Worship is already uncertain

May 16th, 2022

Worshipping God in a world of uncertainty is a bold move. Some would call it foolish; but the Apostle Paul has taught us to embrace such foolishness, not as ancillary but as essential to our love of God in the way of Jesus Christ. Curating worship, like artistic curation, is already attuned to a world of uncertainty because uncertainty is at the very heart of both worship and aesthetic encounter.

As minister-curators, we need to lean into this uncertainty, for, paradoxically, embracing uncertainty actually works to counter the epistemological uncertainty marking the present. Curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist argues that “Combining uncertainty and the unpredictable with the organization seems an important issue. Instead of certitude, the exhibition expresses connective possibilities.”[1] So too liturgy.

The performative nature of worship, as Shannon Craigo-Snell reminds us, constitutes its own ambiguity. This element is captured with the term doubleness, which signifies an uncertainty or tension hardwired into worship itself. Performatively, the worshiper at worship is at once performing an act of worship that has been decided in advance (a liturgical prayer, hymn, creed, etc.) and achieving something completely novel in his/her/their performance. In other words, we must differentiate between the performer and the role or action being performed.

This is the tension inherent to repetition. Every liturgical behavior is a “twice-behaved behavior,” writes Craigo-Snell. In other words, “A performance is an event happening in the present that is also a reenactment of past events.”[2] Furthermore, no repetition is ever merely repetition. Circumstances change, shaping performance.

Further uncertainty also emerges out of intention and actualization. When we pray, sing, or move in acts of worship we aim toward some ideal performance that is never at ease with the performance itself, that was never at ease with itself. The performative nature of worship is eschatological in that such acts orient us toward a future identity that is already present in liturgical events and also not yet.

I like the way that philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes this in his theory of narrative. He explains that all of us are two kinds of self: ipse and idem. These Latin terms get at a tension at work in the heart of selfhood. In his book Oneself as Another, Ricoeur distinguishes between two fundamental aspects of the self, or of identity (i.e., our “I”). Ricoeur explains that ipse is identity understood as selfhood, close to our sense of individuality, that kind of inner core that marks us out as what we really are. Idem, on the other hand, is identity understood as sameness, as a more external possibility of identifying the self as self despite loss or mutability of the attributions of that self in time. Ipse identifies “who” the self is, idem “what” the self consists of.

The very uncertainty of liturgical ritual and the undecidability of liturgical symbols facilitates spiritual formation by grounding our ipse identities (our who-ness) as those loved by and called of God to participate in God’s restoration of all creation. At the same time, worship calls into question a notion of selfhood preoccupied with sameness (idem). Worship challenges our what-ness. It embraces an existential stance of uncertainty because such is the faithfulness of God: to not leave us as we are, but to lead us in our becoming.

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Liturgical Possibilities

  1. Curating possibilities for worship in an age of uncertainty ought to attend to worshipers’ fraught sense of selfhood and identity in our contemporary cultural contexts.
    Uncertainty pervades the contemporary person’s sense of self and identity. As Facebook and Instagram teach us, and as Judith Butler avers, “there is no self-identical subject.”[3] What this means is that our meaning of ourselves is in a constant state of flux, whereby the “I” that I “am” never quite meshes with the material realities that inform my existence. The body’s intelligibility is not a given; it is produced. Subjectivity is performed.
    I want to suggest that worship provides we who live in liquid, uncertain times with a generative space wherein we perform our identities beyond the Cartesian, modern self that is self-secure in its own thinking—“I think, therefore I am”—and also beyond the postmodern self that unravels the very possibility of selfhood. Worship, and particularly its ritual elements, provide worshipers with a medium for the expression of cultural ideals and models that, in turn, serves to orient, though not prescribe, our way of being in the world.
  2. Curating possibilities for worship in an age of uncertainty ought to embrace the (trans)formative capacity of liturgical rituals.
    In her important ethnographic treatment of liturgical theology, my Columbia Seminary colleague Martha Moore-Keish makes a seductively simple statement: “Rituals are about doing.”[4] Building on the work of Eduard Muir (Ritual in Early Modern Europe), Moore-Keish writes,

    . . . in the sixteenth century, there was a major shift in understanding of rituals. According to the earlier view of the medieval Catholic Church, rituals made something present; they did something. According to the newer view of the reformers, rituals communicated meaning; they meant something. As a result, rituals were no longer conceived as presenting reality. They represented a reality that existed elsewhere.[5] 

The last line of Moore-Keish’s quote is worth re-iterating: “They [rituals] represented a reality that existed elsewhere.” Worship re-presents us to ourselves, challenging our state of uncertainty by reminding us who we are and who we are becoming as a church, as a collective of men, women, and others called out to participate in God’s liberation.

As minister-curators, we may learn to see worship as a way to curate a kind of listening. This kind of listening in and through love opens us to another’s pain and suffering, and in so doing it inverts the polarity of our engagement with the neighbor, so to speak. Such listening is not a mere hearing, but one that is bolstered by hope borne for the other. Such a hope emerges out of a loving engagement with the Word of God revealed in scripture, and it is henceforth made available for the neighbor whom we love in the world.

Listening toward life is a double listening. It is not a sequential listening, but a kind of listening that hears with both ears, discerning both the pains inherent in the struggles of many for life and to God’s summons to be radically oriented to the neighbor’s flourishing. This is what it means, at its most basic sense, to be a Christ-follower. This double listening is both theological and ethical, while exceeding both in love.

With the one ear we listen toward life in terms of the lived realities of others. With the other ear—again, not by another listening, but at the same time—one listens toward life by listening to God’s life-giving and boundary-breaking Word in the world that places us in the path of others, that makes us neighbors to and for other people.[6]


This article is excerpted from Curating Church: Strategies for Innovative Worship by Jacob D. Myers (Abingdon Press, 2018).


[1] Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Panel Statements and Discussion,” in Curating Now: Imaginative Practice/Public Responsibility, Paula Marincola, ed. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2001), 27.

[2] Shannon Craigo-Snell, The Empty Church: Theater, Theology, and Bodily Hope (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14–15. See also Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2002), 22, from whom Craigo-Snell gets the phrase “twice-behaved behavior.”

[3] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (London: Routledge, 1993), 230.

[4] Martha Moore-Keish, Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Ritual Approach to Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 89.

[5] Ibid. Italics in original.

[6] See Gustavo Gutiérrez, Essential Writings, James B. Nickoloff, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 76.

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