One part of Theo Hobson’s vision of liberal Protestantism:
The second pillar of the new liberal Christianity is a bit more surprising. For in the past, liberal Christianity has downplayed the ritual side of religion, often seeing it as a road leading to Rome. I prefer the term “cultic” to “ritual”. Of course, I’m not advocating creepy cults that brainwash people. The word “cult” just means worship; I like it because it has a strong and rather exotic aura (whereas “worship” suggests the blandness of Songs of Praise, and “ritual” is redolent of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition). The word has, in fact, a primitive aura, which is appropriate, for Christianity must step away from claiming to be the religion of rational civilisation and accept its affinity with primitive religious practice (this was Wittgenstein’s great contribution to theology).
What, in practice, does this mean: worship that includes drumming, dancing and body paint? Sure, why not? But more generally it means a new style of religious creativity, a new desire to see Christianity expressed in culture, the arts, festivity. We need a sexed-up Sunday liturgy – or rather hundreds of versions. And we also need a new culture of public religious art and ritual. It might sound pretentious, or over-optimistic, but there is the possibility here of a cultural movement that reunites what we call religion and what we call the arts. It will reclaim the best bits of contemporary art and culture for religion.
This is how liberal Protestantism can reverse its history of cultural weakness, of failing to stand out from modern liberal culture in general. Its main rivals, Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, have a loud distinctiveness, or otherness, in their rejection of liberalism. Modern liberal Christianity has failed to find an idiom of otherness. It can find it, I suggest, in a bold new cultic creativity.
I don’t know how crazy I am about liturgy that involves “drumming, dancing and body paint”. Once I attended a Mass where they used an electronic drumbeat during the hymns and that was frightening enough. But I give him credit for trying to grapple with liturgical blandness. The trouble is that you can’t really have an “idiom of otherness” if you aren’t really other. Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox et al. can have exotic liturgies precisely because they embody forms of living which are countercultural to modern liberalism.
But anyhow, what Hobson seems to be groping towards is less a sort of liberal Christian revival and more of a pagan one. Think Greek tragedy. I doubt whether modern western civilization could pull that off well. One, because the sort of rootedness which fed into pagan arts and religion has become watered down, and two, the sort of cultural irony we have operating prevents us from achieving that sort of sittlichkeit.
Oddly enough, the one phenomenon which does seem to have arisen as a response to this is geek fandom. Because it takes commercial products of fiction as its fixation, it offers a sort of ironic simulation of cultural rootedness. And then, on the higher levels, you have the sort of devotees for whom the irony flips back into an earnestness and the fandom actually becomes a sort of pseudo-religious way of life. You know who I’m talking about.