Liturgy and Secularism: Utterly Human

For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the meaning of liturgy in a secular age. I sense grave danger lurking behind the proverbial corner in daring to bring these two words together: liturgy and secularism. The source of the danger is the probability that select people who read an essay containing words arguing anything but a condemnation of the temptations presented by secularism will leap out from behind that corner to blast the author (me).

My approach to the question of Liturgy and secularism is as follows: Liturgy is an assembly taking us out of time and before God, in Christ; in this sense, Liturgy is not of the world, yet it is offered, received, and celebrated for the very life of the world.

Furthermore, Liturgy is an utterly human event. Human beings assemble and dare to approach God with holy confidence, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth – heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest!” One of the strongest impressions I took from conversations with people in focus group sessions was that the greatest challenge they encountered in attending Liturgy was to truly leave behind all of their concerns, obsessions, and thoughts, because God demands our full attention. People felt guilty that they were unable to shed whatever they brought with them into the assembly because they genuinely wanted to focus on God alone. From a certain perspective, one mark of the liturgy as an utterly human experience is the fact that we raise up the world with us when we ascend to God’s divine presence to offer praise and gifts and hear God speak. We never really leave the world behind; it’s always with us, and in all likelihood, everything going on in our little world is shaping who we are when we dare to approach, fully aware of our shortcomings.

In other words, if Liturgy is an utterly human experience that brings us to God, we’re not completely liberated from “secularism,” its principles and values, and the ways secularism contributes to our human-ness.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself – I have decided to accept this as part and parcel of the utterly human characteristic of Liturgy. The divine dimension of Liturgy – the Triune God – is there to keep me in check and to re-shape me (and everyone else) to return to the world, with all of its secularism, and to give my (our) blood for the life of the world, with the absolute confidence that he has already done so, and is continuing his Paschal ministry by having an eternal session at the right hand of God.

So, I have expanded my working thesis to another point: the process of responding to the divine invitation to participate in Liturgy is significant. It requires energy and courage, and at some point in life, I will become aware that God has called me to witness to Christ and serve for the life of this world despite its messiness, chaos, and fury. In other words, one of the primary tasks of Liturgy in a secular age is to answer the call to serve, even if you don’t think you’re ready or are worried that you yourself are thoroughly saturated by secular values and principles.

What I have presented above is a snapshot of a brainstorm, an attempt to express rather bluntly how we should approach Liturgy in our secular age. I hope to keep working on this, to develop and elaborate it further, but I want to introduce a second part as a concluding item to stimulate the thought process.

Almost fifty years ago, Alexander Schmemann delivered a lecture on “Worship in a Secular Age,” an essay included in his renowned For the Life of the World (SVS Press, 1973). Schmemann’s thesis that secularism is the “negation of worship” seems to be oriented towards the attempt to compartmentalize Liturgy and limit it to a set of religious rituals that have a privileged place in the life of the world. The compartmentalization of Liturgy appoints tasks it must fulfill, and its preoccupation with fulfilling this mandate prohibits Liturgy from its work as being the epiphany of the kingdom of God, and the ascension of the Church “to Christ’s table at His kingdom” where

she truly sees and proclaims heaven and earth to the full of his glory and God as having ‘filled all things with himself’.

Much of Schmemann’s essay defines the revelatory nature of Liturgy, where the rituals of blessing manifests the true nature of water and other materials of creation, permitting them to be the means of Communion with God, as opposed to ritual performance designed to make the profane holy. Schmemann claimed that the prevalent liturgical piety of his time was actually a source of secularism because it “leaves the world profane,” as “totally incapable of any real communication with the Divine, of any real transformation and transfiguration.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Schmemann implicates both liturgical rigorists and liberals, asserting that the approaches of absolute obedience to liturgical maximalism and adapting the liturgy to serve a specific purpose (often political or social) reduces the Liturgy to nothing more than a source of secularism.

Living as we do in an age of anger, reading Schmemann anew some 46 years following the delivery of his lecture occasions some reflection. On the one hand, Schmemann’s objection to the hijacking of Liturgy to communicate political messages that address one or another side of the contemporary cultural wars seems to carry a prophetic tone. Perhaps the lesson here is that all of us are called to hear the Liturgy, and allow ourselves to be “done unto” by God during the Liturgy without attempting to recreate its structure in our image and revise its texts to bear our political language. Schmemann’s rebuke does not apply only to those with political passions: he is also warning the rigorists that there is a difference between seeking the kingdom of God and making their liturgy into an idol to be worshiped. On this matter, I would submit that nothing has changed in the 46 years since Schmemann’s lecture: Christians still find ways to reduce liturgy so that ideas are glorified instead of the Liturgy bearing the assembly to Christ’s table.

On the other hand, I would submit that the Liturgy is an utterly human experience. Schmemann is essentially asking the liturgical participant to put it ALL away: our politics, our obsession with performing the rite properly above all else, and even the excitement we experience when we’re about to sing our favorite hymn appointed to a solemnity. Is it possible to lay it ALL aside, even once? And if we could lay it all aside to allow ourselves to be “done unto by God,” would the prayers we seal with our Amens really be objective? Or are these texts the products of human genius blessed by God, received by the Church, yet still utterly human? Perhaps the utterly human has the capacity to reveal God and create an environment for all to hear God speaking.

Our age of anger is utterly human, and many of us would agree that the anger we’re witnessing is often a grotesque distortion of the goodness of human nature. But we are not only witnesses to anger; we are also witnesses to the other perils of our time, such as racism, genocide, the resurgence of slavery, and corruption, among others. Our secular age bombards us with images, words, and messages that make an attempt to digest the world’s challenges unmanageable.

I need time to reflect on Schmemann’s essay and think about how Christians should worship in our secular age. I affirm Schmemann’s complaint that attempts to revise liturgy to address a given issue can redirect Liturgy and send the assembly to another place other than the Kingdom of God, when the assembly’s destiny is Christ’s table. But I also think that an honest admission that we carry the burdens of the world with us into the Liturgy is not necessarily bad. We can’t impose our agendas on God, but we shouldn’t try to mute the pain we experience from the human suffering of our age. We should instead present that pain to God in the Liturgy, and then allow ourselves to be “done unto,” so that God would give us what we need to address that suffering in our service with Christ for the life of the world.






  1. And yet, just before the most important part of the Divine Liturgy, we sing “Now lay aside all earthly cares…” and it’s not sung just once, but it’s repeated over and over, especially as it covers the actions happening behind the ikonostas prior to the entrance. I was always moved by it. Even after many years. The Cherubic Hymn is one hymn that I probably miss most, but I had to lay it aside for my own good.

  2. I am not sure what work the iterative use of the word “utterly” is intended to perform in this essay, but I have a feeling it’s equivocal at best and probably gets in the way more than it helps.

  3. I thought this was a fantastic essay, that suggests much more thought to come.

    If I can risk an impressionistic response: our meditation group was on hiatus and met again tonight in the chapel at a new time. I had high hopes. Only two people came. Someone was practicing on the organ. Then, a street person opened the door and wanted to use our bathroom. One of us led her through the Church to the facilities. We asked her to join us, and she did. But her dog kept whimpering. In the end, I didn’t ‘leave the world behind and ascend to offer God praise and gifts and hear Him speak’.

    Or did I?

    If you define the secular as worldliness, then yes, I don’t always manage to leave my worldly concerns behind in worship. Often, they intrude. I wonder if those concerns would have been there with me if our prayer group had it’s usual complete silence. Maybe they were simply embodied by our noisy guest and the organist. Maybe there was no difference at all. And so…what to do with these very poor human concerns when we approach God?

  4. Nicholas, I think of secularism as meaning “separation of the state from any religious institution”; in French, laïcité: “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.”

    But in this very interesting essay, it looks as though you have a broader meaning in mind; perhaps closer to secularisation, “the transformation of a society from close identification and affiliation with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions.” [Wikipedia]. Is that right?

    I’m asking not to quibble about words but to understand what you mean by “secularism”.

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