“Ritual” has had a tough time of it in the modern age. Modernity thrives on innovation; ritual is repetition of the same old, same old, with “dead” serving as an almost instinctive modifier. Christians, especially Evangelical Protestants, adopt this stance, on the belief that Jesus freed us from ceremony to bring us to a realm of pious spontaneity. 

This anti-ritual bias departs fundamentally from the church’s tradition. Augustine stated the standard Western view that new covenant ceremonies are fewer, simpler, and more potent than those of ancient Israel. Yet for a millennium and a half in both West and East, Christianity was an inherently ritualized religion. Spontaneity is unsustainable in any case, but devolves into what Lori Branch cleverly describes as “rituals of spontaneity.”

Dru Johnson’s defense of ritual thus strikes at one of the pillars of secular modernity. That’s all to the good. In what follows, I respond to Dru Johnson’s outstanding essay by expounding three points, two confirmatory exegetical comments, and one theoretic observation, partially confirmatory and partially critical, though mildly so. In its broad strokes, and in most particulars, I fully endorse what Dru is up to.

1. Dru’s article focuses on ritual preparation and in so doing calls attention to the invisible moral qualities that are present in the rite. No priest could tell whether an offering was made of grain collected from a field that was, contrary to the Law, harvested all the way to the corners. But Yahweh could tell, and His acceptance of the ritual depended on the worshiper’s conduct outside the sanctuary as well as on conformity to the ceremonial instructions. Moral concerns aren’t imposed on Israel’s rituals from the outside, but are inherent in the “biography” of the rite. 

This happily breaks down classic liberal dichotomies between ceremonial and moral behavior, and the related dichotomy between priestly and prophetic. At the same time, Dru makes it clear that biblical rituals are irreducibly theological. God is the origin and end, the alpha and omega, of ritual: He scripts rituals ahead of their performance, He receives ritual actions and offerings, and He evaluates the worshiper’s faithfulness to the covenant. This may seem obvious, but the “verticality” of ritual has been neglected in recent work by both secularists and Christians.

We can see a small confirmation of Dru’s argument in the requirement that a sacrificial animal had to be “without blemish” (tamim, e.g., Leviticus 1:3). In Genesis, the term describes moral character. Noah is blameless (Genesis 6:9) and Yahweh calls Abraham to walk blamelessly before Him (Genesis 17:1). As Leigh Trevaskis points out, Leviticus 1 doesn’t define tamim; the physical deformities that disqualify an animal from the altar aren’t revealed until Leviticus 22. In the meantime, the reader is left with a puzzle: How can an animal be morally blameless? The ambiguity opens up allegorical possibilities. Psalm 15 extrapolates what is already implicit in the Leviticus 1: Only the man who walks blamelessly (tamim) may dwell on Yahweh’s holy hill (Psalm 15:1-2). The moral demand is embedded in the ceremonial instruction.

2. Dru emphasizes that ritual preparation is communal as well as individual: “Israel’s preparation for sacrifice not only includes attending to the livestock, harvest, and personal/familial purity, but also attending to the structural treatment of others as a society.” He cites a number of prophetic texts in support, concluding that “these indictments of Israel and Judah supersede any notion of individual ethical performance.”

Again, we can confirm this observation by attending to the details of Levitical prescriptions. The instructions for the ascension offering (‘olah, Leviticus 1) initially address an individual (‘adam, Leviticus 1:2), but then the verbs and pronoun suffixes turn plural. Woodenly, southernly, translated: “A man, if he brings near from y’all an offering to Yahweh from domesticated animals, from the herd or from the flock, y’all shall bring near y’all’s offering” (1:2). The offering is taken from the common stock of Israel’s wealth, such that the ‘adam acts on behalf of the whole people. 

We can see the force of this if we consider the reparative dimensions of the Levitical offerings. Individual sins damage the Israelite community. The sinner needs to be restored to Yahweh’s favor, but he also needs to repair the rend in the social fabric. His offering makes Israel whole again. Even when the individual isn’t making an offering for sin, he still acts representatively. There’s no such thing as a purely individual offering, no such thing as purely private worship.

3. My last comment is more theoretical, and more critical. “Ritual” isn’t an innocent category, and can play a variety of different roles in a cultural theory. Essentially, I’m asking Dru to clarify what he means by “ritual.” First, some background. 

In his Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad offers a brief genealogy of the concept of ritual. Comparing medieval texts with modern anthropological usage, he finds several significant shifts that are, he claims, bound up with institutional changes and shifts in the conception of the self.

Right up through the eighteenth century, “ritual” referred not to a series of actions but to a book that prescribed religious ceremonies. By the early twentieth century, the term was being used in its now-standard anthropological sense, to describe routine, formalized symbolic behavior that expresses the values of the actors. 

In contrast to this expressive conception of ritual, Benedict’s Rule, Hugh of St. Victor, and other medieval sources hint at a more pragmatic notion. For the medievals, Asad argues, the liturgy wasn’t a “species of enacted symbolism to be classified separately from activities defined as technical but as a practice among others essential to the formation of Christian virtue” (28). Monastic liturgy was of a piece with monastic disciplines designed to regulate eating, sleeping, work, and prayer so as to cultivate virtues that could be “put to the service of God” (28). Hugh of St. Victor offers an analogous perspective when he asserts that sacraments were given for the sake of humiliation, instruction, and exercise (34).

On the Benedictine-Victorine model, there’s no space for a “disjunction between outer behavior and inner motive, between social rituals and individual sentiments, between activities that are expressive and those that are technical” (28). Emotions could be trained by ritualized action. Monks nurtured “tears of desire for Heaven,” a conventional, learned yet intense expression of desire rather than a spontaneous overflow. Along with other disciplines, the liturgy disciplined the monks for apt – that is to say, virtuous – performance.

In Asad’s terms, Dru is reverting to an older understanding of ritual. Rather than decoding what rituals mean, he’s investigating what rituals do. He’s asking about the power of ritual to discipline our ability to see – our perception and imagination. He asks, By whom, and by what ritual means, are we being disciplined/discipled?

Yet Asad’s genealogy raises questions about the coherence and usefulness of the category of “ritual.” In this, Asad’s work dovetails neatly with that of Catherine Bell. As Dru indicates in his article, Bell detects a dichotomy of thought and action lurking in anthropological theories of ritual, transposed by different theorists into a dichotomy of chaos/order, nature/culture, tradition/change, or individual/society. At the extreme, ritual is treated as “mindless” repetition, which needs to illumined by an enlightened anthropologist. I said above that secular modernity is hostile to ritual, but here I must complicate the picture. Modernity is delighted to study ritual understood as irrational magical or religious activity, since that reinforces a secular dichotomy between faith and reason. In sharp contrast to this, Dru explores the cognitive power of ritual.

Dru endorses Bell’s efforts to overcome the thought/action dualism, but it’s not clear how far he follows Bell’s alternative. Bell shifts the focus from “ritual” as a defined object in the world to the dynamic practices of “ritualization.” Ritualization is an act of differentiation that strategically sets apart a set of actions as ritual actions. Ritual doesn’t pre-exist ritualization; a set of actions is constituted as ritual in the very act of ritualizing it. That may seem like double-speak, and an example may clarify:

distinctions between eating a regular meal and participating in the Christian eucharistic meal are redundantly drawn in every aspect of the ritualized meal, from the type of larger family gathering around the table to the distinctive periodicity of the meal and the insufficiency of the food for physical nourishment. It is important to note that the features of formality, fixity, and repetition are not intrinsic to this ritualization or to ritual in general. Theoretically, ritualization of the meal could employ a different set of strategies to differentiate it from conventional eating, such as holding the meal only once in a person's lifetime or with too much food for normal nourishment (Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 90-91).

For Bell, a ritual isn’t identified by particular strategies (e.g., formality) but by the fact that an action is done in a way that sets it apart from similar, non-ritual actions. The very fact that we do the meal differently makes it a ritual meal.

Dru brushes up against Bell’s point when he asks, “Why is this common practice . . . appropriated to serve as a ritual?” But I doubt that Dru is endorsing Bell’s theory of ritualization in its entirety. It’s difficult to square with his emphasis on divine scripting of rites. 

Yet it’s hard to capture precisely what Dru does mean by ritual. In his book, he fudges and dodges. At times, ritual is a sub-category of human actions: “At some point, routines cross a magical line to become rituals” (Human Rites, 1). At other times, it seems that every bodily action – which means virtually every human action – is ritualed (e.g., p. 2). 

This is finally a critical question rather than a criticism, a request that Dru clarify what does, and does not, count as ritual.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

Next Conversation

“Ritual” has had a tough time of it in the modern age. Modernity thrives on innovation; ritual is repetition of the same old, same old, with “dead” serving as an almost instinctive modifier. Christians, especially Evangelical Protestants, adopt this stance, on the belief that Jesus freed us from ceremony to bring us to a realm of pious spontaneity. 

This anti-ritual bias departs fundamentally from the church’s tradition. Augustine stated the standard Western view that new covenant ceremonies are fewer, simpler, and more potent than those of ancient Israel. Yet for a millennium and a half in both West and East, Christianity was an inherently ritualized religion. Spontaneity is unsustainable in any case, but devolves into what Lori Branch cleverly describes as “rituals of spontaneity.”

Dru Johnson’s defense of ritual thus strikes at one of the pillars of secular modernity. That’s all to the good. In what follows, I respond to Dru Johnson’s outstanding essay by expounding three points, two confirmatory exegetical comments, and one theoretic observation, partially confirmatory and partially critical, though mildly so. In its broad strokes, and in most particulars, I fully endorse what Dru is up to.

1. Dru’s article focuses on ritual preparation and in so doing calls attention to the invisible moral qualities that are present in the rite. No priest could tell whether an offering was made of grain collected from a field that was, contrary to the Law, harvested all the way to the corners. But Yahweh could tell, and His acceptance of the ritual depended on the worshiper’s conduct outside the sanctuary as well as on conformity to the ceremonial instructions. Moral concerns aren’t imposed on Israel’s rituals from the outside, but are inherent in the “biography” of the rite. 

This happily breaks down classic liberal dichotomies between ceremonial and moral behavior, and the related dichotomy between priestly and prophetic. At the same time, Dru makes it clear that biblical rituals are irreducibly theological. God is the origin and end, the alpha and omega, of ritual: He scripts rituals ahead of their performance, He receives ritual actions and offerings, and He evaluates the worshiper’s faithfulness to the covenant. This may seem obvious, but the “verticality” of ritual has been neglected in recent work by both secularists and Christians.

We can see a small confirmation of Dru’s argument in the requirement that a sacrificial animal had to be “without blemish” (tamim, e.g., Leviticus 1:3). In Genesis, the term describes moral character. Noah is blameless (Genesis 6:9) and Yahweh calls Abraham to walk blamelessly before Him (Genesis 17:1). As Leigh Trevaskis points out, Leviticus 1 doesn’t define tamim; the physical deformities that disqualify an animal from the altar aren’t revealed until Leviticus 22. In the meantime, the reader is left with a puzzle: How can an animal be morally blameless? The ambiguity opens up allegorical possibilities. Psalm 15 extrapolates what is already implicit in the Leviticus 1: Only the man who walks blamelessly (tamim) may dwell on Yahweh’s holy hill (Psalm 15:1-2). The moral demand is embedded in the ceremonial instruction.

2. Dru emphasizes that ritual preparation is communal as well as individual: “Israel’s preparation for sacrifice not only includes attending to the livestock, harvest, and personal/familial purity, but also attending to the structural treatment of others as a society.” He cites a number of prophetic texts in support, concluding that “these indictments of Israel and Judah supersede any notion of individual ethical performance.”

Again, we can confirm this observation by attending to the details of Levitical prescriptions. The instructions for the ascension offering (‘olah, Leviticus 1) initially address an individual (‘adam, Leviticus 1:2), but then the verbs and pronoun suffixes turn plural. Woodenly, southernly, translated: “A man, if he brings near from y’all an offering to Yahweh from domesticated animals, from the herd or from the flock, y’all shall bring near y’all’s offering” (1:2). The offering is taken from the common stock of Israel’s wealth, such that the ‘adam acts on behalf of the whole people. 

We can see the force of this if we consider the reparative dimensions of the Levitical offerings. Individual sins damage the Israelite community. The sinner needs to be restored to Yahweh’s favor, but he also needs to repair the rend in the social fabric. His offering makes Israel whole again. Even when the individual isn’t making an offering for sin, he still acts representatively. There’s no such thing as a purely individual offering, no such thing as purely private worship.

3. My last comment is more theoretical, and more critical. “Ritual” isn’t an innocent category, and can play a variety of different roles in a cultural theory. Essentially, I’m asking Dru to clarify what he means by “ritual.” First, some background. 

In his Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad offers a brief genealogy of the concept of ritual. Comparing medieval texts with modern anthropological usage, he finds several significant shifts that are, he claims, bound up with institutional changes and shifts in the conception of the self.

Right up through the eighteenth century, “ritual” referred not to a series of actions but to a book that prescribed religious ceremonies. By the early twentieth century, the term was being used in its now-standard anthropological sense, to describe routine, formalized symbolic behavior that expresses the values of the actors. 

In contrast to this expressive conception of ritual, Benedict’s Rule, Hugh of St. Victor, and other medieval sources hint at a more pragmatic notion. For the medievals, Asad argues, the liturgy wasn’t a “species of enacted symbolism to be classified separately from activities defined as technical but as a practice among others essential to the formation of Christian virtue” (28). Monastic liturgy was of a piece with monastic disciplines designed to regulate eating, sleeping, work, and prayer so as to cultivate virtues that could be “put to the service of God” (28). Hugh of St. Victor offers an analogous perspective when he asserts that sacraments were given for the sake of humiliation, instruction, and exercise (34).

On the Benedictine-Victorine model, there’s no space for a “disjunction between outer behavior and inner motive, between social rituals and individual sentiments, between activities that are expressive and those that are technical” (28). Emotions could be trained by ritualized action. Monks nurtured “tears of desire for Heaven,” a conventional, learned yet intense expression of desire rather than a spontaneous overflow. Along with other disciplines, the liturgy disciplined the monks for apt – that is to say, virtuous – performance.

In Asad’s terms, Dru is reverting to an older understanding of ritual. Rather than decoding what rituals mean, he’s investigating what rituals do. He’s asking about the power of ritual to discipline our ability to see – our perception and imagination. He asks, By whom, and by what ritual means, are we being disciplined/discipled?

Yet Asad’s genealogy raises questions about the coherence and usefulness of the category of “ritual.” In this, Asad’s work dovetails neatly with that of Catherine Bell. As Dru indicates in his article, Bell detects a dichotomy of thought and action lurking in anthropological theories of ritual, transposed by different theorists into a dichotomy of chaos/order, nature/culture, tradition/change, or individual/society. At the extreme, ritual is treated as “mindless” repetition, which needs to illumined by an enlightened anthropologist. I said above that secular modernity is hostile to ritual, but here I must complicate the picture. Modernity is delighted to study ritual understood as irrational magical or religious activity, since that reinforces a secular dichotomy between faith and reason. In sharp contrast to this, Dru explores the cognitive power of ritual.

Dru endorses Bell’s efforts to overcome the thought/action dualism, but it’s not clear how far he follows Bell’s alternative. Bell shifts the focus from “ritual” as a defined object in the world to the dynamic practices of “ritualization.” Ritualization is an act of differentiation that strategically sets apart a set of actions as ritual actions. Ritual doesn’t pre-exist ritualization; a set of actions is constituted as ritual in the very act of ritualizing it. That may seem like double-speak, and an example may clarify:

distinctions between eating a regular meal and participating in the Christian eucharistic meal are redundantly drawn in every aspect of the ritualized meal, from the type of larger family gathering around the table to the distinctive periodicity of the meal and the insufficiency of the food for physical nourishment. It is important to note that the features of formality, fixity, and repetition are not intrinsic to this ritualization or to ritual in general. Theoretically, ritualization of the meal could employ a different set of strategies to differentiate it from conventional eating, such as holding the meal only once in a person's lifetime or with too much food for normal nourishment (Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 90-91).

For Bell, a ritual isn’t identified by particular strategies (e.g., formality) but by the fact that an action is done in a way that sets it apart from similar, non-ritual actions. The very fact that we do the meal differently makes it a ritual meal.

Dru brushes up against Bell’s point when he asks, “Why is this common practice . . . appropriated to serve as a ritual?” But I doubt that Dru is endorsing Bell’s theory of ritualization in its entirety. It’s difficult to square with his emphasis on divine scripting of rites. 

Yet it’s hard to capture precisely what Dru does mean by ritual. In his book, he fudges and dodges. At times, ritual is a sub-category of human actions: “At some point, routines cross a magical line to become rituals” (Human Rites, 1). At other times, it seems that every bodily action – which means virtually every human action – is ritualed (e.g., p. 2). 

This is finally a critical question rather than a criticism, a request that Dru clarify what does, and does not, count as ritual.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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