Pietist or Liturgical?

One of the major dichotomies of Christian religion is the chasm separating the pietist approach, emphasizing a rigorous Christian lifestyle, from the liturgical approach, emphasizing ritualized public worship.  It may be most appropriate to address this issue as America receives Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which is one of the most liturgical of religions.

It should be noted that American Unitarianism arose from the pietist tradition of Protestant Christianity, which has been very critical and even suspicious of ritual and ceremony.  However, the tide has been turning in favor of liturgical forms recently, and we have learned much in the centuries since the beginnings of American Unitarianism about the important role that social ceremony plays in reinforcing personal lifestyle.

In fact, the supposed conflict of liturgical vs. pietist can be seen as precisely the sort of Law vs. Wisdom, Justice vs. Mercy, Knowledge vs. Life, and Lion vs. Lamb dichotomy that AUR views as the greatest danger to true monotheism, in which all things must ultimately be reconciled.  When these complements are placed in contradiction to one another, as mutually exclusive options in an either/or choice, they defy divine reconciliation and slide into authoritarian and licentious corruption: Law becomes the tool of the tyrannous Beast, Wisdom the excuse of wanton Babylon.

The truth is not found in the mere balance of opposites, as some simplistic New Age philosophies insist, but in their functional reconciliation.  Just as the voice of Yahweh was said (Numbers 7:89) to speak from above the Ark of the Covenant’s “Reconciler” (kaporet, כפורת) and between the two cherubim which Moses Maimonides claimed represented God’s punitive and benevolent aspects, it is in the reconciliation of Justice and Mercy; Law and Wisdom; Knowledge and Life; and Lion and Lamb that the Word of God is found.

To this end, AUR seeks to reconcile liturgy and piety, to use each as the antidote for the other’s flaws, and therefore derive the spiritual benefits of both.  Liturgy should renew pietistic rigor, and instill a sense of coherence between social and individual religion. 

For example, liturgy typically includes some sort of communal prayers for intercession  or pleading, in which the leader of the prayer asks for assistance from God with the congregation closing out the prayer together with some form of doxology.  A common form is, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.”  Despite the misunderstanding of this phrase by Nicene Christians, AUR accepts it as a valid doxology with the understanding that it describes a stream-like flow of divine power from God through the Logos to the many gifts of the Spirit.

 However, to insure that such prayers of pleading reinforce the core image of AUR piety, the Prayer in the Garden, the doxology closing the prayers of Reformed Unitarian services should repeat the Humility of Gethsemane, “nevertheless, Your will be done, Amen.”  In this way, the congregational ritual reinforces the attitude at the core of individual piety: the recognition of one’s contingent and temporary nature as a mortal creature before All-Encompassing God.

Is Reform Unitarianism pietist or liturgical?  Insofar that it is truly Unitarian, it cannot idolize either side of the coin.