For some of you the sentiments of the title for this piece might be as crooked as a Frank Gehry building.
Yet, there are historical and theological nuggets of wisdom hidden there.
Admittedly, it is another opportunity to scandalize our Protestant brethren and the bibliolatrous tendencies of American Catholics. As far as the latter go, I’m thinking those paragons of Evangelical Catholicism who might freak out upon reading this title and reassert that “CATHOLICS DO READ THE BIBLE! [yeah right],” or recommend that Catholics should be trained to prooftext like fundamentalists (because Jesus loves this more than people). But what about all those stereotypical illiterate medieval peasants? Were they Christians?
The sentiments of the title are actually stolen from Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness. He lays them out more even-handedly thus:
Some Catholics, who enjoy being provocative, say that the Christian religion could manage without the Bible sooner than without the liturgy. What do they mean by saying this?
I do, in fact, enjoy the provocative.
According to Mosebach, this provocative formulation rubs the following sentiments against the grain:
In the centuries following the Secularization, Jesus attracted much admiration and sympathy from philosophical and philanthropic writers and those in the Enlightenment tradition. Even avowed atheists saw Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, a new Socrates, a new Buddha. “I bow before him as the divine revelation of morality’s highest principle”, Goethe said to Eckermann. (This dictum should not be used to pigeonhole Goethe as a representative of Enlightenment thought: I quote it only as a particularly clear example of an attitude that has persisted to our time.) Accordingly we read in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: “Thus, for the noble part of mankind, the way he (Jesus) lived is even more instructive and fruitful than his death.”
Seen as the founder of a religion, Jesus Christ characteristically taught nothing new and certainly no new morality. Nor is this contradicted by the oft-quoted Sermon on the Mount, for it does not deal with moral laws. “Blessed are the poor in spirit–blessed are you who hunger–blessed are you who weep now– blessed are you when men hate you”–these are not moral laws. They are a portrayal and the invocation of a new creation. He who weeps now will laugh–in a new world and once he has “put on Christ”, as Paul says. It does not say, “Blessed are the righteous,” but “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness”, that is, those who have a sense of the world’s fallen-ness and their own failings and who yearn for healing.
What really counts is the physicality of the resurrection, and, only the liturgy really captures that:
The early Christians knew that the Christian message was Jesus himself. The essence of the Gospels’ new, more profound, and more compelling picture of God was that God had become flesh, present among us, in the God-man. The apostles were clearly aware that they could not hold on to their faith without the physical presence of Jesus, and so, as he left them, Jesus promised that they would never have to do without this presence. “I am with you to the end of days.” The promise of the Paraclete is the assurance that the soul’s connection with its Creator will not be broken, that God’s Spirit is present in his Church; but above all it shows the way in which the physical presence of the Son of God will be continued–in a changed mode–even after he disappears from the visible world; namely, through the action of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy.
We should also remember that not only the early Christians did fine without a New Testament, but the patriarchs of the Old Testament also did fine without the Hebrew Scriptures, which were only later compiled and redacted. What they did have was Temple liturgy.
Given how important physical and visible witness is to Christianity I find it disappointing that Rod Dreher has not responded to my questions about the efficacy of martyrdom in our time.
You might also want to distract yourself with No Devil, No God.
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