There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.
To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward. As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible. We are good on the content side; we have content.
But what about form? How is content affected by form?
Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.
As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.
There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church. Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”
Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.
Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.
For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi). It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others. It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc. It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience. It will value community more than individuality. Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.
Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.
Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.
Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious. When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States. However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.
Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month. Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction. People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.
Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession. The form (orandi) is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).
This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.
Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss. Imputed grace is the word of the day. Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi).
To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular. In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.
Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence. With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.
We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.
This should make us all wary.
It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us. Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.
Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content. He said as much when he said
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)
The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless. Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.
Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.
I leave you with a poem.
The Human Abstract by William Blake
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be.
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears.
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Caterpillar and Fly
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit.
Ruddy and sweet to eat:
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain