Christian Rituals: An Oxymoron?
For many in the Evangelical traditions (of which I was raised and am a part), ritual is a four letter word. Rituals, after all, are something one does without thinking about it. It is a barrier between the congregants and God. Rituals get in the way of relationship (with God). Christian Rituals, therefore, is an oxymoron. But is that really the case?
Douglas Davies, in his book “Anthropology & Theology” addresses the idea of ritual in the Christian tradition. He delves into tough theological concepts from the standpoint of the social sciences. In his book, he paints ritual as an encoded message that contains within it the doctrines of the Church. So christian rituals would be anything that condenses larger theological concepts into a structured form that all can engage in.
Take communion as an example. In communion, we celebrate the sacrifice of Jesus’ sinless life on the cross as a substitution for our sins. By engaging in communion we are identifying with His death – and resurrection. By partaking in communion, we are telling ourselves that Christ is our substitutional sacrifice and we acknowledge Him as our Lord. So most Evangelicals would rest easy in acknowledging that this ritual is OK – its Biblical, after all.
Let’s take this one step further. Apart from communion and baptism, most Evangelicals would deny that they use ritual in their lives or Sunday services. But consider the definition that the scholar Edmund Leach gives, “we engage in in ritual order to transmit collective messages to ourselves.” Consider the main components of Leach’s definition: “ritual order” and “collective messages.” Anything from corporate singing, eating, listening, and fellowship could be classified as types of Christian rituals. We sing songs laden with theological meaning – they both inspire and inform. We set around the table and potluck together after service – it strengthen bonds of friendship and reinforces the idea that we are God’s family. We listen to sermons every Sunday – it shows our submission to the Word of God and it gives us fresh insights.
Ritual, by itself, is not bad. It reinforces cherished beliefs and creates a sense of unity within the group.
Christian Rituals: Alive and Well
Ritual also has the power to give us a new sense of purpose and duty. When Arnold Van Gennep published his work “The Rites of Passage” in 1909, he noted that ritual has the power to separate, segregate, and then incorporate those taking part. He saw a universal pattern that existed in ritual – it separated the initiate from their everyday life, it taught them new truths and ways of thinking, and then ushered them into a new life within the community. I can think of no better way of describing communion, baptism, or your everyday Sunday service. Don’t all bring you away from your ordinary life, teach you through word, act, or song, and build bonds of friendship within the community?
Given this broad understanding of Christian rituals, most would not deny a rituals role in our lives. What Evangelicals (and most others for that matter) disagree with are centuries encrusted rites that bear little on the average person. If the ritual cannot convey the deeper meaning it was intended to, it has lost its power. But if the rite can still convey its intended truth – should it be discounted as “unbiblical” or “anti-relationship with God?”
(These points on Christian rituals are more fully discussed in Douglas Davies book, “Anthropology & Theology.” He approaches Christianity from a more secular view. But it is refreshing to be on the outside looking in, in order to get a fresh perspective.)