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Volume 13, Issue 5: Liturgia

Ritual and Freedom

Peter Leithart

Few things arouse so much disgust among evangelicals as "ritualism." Ritualism was the reason for the Church's decline in the Middle Ages. Ritualism killed the mainline churches. Ritualism smothers out the flame of piety and quenches the Spirit.

Biblical prophets, including Jesus, condemned the Jews when their lives belied what their lips confessed, when the festivities of the temple were forgotten as soon as the worshiper left the temple court, when the temple became a safe house for brigands, when the priority of obedience to sacrifice was reversed (1 Sam. 15:22_23). Ritualism is at work when adherence to the rubrics becomes the main purpose of worship, when we gather to do things simply to make sure we do things. Ritualism is indeed evil, and ritualists will someday find that the Lord they claim to worship never knew them.
Yet, the evangelical attack often broadens into an attack on ritual per se, and this wider attack is unjustified. Ritual cannot be inherently bad or dangerous, since God prescribed an elaborate set of sacrificial rituals for Israel's worship. An Israelite worshiper had to go through the same series of actions every time he offered a purification offering, every morning and evening the priests offered burnt offerings, and one Day of Atonement looked a lot like all the others. Though we no longer perform these rites, the New Testament does not jettison ritual. As Augustine said, our rituals are simpler, fewer, easier to grasp—but they are still rituals.
Evangelical anti-ritualism not only ignores large portions of Scripture, but also bruises its shins on some stubborn realities of life. Human beings are inescapably ritualistic creatures. Ritual behavior is simply ordered behavior, habitual behavior, rhythmic behavior. Get up at six a.m. on Monday, shower, shave, dress, and drive to work; repeat the same on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—and you've established a ritual. Work for six days, and rest the seventh, and you're following a ritual. Wrap gifts in boxes with bright red and green paper, and repeat the process every December 25, and you're acting ritually. Ritual behavior is the only alternative to chaotic behavior, and it is not an accident that our anti-ritualistic culture is a random culture.
Contrary to evangelical prejudices, ritual is not an enemy of freedom but more a condition of free action. This seems a paradox, but it is not. Perhaps there's a name for people who think every time they tie their shoes, comb their hair, type an email message, or shift into third gear, but if there is such a word, it names a pathology. Healthy people fumble with their ties only when they stop to think about what they're doing; good dancers don't have to count and watch where their feet are going; the fingers of an accomplished pianist know where to find the A-flat without help from the brain. The man who knows by long practice what to do is the free man; the man who makes it up as he goes is the slave.
In his novel The Healing Art the British novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson provides a neat illustration of how ritual provides a context for freedom in social settings. Wilson describes a scene in the faculty common—room of an English college. After dinner, the fellows remove their gowns, file into the room, and sit around the fire to begin the ceremonies: "The junior fellow moving about like a footman with plates of fruit and chocolates and Oliver biscuits; the port railway scuttling its way up and down across the heart; cigars and cigarettes held at ready, to be lit up when the drinks—Sauternes and claret as well as port—had circulated twice."
The two main characters—Pamela Cowper, a medievalist and struggling Anglican, and John Brocklehurst, her Platonic "friend" and a philosopher—react completely differently to these miniature rituals. Brocklehurst ("by nature unritualistic") worries over a possible faux pas, as he remembers occasions when a someone forgot to pass the decanter, or got bored and left (against all tradition) before the Warden. Pamela, however, finds the whole thing comforting and liberating: "There was something reassuring about social gatherings in which almost every moment was covered by external rules of etiquette and that once one had achieved a rough mastery of how the thing worked, it was actually more relaxing than `casual' occasions, when everyone sat round wondering what would happen next."
The same dynamics that apply to social occasions apply to worship. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis pointed out that ceremonious behavior is not a sign of vanity but of humility: "The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite." Once we have internalized the rules of the social game, we can play it freely; once we have become habituated to the choreography of worship, we are liberated to lose ourselves in praise.
Christians should not be surprised that ritual behavior comes naturally to man. After all, we are created in the image of the God whose first recorded action is a ritual. On day one, it's "Let there be" and "there was" and "it was good" and "evening and morning." Day two goes much the same, and so on until the seventh day, when God gives pattern to the whole week by establishing the Sabbath. And since that week, God has delighted in repeating the ritual each day. Chesterton's speculation seems right: "It is possible that God says every morning `Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, `Do it again' to the moon. . . . The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."

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