The Epistemology of the Mass

In a culture dominated by the consumer mindset, many tend to treat the Mass as an opportunity to bring their shopping lists to the Lord, often without their being aware of it. The methodology of shopping lists rest on an epistemology in which, whether it is for things or people, we deign ourselves to be so self-certain that we can be sure that we need these things or persons for our lives to function. This may seem a natural thing to assume, for if we are not sure of ourselves, what can we be sure of?

A partial response to this can be found in Augustine of Hippo. In Book IV of his Confessions, Augustine suggested that this attitude of self-certainty is an exaggerated notion of our own abilities. Our being tainted by original sin, Augustine writes, means that we cannot be certain even of ourselves. Only when we are in the gaze of God can we hope to find the certainty we need to properly ground knowledge. This is why, as Benedict XVI intimated in his 2011 Christmas Eve homily, human reason must rest on a foundation of faith in He that transcends reason. As mentioned in a previous post, in a world cut off from God, even knowledge as a foundation for any human action will be destroyed.

This is important because it is arguable that the Mass presumes this Augustinian epistemology, which runs contrary to that presumed in consumer culture. In immersing oneself into the ritual structure of the Mass, we are not primarily bringing our demands to God. We are admitting that, before the perfection of God, we are not sure enough even of ourselves, and thus cannot be sure that our demands are really what we want. This is why Psalm 55 and 1 Peter 5 exonerate us to bring to God, not a specific itemised list, but instead a more ineffible "care" or "anxiety", more akin to an affective "gut feeling" than a precise cognitive category. Our participation in the Mass then is premised on our admission that we are not the self-aware, Cartesian agents we believe ourselves to be, and that like Augustine, we need the gaze of God to provide us with the illumination necessary to discern the specific content of our cares and anxieties. 

This sheds an interesting light on the English translation of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which describes the Eucharist as a "rational" sacrifice. For in the face of a culture that presumes all human agents to be fully self-aware, and thus inherently rational in Enlightenment terms, the Mass provides an alternative mode of rationality that hinges upon illumination by God in the form of the Eucharist.

This also raises culturally uncomfortable questions for the Mass-goer, for if the Mass really presumes our need for God for sound knowledge on anything, how can we, after the Mass, continue to slot ourselves comfortably back into the institutions that presume our complete certainty of everything?

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