By Nathan G. Jennings. Wipf and Stock, Pp. 162. $21
Review by Abigail Woolley Cutter
“If we assume, as Christians, that our liturgy not only claims to connect us with God, but actually does so, then the ritual of the liturgy is not arbitrary, but is rather an organic analogue of reality.”
When Nathan Jennings says that liturgy is an “organic analogue of reality,” he means that the connections between the divine life and human life are not arbitrary. He also means that liturgical theology is something more than history (how liturgy developed) or anthropology (how people happen to behave in the liturgy). When we are doing liturgical theology we are encountering the very nature of God.
Is it presumptuous to read liturgy this way, as having the capability of actually revealing God’s character to us—as “apocalyptic”? Not as Jennings would have us understand it. It is a truism of traditional Christian theology that human language can only describe God by analogy: God is not exactly what we can think of when we say he is “good,” “beautiful,” or “Father.” But in explaining this, the emphasis is normally on the only: human language is limited.
What interests Jennings, by contrast, is the feature of reality that makes it possible for human language and experience in fact to refer to God at all. For this he uses the word anagogy, meaning the recognition that all reality begins with God and reflects the divine nature. Theology is then a search for pattern recognition, because the dynamics of God’s own trinitarian life must be reflected at other levels of reality. To understand how this kind of theology is possible, we might imagine the very same physical patterns working themselves out in multiple dimensions that are analogs of each other: sound waves (one medium) become vibrations (another medium) and produce rings of sand on a sound table (a third medium). When we think anagogically, lower levels of reality, which we can access (such as liturgy, Scripture, theological language, and even, at times, anthropological observations), can be truly revelatory because they reflect and participate in divine realities.
The book’s four central chapters address embedded levels of reality one by one. First Jennings describes the household of God as the life of the angels, for whom God provides in manifold ways and who respond to God in a liturgy that results in the cosmos itself. In other words, God initiates the gift economy of his household, and the only fitting response by lesser beings (the angels) is grateful self-offering. In subsequent chapters, Jennings describes humans’ instinct to offer sacrifices and Jesus’s role in redeeming it, followed by the sacraments and the liturgy of the Church, and finally the figural reading of Scripture. At each level, he identifies where we see the divine gift economy at work, how we ought to understand liturgy as participation in that economy, and what, therefore, we ought to mean by “liturgical theology.”
One contribution Jennings makes through this book is by laying out his agenda for the field of liturgical theology. The study of liturgy has gained steam in recent decades, not only in the wake of Alexander Schmemann’s wide ecumenical reception, but also as a consequence of developments in sociology and anthropology, which would ultimately locate the study of liturgy within “ritual studies.” Jennings is setting the agenda for a truly theological discipline, which, in contrast to the social sciences, must assume metaphysical realism. In other words, Jennings insists that to do liturgical theology theologically, we must assume that in it we are contemplating God.
Where I see the book as even more promising is in the manner in which it brings together sacramental ontology and Hebrew cosmology, two themes that are commonly treated as miles apart or even as incompatible. In Jennings’ telling, when Christians adopted some Platonic ways of describing the connection between earthly patterns and ultimate reality, they were merely articulating much the same outlook that can be seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in apocalyptic texts. Jennings’ multitiered metaphysical realism, which one might otherwise think he derived from Platonism, in fact uses the Hebrew Bible as its primary sourcebook—notably, its treatment of God and the angels, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Israel’s sacrificial system, and temple worship. He argues that the New Testament book of Hebrews does much the same thing. In the current scholarly scene, I am accustomed to discussing N.T. Wright (and the reading of the New Testament through Hebrew eyes) and Pseudo-Dionysius (and the figural reading of Scripture) in circles that simply don’t overlap. If Jennings’ project catches on, however, that divergence may well become a thing of the past.
Now we come to a drawback. Indeed, I hope Jennings’ vision of heaven touching earth does catch on. But what may prevent this is the narrow audience to which the book appeals in its current form. Because Jennings’ metaphysical realism leads him to assume that connections can be drawn between multiple dimensions, he has necessarily drawn up a complicated model of reality. And because he assumes that “theology,” “economy,” “liturgy,” and “liturgical theology” can be given a definition adapted to each level of reality, it takes a good deal of energy to hold all his definitions in mind. The central concept of “anagogy,” too, shows up in unexpected places, and its application in each context is not always readily apparent. This means that the book’s primary audience will be other scholars who are willing to follow Jennings in tracking down these terms.
As Jennings himself insists, however, contemplation of God is not only, or first, for scholars. In fact, contemplation is not something we do exclusively through cognitive understanding, but also through our bodily actions (liturgies), both individually and corporately. Furthermore, it is in contemplation that we most nearly imitate God and come to know God: liturgies transform us. Finally, in just the final pages, Jennings explicitly states that the divine economy ought, by extension from the liturgy, to impact local and global economies. To be clear: this is not a book about social justice. But if Jennings’ vision of nested realities takes hold in us, it would be nonsensical to assume that theology and just action are independent from each other—whether we are thus tempted to do theology without positioning ourselves differently in the world because of it, or whether we abandon theology, viewing it as a distraction from the love and service of God in the world.
Put this way, no one can afford to go unconverted to the metaphysical realism that links the knowledge, worship, and service of God. Liturgy and Theology may infect a few with this vision, but it remains for the students, colleagues, lectures—and perhaps a subsequent book?—of Jennings to spread the word to everyone else.
Abigail Woolley Cutter is a Ph.D. student in Christian Ethics at Southern Methodist University