Ritualized Faith

Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy

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Terence Cuneo
Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Terence Cuneo, Marsh Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the University of Vermont, offers Ritualized Faith as his contribution to the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology series. The series “utilizes the tools and methods of contemporary analytic philosophy for the purposes of constructive Christian theology,” and Cuneo’s work certainly fits that description. He analyzes liturgical ritual particularly in conversation with the brand of “Christian philosophy” given shape by Reformed thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff (whose writings have greatly shaped Cuneo’s thinking) and Alvin Plantinga. While he is thoroughly versed in this type of philosophical interchange, Cuneo’s own Eastern Orthodox sensibility and intellectual curiosity about the topic, somewhat poetically described in his concluding essay on his personal journey into Orthodoxy, brings philosophical freshness to the conversation. The approach is inviting to theologians, especially those in more liturgically oriented traditions, who might not otherwise find this style of philosophical discourse very congenial. (Cuneo himself stays largely clear of the contributions to the topic by theologians, with the important exception of the late Orthodox liturgical scholar, Alexander Schmemann.) Cuneo’s introductory essay not only outlines the book’s organization and content, but quite self-consciously acknowledges that his topic is an unusual one for philosophical reflection, and hints at why philosophical analysis of liturgy should nonetheless be of interest to philosophers and others because of the peculiar kind of thing liturgy is; its style, performative aspects and narrative dimensions; and its role in shaping moral and religious life.

More detailed analysis on these and other questions is offered in the eleven chapters that follow. These have previously appeared as separate pieces in a number of philosophical journals and as chapters from two multi-authored books dealing with questions at the junction of philosophy and theology. The essays cover a spectrum of topics concerning Christian liturgy, specifically the rites of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Issues such as the philosophical analysis of ritual performance and knowledge, and the implications of such for understanding sin, evil, and the moral life, are interlaced with essays on the use of icons, the phenomenon of singing in/by the assembly, particular rites (baptism, eucharist), particular aspects of rites such as petitionary prayer, and the meaning of certain theological concepts, such as the remission of sins, as these are manifested liturgically.

This list may appear somewhat scattered, and the book definitely reads initially as a collection of stand-alone essays. Moreover, the somewhat pedantic style often typical of analytic philosophers is not entirely absent here. It is balanced in most essays, however, with language appreciative of the mystery at the heart of religious and particularly Christian faith and discourse. There are also elements and themes that recur throughout that help to make reading the book from start to finish well worth the effort. Among these are close attention to the language (in a broad sense) of ritual, bringing to bear the fruits of speech-act theory (John Searle) on liturgical “scripts” (both prayer texts and prescribed actions); the recognition of the place of ritual and narrative in providing a centralized pattern of meaning of a different sort and at a deeper (“sub-doxastic”) level than that operative in the cognitive grasp of doctrine; and the connection of ritual practices with the moral life through what Cuneo calls “liturgical immersion,” such that a participant in the ritual takes on the biblical narrative, but is also, in a sense, implicated in it. The level of detailed analysis brought to bear on such questions helps to shed light on dynamics that may otherwise be missed or misunderstood. In addition, the recurrence in a later chapter of a theme such as the poetic nature of ritual language or an additional application of, for example, speech-act theory, to some other aspect of ritual, aids in understanding the earlier treatment of the theme or methodological application.

Those well-versed in liturgical and sacramental theology as it has evolved in contemporary Roman Catholicism and in some of the Western theological traditions not as heavily influenced by Calvinism might find it frustrating at times, as I did, that there is nothing treated in this book that could be called groundbreaking, even if it is relatively new territory for philosophical investigation. Catholic sacramental theology, for example, has made use of Austin’s and Searle’s theory of performative utterance/speech acts for decades. Attention to the “sub-doxastic” level of liturgical engagement—for example, in the form of discussions of Prosper of Aquitaine’s 5th-century dictum, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi (“that the law of prayer might establish the law of belief”)—has also been around for some time. There have been dozens of theological treatments of the connection between liturgy and the moral/ethical life, and the focus on central patterns of worship (Schmemann’s work beginning in the 1960s on liturgical ordo) received updated attention at the turn of the millennium from Lutheran liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop. Finally, there are a growing number of theological approaches to liturgy that incorporate performance theory (Mary Margaret Kelleher, Richard McCall) and/or narrative theory (for example, Joyce Ann Zimmerman’s and Brian Butcher’s use of Ricoeur) taken to a more developed level than Cuneo achieves in this work.

Nevertheless, Cuneo brings a new outlook to many of these liturgical issues precisely because he comes at them as questions framed more philosophically than theologically, and through an Eastern Orthodox lens. His honesty concerning his own faith commitment and his ongoing grappling with doubt also add a strong air of authenticity and urgency to his approach, of which theologians would do well to take careful note. Cuneo is able to make observations of considerable sophistication and clarity as a lay participant about liturgy and its place in Christian existence—observations that I suspect a good number of 21st-century Christians would like to make, but would perhaps struggle to articulate so well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David A. Stosur is Associate Professor of Religous Studies at Cardinal Stritch University in Milkwaukee, Wisconsin.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terence Cuneo is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vermont. In addition to having published a wide array of essays in the foundations of ethics, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, Cuneo's books include Speech and Morality: On the Metaethical Implications of Speaking (OUP, 2014) and The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism (OUP, 2007), which was awarded Honorable Mention, American Philosophical Association Biennial Book Prize 2007-2009.



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