The Liturgical and the Ethical in Lacoste and Kierkegaard


The relationship between the liturgical, defined by Jean-Yves Lacoste as “the logic that presides over the encounter between man and God writ large,” and the ethical is deeply ambiguous. Throughout Lacoste’s phenomenological work, Experience and the Absolute, the call of man and the world is set in contrast with the call of the Absolute. In this text Lacoste begins with the Heideggerian notion of our being as being-in-the world-toward-death and explores how a liturgical relationship with the absolute subverts, but also sublates, our being-in-the-world in favor of a being-toward-God. Without rejecting Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, Lacoste aims to show how a liturgical relationship is a free choice of any Dasein. However, this turning-toward-God from being-in-the-world is not without complications. Since our ethical obligations and relationships dwell in the world, it may also be the case that ethics is subverted in the logic of the liturgical. Lacoste discusses ethics in many parts of the text, but nonetheless a thematized understanding of the exact relationship between ethics and liturgy is still necessary. There are several possibilities for how this relationship may manifest itself. The liturgical could be irreducibly separate and contradictory to ethics; the liturgical could ground ethics by creating the possibility of ethics; the liturgical could provide specific ethical content, such as virtues, laws, and commandments. In the end, we must especially look for specific ethical principles that could guide our behavior, not just a vague ethical space. I will thus maintain a basic definition of ethics as a system of moral principles that govern a person or group’s action. We must weigh these possibilities and definitions against Lacoste’s framework for the liturgical.

To help flesh out this relationship, I will also discuss Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy of the religious and the ethical, giving a cross-reading of Fear and Trembling and Repetition guided by Dominic Desroches’ article “The Exception as Reinforcement of the Ethical Norm: The Figures of Abraham and Job in Kierkegaard’s Ethical Thought. I believe the relationship between the liturgical and the ethical is a fundamental problem in religious thought for it must be deciding factor in the legitimacy of any religious system. The boldness and rigor of Lacoste’s project to reconcile the Heideggarian phenomenological analytic of Dasein with the Christian commitment to being-toward-God must be weighed against a consideration of the ethical else it is in danger of being irrelevant to our own lives.

The first possibility for the relationship between the liturgical and the ethical, that they are in fact irreconcilable and contradictory, seems to be the momentum of the first several chapters of Experience and the Absolute. By chapter four, Lacoste brings to the fore what it is becoming a real problem in his analytic of the liturgical: subverting our relationship with the world in order to prioritize our relationship with an unknown Absolute. Liturgy appears from most of Lacoste’s accounts to contradict the logic of the world and consequently, possibly contradict our ethical responsibilities. Lacoste writes in summary, “We have defined liturgy as the resolute deliberate gesture made by those who ordain their being-in-the-world a being-before-God, and who do violence to the former in the name of the latter.”ii Although Lacoste is careful to say that liturgy transgresses and annuls rather than eliminates or destroys our relation to place, to history, and to the world, its implications are nonetheless disturbing.

Especially since in his framework we are subverting our relation to place in exchange for a liturgical ‘nonplace,’ our time for a ‘nonevent’ and our relationship to others or world for a ‘nonexperience,’ this free choice for the liturgical appears at first glance not only to be ethically suspect but also precarious in its logic. Lacoste even uses this latter word to describe the liturgical commitment, thus he is well aware of how it looks. On this point Lacoste expands, “Liturgy actually suffers from being in the margins and at a distance in two ways. It is removed from definitive realities, which it at best represents inchoately. And it is removed from all that which, in the domain of the provisional, justifiably demands that we take care of it.”iii It is suggested by this point that liturgy serves no reasonable purpose except as a diversion and distraction from the responsibilities of the ethical. The logic of liturgy is one “foreign to the logic of action.”iv

Thus, Lacoste must ask, “Is liturgy a form of divertissment?”v Lacoste’s answer will be a clear “no” but the question demands of liturgy to defend itself against the implications of subversion. In other words, why should we risk contradicting or distracting our ethical responsibility, which is tangible and concrete, for the precariousness of the liturgical?

Lacoste further complicates the issue by resisting an ethics gained solely from the logic of our being-in-the-world. By critiquing Emmanuel Levinas’ first philosophy and siding with Heidegger, he writes, “Yet the mute call that renders me “hostage” to others places no obligation on me that would emanate solely from the a priori conditions of my presence in the world.”vi Our initial condition of being-in-the-world is in fact also a divertissement from the ethical: “the world keeps the injunctions of the good veiled over.”vii Beyond the inferior ethics of the social contract, the ethical, similarly to the liturgical, aims to subvert the solipsism and existential self-centeredness of Dasein’s being-toward-death. Thus, we cannot simply disregard liturgy as irrelevant because our being-in-the-world does not grant us an originary ethics. Lacoste’s account of liturgy problematizes the ethical for believers as well as nonbelievers. We must then ask two additional questions: can the ethical be (re)gained through the liturgical and is there an alternate source for the ethical outside the liturgical?

In order to grant liturgy a positive relationship to ethics, either through grounding its possibility or providing ethical content, it must be through a paradox. If liturgy subverts our relationship to the world and diverts from the logic of work, but also provides something positive to the consideration of ethics, then the relationship is contradictory. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible. After thematizing the problem of ethics in liturgy Lacoste makes the bold claim that “The diversion that liturgy has as its task is perhaps alone in permitting us to rigorously ground the ethical meaning of our facticity.”viii This is indeed a surprising statement. First, it is claiming that the very diversion we questioned as ethically suspicious in fact grounds ethics. Second, liturgy is the sole ground for ethics. Third, the meaning of our facticity, our being-in-the-world, is, at least partially, ethical. Against the implications of liturgical divertissement, Lacoste wants to argue a strong, positive relationship between the liturgical and the ethical. There are three possibilities in Lacoste’s work for how the liturgical may ground the ethical. We must ask whether they are satisfying answers to the problems above.

First, Lacoste argues that time spent liturgically grants us a symbolic distance from the inherence of the world, thus unveiling the ethical from the divertissement of the world. Lacoste explores the logic of the “initial” versus the “originary” to flesh out this possibility. The initial, our everyday, already always being-in-the-world, as we mentioned above, “keeps the injunctions of the good veiled over.” The night of the vigil, the liturgical time par excellence, subverts our relation to world, brings us to the margins of our being-in-the-world in order to remove the world as a hindrance between ourselves and the Absolute. This turning toward God through the liturgical night, Lacoste argues, also has a morning in which we turn back toward the world, granted a distance that allows perspective and new clarity on the problems of our being-in-the-world. He writes, “The new day that concludes the liturgical vigil must be understood as the gift of the beginning given one again: the symbolism of the origin leads to the reality of a starting point, to the reality of a space opened to a freedom capable of willing, and indeed of doing good.”ix By subverting the inherence of the world we gain purity of vision, and possibly of intentions, prior to our initial thrownness. The liturgical returns us to our “originary” nature, suggesting a pre-Lapsarian symbolism, gives us back the possibility of being ethical without the distractions of the world. This is a useful starting place for developing a relationship between liturgy and ethics.

With this conclusion, however, we have not gained a real ethic but only a possibility for ethics. There is nothing inherent in the distance gained by liturgy to return to the world with an ethical project. In another place, though, Lacoste suggests a way in which liturgy additionally alerts us to our responsibility through the liturgical unhappiness of consciousness. He writes, “The liturgical unhappiness of consciousness reveals, not only that liturgy prevents us from doing good during the time of entr’acte, but also that we have ignored the ultimate (though veiled over) stakes of our being-in-the world, and that we can no longer continue to do so.”x This unhappiness, the one that motivates this paper, stays with the person during the liturgical. He or she feels that the liturgical vigil is time taken away from the necessary exigencies of the ethical. This perceived deficiency in the liturgical combined with the distance gained throughout it perhaps gives a possible solution to how the liturgical may more rigorously ground the ethical. Lacoste continues, “liturgy enables us to dwell in the world and on the earth by superimposing on our facticity the order of an ethical vocation that alone authorizes us to let the Kingdom invest itself in world and earth in advance.”xi The liturgical, then, allows the transcendent ethical logic of the Kingdom, of the eschaton, to come to the world. We see in liturgy how far the world is from the Kingdom and thus desire to change the world.

Here, it seems, Lacoste has reconciled ethics to liturgy, but there are some problems still lurking in this answer, or at least an incompleteness. In response to the first claim that liturgy opens a space that subverts and gives distance from the world, it must be reemphasized that this gives nothing but the possibility of the ethical. Even when the liturgical unhappiness of consciousness imbues us with a sense of the irresponsibility of the liturgical, this desire to return to the world still lacks any specific ethical principles. We are called back to the world with a clearer vision but how can we go about bringing the Kingdom to the world? If our being is fundamentally duplicitous, how can our beingin- vocation during liturgy inform our being-in-fact, ethically or otherwise? At best, this grounding of ethics is the grounding of a desire for the ethical. Lacoste’s claim lacks the kind of ethical framework we have in Levinas. The liturgical need not give us dogmatic rules, but it should give a concrete foundation for how to be ethical. Since Lacoste disagrees with Levinas that the ethical relation is original to our being, it seems he shies away from providing an ethical system at all. Despite this incompleteness, a lot has been gain by grounding a desire for the ethical. It shows that the liturgical and the ethical have a positive relationship. But thus far this relationship is still unthematized. We do not, as Lacoste assumes, have any sense of the “ethical ground of our facticity” but rather simply that the ethical is possible and desirable. This desire should want something more concrete and specific.

Although Lacoste does not relate this next concept directly to ethics, I believe there is one moment in the text that may be read as a more specific way in which liturgy provides an ethical framework. The liturgical project of abnegation aims to subvert our consciousness, our subjectivity, and our will. With regard to the first, Lacoste describes liturgy as “disoriented consciousness.”xii Liturgy places us in a relation different from any other relation, to an object for example. Rather than being strictly intentional, in the Husserlian sense, in the liturgical relationship we do not gather objects around us as the subject but “make ourselves available before God.”xiii The subject is no longer the center of the experience. Lacoste continues, “The I [le moi] can content itself with being an I. Now, it is precisely liturgical (in)experience that provides the exemplary case of a decentering and marginalization of the ego.” Through this dislodging of the I we become the other par excellence of the Absolute. But since the Absolute is not an other in the same sense of an worldly object or person, the relationship is disproportionate. Our otherness subordinates our ipseity. Through liturgy we exist primarily in the mode of You. Although this is not as originary to our being-in-the-world as the mode of I, the liturgical disorientation of consciousness forces us into a relationship that can radically reorient our relationship to others.

Ironically, this kind of reorientation recalls the philosophy of Levinas that Lacoste rejects, although in a different form. By de-centering the ego through liturgy we achieve two things: first, a greater selflessness and realization of the limitation of our subjectivity, and second, a model for ethically “making ourselves available” for others. Levinas’ conception of being “hostage” to the other thus takes on a new meaning through the liturgical and can thus be a useful category without conceding to his first philosophy. The relationship we have to the Absolute, throughout the language of a relation rather than that of Kingdom versus world, gives us a framework for applying a liturgical (non)experience to a worldly, ethical experience. If this disorientation of consciousness is not just incidental but rather essential to the liturgical, we have gained a more concrete grounding for the ethical. Yet, there is still something dissatisfying in this conclusion. It lacks specific ethical principles that could help guide our being-in-the-world. It gives a model for becoming a You that can hear the call of the other, but this relationship must be fleshed out more. Moreover, Lacoste does not directly connect disorientation to ethics, so we only have implications. An ambiguity still ultimately remains.

In Fear and Trembling Soren Kierkegaard explores a similar tension between the ethical and faith through the analysis of Abraham attempting to slay Isaac on Mount Moriah. Kierkegaard develops a framework for comparing the action of Abraham as the Knight of Faith and the tragic hero, or Knight of Infinite Resignation. The drama that Kierkegaard lays out for consideration involves heroic acts that suspend ethics. In the case of the tragic hero, the ethical is suspended in order to accomplish a higher ethic, such as Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia in order to save the polis. He stays ultimately within the ethical even when he suspends it. Abraham, Kierkegaard concludes, does no such thing but rather entirely and radically suspends the ethical for his act of faith; “in his action he overstepped the ethical altogether, and had a higher telos outside it.”xiv For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s action, although not a part of everyone’s faith commitment, is fundamental to the religious attunement. Abraham mythically dramatizes the paradox and dangerous implications of intending something transcendent, just as Lacoste’s treatment of the liturgical necessitated such radical subversion of worldliness. Kierkegaard, however, presents the problem in even starker terms.

The example of Abraham expresses for Kierkegaard the basic religious act of faith. Kierkegaard, unlike Lacoste, gives a specific definition of the ethical that he then juxtaposes with the religious. For Kierkegaard to be ethical is to will the good for the universal: “the individual’s ethical task is always to…abrogate his particularity so as to become the universal.”xv In another way, it is to put the other, as an abstract totality, before the self. The ethical is that which applies to everyone at all times. He does not flesh it out more than this, but implicit in it is an ethical attitude more concrete than with Lacoste. The religious flows through this universal but ends above it. He writes, “Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified before the latter, not as subordinate but superior…”xvi The religious person’s relationship to the Absolute supersedes his or her relationship to the universal, to the ethical. Thus not only do the faithful appear non-ethical or neutral, in that they intend outside the ethical, but they also appear unethical, in that they negate the universal.

The religious attunement’s utter contradiction with the ethical is irreducible and pronounced in Kierkegaard, and thus unlike Lacoste, there is within the religious little room for finding an ethic. At least Kierkegaard is hard-pressed to find one, as he remarks, “I can understand the tragic hero, but not Abraham, even though in a certain lunatic sense I admire him more than all others.”xvii There is not within the religious drama an obvious ethical logic, hidden away in a nice paradox. Here it is a stark betrayal of the ethical, not just as a diversion but as a positive act: “What we usually call a temptation is something that keeps a person from carrying out a duty, but here the temptation is the ethical itself which would keep [Abraham] from doing God’s will.”xviii Lacoste’s conception of the liturgical can be critiqued as a temptation in the first sense, as a hindrance to carrying out the ethical. Abraham’s act does not just subvert but negate the ethical. The knight of faith is unethical, and thus we have here an even more difficult and disconcerting problem.

Besides the subtle, and ultimately unsatisfying, suggestion that Abraham must eventually descend Mount Moriah and return to the world, there is no reconciliation of the religious and ethical in Fear and Trembling. Abraham acts on the absurd and cannot be understood in terms of the universal, of the ethical. Even if we accept Abraham’s return home as possibly ethical, since his act was a negation rather than a subversion of the ethical, it is simply not enough to solve the problem. Dominic Desroches in his essay on Kierkegaardian ethics suggests a cross-reading of Fear and Trembling and Repetition to work out this problem. In the latter text, which was actually published before Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard compares the concept of recollection to that of repetition. In recollection, one returns to a past circumstance expecting similar feelings but is naturally disappointed. Recollection ends in melancholy. Repetition, however, is a return forward, a renewed will and passion to live in old circumstances in a fresh and invigorated way. When read through the lens of Abraham and ethics, a religious repetition is willing the particular over the universal, in order to repeat the universal with new vigor. Repetition suggests that faith is necessary for the ethical, a thesis similar to that of Lacoste’s, but Kierkegaard’s idea gives a more specific ethical framework.

Yet, this conclusion seems to fundamentally contradict Fear and Trembling: how does repetition succeed in this retrieval of the ethical? In the afterward to Repetition Kierkegaard addresses the reader in terms familiar to the discussion in Fear, “The exception thinks also the universal when it thinks itself, it labors also for the universal when it elaborates itself, it explains the universal when it explains itself.”xix The exception, the willing of the particular as in Abraham, in fact strengthens the universal by underlining the meaning of the universal. In its very absurdity and insanity, the exception reinforces the logic of the universal. He continues:

“In the course of time one grows weary of the perpetual patter about the universal, always the universal, repeated to the most tedious extreme of insipidity. There are exceptions. If one cannot explain them, neither can one explain the universal. Commonly one does not notice the difficulty because one does not think even the universal with passion but with an easygoing superficiality. On the other hand, the exception thinks the universal with serious passion.”xx

Similar to Lacoste, Kierkegaard makes the argument that the religious act grants a sort of respite and distance from the ethical that actually reinvigorates the latter. Yet additionally, repetition deepens ethical knowledge. By pushing the universal to its margins, its contour is regained. The religious repetition moves forward, adding richness and understanding, just as Lacoste says, “the circle that unites liturgical reason and ethical reason is the fundamental rhythm of existence, which transgressing its native conditions, desires the accomplishment of the human beyond what can be derived from our facticity.”xxi Thus Lacoste agrees with Kierkegaard’s model but we gain something concrete through Kierkegaard that is perhaps missing in Lacoste’s analysis. Placing the relationship between the religious and the ethical in the terms of the universal and particular, a specific ethical system is suggested. Because Kierkegaardian repetition reinforces the universal, rather than just returns us to our facticity with a new clarity, it brings with it an ethical framework, an attitude that suggests, through faith, how we may act ethically. The rigorous absurdity of faith provides logic to the ethical.

That is not to say that Lacoste provides nothing in filling out this complex relationship between the ethical and the liturgical. Combining the more specific Kierkegaardian language of the universal with Lacoste’s sophisticated logic of the vigil, originary, and Kingdom, as well as the liturgical disorientation of consciousness, we have thus gained a tenable possibility for how the liturgical may be reconciled to the ethical. Nevertheless, achieving such a reconciliation necessitated a creative reading of both writers in conjunction. Also, even with his additional and useful framework, there is a lot to be desired in Kierkegaard’s ethics. We in the end still lack the more practical guidance of how the liturgical may relate to a real ethical relationship. What if there is a question about what should or should not be willed as universal, such as the famous story provided by Kant of the murderer at the door for your friend? Do you lie and betray the universal for perhaps a higher ethic such as the tragic hero? The details of such a framework are not worked out.

Thus in the end, with Lacoste and Kierkegaard, we have three specific concepts that relate the liturgical to the ethical: that the liturgical vigil opens us an pure space for the ethical, that the disoriented consciousness provides a model for the ethical relation, and that repetition reinvigorates the logic of the ethical universal. In short, we have a suggestion for the relationship between the liturgical and the ethical, but not much of an ethics. In order for this problem to be truly satisfied, more work must be done to show what kind of ethical principles can be gained from the liturgical and thus why we should think the liturgical at all with regard to ethics. Moreover, the ambiguities and implications of the liturgical, such as its successful subversion of the logic of the world, also beg the disturbing question: why think the ethical at all? Why not stay in an indefinite vigil? Why return to the anxiety-ridden logic of being-in-the-world? Ultimately, we desire not just a relationship between the liturgical and the ethical but a meaningful synthesis that can guide our entire lives from the nightly vigil to our daily interactions with people and things.

End Notes

i) From Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics, ed. Christine Daigle (London: McGill-Queen’s
University Press), 2006.
ii) Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2004), 39, emphasis mine.
iii) Ibid, 68.
iv) Ibid, 78.
v) Ibid, 70.
vi) Ibid, 72.
vii) Ibid, 73.
viii) Ibid, 70.
ix) Ibid, 97.
x) Ibid, 73.
xi) Ibid, 75.
xii) Ibid, 149.
xiii) Ibid, 152.
xiv) Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 88.
xv) Ibid, 83.
xvi) Ibid, 84.
xvii) Ibid, 86.
xviii) Ibid, 88.
xix) Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition (New York: Harper & Row, 1941), 133.
xx) Ibid, 134.
xxi) Lacoste, 76.

Alexander Gilman (’11) is a History Major and a Philosophy Minor from Boston College

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