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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Revisiting "lex orandi lex credendi"

Or, as others might put it, "De lege orandi-credendi disputandum est."

This probably falls in the "angels dancing on pinheads" department, but I wrote all this down a while back, and thought you might like to read about it as well. Some of the insights below came via Christian McConnell, professor of liturgy at University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Chris is the real deal, and he humors my musings here and elsewhere with both corrective and supportive comments. I may be fiddling with words while Rome burns the historical foundations of the liturgical tradition, but this is just a blog, after all, and one deserves a little latitude.

In the years of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, we tried, as experienced practitioners in the ministry of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Catholic church, to empower others charged with the same ministry but perhaps with less background in the rites and their theology, to develop the tools to be good ministers of initiation by experiencing the rites and reflecting on them catechetically. In other words, we told them "don't do unto others what you haven't done unto yourself," then we helped them experience the dynamics of initiation rites and then reflect on them as “first theology,” the prayer of the church. In traditional theory, to experience the prayer of the Church, that is, to be immersed in the divine liturgy which is suffused with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Logos of God in the scripture and activity of the baptized as we join in the eternal prayer of Christ, is to be shaped by the action of God, conformed to Christ, the logos incarnate, who is kenosis and agape.

All of this is based on an ancient theological principle that is simplified in the phrase lex orandi lex credendi. This Latin aphorism means, literally, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” Translated into English, the principle tells the basic truth outlined above: prayer (and particularly and par excellence the liturgy) shapes belief. One doesn’t take the beliefs of a person, or a group, or the world and make them into a rite, but rather one submits to the rule of the ritual, in this case initiation ritual, and is shaped by it. Behind this principle is the promise of Jesus to be present to the Church “wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” as well as the faith of the Church that the sacraments had their origin in the life and habits of the Messiah, and grew organically among his disciples into the liturgy we have today through the practice of the apostles and the Church in the earliest decades of her existence. That’s all by way of some background.

At many Forum gatherings (and I suspect at other catechetical meetings as well) the phrase lex orandi lex credendi was expanded to include lex vivendi and then lex agendi, that is, the law of life (living) and the law of action (doing).Those who make these kinds of presentations are trying to expand the meaning of the original phrase to more clearly express the truth that lex credendi is not just a matter of intellectual assent to a body of truths, but a way of living, a pattern of action. You know, if you read this blog, that this might have pushed a button in me, the “faith” button, the place where I bristle when people suggest that faith is a matter of intellectual assent, that platonic sense that “knowledge is power,” rather than “knowledge is possibility.” I believe in Forum's model, really the RCIA model, of  "apprenticeship-to-discipleship." This model of initiation holds fast to the truth that Christians are made by other Christians, that God’s gift of faith is nurtured in community, and that it includes not just introduction to the truths of Scripture and tradition, but walking with other Christians in communal solidarity, prayer, and service to the world. This four-sided dynamism of kerygma, leiturgia, koinonia, and diakonia has its origin in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is along the trajectory of all four of them that candidates for initiation are discerned to be moving toward the sacraments at every ritual stage of their journey. What struck me was that by excising vivendi and agendi from the equation, we might be contributing to the misunderstanding of credendi as meaning “what we do about faith with our heads,” that is, taking life and action out of the meaning of “credo” where they belong. As I’ve stated before (and I tried to find my first post on this to prove it, but navigating through all those pages turned out to be looking for a needle in a haystack), belief is more related to love than it is to knowledge, even in its etymology. Credo, “I believe,” in the Latin, is a portmanteau verb created by the evolution of the words cor (heart) and do/dare (to give); that is, to believe is to give one’s heart to, not just one’s head, and the heart here is a synechdoche for the whole person.

Once I brought this issue up to my non-Forum friends on an internet list, and ask what they think. J. Michael Thompson, a wonderful musician and former seminary professor, pointed out that “lex orandi lex credendi” is a shortcut catchphrase for a longer statement by the anti-Pelagian scholar Prosper of Aquitaine, a contemporary and disciple of St. Augustine, to the effect that “legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi”, which more clearly articulates who’s zooming who here: the law of prayer legislates the law of belief. It’s not so much an equation (lex orandi = lex credendi) as a statement of the true order of things. Popular or even theologically sophisticated belief does not shape prayer, but vice versa. In a way, it is saying in theological language what the Directory for Catechesis says about the influence of parents on children’s faith, that parents are the first or primary catechists of their children. This is not a law: it’s a fact. It’s not burden the church imposes on parents: it’s the natural way of things. Kids learn from their parents. Jesus learned to be a good Jew from his mother and father. He might have learned other details later in life that were also important, but how to live as a Jew, the prayers, habits, rites, world view, practice of justice, all of that, he picked up from Mom and Dad. And so do we. Similarly, mother Church teaches us, through the community’s prayer life, how to live as Christians. The sense is that, as long as we keep remembering who we are, keep listening to the self-revelation of God in the scriptures, keep using real stuff – bread, wine, water, meal, oil, songs, gestures, color – to signify God’s presence, we won’t stray too far from the truth. When we start making it up, doing our own thing based on what “we” believe in, we’ll be in dangerous waters. (Don’t get me started on “making it up” again; we’ll be here all night!)

So I brought up my concern to others. I wondered whether the lex vivendi lex agendi business was part of the tradition, and it clearly is not. It’s an accretion used by contemporary scholars to make a two points: one, that liturgical prayer (orandi) precedes catechism in its role as shaper of Christians, and two, that life and action (vivendi and agendi) are elements of faith (credendi). But if they are elements of faith, why distinguish them from faith by using new Latin words for them, as though they were principles from some greater, more ancient authority? That is really bugging me. By our use of those words, aren’t we actually contributing to the dichotomy? By saying they’re distinct, aren’t we saying they’re different? At a time when we ought to be reconciling and integrating, are we making distinctions that aren’t helpful?

Chris McConnell went so far as to point out that the quote from Prosper is truncated from the original, which is part of a conditional phrase introduced by the connective ut, so that Prosper is saying we ought to pray in a certain way in order that the law of prayer might legislate the law of belief (this explains the subjunctive statuat in the phrase, too). McConnell makes the point that, in a sense, while Prosper seems to admit that prayer shapes belief, his actual statement is arguing for prayer in a certain way in order to shape belief—he’s arguing against the liturgy and prayer of the heretical Pelagians! Chris, who is nothing if not passionate about the liturgy and the God who enables and sustains it, wrote further to me:
I think it's worth noting that when people have hashed out the lex orandi/lex credendi thing, I don't think the content of orandi and credendi even pertained to the point they were making. It was all about the direction: which way does it go? Which one is built on the other? They were trying to rectify the tendency to think that liturgy has to be built on doctrine, a major Reformation and Counter-Reformation assumption. But they got a little carried away with thinking it was unidirectional the other way. That's starting to fall apart now.  After my initial attempts to work through that stuff, I came to the conclusion that theologia prima and theologia secunda can be salvaged, but lex orandi -> lex credendi is rightly dying a natural death. It's just untenable. It's a dialectic between the two, both ways, and everyone will admit it when you bring it up, even while they continue to try to hold on to it.

He’s talking about liturgical prayer as primary or “first” theology (theologia prima) versus what we traditionally think of as theology, which is a reflection on mystery, fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, but after and because of an experience of mystery that animates faith in the sacraments.

So what? My gut instinct is to say that we ought to lay off expanding the lex orandi lex credendi principle for two reasons. One, it’s intellectually dishonest, since we’re treating modern additions to an ancient principle unfairly by retrofitting them with Latin and making grammatical parallels. It might even be misusing the original principle, when we look back at Prosper’s original statement. (However, as I write this, I certainly don’t dispute the possibility that Prosper was rearticulating a principle that already existed by the end of the fourth century when he was active.) Two, it tends to further the disintegration of the truth that credere, to believe, is an action of the whole person, mind, body, spirit, heart, and fortune. To separate "to believe" into parts, as though it were possible to genuinely believe in parts, or that we’re divided into parts as persons somehow, is to dis-integrate faith, and to contribute to the very misunderstanding about tradition that we’re trying to correct! Belief is a matter of love. Creed is a way of giving one’s heart, which is to say, one’s whole self, over to a way of imagining the world with God as its caretaker, heart, and breath. All I wanted to do here was get my concern down in words, and at the end of it, I guess I’m not sure of the value of the effort. But I’m grateful for the people who have made me think like this, and in whose footsteps I walk as I negotiate the trails of the kingdom with you and the rest of the people of God.