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Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity, by Graham

Hughes. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. vii + 330. Price

$23.00 paper.

Despite the (false) Enlightenment prophecies of religion “withering away,” late

modernity has seen a persistent—even ascendant—presence of religion or

“spirituality.” And much of this spirituality—ranging from New Age gurus like

Chopra and Tölle to evangelical motivators like Rick Warren—is formulated in

terms of a quest for meaning: What is the meaning of life? What does it all

mean? How can I “make sense” of my life? How can I make my life meaningful?

Graham Hughes sees this preoccupation with “meaning” as a springboard

for theological reflection on worship, capitalizing on the central role of meaning

in 20th-century philosophy, ranging across Husserl’s and Heidegger’s

phenomenology and its critique in Derrida’s deconstruction, developments in

philosophy of religion in the wake of Wittgenstein picked up in analytic

philosophy, and the “semiotic” tradition generated by American philosopher

Charles Sanders Peirce. Given that liturgy traffics in signs, and thus is

fundamentally a “semiotic” event, Hughes aims to make up for a lacuna in both

liturgical theology and semiotic theory, since “semioticians have avoided the

liturgy even more comprehensively than liturgists have missed semiotics” (129).

The heart of the book tries to reach two audiences: to semioticians it offers an

analysis of liturgy as something of a case study of sign-production and sign-

reception; to liturgists and liturgical theologians, he offers a semiotic account of

the way in which worship “makes sense”—that is, gives meaning—of a lifeworld
by orienting participants in a particular way (39). We will focus on the latter side

of his project.

Hughes does not assume a familiarity with either philosophy of language

or semiotic theory; rather, he provides a helpful, comprehensive survey of 20th-

century philosophy of language (both analytic and continental, 16-30), as well as

a careful introduction to Peirce’s semiotics (134-147), noting the importance

differences between Peirce’s account (which Hughes takes to be superior) and the

semiotics of Ferdinand de Saussure (one of Derrida’s primary foils) and Umberto

Eco (115-134). (Unfortunately, the book has a very short-term memory in this

respect, valorizing 20th-century developments but missing the rich semiotic

theology to be found in early fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, as

well as medieval Eucharistic reflection which revolved around “signs.”)

This exposition of semiotic theory then sets the stage for the “application”

of semiotics to worship in chapter 5. Given that the world is “signs all the way

down” (69n103), by offering a range of signs worship provides a “platform on

which to live” (68) or a map which orients us to our lifeworld, “making sense” of

what we encounter. Worship, we might say, both informs and is informed by our

worldview, and both function semiotically. Hughes devotes most of this chapter

to unpacking Peirce’s three-fold distinction between iconic signs, indexical signs,

and symbolic signs—a bit too complex to summarize here. What I found of

particular interest here (even if underdeveloped) is Hughes’ account of “semiotic

habits” (142, 203)—the way in which participation in a semiotic “biosphere”

inculcates habits of orienting to the world (what Peirce called “the practical

bearing” of signs).
If this is what liturgy does (semiotically speaking), then the next question

is how this happens: just how do signs function? How is meaning produced?

How is it received? How do signs “transfer” meaning, as it were? It is here that

Hughes sees the unique challenge (and opportunity) for worship in late

modernity. This stems from a semiotic axiom which owes as much to Ricoeur as

Peirce: “Human beings construct their meanings (a meaningful world) from the

meanings culturally available to them” (219; cp. 7 and passim). In other words,

“meaning entails both ‘making’ and ‘finding’” (63); it is both construction and

discovery (64). Liturgy must operate on the basis of the same axiom: worship can

only construct meaning from the meanings that it finds available. The challenge,

then, in late modernity is this: how can the signs of Christian worship create a

meaningful world which points to transcendence when the pool of meanings

available in late modernity assume the “disenchantment of the world?” It is

here that I was disappointed by both Hughes’ diagnosis and prescription.

In his diagnosis of our “late modern (or postmodern) condition,” he seems

to suggest that the Christian community is resigned to the meanings which are

available from modernity. Indeed, Hughes seems to overestimate the “power” of

cultural conditioning, being quite fatalistic and pessimistic about Christianity’s

capitulation to modernity: “A thesis which runs through this book is that the

meanings to which people are exposed daily, hourly, in the world all around them

cannot possibly be insulated from those same people’s religious readings of the

world. That is, the corrosive effects of secularism are not left in the church foyer.

They are insistently part of the available means with which people have to

construct their world” (53). In fact, he takes this to such an extreme that he
seems to deny the very possibility of tradition (in terms of traditio, “handing on”

meanings across generation): “Meanings which are available to one generation

are no longer so in the next” (43). “[M]eaning is made,” he continues, “as

emergent events are configured in relation to the meanings already available…in

any given cultural system” (43). On this account, there could be no fundamental

antithesis between the semiotic framework of late modern culture and the

semiotic orientation of the Church. But Hughes misses the way in which the

Church is its own culture, with a pool of meanings available to it across time; the

Church’s tradition, we might say, offers a persistent semiotic availability of

meanings, even if these must also be appropriated anew within different horizons

(including different geographical locations, linguistic universes, and temporal

situations).

Because of his misdiagnosis of the situation, I think Hughes also offers a

fundamentally misguided prescription for worship in late modernity. More

specifically, Hughes’ is a classically “liberal” strategy of correlation or

accommodation. Granting a kind of “givenness” to the pool of late modern

available meanings (a givenness not accorded to the Church’s semiotic tradition),

Hughes suggests that the task of the Church—or better, “designers and leaders of

worship” (53)—is to effect “some kind of reconciliation between these divergent

meaning systems” (42). But it’s hard not to conclude that the result is an

encounter with “God”—albeit “at the edge of known”—who seems at once

strangely distant and too familiar: God as a good democrat, or something like

that. (Hughes rightly suggests that both liberal, mainline Protestantism and

evangelical worship are characterized a deep capitulation to modernity [223-


224], but he seems much more tolerant of liberal accommodation.)

This sense of the Church’s semiotic possibilities being resigned to or

capitulating to late modern culture stems from a more fundamental flaw in

Hughes’ account: a bewildering absence of God from the production of meaning!

At root, for Hughes, “meaning…is a human construction;” therefore, “it is

inevitably, invariably culturally embedded” (41)—which again means that there

can be no fundamental antithesis. In other words, Hughes—despite

protestations to the contrary—seems to end up with an account of meaning-

making which is immanentist (that is, assumes a kind of closed system of

meaning production which rules out the transcendent). For Hughes, the

fundamental question of meaning in worship is “What do we mean when we talk

about ‘God?,’” and not “What does God mean in his Word?” While he constantly

suggests that worship is a matter of both making and finding, he seems to

nowhere suggest that what we might find are signs produced by God. In short,

Hughes seems to offer us a liturgical theology without revelation. When

considering the “production” of meaning in worship, he constantly focuses on a

rather simplistic worshiper/worship leader schema of “meaning-exchange” where

the worshiper is the “meaning-receiver” and the worship leader is both a

meaning-receiver (receiving meanings from late modernity) and meaning-maker

(generating liturgical signs). Nowhere in the book does Hughes suggest God is

involved in this exchange. The only “proposers” of signs in the liturgical

meaning-exhange are “those who design orders of service in the first place, and

then the priests, ministers, lay leaders and preachers who must bring these to

expression” (221). The result is that, for Hughes, the “sense of the divine” is
“generated,” not given (40). But is not the first confession of Christian worship

the claim that God is a “proposer of meaning”—that God engages us in semiotic

expression, speaking “in Son” (Heb. 1:3)? Creation and and the Incarnation are

fundamentally semiotic events which function as the condition of possibility for

meaning-exchange in worship. In this respect, Hughes liturgical theology (or

better, semiotic liturgy) seems to allow contemporary theories of meaning to

“position” Christian liturgy, with the result that a purportedly “neutral” semiotic

theory precedes a specific “theological” application. In other words, meaning “in

general” is the condition for liturgical meaning. But this would make Hughes’

project a kind of semiotic natural theology. We could then contrast this with the

more radical thesis of, say, Catherine Pickstock (whose work Hughes ignores),

who argues the inverse: that liturgy is the condition for meaning. That, I have

suggested elsewhere, would be a more radical and reformational thesis.

James K.A. Smith, Calvin College