Q&A with Matthew Boulton

December 20, 2008
Q&A with Matthew Boulton

In his teaching and research, Matthew Myer Boulton, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies at HDS, explores ways in which Christian worship founds and forms Christian life. This exploration draws together his interests in the history and practices of Christian liturgy; theology and public life; biblical interpretation and proclamation; and the performing arts, including theater, music, and film. He has published on Reformed liturgical theology in dialogue with social science, Christian lamentation in dialogue with biblical studies, and is the author of God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship (Eerdmans, 2008), which he discussed with Jonathan Beasley.

In putting together God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship, you took cues from Luther, Calvin, and Karl Barth—there's also some Bonhoeffer mixed in as well. What was so appealing about focusing on those figures?

Luther, Calvin, and Barth are key historical figures in Reformation theological traditions, and coming to terms with Reformation theology means, in some sense, coming to terms with widely influential figures like them. What's more, these traditions make up my theological neighborhood: I grew up Presbyterian, and in my professional life in ministry, I've served churches in the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ traditions—so, in more ways than one, I consider myself a Reformed theologian.

What interests me most about Reformed thought, and about these figures in particular, is how they repeatedly return to key questions about humility, spiritual pride, and the theological critique of religion. As I see it, we Protestants have yet to fully take on board the inner implications of the European Reformations, which in my view have to do with a radical critique of religion and a decidedly more humble, practice-oriented version of Christianity. This is the argument of the book, and I take it to be a distinctively (though not exclusively) Reformed argument. That said, I am also quite interested in ecumenical modes of thinking in Reformed ways, and so I'm continually attracted to learning from Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.

I was wondering if you could talk about how the book came to fruition?

The seedbed of the book is in my dissertation at the University of Chicago, which I wrote under the direction of Kathryn Tanner, David Tracy, and Susan Schreiner. Kathryn Tanner is a constructive theologian who, in those days, was doing systematic theology briefly—in other words, not writing massive, multivolume sets, but rather, setting down a systematic sketch in a single, relatively slim book.

That is what God Against Religion is, in a way: a fairly ambitious attempt to think through what a Christian systematic theology would look like if it took worship as its framework and subject matter. In other words, it's an exercise in thinking from beginning to end about the key practices of lived Christian life, which are, by and large, worship practices.

Going back to the early 1990s, the reason I came to HDS as a student was to study comparative and anthropological approaches to religion. I was interested in ritual practices and in the ways those practices interact and overlap with the arts. There is a close and fascinating relationship, for example, between ritual and theater. As my studies progressed—even when I became more interested in Christian theology—I did so from the point of view of Christian ritual practices.

And so I began to wonder: What if we thought about ritual practices not as secondary expressions or symbolic models of theological ideas, but rather, as themselves central to doing Christian theology? In modern Protestant thought, this is a relatively unusual approach, though it is quite commonplace in other parts of the Christian world. As it turns out, on this score, key founding Protestant figures like Luther and Calvin have more in common with those other Christians than they do with modern Protestantism! So one origin of the book was thinking about the categories, the gestures, the patterns of Christian worship, and experimenting with making these the raw material and the intellectual framework for thinking Christian thought and for doing Christian theology in the first place.

Another root of the book was my interest in theological critiques of religion and, in particular, critiques of Christianity. I had a professor at the University of Chicago who was notoriously critical of Christianity—and of religion generally. After a lot of cajoling, he reluctantly agreed to come and speak to a group of us theology students in the "Theology Club"—a venue where we would invite faculty members to come and give a presentation or lead discussion. In his presentation, he posed the provocative idea that theology is illegitimate as a discipline, because theology and religion are all about rendering certain forms of life—discursive forms, or bodily practices, or institutional authorities—essentially beyond question by calling them "sacred" or "holy." And so in his view, religion is all about foreclosing critique or setting up certain aspects of the world as beyond criticism.

As a budding theologian, I began to think about what responses to this charge might be possible. I remember asking him that day: "If there was a Christian theology that was thoroughly self-critical of Christianity—not just of someone else's supposedly deficient Christianity, but of Christianity itself—would that address your concern?" He responded by saying that it would, but that such a scenario was impossible, since it would undercut what he took religion or Christianity to be all about, i.e., setting itself up in certain ways as authoritative and beyond question. And so by definition, no Christian theology could be thoroughly self-critical. Now, there was a challenge I couldn't resist, and so I became interested in the streams in Christian theological traditions that are radically critical of Christianity, and I began to imagine what it would be like to do Christian theology from that kind of standpoint.

How does this tie into your background?

Well, as I say, I grew up Presbyterian, and I'm now ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which is another Reformed denomination. Karl Barth, arguably the most influential Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, wrote a famous (and infamous) polemic against religion in which he essentially argues that God saves us from religion by transforming it. Barth argues, in short, that religion is the problem, not the solution, and that Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father—or, as I would also say, God the Mother—saves human beings, not by offering us religion as a wonderful antidote to our ills, but by transforming religion (the source of the ills in the first place) from the inside out. So Barth is criticizing religion in strong theological terms from the inside out, and that captured my attention.

As I read the argument more closely, I began to realize that the heart of Barth's critique of religion is a critique of worship, since the heart of "religion," he contends—the most exalted, commonplace events of religion—are gestures and practices of worship. So here was a way for me to pull together a trio of interests: Reformed theology, ritual practices, and a theological critique of religion.

The specific place that really began the book for me was the image on the book's cover, which is Michelangelo's Creation of Eve, and the central image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There is a passage in Barth's Epistle to the Romans where he interprets that image to be a mythological portrait of humanity's "fall" or break with God. Originally, he says, there was an intimacy and friendship with God that is broken by the first worship service. In the fresco, viewed through Barth's eyes, Adam lies in a contorted posture of sleep, and Eve lunges forward toward God in an awkward prayer. Barth argues, in effect, that these are the wretched arrangements of religion: stupor and desperation. So here is the most renowned and notorious Protestant theologian of the twentieth century reading the ceiling of the pope's personal chapel and arguing that the first signs of full-blown religion were, mythologically speaking, the occasion for humanity's "fall" away from the original intimacy with God.

The mythic analogy here ultimately revolves around a fracturing of a friendship. If you and I have a friendship, for example, and then one day, one of us starts worshiping the other, that fundamentally disrupts the friendship and intimacy. If our friends start bowing down to us, what do we say? We say, "Don't do that. Get up." This is the kind of thing Barth has in mind. Worship disrupts the face-to-face, intimate relationship God wants to have with us.

I want to stay on Barth. On page 50, you paraphrase him by saying that "Human beings fall precisely when and where they seek to stand aright." Can you explain what you mean by "stand aright"?

One of the great themes during the sixteenth-century reformations—as well as in later Protestant theology—is a critique of so-called "works righteousness," or the idea that human beings, acting alone and on our own power, can take up a righteous position by "standing aright," or achieving for themselves what we might call "good standing." In a way, I am reading Barth here as radicalizing the "works righteousness" critique by universalizing it. It is not only to say, "Look at those papists, those Roman Catholics. Look at them in their self-righteousness." Instead, Barth is saying: "First and foremost, let us look at ourselves. Look at all of us. Look at human beings and our attempts to self-justify, to make ourselves righteous by our own good work." That is religion for Barth—the attempt to make ourselves righteous by our own good work, to stand aright on our own power, by our own feats of excellence. That is religion. That is the break with God.

Why is it the break? It is the break because God does not create human beings to stand aright on our own power and apart from a living intimacy with God. Rather, God creates human beings to be intimate friends and partners with God, and so to stand with, in, and through God in that intimate partnership. Human life, in other words, is to be lived with and in God. And so any idea of my acting unilaterally and alone, apart from God or "over against" God, is fundamentally a break with God and with my own humanity. I am not made to be "righteous alone." I am made to be righteous in community with God and other human beings. And so "righteousness" is a category I should never claim for myself or on the basis of my own good work. All righteousness has the character of a gift—as some Reformed theologians will say, "It's not my righteousness or your righteousness or our righteousness by which we live; it's Christ's righteousness." This, of course, is Luther's basic breakthrough, as he later described it, reading Paul. And Barth is picking up that same theme in his own way.

To proclaim or to recognize that the righteousness from within is a gift from God, is that a form of worship as well?

Absolutely. And it is a classic form, especially for Protestants, typically taking shape in practices of thanksgiving and praise. But again, can we pull this off on our own power, and by our own lights? Can we proclaim the gift-character of righteousness, or recognize it, without at the same time glancing back at ourselves in self-congratulation for this excellent proclamation and recognition? Everything hangs on what is actually happening for the worshiper. Is she or he "recognizing that all righteousness is a gift" as itself a hidden form of self-righteousness? In fact, one of the most tried-and-true modes of works righteousness in religious life is condemning other Christians for none other than their alleged works righteousness! Protestants are especially accomplished at this brand of hypocrisy. But even the act of preaching a sermon where I say that "righteousness is not our own but rather is a gift from God"—even that act of preaching can function as a form of self-righteousness, because I can go home and pat myself on the back and say, "Oh, that was a great sermon I just preached. Wasn't that just so insightful and wonderful and righteous on my part? The way I so beautifully pointed out that 'all righteousness is a gift'?" And so on.

In other words, the self-righteous attempt to "stand aright" has a way of sneaking in through the back door. So you can point and say that the person over there is improperly trying to stand aright on his own, but what are you doing? Odds are, you are trying to stand aright by condemning or pronouncing a certain form of orthodoxy. So even the very act of pointing out "works righteousness" in someone else can itself be a hidden form of the very thing it condemns.

The "pat on the back" analogy, is that more an issue with pride?

In that scenario, certainly pride can be in full force, and so we can put the question this way: Can Christian worship happen without pride? Or, what is worship anyway? What are its classical forms? Again, going back to the European Reformations, reformers loved to critique the pomp of the mass, the opulent architecture and vestments, and so on. Even today, many Protestants declare quite proudly, "We will not wear those extravagant vestments. Oh no, we will create a different form of worship that is simple and plain and humble." But again, humility can itself be a form of pride, and a particularly insidious one at that, as in: "Look at me, so much more humble than those other Christians."

So Barth's critique pushes us to ask, in effect, whether any worship service can be free and clear of this kind of pride and self-congratulation. Leading up to the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper, it is a classic liturgical formula for the congregation to say, "We lift our hearts to the Lord." This is something that is often said routinely by congregations, but consider the language for a moment. We lift our hearts to the Lord. One of the great biblical stories of religious pride is the Tower of Babel: the attempt to build up a tower by our own ingenuity, to reach the heavens, to approach God. In a way, what could be more prideful and presumptuous than the claim that "I will now approach God." But what else is worship but precisely this claim?

Again, the point is not that everyone who worships is secretly an egomaniac. The point is that even in our best efforts to be humble and reverent and holy, we cannot rightly claim an exemption from self-righteousness or self-congratulation. There are no exemptions, and sure enough, the act of claiming an exemption itself can be a reliable sign of self-righteousness, as can hand-wringing about our own self-righteousness. From this point of view, there is no way out. As Barth puts it, sin casts a shadow over all things, including and especially religion.

On page 202, you describe worship as: "mixed in motive, prideful in practice, and narcotic in effect." Are all forms of Christian worship self-serving?

In effect, Barth is defining "religion" as self-service. He takes that Reformation critique of works righteousness—that is, the idea that one can achieve righteousness by accomplishing certain works—and he says that the critique applies across the board to all religion and worship. Christianity may also be more than an attempt at mere self-service, he says, but not by virtue of good works or attending worship eight times a week. If Christianity is more than self-service, and of course Christians hope and pray that it is, it is so because God makes it so—because God joins human beings in and through their worship itself, and transforms the break from intimacy into its reversal: a return to intimacy, a reconciliation.

Part of God Against Religion is an attempt to develop this critique through some close biblical exegesis. Take the two creation stories in Genesis, for example. If worship is actually as excellent and admirable and unambiguous as most Christians today take it to be, why is there no temple in the Garden of Eden? Why is there no instruction to worship God? And why is the first worship service in the Bible the one that Cain and Abel invent, not in response to any divine instruction, but apparently on their own? As I read it, the story of Cain and Abel resonates with Barth's critique. Unprompted, the brothers bring precious gifts to God, presents of fruit and fat. But what is an offering, anyway? On one hand, it is a gift—an act of giving. It seems generous enough, but we find out from what happens later in the story that, for Cain at least, it was not quite so generous after all. We know from his subsequent anger and violence that his "gift" had strings attached. Cain's "offering" is actually a quid pro quo, a form of bargaining with God. Part of the critique here is that all religion—and most to the point for a Christian theologian, all Christianity—has the character of a quid pro quo.

Christians, myself included, go to church and make offerings, not out of pure generosity, but in order to get something in return. We carry out an attempted exchange. On the surface, offering looks like giving, but it is actually a more or less camouflaged form of taking. If I give you $50 in the hopes that you are going to give me a new pair of shoes, I'm fundamentally engaged in a form of acquisition. This is the liturgy of Cain. And sure enough, the Hebrew word for "Cain" is itself a punning play on the Hebrew word for "acquire."

But on the other hand, if the idea of a hidden "underside" of religion and worship has scriptural support, so does the idea that God joins us in worship, and this is the divine undoing of humanity's specious attempts to act alone and apart from God. In other words, God acts to reestablish intimacy and communion with human beings by joining us in our very attempts to break away and apart from God. God worships, and prays, and reconciles with us, precisely in the face of our ongoing turning away.

The idea that God participates in worship is familiar in Christian thought and practice. Where two or three are gathered, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ is also present. Christians pray not in our own name, but "in the name of Jesus Christ." In Romans 8, Paul writes that when he prays, he does not pray on his own; rather, it is the Holy Spirit praying in him and through him. What I do in the book with these familiar ideas, following Barth, is to coordinate them with the critique: we break from God in Christian worship, but God joins us there at the very point of rupture, accompanying our work of "us-without-God" with the divine work of "God-with-us," Immanuel.

So yes, all religious life is self-serving, and continues to be so, but by God's grace, it is also God serving humankind. In this sense, Christian worship is two things at once, and I argue that Barth is leaning here on Luther's classic idea of the simul—that a Christian is simultaneously "fully justified" and a thoroughgoing "sinner."

In other words, it is not just that a Christian used to be a sinner and now is "saved." Worship for Barth is not just a Sunday morning event; it is an all-encompassing framework and a comprehensive attempt to "stand aright" over the course of your whole life, in various ways. But at the same time, God's graceful companionship is similarly comprehensive. As we continually fall, God continually joins us, forgives us, and lifts us up. For Luther, the form of life properly entailed by the simul is the form of the penitent: the one who confesses that he is a sinner and is simultaneously consoled by God's mercy and care, and then is ushered into a kind of penitential joy. So there is a sense of a "joyful humility" here that constitutes, for Luther and for Barth, the proper form of the Christian life.

Many Christians today, when they hear the word "penitence," think it amounts to saying, "Oh, God, I'm so sorry. I'm a worm—lowly and worthless." But in Luther's view, that's not true penitence at all; rather, it is a perversion of true penitence. True penitence is contrite, but it is also consoled and ultimately joyful, bold, and strong.

Luther uses the term "holy pride" to try to capture the humble, joyful confidence that follows from God's ongoing forgiveness and care, and this choice of words is quite striking. Luther was an Augustinian monk in the Augustinian tradition of emphasizing sin's destructive effects, and in that tradition, "pride" is often the chief offender in the story of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden. And yet here, "pride" is not only at the root of the problem: a "holy" form of pride is a blossom of the solution. This is the "holy pride" that follows from true penitence. There is no sense here of being debilitated by guilt or being humiliated. Humble, yes, but not humiliated; rather joyful and bold. That is what Luther has in mind and what Barth takes on board in his own work and in his own way.

You provocatively title the postlude of your book "Reforming Worship." What exactly about worship needs to be reformed and how is this possible?

On the one hand, I think the argument I make can make a difference even if nothing is logistically changed in the worship service, because how we experience and understand what is happening during worship can make a decisive difference as to what we come away with, what kinds of communities and individual dispositions are formed, and so on. Even if a liturgy remains materially and choreographically the same, how we perform and interpret things can make a world of difference.

That said, I also think it can be a fruitful exercise to ask what difference it would make if we tried to reorganize Christian worship around some of the ideas in God Against Religion. There is an important proviso or caveat, however, which is that I would cut my own feet out from under me if I said that by making changes X, Y, and Z, we will now have a better worship service than some other community, denomination, or religion (or lack thereof). That action would be just another repetition of the religious catastrophe, which all too frequently takes the form, "My worship service is better than yours." Or, "I am on holier ground than you are because of these innovations." That is the classic religious move, and that is exactly what most religious sects do when they break off from larger religious groups—like in the European Reformations!

So that is an important caveat, and in the book, that is how the postlude begins—by talking about how, when it comes to human salvation, liturgical reform makes no difference at all. Our salvation, our holiness, and our righteousness are not at stake. Any righteousness that is "ours" is first of all totally dependent on God; it is not dependent on our liturgical excellence or virtuosity.

So, with that in mind, one argument I make is that, if Christian worship were organized around the ideas in God Against Religion, it would make for more robustly sacramental worship and more dialectical sacramental forms. For example, Christian baptism involves both a dying and a rising, a going down into the waters of chaos and a rising up out of the waters of the womb. It also involves, I argue, a going down into religion, a classic "initiation" into religion, and, at the same time, an intimate participation in God's own life and resurrection. The dialectic imagery is already built in, and I recommend accentuating it and figuring it as a reminder of the simul—a compact portrait of Christian life continually dying and rising.

Likewise, there is the Lord's Supper or Eucharist. As many Christians would say, the supper is a meal of forgiveness and a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. But at the same time, what we do in Communion is remember and replay a meal that is, if nothing else, a meal of betrayal and desertion. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that is exactly how Jesus introduces the meal. This is not a happy dinner party. The very first thing he says is that one of them will betray him, and the first thing the disciples do (that is, the first thing we Christians do!) is energetically deny this—falsely, as it turns out. Judas betrays, and Peter deserts, as do the rest of them, and as do the rest of us.

Desertion and betrayal are thus major themes of the meal, and every time Christians gather around the Communion table, we properly replay these themes and apply them to ourselves. We say, "On the night of the betrayal. . . ." Betrayed by whom? Betrayed by us. And so again, a dialectic underlying structure is clear. On the one hand, we come to the table as betrayers and deserters and so we are, in Luther's terms, fully sinners; however, on the other hand, we remember that the whole point of the meal is that it is also a "new covenant for the forgiveness of sins." Because of God's grace, even betrayers and deserters share the meal and return to intimacy and "communion" with God. This is the dialectical structure already built into the Eucharist, and, as in the case of baptism, I recommend accentuating it. We need a more deeply, richly, vividly sacramental life in Protestant worship—one that poetically and accessibly emphasizes the dialectics and simultaneities I just mentioned. Every baptism, every Eucharist, is at once a critique of our own religiosity and an event (we hope and pray) of divine salvation from it—a graceful return to intimacy with God.

What would be the point of trying to emphasize those themes?

The point is that these themes may help provide a heightened sense of the ambiguities of Christian worship, and this heightened sense is, in many ways, a string around your finger. It is a way to remember certain things about reality. What things? In this case, if we are repeatedly remembering this kind of dialectic (Luther's simul), then what kind of dispositions would that encourage or cultivate within us?

If I remember that I am a betrayer and a deserter—and also that I am nevertheless gracefully forgiven by God and told, in Jesus' famous words in John 8, "Go and sin no more"—what kind of disposition does that form in me? I would say the target disposition is a certain style of humility, not humiliation, and at the same time, a certain sense of joy and freedom.

How would we feel if we had a vivid sense of our own identity as a betrayer and deserter but nevertheless were forgiven and invited into the life of God? At best, we would feel humbled, and we would feel joy, and we would feel a kind of ecstatic sense of liberation and buoyancy. I think that is the kind of human being that Christian worship services, at best, are trying to form: a humbled human being, but not one who is so overly humbled and humiliated that he or she is paralyzed, or only and ceaselessly fascinated with his or her own guilt. To truly repent is not to be paralyzed by guilt; it is to be liberated from it—and liberated for a new kind of life altogether.

I call this "penitential joy," which sounds like an oxymoron to many Christians and others, precisely because they think of penitence as somber and glum and earnest and grave. To be sure, there ought to be a somber dimension to penitence—some room for genuine contrition. But just as surely, it ought to culminate in joy and thanksgiving. For me, that is really the key turn in the argument: that God wants human beings to be intimate with God, but also to freely enjoy creation. I think worship, at its best and with God's participation and help, is a type of formation and discipleship toward this freedom and joy. As I see it, there are too many Christians in the world who think that worship is mainly about moral formation—a kind of moral instruction with a couple of nice choir numbers thrown in. Worship may involve moral instruction, sure, but the primary arc and arrangement and goal should be about joy.

But please note, this does not mean Christian worship services should be manic jamborees! Depending on the circumstances, Christian worship should take on the whole range of forms across the spectrum of human emotions, from mourning to delight. Sometimes Christian worship should be silent. But even in those cases, it should ultimately lead to joy, to a genuine "hallelujah." The hallelujah might be felt, or whispered, or spoken through tears, but that is always the proper direction of the program of formation—to help turn Christians into more humble, more joyful people.

One of the most provocative clams that follows from all this is that, ultimately, worship will pass away. As the break from intimacy with God, God will end it, but even as the graciously transformed return to intimacy, God will end it, since one day, this gracious transformation will be complete. In the mythopoetic language of Genesis and Revelation, there is no temple in Eden, but neither is there one in the New Jerusalem. Instead, what God intends is intimacy, Sabbath, joy, delight, or, as Luke puts it, "music and dancing"—all poetic terms pointing toward this state of affairs beyond the "work" of worship and religion. In a way, then, Christians should pray for the end of prayer. And likewise, in acts of Christian worship, Christians should hope and call for the end of worship, and so even and especially the end of Christianity.

—by Jonathan Beasley