"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 12, 2021

On Liturgical Dogmatics: David Fagerberg Interviewed

If you read past entries on here, you will know that I am an undisguised admirer of the work of David Fagerberg, whom I have interviewed previously about his many excellent books, all of which are worth your time. I have used his first book, Theologia Prima, in courses for some fifteen years now. 

More recently I have been recommending his On Liturgical Asceticism to students.

Now there is a new must-read book from him, and it really does belong on every RCIA reading list, and on the syllabus of introductory courses in Christianity, whether in a parish or undergraduate classroom. For Liturgical Dogmatics is, quite simply, that good. It has achieved the rare feat of being a book written by a top-drawer academic who eschews complicated jargon and an academic apparatus to write an accessible, cogent book that is not at all dumbed down but remains meaty and substantial from your first bite to the last morsel. 

As is my custom, I sent David some questions about his background, the book, and future plans. Here are his thoughts. 

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

DF: I am nearing retirement (another year) so I find myself retrospecting quite a lot. In 1988 I submitted a dissertation proposal titled “What Is Liturgical Theology” and I have been adding to my answer since, as though the dissertation was a small sculpture and I’ve been adding clay to the bust. The pathway to Liturgical Dogmatics was direct thematically, even if meandering biographically.

AD: What led to the writing of Liturgical Dogmatics?

DF: The books on the wall in front of me are about liturgy and Byzantine theology. The books on the wall behind me are about philosophy and systematic theology. They are from two different phases of my life, and perhaps this volume is their reconnection. I began with systematics, and was drawn into liturgical studies. It is nice to think that instead of those initial years being wasted, they have hung around to be put to use now.

I also answer this question with a short and true anecdote. I wrote the book in a second and a half in my mind; putting it on paper naturally took longer. 

I was asked once if I could teach the course in liturgical history one summer. I thought, “Yes I could. I would start with Adam and Eve as cosmic priests, talk about their forfeiture of a liturgical career, cover salvation history from Abraham to Moses to the prophets, arrive at Jesus as the High Liturgist, and consider the baptized Christian as his liturgical apprentice.” 

Then I realized I was only being asked to teach a course on the history of the liturgy. All that got me thinking that we might also do a liturgical triadology, liturgical cosmology, liturgical anthropology, liturgical hamartiology (sin), liturgical soteriology, liturgical Christology/Pneumatology, liturgical ecclesiology, and liturgical eschatology. These are the sections of the book.

AD: Your first book, Theologia Prima, has been out for many years now, and I've used it for over a decade in classes before also using On Liturgical Asceticism  and Liturgical Mysticism. How does Liturgical Dogmatics stand in relation to those other three? What is its unique contribution?

DF: There was no grand plan. I marvel at authors who have some multi volume project in mind from the start, but such was not the case for me. I was carried along the current of liturgical theology. The first task was to understand what Kavanagh and Schmemann meant when they said, respectively, that liturgy is primary theology and the ontological condition for theology. The first book was linking liturgy + theology as two words naming one reality. 

But I found that students and colleagues misunderstood, and I concluded it must be due to operating with a different grammar, so I wanted to thicken both terms: treat liturgy as leitourgia, theology as theologia. The Orthodox theologians of asceticism helped me with that. 

The ascetical dimension opens another door. Not only is it what capacitates us for committing liturgy, it also is a connection between the sacred and the profane. Robert Taft wrote, “the purpose of all Christian liturgy is to express in a ritual moment that which should be the basic stance of every moment of our lives.” So my previous two books (Consecrating the World and Liturgical Mysticism) looked at daily life through the lens of liturgy. And since dogma concerns the whole of Christian thought and life, it was time to look at dogma through the lens of liturgy.

Kavanagh referred to his fictitious Mrs. Murphy as someone who does primary theology. If I may say so, then, my books have been describing Mrs. Murphy as a liturgical theologian (though not of the academic variety), a liturgical ascetic (though not of the monastic variety), a liturgical mystic (though not of the extraordinary variety), and now I am considering her as a liturgical dogmatician. The dogmas that scholars talk about, she experiences.

AD:Already in your introduction you unapologetically introduce a term that, in the Latin Catholic world at least, is still being "recovered" as it were: theosis. Tell us a bit about the connection between liturgy and theosis.

It is like flower and fruit, pathway and home, tasting and seeing, work and beatitude, dawn and noontime, tabernacle tent and Solomon’s Temple. There is a foretaste of theosis in liturgy, but the discipline and rhythm of liturgy leads to the throne of God. That we drink from the river of liturgy (the reference to Jean Corbon is intentional) means we acquire a taste for deification. It brings us home. One of the sentences that fell off my keyboard said what I mean: “the liturgy is not the performance of a human religion; liturgy is the religion of Christ perpetuated in Christians.” Theosis is Christ taking up his occupancy in us. 

AD: The great liturgical historian Robert Taft of blessed memory often analogized liturgy to what happens between the outstretched fingers of Adam and God in Michelangelo's famous Sistine fresco. Is that analogy useful in illustrating your opening emphasis on liturgy as synergistic co-operation with God?

I found Lev Gillet’s definition of synergy to be perfect: “two unequal, but equally necessary, forces.” Both fingers must stretch out, but God’s power of grace is stronger than man’s power of ritual. So it is in sacraments: the human minister applies water and grace regenerates. So it is in liturgy: liturgy is a work of God, though it is an activity of man. (This is also expressed in scholastic categories of causation. Garrigou-Lagrange wrote, “one part does not come from us in the other from God. The act is entirely from God as from its first cause, and it is entirely from us as from its neck and cause. The first cause does not render secondary causes superfluous.”)

AD: I'm wondering if the use of "dogma" and cognates in your work won't stick in a few throats given common misconceptions of dogma as stifling, cramped, restrictive. Here is where I'm wondering if your work on Chesterton might be helpful. I often paraphrase him (accurately, I hope, for it's been a while since I went back and read him!) that we should see "dogma" as a bounded playground, as a free space where we can play at leisure within certain boundaries beyond which the Church simply says "Here be mines!" or "There be dragons!" Is that apt?

You have helped me fulfill my vow to quote Chesterton to somebody, somewhere, once a week. That is exactly his point, yes. “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making these old mistakes.” So he calls doctrine or dogma a sort of map of the mind; a guide to the maze; the key that fits the lock. Dogmatic teaching takes “the responsibility of marking certain roads as leading nowhere or leading to destruction, to a blank wall, or a sheer precipice.” It allows for freedom.

AD: Perhaps more seriously, tell us a bit about the relationship between dogma and liturgy. The old tags about "lex orandi" and "lex credendi" have sometimes carelessly been used to suggest a monocausal and unidirectional relationship between the two, but it's more complicated than that, surely?

DF: I do propose a unidirectional relationship, but that’s because it’s a category mistake to treat them on the same level. Kavanagh thought we are misled by having ignored the verb statuat. “So long, I think, as the verb stays in the sentence it is not possible to reverse subject and predicate any more than one can reverse the members of the statement: the foundation supports the house.” Of course the house exerts weight upon the foundation, but the unidirectionality is expressed by Schmemann calling liturgy the ontological condition for theology.

AD: I'm struck by the care you pay to the great Orthodox Met. John Zizioulas in your book (as well as Florensky and others), and this, together with your long interest in and writing about Schmemann and others from the East, makes me think that while our liturgical practices differ very considerably, our liturgical theology, as Catholics and Orthodox, is very closely intertwined indeed. Is that a fair assessment?

DF: I would like to think so – agreed. I sometimes say that I can catch the scent of something in Eastern liturgy, Eastern spirituality, Eastern theology that I might not otherwise single out, but once I am aware of it I can detect it also in the West. 

Bowing down in docility to both the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council (from docilis, meaning “easily taught”), I have sought to obey the magisterium’s command in paragraph 15 of Unitatis Redintegratio:

Catholics therefore are earnestly recommended to avail themselves of the spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers which lift up the whole man to the contemplation of the divine. The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians. 

I want to avail myself of spiritual riches. I want to be lifted to the contemplation of the divine. I want to know, venerate, preserve, and cherish the heritage of liturgy and spirituality as it appears in the fullness of Christian tradition, and therefore I will look over the fence to pastures of the East. (I borrowed that from the opening of an essay I wrote for a forthcoming collection titled Mapping the Una Sancta, ed. Sotiris Mitralexis and Andrew Kaethler.)

AD: I'm struck by the creedal structure of your book: you start by reflecting on the conditions necessary for the "I believe" or "I know," move next to God, the fall and redemption, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and then eschatology. In addition, we get sections on angels and demons, on seven deadly sins, and much else, making the book seem in some ways ideally suited for, say, an RCIA program? Was that structure deliberate?

I looked at the table of contents of some manuals on dogmatics on the shelves behind me and noticed that’s the way they divide things up. If I’m going to look at traditional dogmatics through a liturgical eye, I might as well use their organizational scheme. It would please me very much to think I have made things more intelligible to someone in RCIA. They will have to send an email to Ignatius Press. 

AD: Naturally, while enjoying the whole book, I paid special attention to your section on ecclesiology, an area I have written about in my own books. Oddly enough I confess to relief at what is not here: any notion that offices and structures are worth your time! You say nothing about them and I'm assuming--correct me if I'm wrong--that this reflects the truth that offices and structures will pass away and exist no more in heaven, but that there we will always and forever liturgize?

Though I cannot find the quote in all the Schmemann material at my fingertips, I swear he is the one who said: “the Church is not an institution with sacraments, she is a sacrament with institutions.” That seems to speak to your point. I did not intentionally skip offices and structures: they simply were not the main characteristics of the Church to parade before my eyes.

AD: You open by explicitly eschewing footnotes, leading me to assume you are hoping for a readership beyond the AAR or the Society of Oriental Liturgy. Then your very clear style, and concrete metaphors and illustrations, make this an accessible book for a lot of people I suspect. Who was your imagined audience, and who especially would benefit from reading the book?

DF: What do academics do with dogmas? Talk about them, organize them, prioritize them, footnote them, write about them, systematize them, shelve them and take them back down again. But I suppose the thesis of the book is that Mrs. Murphy can experience dogmas. I’m not expecting Mrs. Murphy to read this book, then, but I do hope it defends her to the academic guild. 

AD: Having finished this book, what are you at work on next?

A couple times I have quipped that it would be possible to write a second volume of Liturgical Asceticism by using only Western authors this time. I’m going to give it a try under the title Liturgical Abnegation. There are Catholic spiritual authors that use terms troubling to our modern ears, terms like “abnegation, annihilation, indifference, resignation, mortification, nothingness, self-denial,” etc. The terminology sounds harsh because we hear it within a limited horizon, but it might be better understood if we could place the language against a more transcendent horizon. 

That transcendent horizon, I hypothesize, is the act of liturgizing God. Liturgical asceticism is a capacitation for liturgy; liturgical abnegation is a consequence of liturgy. Asceticism and abnegation are akin, but I look forward through the former at liturgy and am now looking backward through liturgy upon the latter. I do not gather my authors under any hard and fast temporal or geographical line grouping the authors, they are simply ones who have spoken about abnegation in a way revealing and provocative to me: Olier, Grou, Boudon, Rodriguez, de Caussade, Fenelon, de Sales, Libermann, Saint-Jure, Eudes, Scaramelli, de Granada, Ravignan, for example. 

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