Ritual as religious subsidy

Disclaimer: Author makes no claim to have any formal study or instruction on which she bases the following opinions, other than being brought up in Protestant churches that did not observe any of the traditional Church calendar, but did have special services for Christmas.

It has occurred to me, in the past, that the pomp and circumstance of corporate religious exercise fulfills some human need. Jokes about “smells and bells” aside, people are creatures of habit, and we tend to lavishly ornament anything we feel is important. Just look at birthday parties, or the wedding industry! And so, I don’t think that habits of “religiosity” are inherently bad. They’re inherently human. Religious ritual forms a framework so that people know how to express themselves properly. Sort of like how we have cultural rules for clapping to show appreciation, and standing up while clapping to show a LOT of appreciation, plus whistling and screaming in some contexts but not others. But like clapping, sometimes you might do it just because it’s “polite” and not because you actually appreciate whatever performance you just witnessed. You participate in the symbol of something that doesn’t really exist, because of peer pressure. (Note: not that I think that polite clapping is bad, fyi. Usually people can tell the difference between “I clap to acknowledge your participation” and “OMG I ❤ U 4EVAH” clapping.)

But the ritual can sometimes become the sole point – and people may engage in it for no other reason than because everyone else is doing the same and they don’t want to stand out. Which is… not the point. The religious rituals are meant to guide the outpouring of a spiritual reality; they’re not an end, in and of themselves. The risk of having a ritual become an end of itself reminds me of what Glenn Reynolds is always saying about the government subsidizing the external markers of success – the good-intentioned idiots noticed that people who got college educations and owned houses were more successful, so they subsidized college educations and home-buying thinking that giving people the markers of success would (magically) make them successful. But it doesn’t work like that.

And so there’s tension, between people who are wary of the temptation of the empty gesture, and people who perform the gestures as an outward sign of an inward reality. And I think that we should be careful to be aware of both cases – of the people who approach God without the trappings of ritual and are leery of falling into meaningless rote, and the people who use ritual to authentically express their love of God. This article falls squarely on the “beware the meaningless ritual” side of things, and while I think that its warning is useful – don’t think you can earn salvation by observing human-made religious rituals – the warning against pride in religious discipline should be balanced by a warning against pride in not observing traditional rites, as well. As if not using the aid of external ritual somehow makes one a more authentic or stronger Christian.

And yet, I don’t know that any Christian denomination would go so far as to dispose of the ritual of Communion, not even the offshoots that consider it only a remembrance and not a Sacrament. And the Presbyterian church I’m a member of takes Communion very seriously indeed – gravely warning everyone every Sunday that this ritual is Srs Bzns Norly and if you participate in a spirit of “empty gesture” Bad Things Will Certainly Happen To You So Don’t Do It. (Heavily paraphrased. Good things happening to you on a physical level upon successful ritual completion definitely not promised. Spiritual good things? That is promised. That’s why it’s a Sacrament.)

So my question, since I wasn’t raised in a tradition that practices the old rituals, is this: What spiritual reality is Lent meant to express? What is the “spirit of Lent”? Giving something up is involved, sure, I got that part through cultural osmosis. But that’s the outward action. What’s the symbol mean? Because if it’s okay to celebrate the “spirit of Christmas” – and yes, we do that in our church, we’re not one of the super-Puritan ones who eschew Christmas as a pagan solstice celebration (Christians are allowed to celebrate the turning of the seasons, people! God made them! We are allowed to rejoice in days God has made!) – then I don’t see an inherent problem in also celebrating other “seasons” like Lent.

It’s one thing to say, “Don’t participate in a ritual by rote just because you think it wins you spiritual brownie points if you do certain things,” which is true. And maybe the traditional meaning behind Lent is something that’s incompatible with Reformed doctrine, but I’m not about to dismiss it just because it’s a ritual that people can perform without meaning it, as if it’s some kind of magic to make God like you more. All ritual runs that risk. Protestant ritual (that pretends it’s not ritual) included. And if some sort of Lent observation is gaining popularity with people who don’t have a cultural habit of observing it, I wonder if there might not be a need for a bit more ritual – that there’s something people want to express, and they’re looking for an appropriate means of doing so.

To everything, there is a season, after all.

(P.S. – The existence of Mardi Gras tends to make me think that at least some criticism of the traditional Lent ritual, in particular, is founded in good reasons. A “spiritual discipline” that triggers massively ethically dubious partying beforehand? Uh-huuuuuh. *suspicious face*)

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About pancakeloach

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