Home > General > Metaphysics and the Traditional Liturgy Revisited

Metaphysics and the Traditional Liturgy Revisited

In the last post on this topic, a reader posted a hypothetical argument from those in opposition to the necessity of orthodoxy in liturgical practices; that is, a potential objection to the movement towards that which is better and more fitting in the liturgy.  This argument goes as such:

“In order to make the case that, say, chant at Mass is better than ‘Lord of the Dance’ or surplices and albs on servers are better than jeans and sneakers, you make the claim that positives and comparatives demand superlatives. So even if ‘Lord of the Dance’ is good it itself something may still be better. But in defending this position you’re forced to admit that there are certain cases where the superlative in question is not and cannot be ideal but is only real, and, further, such actual/real superlatives are determined by a given frame of reference. Thus, there is no ‘ideal’ largest-collection-of-Marty-Haugen-CDs. Rather, ‘largest’ is determined by the frame of reference, namely, you and I (or you and I and Jill) comparing our collections. So why shouldn’t non-essential liturgical choices fall into this latter category and, if they do, who’s to say what frame of reference we should use to determine what is most ‘fitting’ for the liturgy?”

First, in order to put this into a proper context, the idea of the “frame of reference” needs to be explicated.  In speaking of positives, comparatives, and superlatives (good, better, best) “frames of reference” is a phrase that helps to explain the relationship between these three terms in various situations.  For instance, it has been popularly argued by Richard Dawkins that the usage of the idea of a “best” or a “highest good” in arguing for the existence of God is absurd, because in insisting upon the absoluteness of such gradation would necessitate that there is also such a thing as the “stinkiest stinker.”  This argument falls apart on two levels: firstly, it is something of a philosophical faulty parallelism to impose the same conditions upon the corporeal and the incorporeal; and secondly, there is in fact something such as the “stinkiest stinker.”   As was said in the last article, “There is something that objectively smells worst to the properly functioning human nose; though it is possible for there to be something which smells worse, presumably ad infinitum, but only in possibility.”  In other words, there is in actual existence, at this moment (time plays a tricky role in all of this, and so will be omitted for the sake of clarity), something which smells worse than anything else that could be smelled; that which smells worst.  Yet it is possible for there to be something that smells yet worse, even if the level to which it further stinks is indiscernible by human consciousness.

"So... what's happening on the altar?  Oh, hi Jim."

"What's happening on the alt... Oh, hi Jim!"

Thus, a “frame of reference” is built in relation to the objects and subjects being considered: as a “stinker” relates to a “smeller” (since what stinks to one animal may not to another).  For instance, consider distance.  If Person B is 50 yards away from Person A, then – depending on their activity, say, throwing a football as opposed to using a two-way radio – Person B is far away, and likely farther than Person A can throw.  If Person C is 100 yards away, then he is far away from A, farther than B, and the farthest among those within the frame of reference.  The actual distance between A and B or A and C can be expanded or shrunk by degree without limitation, ad infinitum, “to infinity.”  But what must be noted is that at any given point in time, there is necessarily, within whatever given frame of reference, something which is farthest, or stinkiest, or smallest, or largest, or any superlative.

There are two interesting points about this idea of the “frame of reference,” which beg attention (why they are relevant to the Mass will be explained later).  First is that even the infinitely mutable frame of reference that is all material being – that infinitely reconfigurable potentiality of matter (what is traditionally called “prime matter,” though the nuances of the discussion are more complicated) – necessarily falls within a limited frame of reference; that, despite its infinitely potentiality for reconfiguration, it is nonetheless bound to be nothing more than matter.  It cannot transcend itself.  That does not mean there is gradation as regards the “beingness” of materiality – some things are not “more material” and there is definitely not something “most material,” except insofar as everything that is material is “most material” (with one exception, depending upon how the terms are applied – but never mind that for now!).  But since all material being exists in a quantifiable manner, it is essentially quantitative, and this essential quality can always be gradationally considered and examined.  There may be no limit to the potentiality of such quantity, but there is a limit insofar as it is essentially quantifiable – that is, it has a limit by the fact that it has a size.

The second interesting point is that, in stark contrast to this quantifiable quality, human beings always consider things in regards to quality.  This is perhaps the “frame of reference” that is most abused and subjected to relativistic interpretations.  That is because the frame of reference is shrunk to the radical autonomy of the will of the individual; it disregards the essence of the person and ultimately, though seldom consciously, the experience of the person.  It would be as though using the distance one’s self can run as an evaluation of the distance between New York and London.  Obviously the qualitative tastes of an individual are far more complex and intricate than the distance he can run, but the analogy nonetheless shows what is meant: subjectivization of the quality of something is similar to the subjectivization of something’s quantitative aspects.  As regards an argument for the objectivity of quality in beings, rather than engaging in a prolonged phenomenological discourse, it is prudent to summarize by saying that human beings universally have the potential to recognize the quality of the thing based on experience of the thing itself, and therefore, whatever judgment the individual human being makes, be it accurate or erroneous, of the object, the grounds for that judgment and therefore accuracy or error come from the object itself (just imagine how long the phenomenological inquiry could stretch on!).

Is this a wedding reception or the Mass?

Is this a wedding reception or the Mass?

What really differentiates objects of qualitative and quantitative considerations, however, is that objects of quantitative considerations, despite their potential infinitude, are actually limited, and within that actual limitation, have a determinate empirical end, a terminus.  Objects of qualitative considerations do not; for the objects of qualitative consideration are not necessarily empirically observable, such as an idea.  In other words, the essence of that which is considered qualitatively does not inhere only within corporeal being: “size” is necessarily material, but “good” is not.  Neither is beauty, or truth, or any other quality; hence the positive terms by which man ordinarily considers a thing’s quality are called the transcendentals; they transcend the finite, the limited, the material being; they do not merely extend beyond that frame of reference by which all material things are judged, they fundamentally exist outside of it.  Thus, whereas “biggest” as a superlative (and the idea of “big” as a positive) inhere within material being, “best” and “good” are both outside of it; the biggest thing is something material, whereas the best is immaterial, transcendent of the material; applicable in description to it, but incapable of ever being limited by it, or by anything (God not being a “thing”), for that matter.  Presupposing the existence of God (unlikely to be a problem with readers, on this blog), it would then necessarily be the case that all of the transcendental superlatives properly apply only to Him, and that any other usage of it is highly analogous; “good” is synonymous with “God” which is synonymous with “Being” – therefore a thing is “good” insofar as it participates in “Being,” which every thing does to a degree, according as it is alike to God.  A plant partakes in living, and thus has more Being than a rock; an animal in sensation, and thus more than a plant; a human in reason, and thus more than an animal.

But how does this argument apply to the Mass?   Just as participation in Being can be divided by degrees, so too can the manner of participation in Being; a human is more Being than a dog, but a human, by exercise of his will, can participate in Being in a very poor manner, by being lazy or selfish or cruel; he fails to fulfill the end which his innate participation in Being demands of him.  Likewise, any “thing” (within which actions will be included) that participates, willfully or not, in something which orients itself towards some end, can do so well or poorly.  That is to say that it may either be fitting, according to the context in which its quality is placed, or may not be fitting.  For an easily understood instance, though it may be a man’s custom to, while alone, belch loudly, to do so in the presence of dignified company would be unfitting: the company.  But whereas this is a cultural norm, it nonetheless has a reasonable basis – namely that a belch is something which ordinarily is not pleasing to the olfactory system!  Likewise would it be a crummy gesture if one who, having the financial means to purchase a diamond, bought for his supposedly-beloved a plastic engagement ring.  The nature of love, the nature of marriage, rightfully demands sacrifice and beauty.  So too does the Mass; far more so than any earthly love ever could.  Beauty exists objectively outside of any physical being; but it can and does permeate every being, not only insofar as it is, but also insofar as it is fittingly placed.  Can a threadbare garment supplant a rich chasuble?  Of course not.  Nor can a “church-in-the-round,” which emphasizes community, which has people looking at one another, which does, yes, orient everyone towards the altar, also contributes to the dissemination of their attention and particularly to that of the priest (as does celebration of the Mass versus populum).

A Solemn Pontifical Mass - no question about it!

A Solemn Pontifical Mass - no question about it!

This is obviously a very compressed argument (comments and questions are welcome!).  The explanations are not exact, and could likely use a few dozen revisions, elaborations, and nights of sleep.  They likely make far less sense to the reader as they do to the author; at best they make as little.  It is certainly unfair to truncate the argument as much as has been done, and certainly to not address all of the many common liturgical abuses in an adequate philosophical manner.  Again, this topic demands revisitation.

Just for good measure.

Just for good measure.

Categories: General
  1. Mike
    June 23, 2009 at 10:00 am

    How ironic that your splendid photo of a Pontifical Mass at the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica shows precisely a celebration versus populum. As in other ancient Roman basilicas, it has always been impossible to celebrate otherwise than versus populum there, for the front of the altar drops away into the confessio.

    Ironic, too, that the use for papal liturgies of the transepts of the basilica, and also of the traditional tribunes around the high altar, produced (and still produces) something like a church in the round.

  2. June 23, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    It is somewhat ironic; but I think the differences are pretty clear… there is certainly a clear division between the sanctuary (and those upon it) and the people. The primary orientation of the priest is still on God. St. Peter’s is still cruciform.

    Honestly, though, I much prefer the use of reredos. For once, something predominately French takes precedence in my estimation…

  3. July 1, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  4. Jeff R.
    July 21, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Raskolnikov, thanks for the post. I appreciate the time and thought that you’ve clearly put into the issue since the last post and our subsequent discussion. My Novitiate will be starting soon and we are not allowed to publish/make available via blog any of our writing during that time (it’s supposed to be a more contemplative year), so I doubt I’ll be able to carry on the discussion.

    Given that, I’ll use this post to sort of sketch my own reply to the objection, which I think is substantively similar to your post:

    1.) We should grant the premise that no created being could ever be “adequate” with regards to the Mass.

    2.) We should grant the conclusion from (1) that the superlatives of which we are concerned with regard to the Mass are always going to be real, not ideal, superlatives.

    3.) We should grant the premise that real superlatives (at least in this case) are determined by a given frame of reference.

    4.) We should TAKE as a premise that frames of reference are themselves objectively determined by the end/goal/teleological orientation of the action in question. Thus, a coctail party has as its end pleasant conversation. This goal objectively determines the frame of reference within which, say, music is selected for the coctail party, and, in turn, this frame of reference determines that a barber shop quartet is better than death metal but light instrumental music (of the three) would be best.

    5.) We should TAKE as a premise that the Mass has two “ends.” The end of the Mass, with respect to itself, is to make present the ineffible sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The end of the Mass with respect to us is determined by this first end. With respect to us, the end of the Mass is to manifest this ineffable sacrifice through an encounter with Mystery. It is this second goal – to provide an encounter with Mystery – that objectively determines the frame of reference within which real superlatives can be determined in regard to the Mass.

    It’s at this point that the real argumentation would have to begin. We would need to show – either phenomenologically or through some other means – that the sorts of things discussed in the first post (Ad Orientem, Chant, Latin, etc.) are all real superlatives within the different frames of reference (liturgical ordientation, liturgical music, liturgical language) as determined by this goal (encounter with mystery).

    This certainly seems doable. Perhaps our opponents would object to (5), but that would itself be a fruitful discussion. If they accept (5), then it all comes back to how well we make the case that I sketched above.

    I think this is close to what you’re saying in your post. I’ll try to keep checking online for the next couple days. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  5. Jeff R.
    July 21, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Forgive the spelling mistakes (“coctail”? “ordientation”?) I shot that off without reading it through . . .

    • Raskolnikov
      August 9, 2009 at 3:55 pm

      Sorry Jeff, I was out of town for a bit and did not see these. Guessing you’ve gone already! Your presentation of the argument is solid; the only addendum I would make is to the fifth point, in clarifying that the second goal is in every way dependent upon adequate perception of the first, which includes the honor and glory of God, most present in itself but not to us (as with all things most knowable in themselves being the least knowable to us).

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