From the July/August, 2009 issue of Touchstone

Freedom & Propriety by Peter J. Leithart

Freedom & Propriety

Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment & Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth by Lori Branch

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

We have Erasmus to thank not only for the word “ceremony” but also for the derogatory connotations attached to it. His Latin neologism, ceremonialae, has been translated as “trivial little ritual nonsenses.” Early English occurrences of “ceremony” follow the Erasmian usage. Gentility, one sixteenth-century critic wrote, is no more than a “meer flash, a ceremony, a toy, a thing of nought.”

Medieval Christians would have found these sentiments bewildering. Rituals were not toys but powerful tools that performed a kind of magic. So powerful was the ritual of the Mass that everything connected with it—the altar cloth, the chalice, the table—glowed with the radiance that, in historian Eamon Duffy’s term, “leaked” out of the consecrated host and wine.

The Reformation was about many things. But historian Edward Muir hit upon a central point of conflict when he characterized it as “a revolution in ritual theory.” Luther assaulted the magical Mass as vigorously as he attacked the works-righteousness he discerned in the medieval doctrine of salvation, and the Reformation itself fractured along sacramental fault lines, as Luther and Zwingli parted ways on Eucharistic theology.

The Ideology of Spontaneity

For a variety of reasons, historians have not followed the story of ritual, sacrament, and ceremony beyond the Reformation. This is unfortunate, because no attitude is so characteristic of the modern Western mind as its indifference, or even hostility, to ritual. In the sixteenth century, Europeans fought wars over the meaning of Hoc in the Eucharistic formula “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”). Today, differences of that sort are greeted with a quizzical yawn.

In her dense and sophisticated work, Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (Baylor University Press, 2006), Lori Branch has filled in a considerable part of the history between religious war and irreligious yawns. Focusing on English literary culture and religion, Branch examines the formation of an “ideology of spontaneity” from the Reformation attacks on ritual through Puritan defenses of free prayer to the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth. She demonstrates that the anti-ritual attitude is a central theme in the formation of modern views of religion, subjectivity, morality, and literature.

The “ideology of spontaneity” is more explicitly expressed in the early part of this history. English Protestants attacked the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the remnants of ceremony in Prayer Book liturgies, not only because they thought these ceremonies lacked biblical support but also because they believed that set liturgical forms were, in themselves, inimical to religious sincerity. This had the effect of detaching believers from communal actions. Medieval Christians were participants in rituals; after the Reformation, Christians began to see themselves as detached individual selves, desperately ginning up religious passion.

For many Protestants, sacramental rites could not accurately represent or effectively communicate the grace of God. Faced with this “crisis of representation,” Christians looked inward to find a place of communion with God. Not just any inward experience would do, however. Sincere religious expression had to be the product of the Spirit working on the human soul. Genuine prayer arose from agony, pressed, in Bunyan’s phrasing, from the solitary soul as “blood is forced out of flesh.”

Market Mentality

Though defenses of free prayer like Bunyan’s appear to have perpetuated the irrational religious “enthusiasm” of the lively sects that arose during the Puritan Interregnum (1646–1660), Branch argues that they actually were shaped by the rationalistic empiricism and commercialized market mentality of the Restoration period. What Bunyan is looking for, after all, is clear and distinct proof that he is truly saved, that his individual religious experience is genuine. This Cartesian impulse for certainty, partly derived from a crisis of faith in the ability of language to describe reality, is mixed with a quasi-scientific empiricism: A believer comes to certainty by examining the evidence of religious experience.

Bunyan’s language is, further, infused with the language of the market. Bunyan’s great temptation is that he might “sell Christ,” and he reflects relentlessly on the “value” of his religious experience and worries neurotically about “counterfeits.” Like capitalists, advocates of free prayer put a premium on novelty and variety over tradition and repetition. The pragmatism of the market invades religious experience, as writers encourage the religious (and later moral) life as something pursued as a matter of “self-interest.”

Branch sees this as a sign of profound self-alienation. Christian faith loses itself in modernity when it attempts to make itself plausible in the rational, commercial, and empirical categories that modernity offers. Christian faith cannot measure itself by modernity’s standards without ceasing to be itself.

A Contradiction

Moreover, the ideology of spontaneity is inherently incoherent. On the one hand, spontaneous expression is the only sure test of genuine experience. On the other hand, spontaneous expression can be learned. Bunyan and others wrote how-to books on spontaneous prayer, training Christians to pray “naturally.” Bunyan is stuck with the self-frustrating task of formulating “rituals of spontaneity.” Personal encounter with God is impossible to account for within this framework, which commodifies and rationalizes religion.

In Branch’s view, Bunyan’s great sin is not that he sells Christ, but that he thinks of Christ as a marketable commodity that might possibly be bought and sold, and thinks of himself as an autonomous self that can buy and sell, be bought and sold, at will. As a result, the quest for experiential certainty paradoxically ends in a loss of assurance.

Branch recognizes that Bunyan struggles to break free of the confines of rationalism and commercialization. Given his commitment to the ideology of spontaneity, however, he cannot find a way out. To do so, he would have to acknowledge that a soul must be tuned, and tuned repeatedly, to pray harmoniously. To relieve the contradictions of his position, he’d have to give up his commitment to spontaneity and concede the legitimacy of liturgy.

Moral Sense Philosophy

After her chapters on Bunyan, Branch’s book expands to examine the effects of the ideology of spontaneity on moral philosophy and literature. In the private notebooks (the “Exercises”) of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, she discovers a model of how the ideology of spontaneity influenced moral philosophy and contributed to the development of secular Enlightenment accounts of subjectivity. Shaftesbury was a leader among the English philosophers who attempted to formulate a moral theory based on the notion that moral responses were as immediate as sensible experience. These “moral sense philosophers” wanted to show that one could know right and wrong as immediately as one knows that rotten eggs smell bad or that the sky is blue.

Shaftesbury, however, is as ensnared by contradictory impulses as Bunyan. There is a rationalistic strain in Shaftesbury, so that he treats his moral feelings as evidence that helps him achieve certainty about his moral judgments and his moral state. Yet this rationalism is not a break with the “enthusiasm” of a Bunyan, but merely a secularization of the ideology of spontaneity into a “true enthusiasm” that is still captive to commercialized culture.

Further, in his notebooks, Shaftesbury describes a rigorous moral regimen that he hopes will lead him to moral certainty. But if the moral life can be cultivated, it is no longer spontaneous, no longer acts with the “swiftness of the senses.” Shaftesbury ends up with a secular, moralist version of a self-contradictory theme of spontaneous ritual.

Sexualization of Philosophy

More hauntingly, Branch traces connections between Shaftesbury’s commitment to spontaneous moral judgment and an eroticized violence that she claims is a central motif of secular Enlightenment thought and experience. Strikingly, she discovers impulses in the proper Englishman similar to those in the work of the notorious Marquis de Sade.

Shaftesbury’s aim is to offer himself as a “Father of Mankind,” kindly disposed to all human beings with true natural affection. “Father” is not a random title. He wants to take an assertive “masculine” position toward others and the world, and his whole system is structured by gender differences. He finds, however, that his quest for spontaneous and universal love is constantly frustrated by the unruliness of his emotions and his own vulnerability. He wants to be “Father,” but too often is in a “feminine” position of passivity.

He aims to act without being acted upon, and discovers that this is impossible without a “severe psychological ascesis.” He “amputates” whatever inhibits his goal of rationalized, that is to say masculine, self-control and benevolence, cutting off intimacy with others and consciously splitting his body and desires from his true self, so as to master them. This amputation sometimes takes the form of an “aversion therapy,” as he cultivates disgust for whatever his other, feminine self finds desirable.

As a result, Shaftesbury represents an “aggressive sexualization of philosophy.” His penetrable and vulnerable body, with its desires, is a “feminized” object that needs to be beaten into submission, and he is disgusted by the Christian claim that God manifests himself in vulnerability and subjects himself to humiliation. Branch interprets one passage of Shaftesbury as a somewhat disguised Sadean sexual assault on God, and concludes in general that for Shaftesbury the ideology of spontaneity degenerates into a philosophy where the body, the feminine, and religion all come together “as the site of a violent fantasy that is the symptom of an ideology of masculine total control.”

Literature of Sensibility

The ideology of spontaneity affected not only moral philosophy, but also literary culture, in the form of the “literature of sensibility.” Drawing from earlier religious and philosophical themes, this literature recommended, in literary scholar M. H. Abrams’s words, “a hair-trigger responsiveness to another person’s distresses and joys” and “an intense emotional responsiveness to beauty and sublimity, whether in nature or art.”

For Branch, the literature of sensibility is as compromised by commercialization as the ideology of spontaneity. The publishing house of John Newbery (whose name has been given to a children’s fiction award) combined what Branch sees as an unholy mix of profit, piety, and politeness as it marketed books promoting moral and religious improvement.

Both Oliver Goldsmith and Christopher Smart worked for Newbery, and both aimed to reform a literary culture captive, as they saw it, to sentimentality and commercialization. Goldsmith recognized the problem, but his attempt at reform in the Vicar of Wakefield is, on Branch’s terms, unsuccessful because the book is compromised by its own latent sentimentality and subservience to commercial interests.

Goldsmith knew that the literature of sensibility could only be challenged by rituals of daily life that could cultivate true sentiment and piety. Though Goldsmith tells us that his fictional vicar participates in such rituals—family Bible reading, daily prayer, common meals, work, and rest—these rituals never come to the surface of the novel. If they did, the novel would cease to be a novel, and it would violate the unwritten laws of decorum that control what gets depicted in novels.

A Cosmic Liturgy

Smart is a different story. Notoriously sent to an asylum for his practice of spontaneous prayer, Smart’s own experience demonstrates the inner contradictions of the culture formed by the ideology of spontaneity. English culture increasingly celebrated spontaneous poetic inspiration, yet Smart’s confinement shows that spontaneity was limited, sometimes coercively, by the demands of rational propriety. Modern English culture both encourages and confines spontaneous expression, just as it simultaneously encourages and confines religious expression of all sorts.

While confined, Smart wrote his great unfinished masterpiece, Jubilate Agno. Written in the form of a litany, Jubilate Agno thoroughly challenges the sentimentality and commercialization against which Goldsmith only weakly protests.

In part, Smart’s success is dependent on the circumstances of his poem. After suffering a nearly mortal fever, Smart determined to write only for the Lord, not for money. Apparently never intended for publication, the Jubilate literally breaks free of commercial confinement of religion, the tendency to write only what is commercially viable.

In content, the Jubilate, furthermore, self-consciously opposes the ideology of spontaneity. Instead of treating prayer as an immediate expression of the soul, Smart sees prayer as a “foundry” in which the soul is molded and “tuned” to sing God’s praises. Smart explicitly endorses liturgical worship as a means for shaping the worshiper to worship, a fact evident in the very form of the Jubilate.

And Smart refuses to accept the confinement of religious expression to private spaces. The poem is a cosmic liturgy, calling on every creature to join in praising God. The breadth of Smart’s concerns is beautifully encapsulated in the line, “For there is nothing but it may be played upon in delight.”

Wordsworth’s Questions & Answers

Wordsworth makes a fitting capstone to Branch’s book. He introduced a new age of “expressive” poetics in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, which became the manifesto of English Romanticism. In Branch’s view, however, Wordsworth is not a proponent of the ideology of spontaneity. Many interpreters suggest that Wordsworth’s poetry slowly cools from the radicalism of the early poems to the complacent conservatism of his final works. Branch claims, on the contrary, that all of Wordsworth’s poetry is an effort to probe the weaknesses of the ideology of spontaneity and a search for an alternative account of moral knowledge, human agency, and religion.

Lyrical Ballads reflects Wordsworth’s obsession with the problem of cultivating a moral life and aesthetic sense within a commercialized and sentimentalized culture. The “Preface” reproves the infusion of economic values into English habits of reading; readers seek novelty just as much as consumers in the marketplace. The poems pose similar questions. In several poems in Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth recognizes the inherent egotism of the inward turn of sentimentality. Reflecting on the French Revolution, he wonders how people striving for good can end up doing so much evil.

At this point, he has more questions than answers. But by the time he writes Ecclesiastical Sonnets, a series of 132 poems on English religious history, he has discovered something like a solution. Increasingly aware of the limits of human certainty, he recognizes that faith is inherent in all human action—a faith that acts without absolute certainty about the good or evil of the action or its consequences.

He answers the puzzle of the French Revolution by noting the human propensity for “daring sympathies with power,” and he has come to see the continuity between the violence of the Ego’s search for absolute certainty and its political expression in Terror.

Double Agency

The problem of human agency is a central point in Branch’s treatment of Wordsworth. The problem arises directly from the ideology of spontaneity, for which valuable human action must be an autonomous expression of the individual. If he has been influenced in any way, the sincerity of his action is vitiated. Yet we know that we are subject to all sorts of influences that we don’t control. Is there a way to account for the freedom of human action while also acknowledging the reality, and the legitimacy, of those influences? Wordsworth wants to connect morality to emotional responses, but is equally interested in how these responses can be shaped.

Wordsworth’s answer turns back to the original concerns of Branch’s book, for he finds in liturgy a form of double agency, in which human acts are free yet not autonomous. Liturgy also is the site for the formation of moral agents. The repetitive acts of daily ritual and the ritualized prayers of the Church cultivate love. In the repetitive acts of daily rituals, moral beliefs are, Wordsworth claims, shaped as beliefs.

Wordsworth’s turn to liturgy is not, as many have suggested, a retreat into a safe zone of privacy. Rather, Wordsworth comes to see spiritual practice as the basis for a constructive politics, the ground for resistance to the solvents of commercialized culture.

A Work of Love

Rituals of Spontaneity contributes intriguingly to a number of fields. Branch offers suggestive interpretations of some of Bunyan’s allegorical figures, uncovers hidden continuities between Shaftesbury’s public and private writings, significantly raises the profile of Christopher Smart in English literary history, and attempts to show the unity of Wordsworth’s poetic corpus from Lyrical Ballads to the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. She often attends in striking ways to marginalia—private notebooks, paintings, obscure literary figures.

Her aims, however, are more general. She ends the book with an assessment of the treatment of religion in the academy, in literary criticism, and in eighteenth-century studies particularly, and she offers her book as an excursion into a new style of literary scholarship. She decries the captivity of her field to discredited modernist paradigms, and argues that literary scholarship cannot and ought not exclude God from its considerations. Quoting 1 Corinthians 13, she insists that literary scholarship ought to be a “work of love.”

Rich and stimulating as it is, Rituals of Spontaneity also has some weaknesses and frustrations. Several of these revolve around Branch’s treatment of the effects of capitalism on religion and literature. No doubt what she evocatively calls the “eerily agentless pressure” of the market has shaped religious experience and expression, and this form of worldliness must be resisted as strenuously as any. Yet Branch seems to think that any introduction of economic language into religion is an inherently “secularizing” move. But that is only true if economics is inherently secular. We might have difficulty imagining a non-secular marketplace, but we must make the effort unless we are willing to concede economics entirely to secularists.

Along the same lines, Branch doesn’t set up a clear “control” for her explorations of this theme. She concedes in passing that commercial images are found in the New Testament and medieval Christianity, but still treats the use of similar images by Bunyan and post-Reformation covenant theologians as signs of their co-option by the systems of the time. It’s not clear why personal and economic exchange should be so completely opposed as she assumes.

More fundamentally, her distinction between “pro-ritual” and “anti-ritual” positions sometimes works clumsily. The Reformers, and even many of the Puritans, were not opposed to ritual as such, but wanted to purify ritual by stripping off what they saw as alien and idolatrous overgrowth.

Still Reverberating

Rituals of Spontaneity should spark many debates, but that is all to Branch’s credit. She has begun, and begun well, to account for the causes and consequence of what she calls “the most dramatic sea change in 2,000 years of Christian worship and practice,” namely, the formation of a non-liturgical form of Christian faith. She effectively shows “what was lost in the Reformation crisis of representation and its rejection of the vast, varied communal Christian ritual life: faith in the possibility of communing with God through the action of a community rather than the isolated self.” She shows, too, that this earthquake sent reverberations in every direction in early modern England, and that it reverberates still today.

Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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