On the wisdom of obliquity

John Kay is a thoughtful economist and commentator on public policy. His book Obliquity is a short masterpiece.

Its central idea is deceptively simple: some goals are best pursued indirectly. If you want to reach one direction, the best approach may to be to proceed in another. This applies especially in ‘systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them.’ Human systems, in other words. Hence, says Kay, the most profitable companies are not those whose primary aim is to increase profits, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. Apple’s aim was not to become the world’s most valuable company, though that is what happened. Rather, it set out to produce innovative and beautiful computing and media products.

Bad things happen when the principle of obliquity is set aside. Boeing virtually ignored financial concerns when it designed and launched the hugely successful 747 and 737 planes – the company’s explicit goal was to meet “technological challenges of supreme magnitude.” But under later administrations, Boeing followed a trend in many public companies. Kay quotes Phil Condit, the CEO: “We are going into a value-based environment where unit cost, return on investment and shareholder return are the measures by which you’ll be judged. That’s a big shift.”

It was a big shift, but in the wrong direction. Boeing’s stock was at $48 per share when Condit became CEO; when he preached the virtue of shareholder value it had risen to $70. But a few years later, as he was forced out, it was at $38. Aiming directly at shareholder value is not a good way to create shareholder value.

Something similar applies in the liturgy, I think, in a way that speaks to ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’ alike. Human emotions are complex, reflexive and contrary. It is difficult to create a liturgy that moves people in a given affectual direction. An exhortation to ‘be happy’ at the start of Mass is unlikely to result in happy members of the assembly. Similarly, little success will come from attempts to make the congregation experience ‘reverence’ or ‘mystery’, or to feel puny in the presence of a mighty God.

A sense of the wisdom of obliquity may be why some commentators here on Pray Tell dislike ‘happy clappy’ Masses and funeral rites. But moving in the opposite direction is no answer: people will not feel convicted of their sinfulness if the priest wears a black chasuble any more than they will feel convinced of their salvation if he wears a white one. Fr Zuhlsdorf constantly repeats his slogan that “we have to have an encounter with mystery”. But the way to that encounter is not for the Mass to be deliberately incomprehensible, though the new translation tries hard to make it so.

The principle of obliquity is liberating. I once worried about how I was feeling at Mass, as though I ought to feel reverent, or thankful, or abased during this or that Mass. Increasingly, I am learning simply to observe feelings during the liturgy – good ones and not so good ones – and let them go and concentrate on the ‘doing’: being there, focusing on the action at the ambo and the altar, making the responses I am supposed to make.

Obliquity has implications across the world of liturgy. In church architecture, for instance, it speaks against buildings that are overly ‘designed’, either in a traditionalist or a modernist spirit. Following the principle of obliquity, an architect might leave some incompleteness in a building, so that the community can adapt as it goes along. It would lead away from buildings that are too rigidly ‘modern’ or ‘antique’.

Something similar would apply to choices of music, vestments and style of celebration. ‘Happy clappy’ may be off key, but so is a grim traditionalism.

What would obliquity imply about translation? My guess is that it would mitigate against some of the old ICEL’s emotionally charged renderings, such as “love” for devotio. Equally, following the obliquity principle would speak against the idea of a deliberately ‘churchy’ or hieratic tone; certainly against bringing back “thee” and “thou” to make the prayers sound “reverent”.

Kay’s book is well worth reading, but many of its ideas are captured in this extended essay.

23 comments

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    I might add that fallen human nature means that we tend to get in our own way when seeking noble goals, regardless of placement on the spectrum, as it were. This is often due to cognitive and spiritual blindspots; and when we adopt an ideological approach, we tend to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, such blindspots. The moment you think you’ve found the right formula and hermeneutic is the moment you probably haven’t.

  2. But the way to that encounter is not for the Mass to be deliberately incomprehensible, though the new translation tries hard to make it so.

    Come on. That’s either a cheap joke or a blatant falsehood. The juxtaposition also distorts the view that Fr. Zuhlsdorf is putting forward. His argument that an “encounter with mystery” is better achieved through the traditional Mass is controversial. The specifics of the nature of that encounter might be arguable. His argument that an “encounter with mystery” should be part of the experience of the liturgy is should not be.

    It’s also puzzling that you put in quotation marks referring to Fr. Zuhlsdorf words that don’t seem to appear on his blog (espcially when you say he repeats them often). Are they from other published writings of his? It would be better to indicate that you are glossing his view.

    Here’s one piece by him that discusses the “encounter with mystery”.

    http://wdtprs.com/blog/2012/09/quaeritur-i-went-to-a-tlm-and-felt-like-crawling-under-a-pew-but-as-mass-began/

    (It is interersting that Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s liturgical theology appears to have a debt to Rudolf Otto.)

  3. Samuel,

    Liturgiam Authenticam says this many times and in many ways, or at least says what can be understood this way:

    In translating biblical passages where seemingly inelegant words or expressions are used, a hasty tendency to sanitize this characteristic is likewise to be avoided.

    Comprehension is not the only, or even the most important, principle governing translation according to LA. I would not take that as trying hard to be incomprehensible, but clearly I can accept a joking exaggeration that rests on the often acknowledged awkwardness of these principles in LA.

    Earlier today I was reading Fr Komonchak’s descriptions of the debate at Vatican 2 about “the sources of revelation.” (he posted these recently at http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=21151) LA sounds a lot like it came from the same people who argued against the position the Council finally accepted.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #3:
      Had the same thought as you did and reached the same conclusion after reading Fr. K’s post.
      Suggested to Fr. Anthony that he might want to post Fr. K’s article from his website for review and comments?

  4. One place where LA refers to what is called “obliquity”:

    28. The Sacred Liturgy engages not only man’s intellect, but the whole person, who is the “subject” of full and conscious participation in the liturgical celebration. Translators should therefore allow the signs and images of the texts, as well as the ritual actions, to speak for themselves; they should not attempt to render too explicit that which is implicit in the original texts. For the same reason, the addition of explanatory texts not contained in the editio typica is to be prudently avoided.

  5. In my view, Samuel, Fr Z’s “liturgical theology” is largely incoherent: more a collection of slogans than anything else. He parrots mysterium tremendum et fascinans (I’ll bet he got it from CS Lewis rather than Otto himself) but has little to say about it other than that it’s A Good Thing.

    In some of his essays and podcasts he has endorsed the idea of Latin as the verbal iconostasis — a source of “mystery” because it is incomprehensible. To Fr Z’s credit, one commentator pointed out that he was confusing “mystery” with “mystification” and didn’t get blasted out of the blog.

    I certainly don’t think it is uncontroversial that liturgy should deliberately aim at fomenting a sense of the numinous in the worshippers. The point of the Obliquity essay is that we need to aim at other things: beauty, truth, silence might be a good start. Attempting to produce the “mystery” is almost a sure way to failure.

    As to the nit about “we have to have an encounter with mystery”, here are a few examples I found. There are more.

    If our worship doesn’t bring us to an encounter with mystery, it has failed in an important way.

    This, friend, is the encounter with mystery which must be at the core of liturgy.

    And the purpose of our liturgical rites is to have an encounter with mystery.

    … some themes that I have hammered at relentlessly on… and about an encounter we must have with mystery

    I am constantly talking about our need to have an encounter with Mystery in worship.

    So I think that the quote was accurate and appropriate. Call it a gloss if you must. This isn’t an academic journal.

    Now perhaps what he means — I am trying hard to preserve something useful here — is that in the liturgy we seek an encounter with God, who is ultimately mysterious and incomprehensible. But there are plenty of other passages that suggest that the goal (and a measure of success of a liturgy) is that it induces such a feeling. And that, I think, is a serious error.

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #6:
      So I think that the quote was accurate and appropriate. Call it a gloss if you must. This isn’t an academic journal.

      Jonathan, it’s simply not a quote. It has nothing to do with whether this is an academic journal. People expect things between quotation marks to be quotations unless it’s clear from the context that you’re not quoting. When you say that he “constantly repeats his slogan” and then put it in quotation marks it’s confusing. He’s got slogans aplenty that you could quote. This one isn’t one. That’s not a nit, it’s a basic

      I certainly don’t think it is uncontroversial that liturgy should deliberately aim at fomenting a sense of the numinous in the worshippers. The point of the Obliquity essay is that we need to aim at other things: beauty, truth, silence might be a good start. Attempting to produce the “mystery” is almost a sure way to failure.

      Well, part of the problem is that I don’t think “sense of the numinous” in the worshipers is a particularly accurate recapitulation of “encounter with mystery” (which is a much broader concept). But a goal pursued indirectly (or obliquely) is still a goal pursued. Attempt to produce something indirectly and you still attempt to produce it.

      1. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #7:
        At least we have some substance to discuss in your second point, Samuel.

        First, I think “sense of the numinous” is indeed an accurate rendering of Fr Z’s “encounter with mystery”. It is the goal:

        We need to foster worship which stuns, which leaves the newcomer, long-time practicing Catholic, above all the fallen-away simply thunder stuck. Worship must at some point leave people speechless in awe. We need language and music and gesture which in its beauty floods the mind with light even while it swells the heart to bursting.

        This, to my ears, is the language of Hollywood, or maybe of Disneyland.

        In the case of worship, I would go even further than placing the creation of an atmosphere or sense of the numinous as an indirect goal. It probably shouldn’t be a goal at all. If it happens, it happens — the wind blows where it pleases (John 3.8).

        John Kay put it well in the essay I linked to:

        “Honesty is the best policy, but he who is governed by that maxim is not an honest man,” wrote Archbishop Whately three centuries ago. If we deal with someone for whom honesty is the best policy, we can never be sure that this is not the occasion on which he will conclude that honesty is no longer the best policy.

        Worship as spectacle, worship with a goal (direct or indirect) of “stunning”: this has not been good for either the “progressives” or the “traditionalists”. The “liturgical eye candy” that bedecks some websites strikes me as dangerously close to the “food porn” on others.

      2. @Jonathan Day – comment #10:
        “This, to my ears, is the language of Hollywood, or maybe of Disneyland.”

        Well, it certainly was enough to convert the Kievan Rus:

        ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.’

      3. @John Kohanski – comment #14:
        John, your example illustrates the principle very well.

        Do you think that the worshippers at Hagia Sophia, whom Prince Vladimir’s emissaries spoke of in that quote, had any intent whatsoever to “stun” or to leave people “speechless in awe”? I don’t.

        I think their only focus was to give God the very best they could in music and liturgy and personal participation. I simply can’t believe that there was any element of “performance” or “shock and awe” in what went on there. Certainly that isn’t something I have ever experienced in an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

        The emissaries’ experience of the presence of God was an outcome of the liturgy, not a goal. At least that is how I read the account in the Primary Chronicle.

      4. @Jonathan Day – comment #15:
        Johnathan, with respect, it seems you are taking some (fairly good-natured) pot-shots at traditionalist concerns regarding the Mass (i.e., black vestments, etc.) I see what you are saying, but is this a “black-vs-white” issue? (pardon)

        If those celebrating the EF or any such liturgy are giving “God the very best they could in music and liturgy and personal participation”, then what is the issue? What is the difference between “grim traditionalism” and “pleasant and happy traditionalism”? If your idea is that no such thing exists, I think you are manipulating the data toward your own conclusion.

        I like the general thrust of your article, as it seems to stress that the pursuit of truth and beauty is what leads to a true experience of God indwelling. But certainly there are many ways to experience this, and I would argue that those of a traditional bent are often doing what they do out of the same motive that compels progressives to do what they do: love and desire for the glorification of God.

      5. @Bruce Ludwick, Jr. – comment #16:
        Bruce, I completely agree. I had tried to indicate that progressives and traditionalists could both benefit from a more oblique approach. Hence the claim that “people will not feel convicted of their sinfulness if the priest wears a black chasuble any more than they will feel convinced of their salvation if he wears a white one. ” The goal of a funeral Mass should not be to manipulate people’s feelings at all.

        And therefore it is a fine thing when a Tridentine Mass (low, high, missa cantata, etc) is said with an eye only toward the glory of God, and with no attempt to produce a spectacle, to make a political statement or to stun people. I hope that this is often the case. My evidence that the intent is sometimes different comes from announcements of Tridentine Masses that I see from time to time. This is certainly not limited to the traditionalist world or the Tridentine Mass!

        To make clear that both progressives and conservatives can fall into this trap: I had early exposure to the Catholic charismatic movement. There were many good and faithful people involved, and I have no doubt that the movement did some good things.

        But I remember many charismatic prayer meetings where it was announced, in advance, that everyone would have a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. That worried me at the time, because it felt like an attempt to constrain the Spirit. And I wondered where it would leave those who were emotionally “dry” at the time.

        I now see that this was a failure of obliquity. The goal of a prayer meeting should simply be to pray and to be receptive, not to have this experience or that one, especially specified in advance! The same goes for a Mass — whether Tridentine or Novus Ordo.

  6. Jonathan, given that you are an American transplant in England, I am surprised that you did not consider Britain itself (more specifically, Labour government) to be an example of the failure of obliquity. By the mid-1970’s the vehicle manufacturer British Leyland was nationalized because of a downward spiral of incessant trade union disputes and poor management. Result: shoddy cars which no one wanted to build and no one wanted to buy. Still, the unwanted wheels kept rolling off the line because Harold Wilson didn’t want jobs to suffer.

    No politics, then, on PTB. Still, there is a liturgical lesson perhaps in the failure of 1970s HM Government to grasp obliquity. The new translation, despite some bright points, maintains a devotion to an ideal which is not shared by many of the anglophone clergy and laity. The new translation is, for not a few, an unwanted product foisted on a captive market which was often quite happy with the previous model. The oblique solution perhaps is to simply allow the Sacramentary and the new Roman Missal translation to evolve side-by-side. Two model lines, each with different features for different assemblies. Perhaps the new missal will recede in importance given the flow of supply, demand, and use.

    The encouragement of diversity in liturgy allows for innovation to blossom and well-meant but unsuccessful ventures to recede in importance. The peril of an oblique approach to liturgy in the Roman Rite is the loss of hierarchical authority implicit in the loss of liturgical uniformity. A continued insistence from on high that the new translation remain the only standard might well hasten the exodus of persons alienated by what might appear to some as arbitrary changes.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #8:
      Jordan
      Curiously I would draw exactly the opposite conclusion from the history of British Leyland. The direct way to save the business was to give it subsidies. The indirect approach was to improve the labour market and practice. Now the company has gone but parts of it, notably Land Rover, Jaguar and Mini are thriving albeit under overseas (Indian) and foreign (German) ownership.

      Basil Liddell Hart was the writer promoting the indirect approach in military matters. I suspect that the principle may apply in other fields.

      In liturgy it may be the case that using the simplest form of expression is not most effective at conveying meaning. The congregation may not be encouraged to probe the meaning of the words and to understand the mystery presented. Children may do better than adults as they know that their understanding is incomplete. Bernadette of Lourdes said that she know nothing other than her rosary but that was everything.
      Cheers
      Peter

      1. @Peter Haydon – comment #9:
        On British Leyland, Peter has it exactly right. The government failed to follow an oblique approach, with predictable consequences.

        I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of liturgical diversity that you propose, Jordan. My sense is that Pope Benedict would agree with you.

        I worry about it in practice, though. The Anglican communion seems incredible fractured in matters liturgical. Are we heading in that direction? Will we have to come up with “Mass codes” for parishes to put in bulletins, signalling (e.g.) that the 9 am Mass is a Tridentine, but with congregational dialogue allowed, while the 10 am is a Novus Ordo in Vietnamese, using EP3 but with the priest facing the apse. The 11 am, on the other hand, is an Anglican Use Mass, in English, with the priest facing the people.

        It starts to sound like a restaurant menu!

      2. @Jonathan Day – comment #11:

        Jonathan: I worry about it in practice, though. The Anglican communion seems incredible fractured in matters liturgical. Are we heading in that direction?

        I would cautiously look to Anglicanism as a object lesson. It’s quite true that liturgical divisions have existed within Anglicanism for quite some time. I would say that the ordination of women has greatly complicated the matter. I regret to say that even today women priests are discriminated against in Anglicanism. I have witnessed this discrimination firsthand towards a gifted priest I know. This discrimination is not only an affront to a priest’s dignity and vocation, but also is a fracture in community charity.

        One might think that the mono-gendered Roman Catholic clergy might avoid this particular pitfall. Perhaps that is so, but other questions arise in replacement. Diversity in liturgy might create situations where a priest might refuse to say Mass at a particular church because only one liturgy is customarily used in that parish. One would hope that a man would seek ordination with the full knowledge that he will be asked to minister as his bishop deems pastorally necessary. However I do wonder if some priests consider themselves an “EF priest” or an “OF priest”. Would an “EF priest” say Mass versus populum and according to the Sacramentary if called upon to do so? Charity and pastoral imperative strongly suggests that he indeed do this. Realistically, some priests might balk at celebrating a liturgy that’s not “theirs”.

        Perhaps liturgical diversity is like a menu. Even so, some clerics might only want to serve one entree.

      3. @Jonathan Day – comment #11:
        Thank you Jonathan
        I suspect that in a city it is possible to have diversity but in rural areas there is no practical choice. In my case (on an island) I would need a boat or aircraft to get to a different parish. One has to hope that clergy show flexibility and generosity in such cases.

  7. I do think that some parishes go about certain things in a very direct, perhaps even bald, way, where a bit of obliquity might be more effective. For example, one or two parishes to which I have belonged over the years have said to themselves, “We need to attract more young people. Let’s inject music that we think young people would like.” I don’t claim that these initiatives fail, but on the whole they haven’t, as far as I know, transformed Catholic “stickiness” for teens and young adults; in fact, I saw an article earlier this week that more people are claiming “no religious affiliation” than ever before, and that this claim is disproportionately among the young.

    What would be a more oblique approach? I suppose, following the spirit of Kay’s essay, the answer would be, “Celebrate the very best liturgies you’re able to; and the indirect outcome will be that people will come.” Or, another part of the answer could be, “We will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to those in prison.” That is not a direct growth strategy, but such a community might obliquely attract those who are attracted by sincere Christian witness and discipleship.

    Other examples come to mind. Some parishes, I think, believe they need to come across as a less insular, more welcoming community. Posting greeters by the door strikes me as the direct/bald solution. (Or, to cite a tactic that hits closer to home for me, preaching a homily about how we need to be more welcoming). Perhaps a more oblique approach would work here, too?

  8. One of the problems with the modern approach to the Mass is consumerism. We are trying to cater to the likes and dislikes of people who in general can be rather fickle. So we have the life teen Mass that attracts elderly would-be teenagers trying to recapture their own youth. We have the EF Mass for this group, the OF for that group, the folk Mass for another group and the quiet Mass for yet another and then the hybrid Mass of the majority of a particular language with a nod to the minority whether it be Spanish or some other language or maybe throw in a bit of Latin.

    The EF Mass has three choices basically, a low Mass where four hymns could be sung but nothing else. The High Mass where the actual Mass is sung and then the Solemn High Mass with sub deacon deacon and priest and again everything is sung and there is more ceremony.

    The OF Mass is all over the board and has way to many choices and options that depend more on the priest celebrating the Mass unless he has become a slave to a parish clique called the worship committee and its creativity.

    What we need is the Mass to get into our blood and unite us which means reducing choices and styles and sticking to the main agenda, the worship of God who alone can save us. We can’t do it for ourselves.

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #18:
      “What we need is the Mass to get into our blood and unite us which means reducing choices and styles …”

      Maybe so. I vote to eject the 1962 Rite choice 1 from practice. Does nothing to elevate the believing mind that the 1970 Rite with sung acclamations and psalms and no hymnody at all can’t accomplish.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #20:
        Believe it or not I agree with you, but I would eliminate inane music of the contemporary type and instruments such as guitars, pianos, tambourines and the like–give and take? I think what you write is the point of the reform of the reform, making it more like the EF in looks and sound, but maintaining its “new” order and ministries.

  9. Todd Flowerday : @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #18: “What we need is the Mass to get into our blood and unite us which means reducing choices and styles …” Maybe so. I vote to eject the 1962 Rite choice 1 from practice. Does nothing to elevate the believing mind that the 1970 Rite with sung acclamations and psalms and no hymnody at all can’t accomplish.

    How very totalitarian of you, Todd!

    Jonathan, your experience with charismatic services is similar to mine in Campus Crusade and eventually the Steubenville-style Catholic take on praise-and-worship. I’m not saying that those things are not often authentic experiences, but they can easily devolve into an affective experience that plays on base nature. In any case, thanks for the OP!

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