It’s an honor to have folks whom I admire take the time to engage with my scattered thoughts here. This discussion has been what I had hoped for: push back on the flimsy parts of my thinking and extending the thesis into areas beyond my expertise. I will respond to Michael Rhodes and Alastair Roberts briefly, and Peter Leithart with more detail and a vivid illustration: brushing teeth in order to sing worship.
Michael Rhodes moved my thesis out into the hinterlands (for me) of Pauline sacramental theology. I enjoyed reading every word of it. At the end, Michael challenged me to think again about the power of Jesus’ ontological presence in the meal:
“As with meals around the ancient world, to sit at the group’s table simply was to be a member of that group . . . because this fellowship is with Jesus himself, this socially observable meal is also the apocalyptic site of transformation . . .”
My essay and work on ritual for the church was meant to re-focus away from the ontological debates to the purpose of ritual, so that we can consider anew the ontology of the sacraments. Thus, my writing here and elsewhere is more of a prybar than tweezers as far as sensitivity to the topic goes. Because rituals shape us, once we have been properly constituted by the rite over time in community, we can see the ritual differently. We might even understand something about what it is and how it works, but I’m not convinced that we will be able to articulate those things in the language and concepts that the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions have tried thus far.
Alastair Roberts brings the trickiest of all biblical rituals into the discussion: circumcision. He wonders whether my account can accommodate the “proleptic nature” of moral injunction in baptism:
“The ethical and spiritual import of circumcision is predominantly represented as responsive to and confirmatory of the meaning of the rite, rather than preparatory for it. . . .The force of such a rite is chiefly proleptic, anticipating the person’s faithful living out of the meaning of what has been performed upon them.”
I found his discussion of circumcision and baptism invigorating, connecting many of the dots I too have been considering about circumcision. On the proleptic nature of the rite: Yes to Alastair and “amen.” Here I refer again to Catherine Bell’s description of a rite’s ability to highlight a human practice by critique. For example, a baptized person should occasionally think about their normal practices this way: “This bath or shower is not my baptism, this Communion meal is not like my dinner, etc.” But these too, if they are solely symbolic features of rituals, focus too much on the individual’s experience of the rite. The ritual’s critique of the ordinary practice also marks the entire people of God as a social body by means of differentiated moral behavior. Regarding circumcision, we might similarly say to ourselves: “Our sexuality and its fruitfulness, unlike everyone else’s designs for their sexualities, is set apart for God’s commission.” This would have been a strong critique of much cultic worship that surrounded Israel throughout the Iron Age and into the Greco-Roman world of the church.
Additionally, Bell notes the interplay and stratification of identity (much like Alastair does with the role of circumcision on the body) between the individual’s body and the social body involved in the formation of the individual, which she terms an act of “production”:
“kneeling does not merely communicate subordination [to outside observers] . . . For all intents and purposes, kneeling produces a subordinated kneeler in and through the act itself.” 
Peter Leithart lobs the most difficult question, packaged in a softly worded prod:
“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).”
Peter seems rightfully worried that I follow the ritual theorist Catherine Bell too far down the line, where “ritualization” acts as the key to unlock the agenda of the one who writes the ritual scripts. I assume the fear is that I’m merely making either God or the biblical authors into just another fellow ritualizer like all of us. In my other works on biblical ritual and epistemology, I spend most of my time clarifying the inordinate emphasis placed upon the divine authentication of prophetic authorities, including YHWH’s own egregious extents to which He submits Himself to scrutiny for the sake of being trusted (e.g., Gen 15:7–21, Exod 3–4, Judg 6, Mark 1–10, etc.).
When I think about ritual scripts across the biblical literature, I assume the divine ritualizing agenda to bring Israel to become a particular people who comprehends the cosmos in a particular way—at least one aim of the eschaton in Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer 31:31–34). I assume that, as shown in the pattern of Scripture, God has done the hard work of convincing His people that He is worthy of their trust and His morally-prepared-and-ensued rituals meet at the nexus of that trust.
Peter challenges me to define ritual in a way that doesn’t make everything a ritual. That is fair. Peter’s reaction springs from my own challenge in the book Human Rites to get readers to deeply consider how far down the rabbit-hole our rituals go.
Rituals emerge from our normal human practices (e.g., shaving, eating, planting, etc.), which are strategically changed toward some other end by someone else. That’s the basic interpersonal unit of ritual. Brushing teeth is a habit and cannot become a ritual unless it gets bent toward some other goal than oral hygiene. If I make my child brush her mouth with vinegar after spewing vitriol at her sibling (which I do not), then I am crossing that boundary between routine and habit into ritual.
If my church required its members to brush our teeth before we sang in the sanctuary, that then stratifies a concept of the individual’s body in tandem with acts of worship in the corporate body. Imagine our concept of worship imbued into us individually and collectively if we grew up brushing before praising. The hall outside the sanctuary would be physically re-mapped for the rite. We enter the church to a wall lined with sinks and toothbrushes! We brush with water consecrated to the task and charcoal toothpaste for our unclean lips. Rinsed clean, we are ready to join in the worship service.
And—this is key—when one of us visits another church where they don’t brush (the non-brushites), we feel disoriented and bristle in a twinge of pain as we cross the threshold of the sanctuary without being properly and orally prepared. It not only seems wrong, it physically feels wrong! To play on Bell’s words: brushing does not merely communicate clean lips . . . For all intents and purposes, brushing produces a clean-hearted singer in and through the act itself.
I think Bell speaks profoundly on this point. Rites are not merely concept-building, they construct our bodies within the social body. This view of rites means that the power of person-making resides in the community of the ritual and its moral biography leading up to and flowing out of the rite. And we participate in baptism, for instance, not just by being baptized, but over years of ritual formation and in various ways (e.g., being baptized, participating in baptisms, witnessing baptisms, baptizing others, etc.).
This is why I am personally concerned that the catholic church focus on the fundamentals of the biblical rituals, re-visiting again and again what we must be doing and what should be the limits of our ritual improvisations. If our God has worked this hard to authenticate Himself to us as wise, just, and loving, then we must focus our energies on ensuing that we are safely practicing the basics of justice and prescribed rituals in tandem as a community—looking out for pretenders and culling some of the unauthenticated ritual prescribers in our communities.
I feel like I have merely restated my premises, so please forgive me for that Peter. I am fine with moving away from rituals as descriptions of actions because that presumes that we understand the inner-logic of the rites, and thus the mind of the ritual prescriber—whom I take to be God Himself. I think the Eastern Orthodox tradition sets a slightly better theological tone where they begin with the premise that the sacraments are mysteries.
The Rev. Dr. Johnson teaches Biblical literature, theology, and biblical interpretation at The King’s College. He is an editor for the Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Biblical Criticism series, an associate director for the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at The Herzl Institute in Israel; and a co-host for the OnScript Podcast. He is also the instructor for our upcoming Pentecost Term Course on a Biblical Theology of Ritual. Click HERE for registration.
Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 100.
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