Serious Liturgical Geekery: Part 1

I often post sections or entireties of presentations that I give for various groups—this is one of them.

I was invited to present at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Scholar-Priests this past month on the broad & general topic of the liturgy and formation. This gave me an opportunity to play around with a concept that has been bouncing around in my head for several years and to re-attack something that I had been previously from a new angle.  Because I’m reworking some stuff here that I originally wrote for the SCP conference in Detroit several years ago, there is material here that some long-time readers will likely recognize, particularly in the latter stages. However, there’s a lot of new things too and the new things make the old things more interesting! (I think so, at least…)

This is part 1 of 3; part 2 is looking at Xunzi’s arguments about what ritual is and how it functions; part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

So, without further ado…


Whenever I take on a big topic—and Liturgy and formation is a very big topic—I always like to try and get some outside perspective. We tend to get caught up with the usual authorities and in the usual takes on the situation as laid down by the usual authorities based on the usual stances and approaches. So my reflex is to go find somebody else. Somebody who does not share all of the fundamental assumptions that we start from and that isn’t locked into the philosophical constructs of late post/modernity and the combined academic and ecclesial culture of the Episcopal seminary. But yet—still has something interesting and compelling to offer. So, someone disconnected from our conversations but who still has a perspective worth engaging.

Our liturgy and its liturgical cycles are the product of a pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment world. Not pre-technological, not pre-philosophical, but thoroughly pre-modern but in no way does that mean primitive. So, in order to understand the motivations and spirit that had a hand in the construction of our liturgical cycles, I like to find interesting thinkers who were thinking about these topics—ritual, ceremonial, what it all means and why we do it—who are pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment, and pre-modern yet are dealing with these topics in interesting and sophisticated ways.

As a result, I’d like to introduce you to a thinker who will most likely be a new acquaintance to most of the folks here. Xunzi was a philosopher writing in the Confucian tradition right around the fall of the Zhou dynasty and the rise of the Qin. Born around 313 BC, he died in about 238 BC. We don’t have a lot of biographical data about him. He was born in the state of Zhao which is in the northern part of China up on Yellow River. Like many of the sages of the time he bounced around between the governments of the various warring states that existed before the rise of the dynasty that would unite China under a single Emperor, Shi Huangdi, in 221 BC. He was a teacher, a ritual specialist, and a magistrate before losing his position when his patron was assassinated in 238. He retired into obscurity before his own death. His writings are collected in a book known by his name, the Xunzi, divided into 32 essay-length chapters.

To put him in philosophical context, Confucian thought begins with the writings of Kongzi (Confucius) who died in 479 BC and whose writings focused on building a strong and virtuous society grounded in traditionalism, right relationships amongst and within a stratified society, ethical improvement that classified people on a spectrum from petty to gentleman to sage based on their investment in ethical progress. Much of the thought of Kongzi consists of reflection on older books of learning, histories, poetry, and ritual thought to be written by the philosopher kings of old. These are referred to collectively as the Five Classics. So references to the sage kings or the former kings refer to this body of traditional material that was seen as a quasi-divine revelation.

Around the same time as Xunzi, you have the philosopher Mengzi (or Mencius), also a Confucian thinker who advocated a human nature is essentially good and offered a moral and ethic program based on self-reflection. Since your nature is good, all you have to do is look inside yourself to know what is right. Mengzi becomes the central bearer of the Confucian tradition going forward and he is considered one of the four great sages of China along with Kongzi and two other later thinkers who will not appear in this paper.

Also at this same general time was Zhuangzi, whose book bearing his name would become one of the fundamental texts of the Daoist tradition. His basic concept is that there is a way (Dao) or fundamental pattern woven into the cosmos that can be discerned. The true sage is the one who conforms to this great Dao agreeing with Mengzi that human society is often responsible for people losing their way morally and ethically.

So—why is Xunzi interesting at all? Why bother going through all of this? Xunzi represents Confucian heterodoxy—his is the path not taken, and it’s because he fundamentally disagreed with Mengzi. Whereas Mengzi developed his moral thought based on the premise that human nature is good, Xunzi went in the opposite direction. He states clearly, repeatedly, that human nature is bad. I’m going to nuance that in a little bit—that’s his language, which is intended to be deliberately provocative, not mine. What Xunzi does believe is that because human nature is bad, it must be corrected and the ritual is the key. Of all the Confucian writers, he is the one who speaks the most and the most clearly about ritual and about Confucian metapraxis: why ritual should be done, why ritual is important, and how ritual functions as a formative tool to create virtuous individuals and a virtuous society. So here we have a 3rd century BC voice explaining what ritual is, how it functions, and how it creates virtue. He is thoroughly uninvested in our arguments and language games and in our philosophical constructions.

One other very important point about him: Xunzi denies any supernatural efficacy to ritual acts. As far as he is concerned either the gods and ancestors don’t exist or they do not care to intervene in human affairs—he’s kind of analogous to the Epicureans in that respect. Rather, he is arguing that ritual does what it does on its own terms and by its own means—not because a god or ancestor or spirit is functioning supernaturally through it. So, what I’d like to do is get a sense of where Xunzi is coming from, and then take a look at some components of Classical Anglican liturgy from the perspective that he shows us. I’m not proposing any sort of syncretism, of course; in fact, I disagree with Xunzi on some really important points. What I’m suggesting is that looking at how a pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment ethical thinker deeply invested in ritual and ceremony can break us out of our boxes and give us new eyes with which to look at our familiar practices.

4 Replies to “Serious Liturgical Geekery: Part 1”

  1. Please remove me from your distribution. As a disciple of Christ, I am continually challenged and enlarged by our own traditions. Not having mastered His way, I prefer not to combine my Christianity with
    Other traditions.
    Thanks.

  2. Feel free to remove yourself, but you’re missing the point. I’m engaging other traditions because of the way that they can help us see our own, not because I’m suggesting or advocating any kind of syncretism. I’m not engaging with Xunzi because I think he’s correct, but because he gives us an interesting angle from which to consider our own practice.

  3. Thanks for this very interesting look at another tradition. Pondering whether ritual in fact “does what it does on its own terms and by its own means.”

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