thoughts on ritual

As a Cambridge Alumna, I get CAM – the Cambridge Alumni Magazine. The latest issue arrived about a week ago, but I didn’t get round to reading it until today. It’s CAM’s 21st Anniversary, and so there’s an article discussing coming of age and ritual more generally and the following quotation stood out to me:

“… the shaping of lives and communities through rich and deep rituals that have been developed and tested over centuries is essential [to seeking wise/responsible forms of faith]. If you like, rituals might be seen as the DNA of a habitable tradition of understanding, imagining and behaving. It’s like a condensed code that shapes ongoing life in line with a wisdom that goes way back in history but can also undergo all sorts of new developments and mutations, good or bad.”

(Professor David Ford, quoted in CAM issue 64 page 21)

I like the idea of viewing ritual as a connection to the past and a living tradition. At various points in the past (including on Facebook a couple of days ago) I’ve seen people make comments about how they want to ‘just do what the Bible says, not what Man has created’ (paraphrased). I think that misses the point. Yes, absolutely, one shouldn’t do something just because it’s always been done that way; I’m all for a bit of skepticism towards the established order. But I have come round to thinking that often, these traditions probably persist for hundreds of years because they work for people. And so maybe they deserve our consideration. 

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7 Responses to thoughts on ritual

  1. I understand what you’re saying but what works for people isn’t what always works for God. We can have traditions that do harm to what the scriptures teach but many churches try to draw in crowds with concerts, parties, and every other wordly approach one can think of. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a community outreach program (quite to the contrary) but what matters is what you pull the community into. The traditions of men that violate the commands of God ultimately ruin worship, relationships and godly purposes (Matthew 15:9; Colossians 2:6-9). Having a man as the head of the church instead of Jesus Christ is only one small example (Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18). No man deserves to be the authoritative leader over the church other than Jesus. Paul warned about those who would “have itching ears” and I have no doubt that this would pertain to keeping one’s own rituals over the prescribed order from God (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Then again, maybe I’m misunderstanding your use of the word “ritualism.” If I am, please let me know. Take care.

    • Thanks for your comment :). I think we are probably talking about slightly different things.

      I come from a church background that mostly didn’t (so far as I could see, anyway) pay much attention to traditions/liturgy – I expect that one’s point of view on this sort of thing is probably quite dependent on past experiences. I’m also not particularly referencing any one tradition here (the one I know most about is Anglicanism – but that’s only to say that I know a small bit about Anglican traditions as opposed to a very very small bit about Catholic/Orthodox traditions)

      I agree with you that there can be traditions that do harm, but think there are also traditions that do good – all I’m trying to say is that one shouldn’t automatically dismiss things just because they are tradition. Because I think if something has stuck around for a while it may well be because there is some truth in it. I’m not sure where the man as the head of the church instead of Jesus thing came from – maybe something I said had connotations I didn’t realise it did? (Or maybe you could expand on what you’re referring to here?)

      I absolutely agree that one shouldn’t keep one’s own rituals over what God says. But I think that there is a fair amount of room for ritual where it is helpful. I’m using the word “ritual” in quite a loose sense here – e.g. for some people a morning coffee is part of their ritual, or brushing one’s teeth can be part of a going-to-bed ritual.
      For example, the Bible doesn’t say “pray every evening using such-and-such words” (or “pray every evening using your own words made up on the day”) but many people find regular evening prayers useful and I think the idea that regular evening prayers might be a good idea is pretty uncontroversial.

      I’ve been thinking about your comment “what works for people isn’t what always works for God”. I think I agree, but I’m not sure how one translates that into practice. We should always be seeking for what will please God, and shouldn’t do things just because ‘they work for us’ in a selfish way. On the other hand, I think it is useful to note things like ‘many people have found that such-and-such a practice helps them to focus on God’. I think that this is a bit different from the kind of ‘kids these days like rock music, let’s do a rock concert’ kind of ‘it works for people’. What do you think?

      Hope that clarifies a bit what I was trying to say! 🙂

      • What I meant by the position of authority comment was concerning what the catholic church does with the position of the pope and his word having “heavenly authority” concerning what is and isn’t sound doctrine. They pratice many “rituals and traditions” that are completely foreign to the NT scriptures and harmful the to truth.
        I guess I would say my main point for replying was that when you said, “At various points in the past (including on Facebook a couple of days ago) I’ve seen people make comments about how they want to ‘just do what the Bible says, not what Man has created’ (paraphrased)” that a sincere desire to do what the Bible says is an excellent mentality because the reason why so many “ritualistic” behaviors have overtaken worship and most areas in Christian living is because so many are more interested in their ritual than the what the scriptures say about a given subject (Colossians 3:17; 1 Peter 4:11). It just stinks because most of the “rituals” in christendom (and I’m not talking about private ones such as prayer habits, etc.) have created divisions that are not pleasing to God (1 Corinthians 1:10; John 17:20,21).
        Thanks for replying and take care.

      • (replying to Eugene – WordPress doesn’t allow comments nested beyond a chain of 3)

        Ahh, I see what you mean now (and how my original comments could come across) – thanks for explaining. “a sincere desire to do what the Bible says is an excellent mentality” – I absolutely agree. I don’t know much about the Catholic church although I have been told (by a Catholic friend who had been talking to her priest about it) that they hold their Church Tradition to be much more important than Protestants generally do – I think that that is a source of a lot of differences/disputes.

  2. Brian Yu says:

    I used to dislike “rituals” and “traditions” simply because they seemed so structured and rigid. I always thought they could be a little more creative. But then I took a class on spiritual formation which helped me to realize that if I immerse myself fully into the rituals, traditions, and the seemingly rigid liturgical worship service, I meet God and God meets me. It’s not my preferred style of worship but if I find myself there, I’m all in. And that will make those moments with God special.

    • Thanks for commenting! It’s interesting that you say that. I had a kind of similar experience in that when I was at University I had the opportunity to go to Compline every week (an end-of-day evening prayer type service with candles and plainsong). The first few times I went it was a bit odd as I tried to learn all the words and the rhythm of the thing, although it was still interesting and I could follow everything. Once I began to be more familiar with the format and started to be able to immerse myself in the experience (because I wasn’t getting so distracted), the liturgy started to become extremely helpful as I found myself much more able to focus on God. Now that I’ve graduated and moved I don’t have that opportunity anymore and I do miss it.

      What kinds of liturgical services have you been to? (my experiences of liturgy being used are mostly “mid-to-high” Anglican (not sure of the best way to describe that!))

      • Brian Yu says:

        I “sort of” grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. I was protestant (I don’t like using this term but for the sake of clarity, it will have to do) but I attended a Roman Catholic school and university. All of the best schools in my home country were run by Catholics. And so their worship services and practices were very liturgical in nature. I really didn’t mind at all. In fact, I thought I was going to end up a priest when God called me to be a pastor instead!

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