A Response to Christopher Dustin's The Liturgy of Theory
Professor Dustin's provocative and intellectually imaginative essay provides the material for a rich and wide-ranging discussion between him and me on a large number of issues. The space allotted makes that wide-ranging discussion impossible on this occasion, however; I will have to confine myself to raising a few methodological issues, and to setting before you the outlines of an alternative way of thinking about liturgy.
Professor Dustin wants to get us to think about liturgy, theory, and practice in a way different from how we customarily think about them. The way of thinking that he recommends was to be found, so he claims, among the ancient Greeks; hence he calls his way of presenting the alternative a "recalling."
I am dubious about some of the historical claims made and their methodological employment. As Professor Dustin realizes, and as he notes at one point, many of the etymologies that he cites are controversial, often driven by philosophical interests rather than emerging from the painstaking work of the lexicographer; and in any case, the etymology of a word may or may not linger in its later meaning. More generally, knowing the meaning of the words a person uses tells one little about his thought; how much of my thought could you infer merely from my vocabulary? The relevant issue for the interpreter is always what people actually said with their words. Words are in the service of acts of discourse.
On this matter there can be no doubt that some ancient Greeks did think and speak of theoria and techne along the lines that Professor Dustin sketches out. How many of them thought along these lines is a nice question; in fact, it's not clear that any single person thought all of these thoughts. Even if somebody did, that by itself is not a reason for you and me to think those thoughts after him; lots of thoughts of even the most admirable of the ancient Greeks are best forgotten.
For you and me, these methodological issues do not make much difference, however. Professor Dustin has given us the views of a philosopher of the early twenty-first centurynamely, himselfon liturgy, theory, and practice. At some points those views recall what certain ancient Greeks said. It appears to me that Professor Dustin is taking for granted some roughly Heideggerian declinist narrative of Western culture, according to which it is important that certain anti-modern views be found among the ancient Greeks, and likewise important that we recover those views. But if it is indeed important for us to recover those views, it will have to be on account of their merits, not on account of their antiquity.
So to the point: Professor Dustin urges us to think of theory as that mode of contemplation which, rather than being disinterested and disengaged, is participatory in that it incorporates acknowledgement of the worth of what is contemplated; he urges us to think of liturgy as contemplation that is participatory in the same way; and he urges us to think of craft as a making visible, both in process and product, of what is worthy of such participatory contemplation. A truly admirable unity of thought!
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