and about the various senses in which God might be said to be present in a sacrament. There is a sizable theological literature on these issues, and I think that the topic and the literature on it are ripe for engagement by philosophers.

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