A Theology of Potential

I’ve never been a great lover of tradition. That’s not really breaking news to anyone who’s visited this space for very long. This fact, though, makes me a bit of a contradiction at times. One of the ways in which I push back on tradition is the way in which I feel compelled to practice my faith. This has actually caused a bit of tension at times, because Karen gravitates toward more traditional, liturgical settings, which tend to leave me dead in the proverbial water. We’re still sort of working on reconciling that.

What makes this contradictory for me is that I view a great deal of life, including my faith practices, through the lens of theatre. Theatre was the first art form in which I found a natural fit. My experiences designing, directing, and acting in different shows molded the perspective that I have on a great deal of life. I can’t separate my philosophical or theological views from that lens. Theatre is, in true Burkian fashion, the way in which I understand every other discipline that I’ve practiced.

How is that contradictory? The very liturgical practice that I find so numbing is actually quite theatrical. It is the kinesthetic acting out of different aspects of my faith during a worship service. The presentational aspects (humorously referred to as “smells and bells” by some), the orally interpretive performance of the script, the choreographed actions, all are quite theatrical at their core. So, why am I not drawn to them?

What’s interesting is that I am quite drawn to theatrical presentations in a worship setting. I spent years directing, acting, writing, and even teaching acting methods in the context of a faith community. That time taught me so much about myself and about my faith. That particular faith community presented very theatrically during a worship service, but in a different way. Sets were constructed. Lighting was designed. When the performance began, the house lights went down and the stage lights up. Every component of the morning was carefully rehearsed. I can honestly say that I had never felt so at home in a worship service prior to experiencing that.

Karen is quick to point out that the architecture in a more traditional setting…that is, a more liturgical setting…is just as theatrical, just as full of meaning. I don’t contradict that at all…it is all exploding with meaning when you learn what to look for. What bothers her about the type of setting I’ve just described as being so comfortable to me, though, is the absence of light. She thrives in the brightness of the artistry of stained glass windows, permitting the natural light from outside to bathe the congregants during the course of the worship service. The darkness of the more theatrical setting that I found so welcoming bothered her a great deal, and she pointed out that the symbolic nature of the congregants entering darkness was sort of opposed to the faith they were there to express and explore. She makes a valid point. For me, though, it was a performance venue that was, quite simply, what I knew. The darkness for the audience didn’t bother me at all.

Several weeks ago, though, I had an interesting experience. I attended a worship service at the invitation of some family members. The building was quite traditional. The windows in the sanctuary were tall and ornate, yet had been curtained off to make the sanctuary darker and assist in setting the stage for a more theatrical presentation of music and media. I was bothered by this, and actually found it to be quite a downer. This made no sense to me. A dark setting had never bothered me before. Why should it do so now?

The only conclusion to which I can arrive is that I was bothered by the absence of potential light. There was light that should have naturally been pouring through those windows, but that had been stifled. This held the same theological and symbolic trouble for me that having the audience in darkness as the house lights went down held for Karen. I’ve never been bothered by a sanctuary designed like a performance venue because I know what to expect. ┬áThere is no potential light except for what has been designed as part of the performance. The potential and the actual experience are the same. The potential of the curtained windows, though, had been cut off and never realized. I felt as though something important had been taken away, even if it took me days to determine what that had been.

Funny that I now understand experientially exactly what Karen has expressed for years since we’ve been married…even if it took a completely different experience for me to get there.

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