Acting Liturgically

Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice

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Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nicholas Wolterstorff is a scholar who needs very little introduction. The Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, he has contributed seminal works in metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, the philosophy of language, aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of religion. Those following his career will know that an outflow of his ruminations on the latter three spheres have yielded his desire to carve out a new subfield of study within the philosophy of religion—the philosophy of liturgy. Like its genus, the philosophy of liturgy attempts to merge two existing spheres of inquiry—liturgy and philosophy—in order to better understand both. This area of study attempts to use philosophical approaches to better understand liturgy, and liturgy as a locus for philosophical reflection (5). Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice is the culmination of nearly thirty years of Wolterstorff’s publications on this topic, and the better part of sixty years of contemplation of this area. We do not know if this monograph is the last that Wolterstorff will have to say on the subject, but Wolterstorff is clear that he hopes the book will be one of the first in a new area of academic research (1).

This book gathers various avenues of conceptual exploration relating to liturgical practice. Wolterstorff pursues areas such as what a liturgy is in distinction from other social practices and/or ritual; the relation between (what he calls) the liturgical script and the enactment of the script; the communal and embodied nature of liturgical activity; the liturgical use of Scripture; issues of temporality in liturgy; and themes that explicitly intersect with issues in ethics such as justice and neighborly love.

One though-provoking motif explores what fundamental actions (i.e., worshipping, thanking, confessing, petitioning, etc.) participants execute when they are enacting the script of a liturgy. Wolterstorff analyzes this by the questioning of what it means to participate in liturgical actions even when one does not—or cannot—believe the propositions typically associated with those actions. Similar to his previous work on speech-act theory, Wolterstorff deploys the notion of intentionality to explain this phenomenon. One participates in liturgical worship by cognitively intending to participate in the various actions. “Though one can perform an act of worship without forming and acting on the intention of performing that act, one cannot do so if one has no idea what is going on. Worship requires cognitions and intentions of some sort” (48). 

However, contrary to expectation—at least contrary to this reader’s expectation—Wolterstorff argues that it is not a requirement for full participation in liturgical actions to form a positive intention to perform each and every fundamental action by way of liturgical actions. Rather, “[n]egative intentions play a decisive role in determining what one has done” (48). One performs the fundamental actions of the liturgy unless explicitly forming the intention not to. Wolterstorff writes, “[i]f it is the intention of the participant, when performing the prescribed verbal and gestural acts, that he [sic] not thereby perform the prescribed acts of worship, then he [sic] has not performed them; otherwise he has” (108). On this view, then, one worships (or renders thanks or offers praise or confesses sin) by default. Not quite innocent until proven guilty, but rather a full participant unless intending otherwise. The upshot is those with an uneasy conscience, those with limited cognitive abilities, or those in the face of serious doctrinal doubts, can nonetheless fully participate in liturgical actions without fear of being not good enough for full participation. 

This book is provocative, instructive, and should achieve the author’s intention of catalyzing a new research program. However, it is not without its shortcomings. Venturing out into new territory inherently carries risk. The risk is, by not treading a well-worn path, one might stray from one’s intended destination. At times, Wolterstorff wanders—especially after the first 100 pages or so—and we join him in meandering down routes that seem, in hindsight, only distantly related to the path we were previously on. Sections of this book read like the field notes of an explorer: a gathering of interesting observations, an outline of ideas left half-pursued, queries raised to which Wolterstorff’s response is “I do not know the answer to this question” (184). These are the bits of the book to skim over, to plow through, to pass by on the way to uncovering more provocative and instructive morsels. 

However, when exploring completely new terrain, one might not have a set destination in mind. In this case, One cannot be going astray if there is no path to stray from. The explorer has the freedom to wander. The exploring author does not always know what will be around the next conceptual bend, and so the pursuit of potential dead ends is a natural part of the project. Wolterstorff leaves these breadcrumbs in his text. This monograph is not the definitive map of the terrain of the philosophy of liturgy; it is the first sketches of the contours of regions yet to be surveyed. All who follow Wolterstorff’s footsteps into the land of the philosophy of liturgy are charged with putting forth the effort to fill in the details. And when anyone does follow Wolterstorff into this underexplored country, Acting Liturgically will be an essential guide in so doing. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

James M. Arcadi is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University. He has been President of the American Philosophical Association, and of the Society of Christian Philosophers; he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among the lectures he has given are the Wilde Lectures at Oxford University, the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews University, and the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. He has published over twenty books including On Universals, Works and Worlds of Art, Art in Action, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, Divine Discourse, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, Educating for Shalom, Lament for a Son, Justice: Rights and Wrongs and Justice in Love.



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