Ritual Inventory
May 15, 2019

My Solemn Charge and Exhortation to inaugurate our 2019 Pentecost Term course.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas once observed that modernity has witnessed  “a wide-spread, explicit rejection of ritual as such.  Ritual is become a bad word signifying empty conformity.” 

To which many would reply, So what? Haven’t Christians been freed from the dead hand of ritual into the age of the Spirit, who blows where He will? What do we lose if we lose ritual?

The answer is: Much in every way. Rituals are bodily actions, while anti-ritual Christianity is a religion of the inner soul. When we lose ritual, we lose the body.

The Old Testament is full of prescriptions and descriptions of ritual. Anti-ritual Christianity digs a yawning chasm between Old and New. Lose ritual, and you lose the Old Testament.

Many rituals are communal. We forge bonds of communion and common memory by doing rites together. Anti-ritual Christianity is individualistic Christianity. When we lose ritual, we lose our common life.

Communal rituals are public. Anti-ritual Christianity contentedly huddles and hunkers in private. That is a flight from witness. Unless we enact our own rites, the voice of the serpent will provide the script for all human rites. If we lose ritual, the voice of Jesus never takes public form in our living flesh.

Most tragically: Jesus promised to commune with us in the Spirit in the water of baptism and through the bread and wine of His table. Lose ritual, and you’re in danger of losing Jesus.

I’m in danger here too, in danger of making ritual sound magical. If only we could get our rites right, then the bridal city would descend and lions would gambol with lambs.

That sort of ritual romanticism is as wrong-headed as anti-ritualism. As Dru will teach us throughout the week, what we do before and after our formal rituals is part of the ritual’s biography. What we do outside the rite determines how God judges it, and us.

Circumcision can become uncircumcision. Those baptized into the greater Moses can fall in the wilderness. Land watered from heaven can produce thistles good only for burning. Inhospitable factionalism turns the Lord’s Supper into “not the Lord’s Supper.”

If we lift bloody hands in prayer, if we tithe profits increased by abuse of our employees, if we offer the sacrifice of praise on Sunday but mistreat widows and orphans on Monday, the Lord will say to us what He said to Judah: I hate your festivals. I will not hear, I will not see.

Dru will lead us through challenging interdisciplinary terrain this week, combining biblical theology with cultural anthropology, epistemology, sociology of science, psychology, theology. But the goal isn’t merely theoretical. The aim is to discern who is getting you to do what they want you to do with your body. The aim is to live so that the rites that pattern you are right in the sight of God.

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