When you hear the word “ritual” what comes to mind? Rarely is the connotation a positive one. If something is “ritualistic”, we tend to think it is of little substance. Words or actions that are superficial at best and meaningless at worst. That is what many folks say about church. This from sermon by a Pastor Todd Weir in 2014 in which he “quotes” what some folks think of church:
“I don’t go to church because it is just a bunch of rituals, you know, communion and baptisms and giving up stuff for Lent, saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again. What’s the point? It does change anything or mean anything. It’s boring. … Weddings are just stupid rituals [, too]. If you love each other, why do you need a wedding?”
Another view of ritual is that it has power to change lives and the world. Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University who wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times a few years back called “Religion Without God”. Luhrmann’s piece describes how the use of ritual in religious life has become a universal model even for atheists. She describes “Sunday Assembly”, an atheistic organization that gathers on Sundays for fellowship, music, readings, messages and encouragement to make the world a better place. Sound familiar? Luhrmann says this.
… [R]ituals change the way we pay attention as much as — perhaps more than — they express belief. [Even if] ritual isn’t about expressing religious commitment at all, [it is] about doing something in a way that marks the moment as different from the everyday and forces you to see it as important. Their point is that performing a ritual focuses your attention on some moment and deems it worthy of respect. Ritual is the way human beings live out their faith in whatever they have faith in. Ritual is a kind of organized repeated statement of what you believe to be true. Is that what church rituals are? Maybe. But maybe they are a lot more than that. Rather than boring repetition, maybe they are a path to find truth.