A (Zoom) Presentation to a Group in Melbourne
from Rev Rex Hunt
BONEY AND SPINDLY! REVIVING LITURGY WITH THE SENSUOUS TEXTURES OF LANDSCAPE…
I have learnt much about liturgy from my three young grand children.
And wisdom from poets, among them being
Mary Oliver (1935–2019), Dennis McCarty, Catherine de Vinck,
and the Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue (1956–2008).
Take any three year old for a walk, say… along a beach or bush track.
Don’t plan to be in a hurry.
Every twig or seashell.
Every muddy pool of water.
Every minnow, dragon fly, or small lizard to cross your path
will be an occasion for closer ‘looking’ and ‘excitement’ and ‘wonder’.
Children intuitively apprehend the truth that we are all part of nature.
So following the ‘advice for living’ from Mary Oliver…
Tell about it.
Such attention and experience comes from being immersed in what is,
and seeing the overlooked.
Such attention is scientifically informed.
Such attention is what helps shape good liturgy.
As natural beings among diverse other natural beings, we humans are at home in nature.
Not long home from post graduate studies in Germany—the year was 1931—
and still shaping his ‘mystical naturalism’, theologian Bernard Meland (1899–1993) wrote:
“Have you ever communed in the first person with this total wealth of living life about you? Have you ever stood with awe and wonder before the unbounded totality of all reality—this ongoing process we call the universe, feeling your own intimacy with all its life, thrilling with the realisation of the magnitude of that relationship, relating you to all the world’s life, past, present and future? If you have, you have experienced first- hand religion.” (Meland 1931:665; Meland 1934:234)
Meland suggests the natural world has the capacity to inspire a response,
an expression of our awe of nature, of our attraction to the mystery of existence,
to something intangible, called ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ from humans.
He was also highly critical of religion that fostered
a sense of strangeness toward the natural world.
Likewise, others have said, quiet passionately, that there is no good reason to believe
taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits
than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.
“If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred, surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred…”
Religion is born out of a sense of wonder and awe.
We will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of sacred
only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves.
The sky above, the earth below.
The grasses, the flowers, the forests, the fauna…
The miracle of each moment awaits our sensual wonder.
Landscape especially has an incredible presence.
Landscape is the firstborn of creation/evolution.
It was here for hundreds of millions of years before ever a plant or an animal arrived here
Thus writes John O’Donohue:
“I often think that our liturgies have become very bony and very spindly and have none of the sensuous textures of landscape in them. Maybe that would be one way of reviving liturgy, bringing it out into the landscape and allowing the elemental force of the landscape to clothe the liturgy again with sensuous texture and enable us to come in.”
It is ‘landscape’ or the ‘natural environment’ that is the common denominator
between all peoples living in that particular location. We are cosmic and we are local.
Present-day Australians still have a limited understanding of the mountains, deserts, rainforests; of the ocean and river systems, the fauna and flora, as well as the climate conditions called ‘seasons’ of the nation.
Not to mention any real appreciation of the First Nations ‘songlines’ Dreaming tradition,
probable the oldest continuous sacred tradition in the world. (Tacey 2000:76)
I admit I chuckled at poet Les Murray’s (1938–2019) description of the seasons as comprising
essentially summer and non-summer. A reign of heat, flies, snakes, beach culture…
followed by a cooler time in which the discomforts disappear.
And a bit of sniffling cold in the middle.
Australia being an ancient continent located in the southern hemisphere
all of the major traditional Lectionary festivals are out of whack.
There is a ritual discomfort!
Any celebration is almost done in defiance of their northern-hemisphere reference points.
Result? We miss what actually ‘is’!
Again, John O’Donohue:
“…it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into [a] dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you have come to understand landscape as something that forms each of us.”
To see the world synthesised in a flower, a sea, or in a human being,
is to contemplate your own life blended with the total movement of life,
rather than just staring blankly as if one is a tourist or outsider.
Such moments not only enlarges the scope of living, but
“sensitizes our feel for life and beautifies its quality.” (Meland 1934:288)
Where the sacred is not a separate ‘supernatural’ sphere of life.
More like “the caffeine in coffee” (Stone 2017:19) than like
a strawberry on top of a pavlova.
In the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration.
It is all an exuberant expression of existence itself.
Now for the commercial… My book When Progressives Gather Together (2016),
has as its sub-title Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations.
Just a couple of Chapter headings will introduce the contents:
- Emerging from Water. Baptism in Tradition and Progressive Thought.
- Sometimes Hard to Swallow. Meals, Holy Communion, and the Jesus Banquet.
While the opening chapter: It’s a Story! Liturgy, Lectionary, and Landscape.
For the Sunday morning gathering—pre-Covid 19 days—
I offer liturgical explorations, both in the book and on my web site, under the heading
“A Gathering Liturgy for the Celebration of Life”.
That is, I do not call the experience ‘worship’.
Rather I call it ‘celebration’.
I want to suggest there is a major difference between the event ‘worship’
and the event ‘celebration’.
- Worship moves from symbol to a transcendent source – persons, word, places, Holy or God – present in the ordinary. Celebration consists of rejoicing in the presence of things rather than going beyond them.
- Worship seeks to transcend the object, such as God. Hosanna in the highest! Celebration seeks insight into the importance of things. Hosanna! Right here. Right now. This.
- Worship is only possible where there is a distinction/dualism between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘ordinary’. The relationship is generally submissive—pray, praise, please a deity. Celebration seeks to dissolve such distinctions and dualisms…
Religious orientation only lives while we are making it up.
While our creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’
new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.
Such ‘composting’ is much more than embarking of a salvage operation.
What is required are liturgies that are shaped by a different religious sensitivity.
Away from Nicene orthodoxy
that has come undone with the advent of the modern world.
Liturgy that is bureaucratically conditioned can not serve the spiritual needs
of diverse congregations and individuals.
(i) It loses contact with the life and common experience of the people and becomes responsive only to doctrinal concerns;
(ii) It becomes more and more estranged from the creative minds of contemporary culture;
(iii) It presumes orthodox doctrines are true statements, rather than “mediated phenomena, rooted in specific… perspectives that are now passing.” (Horsfield 2015:282)
Liturgy which is a celebration of life, all of life,
is shaped by a spirituality that is more horizontal than vertical.
Because… Earth—a pale blue dot as dubbed by Carl Sagan—is our home in the universe.
The language and images used will reflect we are people of the earth
rather than people on the earth!
Because… nature is the thread that completes the tapestry of life.
Natural not supernatural.
An experience animated by a sense of awe, wonder, belonging, and relatedness.
A Newer Testament.
The gospel of the natural present moment.
Because… this is an experimental universe.
It is not a place where evolution happens, it is evolution happening! (Peters 2012)
Change is not merely an appearance but is essential to the way things are.
Life is animate… continually incarnating itself
in microbes and maples, in humming birds and human beings. (Bumbaugh 2003)
Because… such religious and liturgical shaping
will likely revere the wisdom of reason, collective human experience, and ‘landscape’,
more highly than any single sacred book or credal tradition.
Let there be no doubt.
Rituals are the core of every strong community’s life.
But faithfulness to a tradition is not achieved
by continually reproducing the same formulations
over and over again without significant change.
Sadly liturgical reconstruction seldom comes from the dominant expression at any one time.
When creative ideas for a new future do emerge beyond the contours of Christian orthodoxy,
within a humanistic and naturalistic paradigm, for example,
they tend to come from the minority explorations of free religious thinking,
“not unlike the way yeast works in bread making or a small mustard seed that’s sowed in a field.” (Horsfield 2015:290)
To escape the charge of ‘boney and spindly’ liturgy, the job of progressives
is to create imaginative liturgical and other religious resources
and let future generations find in them what is helpful.
Resources. Not mandates.
Such offerings can throw life into a new frame.
They rend the veil of the ordinary.
They demand courage (heart) and new patterns of engagement.
They interrupt, and can sometimes transform one’s life.
Bessler, J. A. A Scandalous Jesus. How Three Historic Quests Changes Theology for the Batter. Salem. Polebridge, 2013
Bumbaugh, D. “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence”. Boulder International Humanist Institute, 22 February 2003. <http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/bumbaughdavid/humanist_reverence.pdf>
Crosby, D. More Than Discourse. Symbolic Expressions of Naturalistic Faith. Albany: SUNY, 2014
Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. West Sussex. Wiley Blackwell, 2015
Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together. Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Northcote. Morning Star, 2016
Keen, S. Apology for Wonder. New York. Harper & Row, 1969
Meland, B. E. “The Worship Mood” in Religious Education 26, 8, (October 1931), 661-665
——————, Modern Man’s Worship: A Search for Reality in Religion. New York. Harper & Bros., 1934
O’Donohue, J. Walking in Wonder. Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World. New York. Convergent, 2015
Peters, K. E. “Human Salvation in an Evolutionary Worldview: An Exploration in Christian Naturalism” in Zygon 47, 4, (December 2012), 843-869
Stone, J. A. Sacred Nature. The Environmental Potential of Religious Naturalism. London. Routledge, 2015
Ranson, D. “Fire in Water. The Liturgical Cycle in the Experience of South East Australian Seasonal Patterns” in Compass Theology Review 26, 1992. (Photocopy in private circulation)
Tacey, D. J. ReEnchantment. The New Australian Spirituality. Pymble. Harper Collins, 2000
Tippett, K. “John O’Donohue: The Inner Landscape of Beauty”. On Being. Script. 26 February 2008. Updated 31 August 2017
Tucker, M. E. & J. Grim. (ed). Thomas Berry. Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis, 2014
Vogt, V. O. Modern Worship. Lowell Institute Lectures 1927. New Haven. Yale University, 1927
© Rev Rex A E Hunt, M
24 November 2021