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.