BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): C.D. Tirres’ (2014) The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 2]

24 September 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

Tirres claims that the rituals he observes subvert the categories of “us” and “them” without acknowledging that non-Christians remain “them” with respect to those in the ritual. Meanwhile, what seems like his enthusiasm at discovering a solution to the problem of (his own?) disengaged sense of faith permits him to set up an authoritarian lens for interpreting these rituals; one where the experts (he and the festival organisers) get permitted the main voices heard in the analysis. In a liberation theology context, where making space so the voiceless may heard represents a fundamental gesture, this authoritarianism appeal to expertise seems radically misguided. Where may we find the voice of the Other in this chapter?

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 2]

Someone asked me to read and reply to this book. And so, since this needs something more “formal” than my typical replies, the following provides the second part of a longer, more point by point reflection on the book. You may read part 1 here.

In his second chapter, Tirres focuses “ethnographically” on the Good Friday liturgies at a church in San Antonio. His basic claim involves that the dramatic public performance of ritual—a modern passion play—sets the stage to merge a visceral and immediate (aesthetic) experience of faith with an ethical, transformative impulse as well. In other words, the passion play does not serve merely as a (profound) entertainment but also calls people to change their lives toward answering the ethical call of Catholicism, i.e., an awareness for helping the poor, comforting families affected by gang violence, &c. He sees these public rituals as offering the kind of experience that transcends the “aesthetic or ethical” split currently dominant in (academic) discussions of faith. In other words, it shows his desire to “approach the aesthetic and the ethical as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience, which is still, unfortunately, the reigning approach today” (6).

He describes at length not only the various components of these public rituals but also the explicit compositional decisions its organisers make in order to make the ritual currently relevant (e.g., having someone sing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Webber and Rice’s (1970) Jesus Christ Superstar.) He identifies this kind of gesture of “updating” as an attempt to explicitly link past and present, so that there and then becomes open to experience as here and now. Thus, what might remain only at the level of (profound) entertainment—an important story about something that happened a long time ago—becomes transformed into something that has necessary and immediate relevance and meaning now. He similarly emphasises several dramaturgical moves that collapse the distinction (or help to collapse the distinction) between actor and audience, or audience and participant in the action of the passion play.

Tirres seems to report this as some kind of striking innovation, but in both theatre and ritual this kind of gesture has ancient antecedents. Eliade (1954)[3] long ago established a function of ritual to return as returning its participants to “archetypal time”—i.e., collapsing past and present—and even in the domain of epic poetry, it too collapses the here and now of its listeners to an archetypal time before time, or a kind of Golden Age (Bakhtin, 1981).[4]

Regardless, the apparent narrowness of Tirres’ claim does not negate it. He writes:

Insofar as popular ritual obscures the distinction between past and present, popular ritual also invites one to revisit the meaning of tradition and one’s relationship to the larger community. Is the purpose of one’s tradition primarily to conserve the past, to return to that which the community has always held dear? Or does one understand tradition as a dynamic give-and-take between present and past, wherein one selectively retrieves elements of the past in order to meet the changing demands of the present and future? As the San Fernando Good Friday liturgies seem to suggested, present experience has as much claim on ritual participants as do the archetypal stories of the past. At San Fernando, tradition is not only re-claimed by ritual actors, but also, re-crafted (40).

I should say now, if I have a primary criticism of this chapter, it arises from the fact that Tirres makes (and generally supports) broad claims for how ritual collapses and transcends dichotomous categories (like past and present) while at the same time remaining mired in dichotomies in his analysis. Here, for instance, he asks whether the tradition acts to conserve the past or offer a dynamic give-and-take between present and past. More still needs saying, but this suffices to flag the issue.

One thing very missing from the above paragraph from Tirres involves the question: who decides the purpose of ritual (i.e., whether it conserves the past or signals a dynamic give-and-take between past and present). For this specific passion play, the rituals’ organizers, albeit with “democratic” gestures towards others, decide the shape and dramaturgy of the event. I do not mean to say by this that they do with ideological malice aforethought. Let them act in an authentically religiously committed way, they still serve as the gatekeepers for what the ritual publicly intends.

More generally, and insofar as Tirres invokes (if obliquely) the social “theme” around how tradition and innovation interact within a culture, we might turn to Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[5] Northern Tribes of Central Australia.[6] Spencer and Gillen record at least one instance where a younger (adult) male attempts to insert an innovation into a long established ritual practice. This innovation becomes subject to approval (i.e., prohibition or support) by the group’s elders. As such, an innovation might occur once but then be suppressed in future ritual performances or it might become integrated into all future performances. But the very fact that such innovation might occur at all runs contrary to the conventional insistence that traditional cultures never change or do so only accidentally. Spencer and Gillen show instead how such change may come about, although with a great deal of cultural inertia and political resistance from the established elders. Further, one imagines that when this younger adult male reaches the status of elder, he might re-implement his innovation (if it has remained suppressed over the years), subject to political finagling with his elder peers.

So we may understand, in the “dialogue” between conservatism and innovation as far as past and present go, to speak of tradition as an either/or fails to acknowledge that some group has the power to determine an answer to this question. Thus, any give-and-take does not occur between tradition as a conservation of the past versus tradition as a dynamic give-and-take of past and present, but between the people who hold those positions and content political, culturally, about it. Tirres does not tell us what gestures or events done “by the public” during these rituals ever get taken up as permanent parts of future rituals, for instance. We do not know to what extent unsolicited requests by “the public” to add or modify elements of the ritual get implemented, although he does tell us how the organisers solicit and attempt to distribute compositional responsibility to others besides themselves.

This absence of a power analysis seems problematic if not disingenuous, especially in a context where one has the looming history of Vatican authority forever lingering in the background and in contrast to a liberation movement that expressly challenges (usually secular) Power. Moreover, insofar as liberation theology aims to take up the cause of the voiceless, it seems very questionable as well that Tirres provides only principally his voice as the representative lens for the event. Ethnographic work requires self-conscious reflection, which Tirres gives very little of, but since he must have had access not just to the organisers of the ritual, who he quotes, he could have at least found informant-participants from the rituals themselves to validate his claims about the function of the ritual. Very early on, he names one organiser who has changed the ethos of the ritual’s organization; Tirres presents this to contrast a previous situation described by one woman that Tirres identifies only as “a long-time cast member of the via crucis” (32): that “some members of the cast participated just because they wanted to be on television” (33).

I will make a lot of hay about this. Why should Tirres provide neither this woman’s name nor her actual words? He only refers to her (as a long-time cast member) and only indirectly quotes her statement. This, in contrast to the (male) ethos-changing organiser, who not only gets named but (in a perhaps unfortunate irony) also gets his picture in the book in the costume of the lead Roman soldier. I don’t at all mean to suggest an active sexist conspiracy here, but see this as simply part for the course. Even if Tirres noted a possible problem in reporting the matter this way, it didn’t rise to the level of significance in his (or his editor’s) view.

In other contexts, this may seem no less glaring but at least less problematic. Here, where the aim to speak for the voiceless stands at the centre of the project described, to render this woman nameless and to not allow her own voice to enter the text, even though Tirres clearly spoke to her, rings very much more problematically.

In the paragraph immediately preceding the one quoted at length above, Tirres writes:

In its own way, popular ritual at San Fernando engages quintessential moral questions. As we have seen, it raises important questions about who “we” are. What is our identity, and to whom are we accountable? By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work. Participants move from being modern, Mexican-American Christians to being first-centuty Jews, from isolated individuals to members of a broader spiritual community, from passive onlookers to active agents who shape narrative meaning (40).

Several bits want unpacking here.

First, you (my reader) might be struck by Tirres’ summarised assertion here that modern, Mexican-American Christians transform into (or simply identify with) first-century Jews. Previously, Tirres cited how historical performances of Passion plays have at times have notoriously leveraged anti-Jewish sentiment (as the “killers of Christ”) while the San Fernando ritual, by contrast, explicitly or implicitly seeks to resist that tradition. “Likewise, [the presiding priest] also reminds participants that they, as Christians, share a social connection with Jews. Both groups are part of the pueblo, the ‘People of God’” (27). This “widened appeal to God’s pueblo encourages participants to think about their own social identity in more comprehensive and interconnecting ways.

Of course, this temporal bridging of identity marks another (attempted) collapsing of categories, but Tirres’ analysis (at a minimum) begs the question of this identity. Historically speak, who constitutes a first-century Jew and what element of identification gets highlighted here. In theory, any first-century Jew who accepted Yeshua bin Yusuf as a messiah not only like would have seen him in political rather than spiritual terms, even in spiritual terms he represented a schismatic heresy against Orthodox tradition. But how do modern Mexican-Americans, participating in a ritual that depicts the dominant and orthodox discourse in the United States, acting heretically? Quite the opposite.

The most obvious emphasis seems the oft-repeated persecution of early Christians, but if first-century Jews did really suffer persecution (whether as religious schismatics or at the hands of Roman authorities), that suffering bears no resemblance to the typically self-pitying cries of “persecution” by modern Christians. Once again, this disingenuous whining seems ridiculous enough already but in a liberation theology context, where the cry “you’re oppressing me” goes up from mainline religious because the poor and disenfranchised call them to task for their complacency, abuse of power, and hypocrisy, the claim for such an identity (between modern Christians and first-century Jews) becomes especially gross.

We needn’t “blame” Tirres for this fact; whether he supports the claim or not, he simply reports the intention of the ritual’s organisers. Much more troublingly, Tirres fails in two ways to ground the claim, “By subverting dichotomies between “us” and “them,” the Good Friday liturgies invite participants to think beyond their most immediate identities of self, kin, and work” (40). First, as already noted, his own work in this chapter remains shot through with unresolved, non-transcended dichotomous categories, such as the dichotomy between a tradition that conserves the past or the offers a dynamic give-and-take between past and present. And in his work so far, this failure to transcend dichotomies colours his whole work, as he fails to mediate his main analytical categories, i.e., the “aesthetic” and the “ethical”. Mind you, his description of the Good Friday liturgies does show ways that the organisers have at least attempted to collapse distinctions like past and present; whether the rituals actually affect this remains harder to tell, since Tirres gives us only his interpretive lens for the event and no surveys or empirical research from the participants.

Second, and much more seriously, nothing in what Tirres reports suggest a subverting of the category of “us” and “them”. In the first place, the ritual itself serves as a massive demonstration of a powerful “us” to the surrounding city (“them”). This spectacle of Power certainly demands participation only in its own terms. Tirres takes this as so self-evident that he cites Cisneros’ (1992) claim that if you “want spiritual, the real spirit of [San Antonio], I’ll show you. Go to San Fernando Cathedral” (qtd. In Tirres, 14). Tirres later repeats, “By most accounts, San Fernando Cathedral is San Antonio’s spiritual center, its ‘soul of the city’” (20).

Where do atheists, Muslims (even Jews) play into the ritual’s public display of power or the discourse that by most (Christian) accounts reckons San Fernando Cathedral as the ‘soul of the city’?

But this principled social element aside, even within the context of the ritual itself Tirres shows evidence that the categories of “us” and “them” do not collapse but, in fact, get reinforced. We see this most obviously in the presence of Roman troops who put the hero to death,[7] but Tirres even provides an instance where “an older lady was so upset that she threw a punch at a nearby Roman soldier who was whipping and prodding Jesus along the road to Calvary. ‘¡Ya basta!,’ she screamed at the bewildered actor” (37). Rather bizarrely, Tirres then immediately transitions from this anecdote, where “us” and “them” stand clearly still in stark relief, and starts discussing how “the aesthetics of ritual moves toward the ethical … when ritual experience collapses the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (37).

If we take his report at face value, then the ethical change here involves the encouragement of violence toward those who oppose the Christian ideal (whether “literally” in the person of Yeshua bin Yusuf or figuratively in the social body of the community of believers). I could only wish, at the moment when this woman threw her punch, that the actor playing Jesus had handed his cross to a soldier or bystander at that moment and reminded the woman to love her neighbour or to pray for her enemies, and then embraced the soldier before carrying on. In that, we would see something more like support for the form of the ethical Tirres claims this ritual supports.

Tirres closes with a rather self-congratulatory sort of disclaimer. Noting that “rituals are complex, contested, and messy” (40) he also declares, “It is not only the interpreter’s job to risk an interpretation of what these shared elements [of ritual] are, but more immediately, it is also the pastoral agent’s duty to inspire and encourage ritual participants to grow as individuals and as a community through ritual” (41).

While these might offer pertinent observations, we may note also how the weight of authority in this claim lands squarely (and only) on the experts who organise the event and the expert (Tirres) who interprets the events for us in a particular way. By contrast, we may recall, in this kind of context, Suttner’s (2005)[8] description of intellectuals: those “who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world” (Suttner, 2005, 130). By this distinction, we should see that the intellectual and the academic do not necessarily always overlap (though the academic may insist otherwise). From history we see that sometimes very non-scholarly or uneducated individuals have very ably performed the kind of intellectual function Suttner describes (i.e., to articulate a coherent account of the world for those in a particular class or nationally oppressed position who had not previously seen the world in that way), while many in academia fail completely in this task (because their work lacks any such solidarity or, worse, serves principally to reinforce the already dominant paradigm of the ruling class). Suttner continues:

[intellectuals] should be defined by the role they play, by the relationships they have to others. They are people who, broadly speaking, create for a class or people … a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. Intellectuals are crucial to the process through which a major new culture, representing the world-view of an emerging class or people, comes into being. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been the incoherent and fragmentary ‘feelings’ of those who live in a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world (see Gramsci 1971[9]: 418; Crehan 2002[10]: 129–30).

In a letter of 1931 Gramsci says his definition of an intellectual ‘is much broader than the usual concept of “the greater intellectuals”’ (1979: 204). In his Prison Notebooks, he writes:

What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance of the term ‘intellectual;” Can one find a unitary criterion to characterise equally all the diverse and disparate activities of intellectuals and to distinguish these at the same time and in an essential way from the activities of other social groupings? The most widespread error of method seems to me that of having looked for this criterion of distinction in the intrinsic nature of intellectual activities, rather than in the ensemble of the system of relations in which these activities (and therefore the intellectual groups who personify them) have their place within the general complex of social relations (1971: 8. emphasis added).

In the same way a worker is not characterized by the manual or instrumental work that he or she carries out, but by ‘performing this work in specific conditions and in specific social relations’ (117–8).

It remains an open question whether Tirres embodies an intellectual or an academic, though at present the weight of evidence falls more toward the latter already. His narrow interest in solving the “problem” of integral liberation theology, especially as he sees a necessary step in this in reconstructing Dewey’s religious philosophy, does not point to giving a coherent account of a historically oppressed people’s position. Moreover, while invoking the voiceless as a subject of his discourse, he gives the names of those in authority while leaving nameless—unworthy of specific recognition—women involved in the project he describes. He relies upon the authority of his own interpretive lens—assuring us that this amounts to a necessary step—without counterbalancing his monologic authority with other voices, except those he elects to include. The fact that he at one point confesses to a (temporary) misunderstanding of the ritual he witnesses also throws his report into question. And, of course, his pedigree as a Catholic that he starts the chapter with marks him (and his interpretive framework) as valid vis-à-vis Catholic ritual but invalid vis-à-vis those individuals who do not share his Catholic commitments.

This comes across most plainly when he claims, apparently in all seriousness, that this spectacular display of Catholic power in San Antonio has a main purpose of collapsing the distinction between “us” and “them”. A more minor version of this glaring lapse arises also when we consider the “us” of academic theologians in general versus the “them” of an affected laity, but also that disparity of “us” and “them” that Tirres hopes to bridge in his work, between US and South American Latino/a liberation theologians.

Whatever dialogue Tirres claims to set up, it (of necessity) represents a monologue conducted by one authoritative speaking voice (his own) and the representation he constructs of any would-be dialogist (South American liberation theologians, competing US Latino/a liberation theologians, the Vatican, or anyone else, &c). This problem of representation arises continually in all work, and it falls upon the scholar (that is: the consensus holds it a standard part of scholarly procedure) to fairly and accurately represent the voice of the Other as much as possible.[11] Nonetheless, in a context of liberation theology, where the representation of the voiceless takes centre stage as one of the most fundamental problems in the first place, this conventional scholarly accession to representing the Other becomes garishly problematic. The suppression of a woman’s name and her actual words go from an arguably harmless error in other contexts to a red flag about the sincerity or self-awareness of Tirres’ project. Similarly, his disclaimer above about a plurality of interpretations, again a harmless error in many contexts, resonates with authoritarianism here, all the more when he offers an apologetics for his duty to provide an interpretation. Or, again, his opening autobiographical account, which positions him in some ways as especially intimately and personally connected to the performance of passion plays (his uncle played Jesus), shifts not so subtly from a sort of ethnographic acknowledgment of his position to something more like a claim to especial insight around the Good Friday liturgies—a claim bolstered, of course, by his academic pedigree at Princeton and Harvard as well.

Reading his description of the Good Friday liturgies, two things especially stand out to me. Not in any particular order, first he discloses to us that he had special access to the event organisers. Like a backstage VIP, his displays his privileged access to the planning, rationale, and deployment of the Good Friday liturgies. In this context, he names and quotes these movers and shakers, while leaving nameless some woman who merely “is a long-time cast member of the via crucis”.

Second, in his more or less experiential spectatorship of the rituals themselves, a strong sense of spiritual tourism comes across. Despite his privileged access to the event planners, he nevertheless gets fooled by some of the tropes the organisers devise to create greater immediacy in the participants. Not, of course, that an ethnographer should loser herself while witnessing a “native performance,” but a key part of Tirres’ authority rests on his intimate connect with the events depicted. It seems as if he experiences the Good Friday liturgy not simply in small surprising details (such as that noted above) but overall—as if the immediacy and relevance of the Passion Play itself for the first time (as an adult) drove itself home to him all over again. Thus, he seems to “discover” a solution to the problem of a modern lack of faith in this cleverly contrived theatrical fiction.

But if the ritual succeeds in re-galvanising his own “marriage” of the aesthetic and ethical, should we understand this as the ritual function for most of the participants. For those who already live, for the most part, no disjunction between the aesthetic and the ethical, they have no need for such “integration”. For the woman who threw a punch at the “Roman soldier,” it appears she has already thoroughly integrated the aesthetic and ethical, to such a degree that she violates the expectations of the bewildered actor playing the soldier. And if this thrown punch signals at least one kind of integration of the aesthetic and the ethical, then Tirres should answer how this kind of violence will not generally result from the project he advances. We can say the woman gets it wrong, just like those people who would scream at Joan Collins because of a character she played on TV. Much as we might agree this amounts to a “wrong” response, it nevertheless shows itself as an response and one that Tirres fails to take seriously.[12]

Of course, we can pay a sort of easy lip service to values that contradict such violence on the part of this ritual participant, but facile disclaimers don’t get us toward actually ensuring that we compose rituals that inhibit, rather than exacerbate, a tendency to violence.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] Eliade, M. (2005). The myth of the eternal return: Cosmos and history (Vol. 46): Princeton University Press

[4] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)

[5] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here

[6] One may find any number of objections to this text, not the least of which how it embodies anthropological work prior to the self-conscious turn that the discipline of anthropology has so thoughtfully and extensively explored. Like much (British) work from this era, it typically happens that the (empirically) observed data—keeping in mind the question of what an anthropologist even notices in the first place—tends to retain its validity even when the interpretive scheme to analyse that data reeks of imperialism, racism, sexism, orientalism, and so forth.

[7] Traditions do exist at passions plays that do emphasize one’s role as a Roman in the execution of Yeshua bin Yusuf. Such “guilt trips” may have transformative (ethical) implications as well, but Tirres elects not to draw attention to these traditions.

[8] Suttner, R. (2005). The character and formation of intellectuals within the ANC-led South African liberation movement in T. Mkandawire (ed.) African intellectuals: rethinking politics, language, gender and development, pp. 117–54. London: Zed.

[9] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds.) London: Lawrence and Wishart (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[10] Crehan, K. (2002). Gramsci, culture and anthropology, London: Pluto Press (footnote from Suttner 2005).

[11] Why one must or should resort to an expository format that requires this kind of representation, rather than arranging a more literally dialogic form of book, suggests its own line of analysis.

[12] We may offer a nasty explanation for this in that the “us” and “them” of this ritual sees no problem of such violence. That the faithful should physically attack, if not kill, the infidel represents a perfectly acceptable outcome.

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