De Quincey and the Christian Cultus

From Thomas De Quincey’s essay, “On Christianity as an Organ of Political Movement” (A full paragraph well-worth quoting for its rhetorical drama):

Forces, which are illimitable in their compass of effect, are often, for the same reason, obscure and untraceable in the steps of their movement.  Growth, for instance, animal or vegetable, what eye can arrest its eternal increments?  The hour-hand of a watch, who can detect the separate fluxions of its advance?  Judging by the past, and the change which is registered between that and the present, we know that it must be awake; judging by the immediate appearances, we should say that it was always asleep.  Gravitation, again, that works without holiday forever, and searches every corner of the universe, what intellect can follow it to its fountains?  And yet, shier than gravitation, less to be counted than the fluxions of sun-dials, stealthier than the growth of a forest, are the footsteps of Christianity among the political workings of man.  Nothing, that the heart of man values, is so secret; nothing is so potent (1).

De Quincey has helped me put into perspective the nature of Christian worship.  His thesis in this essay is that Christianity (connected to Judaism, but as a blossom to a root) is unique among religions in its ability to effect political change; specifically because it is a “religion of the book,” a doctrinal religion, a religion with a complete system of moral and sociological teachings.

The difference of Christianity from paganism is that it was instituted with a specific end in mind–ushering in the righteous kingdom of God on earth.  Paganism, De Quincey explains,

had no object; if by this you mean ulterior object.  Pagan religion arose in no motive, but in an impulse.  Pagan religion aimed at no distant prize ahead: it fled from a danger immediately behind.  The gods of the Pagans were wicked natures; but they were natures to be feared, and to be propitiated; for they were fierce, and they were moody, and (as regarded man who had no wings) they were powerful (9).

He goes on to say that, “Had the religions of Paganism arisen teleologically, that is, with a view to certain purposes… there probably would have arisen, concurrently, a section in all such religions, dedicated to positive instruction” (9-10).  To interpret for evangelicals, Christianity is a “missional” faith.  It has a definite goal in the world, and therefore it has doctrine.  It hopes to establish worship of the one God self-identified as Yahweh, to convince individuals and nations of the true bodily resurrection of Jesus, to transform the entire earthly population into a body politic marked by honesty, humility, and gentleness.  Paganism, on the other hand, is manifestly stagnant and tolerant, because its only religious goal is to pacify any and all possible supernatural beings so that human life may go on as normal.  There are no pagan missionaries.*  A pagan does not mind what names or forms your gods take, so long as you don’t start speaking out against worship in general (as Socrates did), which is a public hazard.  As De Quincey puts it, “The gods were mere odious facts, like scorpions or rattlesnakes” (10).

The essay is excellent, and should be read, and I will refrain from summarizing it all.  What interests me particularly here is De Quincey’s statement that cultus, or ceremonial worship, encompasses the entirety of pagan religion, whereas in Christianity, cultus is not even the primary component.  That is, paganism demanded the performance of certain rites, regardless of what you thought or how much you knew about the gods whom you worshiped.  In Christianity, “The worship flowed as a direct consequence from the new idea exposed of the divine nature, and from the new idea of man’s relations to this nature” (22).  The message is the main thing, and all worship rites are a response.  This, De Quincey says, is why Christian worship contains elements of special thanksgiving and penitential confession, which are nowhere in paganism (14).  General praise and prayer are common to Christian and pagan, but these more specific spiritual acts can only proceed from a doctrinal revelation regarding the nature and acts of God.  We repent because we know his nature, we give thanks because we know of his acts.

The nature of Christian worship-practice is infuriatingly simple.  It has driven me crazy for some time.  In church, my constant question has been, what are we doing by being here?  My church when I was growing up had a slogan: “The life-changing reality of Jesus Christ.”  It was always preached about, but I wondered what that ambiguous “reality” actually was.  There had to be a thing involved.  What added to this sense was the fact that church sermons focused heavily on evangelizing and bringing neighbors into the church.  Bring them into the church for what purpose?  So they can learn to invite their neighbors in turn?  There was a lot of talk, a lot of preaching, but from my perspective, the antecedent was unclear.  When were we going to draw the curtain on this life-changing reality of Jesus?

This notion of needing a thing or an antecedent is pushing many of my peers toward “high church” worship.  Of course, it is a mistake to equate “high church” with liturgical or “traditional” worship styles.  High and low church are not styles.  The distinction is found in Luther’s notes on his own German mass: “Do not make of it a rigid law to bind or entangle anyone’s conscience, but use it in Christian liberty as long, when, where, and how you find it to be practical and useful.”  That is low church.  Any system of worship practice (so long as it contains some certain basic elements) is optional and useful insofar as it edifies people.  High church prescribes certain worship practice by magisterial authority.

My friends, therefore, do not necessarily choose high church worship, and when they do they may not know it.  The real draw is the specificity of liturgy.  When we perform things in church–rather than sitting down to hear what seems to amount to an evangelism seminar–we get in touch with the cultus of Christianity.  We feel connected to the sacrificial system of the Hebrews, to the mystical community of saints.  In more liturgical traditions, the Eucharist tends to take a more central position, and this in particular feels like a true religious act when there is some pomp to it.  In contrast, I have attended an evangelical service where the Eucharist was preceded by a short sermon listing the ways in which the Eucharist does nothing.  This is more like cultophobia, an eagerness to make the low-church distinction.  It can leave the communicant wondering, “If it doesn’t do all that, what does it do?  Why take it?”  A so-called high view of sacraments is more reassuring.  It makes us feel that we are taking part in something unique when we go to church, rather than just attending an informational session.

My Christian peers, like myself, are afraid that church is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  That is the real root of the move to Rome/Canterbury/Constantinople among Christian young people.  Religion must have a cultus of some kind if it is to be religion.  Modern Christendom has attempted to scrape out the objective elements from Christianity (real resurrection, fall, eschaton, etc.) while retaining its moral and social developments.  This is a detriment to the doctrinal aspect of Christianity, but it is even more destructive to cultus.  No act of worship has meaning if the congregation has no sense that something is actually happening.  Then, unless there is a social or aesthetic draw, people simply stop showing up.  My own generation, born among mega-churches and established denominations trying to keep up with changing times, is alienated from the cultus of Christianity.  High church traditions, where that cultus is prescribed, provide a way back in.

The problem?  Too much cultus leans toward paganism.  The Apostle Paul fought great battles against pagan worship tendencies, as well as old Jewish ones that did not respond properly to the new revelation of God in Christ.  Paul’s most complicated work was giving instructions to new Christians about religious festivals, prescribed rituals, ascetic practices, food sacrificed to idols.  He had to be careful to avoid religious irreverence while shifting the primary focus onto doctrine and religious ethics–which is to say, onto the gospel.  Should Christians eat meals with pagans, whose feasts are wrapped up in satanic cultic rituals?  The real question, says Paul, is whether you are eating in thankfulness and faith; whether you are considering your neighbor’s interest and living peacefully; whether you are doing things in the name of Jesus.  If Jesus is risen, every moment of our mundane lives is transformed.  We must walk accordingly and urge one another to faith and love.  We must give thanks at all times and pray even for our enemies.  The gospel message is a foundation for an entire lifestyle and social system.  Cultus is still present, but it is not just one cultus among many.  Christianity is always message-centered (the very thing making me and my peers uncomfortable!)  Cultic practices are subordinate to “the word of truth.”

Therefore?  I think true high church clouds the true nature of Christian worship.  We worship in response to revealed doctrine, not as a prescribed practice to mollify God.  Our obsession with finding the thing in worship to see or experience can result in idolatry, which is itself an obsession with tangible things.  As for evangelical churches that alienate us from Christian cultus?  They simply aren’t making the most edifying choice for worshipers, which is worse than violating some worship norm.  The “dumbed-down” approach to the worship service is based on an unhappy fallacy–that what best urges people to faith is a good message packaged in secular pop-culture.  So we have sermons modeled on trendy TED Talks, praise songs in the style of Top 40 radio, a Eucharist that modestly purports to be “nothing weird.”  Worship is always weird.  David dancing in the linen ephod is our model.  Awed and inspired by the works of God, he was unashamed of the strangeness his praise took on.  Furthermore, he did this in the context of a liturgical ceremony.  Top 40/TED Talk cultus is out of line with the radical message of Christianity.  We cannot teach a heavenly message without seeming at least a little strange and scandalous to the world.  And in a post-religious society, worship itself is a foreign act.  Our rites of worship must be a proper, enthusiastic, and measured response to the heavenly revelation we have received.


*This is why it is important to understand Islam as a post-Christian religion, bearing more resemblance to Christianity than to any pagan sect.

(Note: I am now far more respectful of the “life-changing reality of Jesus Christ.”  My youth pastor’s catch phrase in sermons was just, YOU NEED JESUS.  Understanding better now what he meant, I realize that was the best way to put it.)



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