How Ethics Arise Out Of Worship

From Lex Natura To Lex Orandi To Lex Credendi To The Law Of Living:

How Ethics Arise Out Of Worship[1]

Cláudio Carvalhaes


Introduction – God or Human Agency?


At the gathering of the German Liturgical Conferencein Hildesheim in August 2018, I met Bernd Wannenwetsch whom I have read when doing my doctoral studies. While I was trying to see him under the light of liberation theology I realize now how much he challenged and still challenges my thinking. His lecture at Hildesheim provoked me in many ways. His major point was that the work of ethics in liturgy has gone too far in emphasizing human agency. When one talks about the liturgical work now we do away with God’s agency, which is often overdetermined by the ethical discourse of one’s moral construction over against God’s own work and vision. Perhaps the work of Reformed thinkers, such as Karl Barth’s notion of analogy and the structure of “call and response” in reformed worship services, along with the notion of liturgy as source for all Christian life in the II Vatican Council, we have forgotten that the rules of the grammar of faith are already inscribed in the liturgy and that, it does not need to be named. There is no need to create a morality in worship service since everything is already there in the liturgy, the modes of being and how we should be oriented by God in the world, and not by human agency.


In his critique, when in worship human agency is paramount, transformation is more important than formation, and God remains a shadowy figure in the background, an esoteric notion before the power and control of a person. What matters then is our concerns and not God’s own concerns and centrality in worship. We forget, he continues, that in the 16thcentury reformation, the problem of faith was not lack of faith but superstition, which demanded a better formation of the believer. Thus, the question for him is not how we believe but in whom we believe. Which God do we trust and worship? The God oriented by our own self-aggrandizing, our moralistic centered selves? Some forms of liturgy carry a strong self-deception and disguised under the name of God, we secretly worship another God, a God of ourselves or a plurality of Gods.


In the Old Testament, he says, the God people were worshiping was not be the God of widows and orphans because they were adoring various forms of themselves in the forms of the golden calf, a self-inflicted idolatry. The prophetic was then intended to give back to the people, the presence of a God who was much bigger than the one being given to them by somebody else, or by themselves. That is shows is that the idolatrous movement is always a movement of reducing God to something, like turning God into an image, an image of ourselves or even when we presently call the bread God or the God who is turned into bread. For him, God is not the bread that comes from the oven but the One that comes from heaven.


God IS Spirit and Truth and liturgy, as its core, cannot be an exercise on religion, or on exercises that domesticate God. He finishes saying that the less clear we are about a God without particularity, the more we have to engage in a moral understanding of God.


I enjoyed my brother Wannenwetsch’s talk very much and I think his major gift was to remind us that we are more than the sum of our circumstances, that the God we have look at us and love us in ways that go beyond our own located, historicized form of self, pushing us away from self-grasping forms of identities that often run the risk of narrowing God’s expansive notion of life and all its connections into limited and naïve forms of identity.


However, his search for God’s agency or for an unmarked God, one that is beyond our circumstances, can only be understood through our circumstances, through our particularities. The lack of particularity is fundamentally a place of power and privilege, a place where one is already inside, the odds of life are all on the side of both the God of power and the worshiper of that God. Moreover, when the self-determined God of the inside of the liturgy is worshiped, the outside of the liturgy must now be domesticated according to a certain God’s agency given by somebody. It is this unmarked God in hopefully unmarked forms of tradition liturgical services that God’s agency happens. Moreover, if for in worship we don’t need to learn to distinguish false from right in worship, we can also say that the patriarchy, sexism, racism and child abuse disguised in the Divine liturgy, are not wrong things either since what we have there is already a condemnation of what is wrong, nonetheless we don’t need to change the access and the forms of the liturgies.


Contrary to my brother, I say that yes in worship we learn what is right and wrong not by the sheer repletion of a liturgy given to us often by a group of white heterosexual European and US males, but by the growing awareness of what liturgy states or hides, and the commitment it invests in the shaping (formation and transformation) of a community. The world is always at stake in the worship service and our liturgical choices are always a mark of our limited, historical and sinful choices. The grammar of faith must also come from the streets and the pain of the poor and not only from self-enclosed traditions and confessions. It is in the particularity of our liturgical choices and the particularity of God in this moment that shows us a God who cannot be reducible to any particularity. Idolatrous liturgical actions happen when particularities becomes a movement of the self-back to itself and not to another. But Idolatrous liturgical actions also happen when a liturgical form is set to be divine, reducing God to a bunch of absolute precise small actions such as standing a certain feet from the altar/table, rigid proper words and orders and red lines instructions. Moreover, to believe that a specific rite, if done right, will definitely “bring” God’s presence, can be perhaps one of the highest form of idolatry. Any form of ritual reducibility of God is idolatrous.


Jesus reminded us that by our fruits we would be known.[2]Our liturgical fruits show who we are and whose we are, or which God we adore. Liturgical actions are always endangered with idolatry: as Wannenwetschrightly said, by shaping God into forms of our own aggrandizing self, or by reducing God to a certain liturgical order or even by thinking that any form of ritual order is fine. How can we then escape this danger and worship God without an idolatrous body, heart and mind? While it may be an impossible task, the form and shape of a liturgical order must be organized around the ways in which we reflect God’s love to the world. If our worship starts in God’s love, then we must move our compassionate heart into where life hurts. There, with those suffering, with the poor, we learn what is the ethical demands of our faith. Not necessarily in a building with people with certain privileges, but rather, where Jesus said he would be found: among the diseased, the hungry, the incarcerated, the outcasts and disenfranchised.


The central point of any worshiper then is to love the world the way we were loved by God. Any human agency becomes idolatrous and self-congratulatory if it does not start in God’s grace and God’s love. It is God’s love that grounds us in the earth, and it is God’s grace that orients our actions, our attention, our healings, our movements, our resources, and our testimony. But as Bonhoeffer reminds us, this grace is not cheap, it is costly. God’s grace demands way too much of us. How thus, can we engage liturgy and ethics, or in other words: God’s love and God’s demand through our lives?


Liturgy and the world


Roughly speaking, in the debate of lex orandi lex credendi, Roman Catholics have emphasized the lex Orandi while protestants the lex credendi, meaning: Roman Catholics go to the liturgy to learn how to believe while protestants need to believe first so they can understand the prayer, he liturgy.


In both modes, liturgy is mostly understood as an activity of the church to the world, where the world comes and is transformed. In that way, liturgy becomes a thing in itself, a divine offering to us that can be explained by itself. There is a self-referentiated normativity in the understanding of liturgy that seals itself off from the ways of the world. The itinerary is the same: the world comes to us and what we do is our offering to the world. In this one-way trajectory, from the inside to the outside, very little is spoken about the social, racial, class, ecological, economic, gender and sexual markers that fundamentally define these movements.


We can understand this relation and what needs to be done by a short quote from Bernd Wannenwetsch in his book his “Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens” he says: “if worship is their form of life, Christians are exemplary citizens.”[3]This very assertion both emphasizes the fundamental relation between the church and the world as it demands a much more expansive notion of liturgy. With Wannenwetsch I wonder how can we live as exemplary Christians? Often, this exemplarity is translated into class protection, racial prejudices, keeping communities intact and away from the poor. In many ways, Christians offer an exemplar way of life when they protect the tradition, a certain power, and forms of living that avoids the chaos of the world. Does the exemplarity of Christians’ citizenship has to do with the maintenance of a certain tradition? What is the exemplarity of the Christian church in Europe when dealing with those who have no citizenship, namely the immigrants and the refugees? What is the exemplarity of the Christian church in the United States when dealing with immigration and caging Latinxs small children? What is the exemplarity of the Christian church in Brazil and the killing of its black population?


What I want to do in this paper is to press the limits of this “citizenship exemplarity” to its limits, accounting a certain citizenship with all of its benefits to the disasters of a world in decomposition and see where liturgy must stand, where it should start and where it should place its telos. What I want to suggest is that to worship God and the liturgical space can be a privileged place not only for the living of life, but for the full transformation of the world. Nothing new, I know. But in order to have this happen, if liturgy is to be faithful to Jesus Christ, it must stand with the poor, must start where it hurts, and have its telos in the fullness of God’s creation: the earth and all its living creatures.


How so?


I think we can all agree that worship is a prayer and Christianity’s gift to the world is a prayer of personal and global transformation. Through this prayer, Christians offer to the world a grammar of faith where we can create and organize the world. This prayer is bound to the Jesus Christ event: birth-life-death of Jesus. Deeply into this event, worship is nothing else than a testimony of Jesus’ glory, power and promise through his life and death, a way of claiming life fully, but also a way of prophecying against the powers of death that destroy life as it crashed Jesus.


Liturgy has always been political


Worship is God’s incarnation happening in the world and thus, it is fully political! For worship, as our brother Wannenwetsch says, is not a part of the Christian life but the very way of the Christian life. As a political act, it reorganizes life, feeds our imagination, fix our desires, demands moral formation, grounds us on earth and offers a new way of being fully human.


The idea of the political is not an attempt to read worship from a certain angle, with a political view of liturgy, an alternative form of worship with a certain language or a political perspective on worship. Rather, the political is the axis around which God’s desire for the world turns death into life, the cross is turned into resurrection, by the grace of God and the work and resilience of the people in the world. If Jesus Christ is the Christian liturgy itself, then the political comes even before the cannon of scriptures and theologies. It starts with the birth of Emmanuel, God with us at the manger in a foreign country as an undocumented citizen. Base on that, worship at its onset, is an act of defiance and survival under the empire. It bears witness to those at the margins of society prone to be killed. With Jesus, worship already starts in a political tense and violent environment, one that is trying with all its might to crush him. In worship we see the ways heavens and earth, angels, stars and shepherds are all invested in protecting the reason of our love, the purpose of our life.


Through Jesus, the worship we give to God is a way of knowing how this wondrous love keep us alive, and how the power of love can defy and survive under an Empire that is trying to kill all of our kids under the age of two, now translated into all of the poor and wretched of the earth. Grounded in Jesus life, worship is a way of creating a new life where all can live well! IN Jesus death we have the powers of death in movement but Jesus resurrection we see a deeper power of love coming out of death to defy death and propose life. This is the movement of worship and there, with and around those who are vulnerable, is where worship happens and where God stands.


If worship is centered around the Christ event, then Bernd Wannenwetsch’s argument that worship is about the overabundance of God is true because Jesus came to bring life and life in abundance (John 10:10). However, we can’t forget that in the same verse Jesus says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” We must then relate God’s abundance agasinat the thief who steals, kills and destroys. In other words, out of the ideal of abundance in worship, we must read Wannenwetsch along with Tissa Balasurya who asks why the church celebrates this abundance, this bountiful feast of God every Sunday and yet, the neighborhoods around the church still live in hunger and misery?[4]How are we to understand the abundance of God and the exemplary life of Christians over against the miseries of our world?


Why so many churches have fantastic buildings and properties when there is so many homeless people?

Why some of its pastors are going hungry and some pastors have immense benefits?

Why so many churches have endowments and money in the market when people are going hungry and living in miserable ways?

Why so many churches are preaching about God’s love but their own structures are grounded in patriarchy, racism and xenophobia?


How do we do with understandings of Gods bountiful love within the liturgy, “inside” of the church, when pressed against the external walls of misery and hunger? What side reflects the other? What is the ethical correlation between the ins and outs and its limits? How God’s love meets the world’s death weapons?


In order to pursue these difficult correlations and limits, I am proposing that we need to connect, in deeper way, the liturgy of the neighbor, the liturgy of the church, and the liturgy of the world.


How does our neighbor challenges the forms of life within worship?

How does traditions are transformed for the sake of the world?

How does the world change because of the liturgy of the church?


Here we are connecting polis and the oikos, the oikos of God as the polis of humankind. These connections can continue and expand the connections of the leges (plural of Lex) of the church: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi/vivendi.


If according to Prosper of Aquitaine is right, “that the law of supplicating may constitute the law of believing,” than prayer shapes beliefs. If that is true, and I am assuming this is true for now, how does praying under the violence and power dominance of the empire reshape our beliefs?


How does the law of prayer challenges the empire?

How does the law of our beliefs defies the self-enclosed sense of self and all its desires?

How does the law of the way of life, our ethical mode, based on a just way of living, help transform the logic and practice of our beliefs in the current economic system?


Often this relationship happens within a theological inner-circle that protects the boundaries of the faith by analyzing liturgy with liturgy. In spite of all of the dialogue liturgy has done with other areas of knowledge,[5]the praying and the believing of liturgy seems to be the same. However, we need to put the faith to a greater risk so to speak through frightening “external” juxtapositions, and moving away from juxtaposing only liturgy with liturgy: gathering to word, bath to eucharist, word to sending and so on. That is what the relation of the leges (lex in plural) mean.


Another issue is that these relations have precluded and avoided the presence of the environment. We have been able to expand the relation between liturgy and culture through the very timid for of inculturation of the liturgy trying to reach out for differences around the globe.


All of the other leges a cannot survive if we don’t not only add the lex naturaor rather makes it a pre-condition for the law of prayer, belief and way of life. Lex natura must be our guiding principle in political liturgical theology. Through Lex Natura, we gain an orienting ground from which we can learn how to pray, to believe and to act. That is one of the best gifts of the liturgical rituals to the world, a way of helping us pay attention, and pay attention to Gaia, the earth in this time of Anthropocene. Liturgical political theology, oriented by Lex Natura, can engage public spaces, but not only that. It can help us pay attention to the millions of years of the earth, pay attention to our history in time and in places. Lex Natura can orient us in renewing the earth, transform our rituals, our religious vows, our sacred things, our beliefs, our symbols, our gestures, our actions, our songs. It can give us a much more expansive notion of what to be human is all about.


Now our demand is yet deeper and more complex. We need to move beyond the correlation between liturgy and culture and cultural diversities and relations. The world is literally burning and we have gone beyond the limits of our oikos. Unless our most pressing priority is the earth, we are not paying attention to God. We must connect the leges of the church: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi/vivendi to I am calling the lex natura.[6]  Lex Natura, the environmental structure of our world is our zero-sum priority now. No cultural, interreligious, political discussion can happen without the fundamental orientation of Gaia, of the earth. How do we correlate all of the leges?


Theologia Prima and Theologia Secunda – Manila, Philippines


Connecting all of these leges is the liturgical work of the church against the empire, against those who hold the political power and the money of the world crushing the poor. In order to do real liturgical work, the work of the people, we must start on the ground, where it hurts, with the people who are suffering with the empire rules.

Theologia prima is about living with the people, which is already an act of worship and theologia secunda is the ritual moment of that living together, worship service done together for the glory of God and the fullness of God’s creation: earth, humans, animals, etc. My paper develops this idea better. Let me give you some idea of the resources of What came out of Manila. A group of about 25 people from Asia gathered together for 1 day of introductions, 3 days in the communities and 2 days workshop and worship.


The 3 days in the communities gave us all first-hand experiences with the deep struggles of the people and how they fight to survive. During this time, the group was supposed to offer “deep listening” as our methodology and hear the voices of the suffering and ask questions as how we could be in solidarity with them. Our people visited workers striking against Nutrition, a big company in Manila. The presence of Labor Unions has been discouraged by the government and it makes is easier for companies to abuse of workers who work for 12 hours to gain 315 pesos per day, half of the minimum wage, without any benefit. We heard from the Peasants and how their lives are completely abandoned by the government. They live without roads, without hospitals, and are exposed to violence and sexual abuse. We heard the deep cry of the mothers who lost their kids to the government’s drug on wars where the police kill whomever they want leaving mothers without any explanation of their death and no justice. We heard from Indigenous communities who have being thrown away from their lands by mining and logger companies, evacuated from their lands and their schools bombarded by the military.


We then got together and processed these experiences and through prayer and weeping we wrote a variety of liturgical resources. Some of them are:


From The Valley of Dry Bones into a Playground

God of Life, we are living in a valley of dry bones

We have lost our identity …we have lost our humanity

We are unable to feel, we are so numb

We are unable to reach out to the poor,

to those we have segregated as religious and social outcast

We have forgotten our being adamah: the tiller… the steward.

The whole of creation groans in travail

God of Life, we are living in a valley of dry bones

We have lost our identity … we have lost our humanity

Wars, killings, acts of terror and insurgencies surround us

Deaths happen in every corner

People are dying before their time every tick of the clock

Children and women are being trafficked everyday in the millions

Our communities are disintegrating and descending into chaos and lifelessness..

God of Life, we are living in a valley of dry bones

We have lost our identity, we have lost our humanity

Descend upon us, once again

May your Spirit, restore to wholeness our humanity

May we image You, once again

Enable us to touch our neighbors and build solidarities

Enable us to build peace and institute justice in our relationships

Enable us to break the barriers that are destroying our communities

Enable us to bridge the gaps that separate us from each other

Transform this valley of dry bones

Into a playground of the children of God. Amen.

(Julian, Ferdinand, Carleen)


A Prayer

For the roads that we have blocked

For the bridges that we didn’t build

For the empty table that we didn’t fill

Forgive us.


I Shall Not

I shall not mourn for deaths framed as self-defence
Nor shall I mourn for children starved to death
I won’t mourn for lands consumed by the selfish

Or even lives denied by slave-shops
I will not give the rich the satisfaction of my vulnerability
Instead, I mourn for the loss of their humanity
And I mourn for the Nazaren
Who worked so hard to redeem it
So if ever my tears drop
They send atomic ripples beneath ivory towers


Worship in Between Spaces In The Philippines


In the space between pulpit and pews

There’s a sermon

There’s a baby crying of hunger

And plenty rushing to calm her

Before the need to be fed

Becomes the only message heard


In the space between breath and air

Is the smog of traffic

There’s steam from clothes

hanging in the sun

Up high like fuel costs

As the fumes of false hope

Draw people to capital cities


In the space between factory and public road

Is a tarp stretched over a bamboo shelter

Three kids call it home

And their kitchen

Is a charcoaled pot

Sitting lonely on two bricks


In the space between mother and umbrella

Is a child

clutching to a fading tomorrow

As greedy companies collapse unions

And parents disguise their fears

Smiling at their young

playing basketball


In the space between bible and policies

Is a missing paper trail

Smeared with the blood of the outspoken

Systemically hidden

While unsafe workplaces

Pull the trigger on another

And death continues

To fall on gold-filled ears


In the space between church and shopping mall

Clouds are painted with electric cables

Peaceful protesters charged

Police plug corpses with evidence

But the real shock

are the foreign ties

Worn with white collars


In the space between life and living wage,

There’s a community-run school

desperate for funding

There are families

sharing scraps with animals

But the real beast

Is the smell of displacement


In the space between CEO and a pregnant teacher

There’s a birthquake of resistance

Conceived through churches and workers

Labouring the pains of solidarity

While men with big briefcases

tempt abortion


In the space between pulpit and pews

Poor people are praying

Tears flowing down to the feet of Christ

Like the river Jordan

Where the Word was preached

And liberation made flesh

Where real worship begins

And the message of HOPE lingers





Maddeness. Violence. Failure. Frustration. Being lost. Fearful. The incredible meaningless of liturgy when loved in the face of death and the unimaginable potency of its possibilities. Again, what I bring to you from this experience in Manila is an attempt to respond to the madness of our world through the privileged liturgical space of worship.


Maddeness with the love of God.


Violence with the healing gentleness of the Spirit.


Failure with the gospel of Jesus turning failure into possibilities.


Frustration with the fullness of life.


Being lost and yet living in the shalom of God.


Being fearful and yet trusting in the abiding presence of God deep inside us.


Can the liturgy do all that as we have it right now? It might. But I seriously doubt. Our liturgies are more preoccupied in keeping a certain tradition, in making the ritual right, and keeping it safe as it waits for people come to come to its treasures on our terms.

We the church need to go out! An ecclesiological act to move where people hurting is living. Liturgy must pulse the heartbeat of the streets. It must breath the breath of anxiety and violence that people breaths every day while infusing the breath of God into the breath of death.


I know this is hard. We lose our center, we don’t know what to do. In the Philippines, I was scared and lost all the time. I went there to do liturgical work and had to deal with violence in ways that I had not anticipated. Violence was everywhere. The presence of the corrupted state is mercilessly violent. The absence and carelessness of the state is cowardly violent. I saw in the Philippines a portrait of the entire world in a not so distant future: waters polluted, the earth being destroyed as it is owned by Basf, Monsanto and the hydro-agri-business, the last indigenous people being erased, the poor massacred, diseases like dengue, tuberculosis, leptospirosis and HIV coming back with full force, 65% of the population living in poverty while 15 man owns 75% of the richness of the country. Philippines, like so many other countries, only exists as a puppet in the economic hands of China and military hands of United States.


How can we respond to it all liturgically? Should we even ask this question? I surely think so. For we start the fight locally. Breathing in and out the breath of life where we are.


Before we went to be with the poor in the Philippines, we had to be prepared by learning how to protect ourselves and how to act in the event of police’s brutality and in the case we were put in jail. Is there any liturgical work that survive that? How can we think and plan our worship when we are under the threat of violence and deep security measurements?


There is no liturgical book alone that can survive the madness and violence of our world. Our liturgical books were prepared in too easy and safe spaces. We need new worship books, we need a new liturgical grammar for our times.


So then, how can we create a common book of worship under real questions like these:


What do we do in a worship service when 7 mothers give their heart wrenching testimonies of how they lost their precious young boys from police brutality and sheer mis-identification of their sons? How do we add their deep sorrows, their wailing into our liturgies?


How do we pray with poverty stricken street girls and women whose only currency in this world is their beaten-up bodies?


How do we sing the doxology with indigenous people being evacuated from their own lands?


How do we preach the gospel along with indigenous kids when their teachers are murdered and their beloved schools bombed?


How do we celebrated an Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving in the face of workers getting 3 euros a day for 12 hours of work without any benefit? Workers who cannot go back home because they have no money and sleep on the streets in front of their jobs?


What a worship book look like in the face of so much violence. More than ever we need to engage in the work of liturgy and violence. We simply cannot do worship without a deep engagement with various forms of violence.


Along with the disasters and all the violence I saw in the Philippines, I could also tell you many stories of hope, resilience and the empowerment of the people. I wonder… how can we put it all together and figure out a new world out of the world we have, the traditions we have and the visions of the neighbor we have. I also wonder with Wannenwetsch, what do we do with God’s abundance in a world of misery, hunger, violence and death? How do we relate the abundance of Jesus’ promise with the world today? In what lex do we start?


Perhaps the questions we have begs for simple answers, which can also be weird answers.


Where do we start?


We start on God’s love.  there is no other place to start. The love that still visit us from the past, that is now and is always coming from the future to greet us. Grounded in that love, we are drenched with compassion for others.The church goes out to pray with those who are hurting and be in solidarity with them. Thus, salvation and redemption is being with somebody else, fully there, giving, receiving, learning and being transformed.


What does it take to do liturgy today?

Praying with the people according to their own hurts, turning their cries into our beliefs and then organizing a life where we can all live well together.


How does ethics arise out of worship?

It is about being with the people and the earth, listening to their cries, starting where people and the earth hurts. Their signs of death and life, their desperation, death, hope and weeping will guide us.

Where is our liturgical telos?
Anywhere God takes us together, all the species: animals, humans, living creatures, waters, earth.


What does liturgy means?

The liturgy becomes liturgy in the making. Hands and feet dirty. It is only on the way, living with the poor, figuring out God’s love in themidst of the poor, that we figure out what liturgy means and what God demands from us.


[1]Part of a paper given at the Liturgical Conference. Hildesheim, Germany August 27-29.

[2]Matthew 7: 15-20

[3]WANNESNWETSCH, Bernd, Political WorshipTranslated By Margaret Kohl (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2004), 359.

[4]Tissa Balasuriya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation(Oregon: Wipf & Stock Pub (August 9, 2004).

[5]Paul F. Bradshaw, Liturgy in Dialogue: Essays in Memory of Ronald Jasper(New York: Pueblo, 1995).

[6]About lex nature see “Lex Natura – A New Way Into a Liturgical Political Theology,” in T&T Clark Companion to Political Theology, Rubem Rosário-Rodriguez (ed.) (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, upcoming, 2018).