Project Conversion

Project Conversion


The Dangers of Ritual

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My oldest daughter has a security blanket named “Pooh.” It’s actually a fitted bed sheet (what’s left of it) with a “Winnie the Pooh” print that went over her crib and she’s carried it around since she could crawl. Sometimes it’s a scarf, other times it’s a parachute, but it always represents her sense of security and comfort in any situation. If my wife and I want her to stop running through the house or just behave in general, all we have to do is threaten to take away Pooh.

She is very particular about Pooh, and any deviation in where he (sometimes it’s a she) is placed, touched, or dealt with may result in an emotion hurricane.

I think this is how we sometimes treat our religions–particularly, our rituals. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio which means “duty.” If we want to boil religion down to its critical parts, it’s really made up of a set of beliefs and associated rituals which either illustrate (symbolically or otherwise) or support those beliefs. What’s interesting is that, with most faiths, many of the rituals we practice weren’t in place at the onset of the faith.

So what happened?

We got comfortable. Rituals are spiritual security blankets. Just as my daughter might not be able to fully articulate why a bed sheet makes her feel good or safe, likewise a religious and/or ritualistic person often cannot rationalize why they carry out their rituals. What’s really trippy is that almost without exception, nearly every religious founder (or at least a portion of their philosophy) talks trash about habit and ritualism!

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” –Rabbi Hillel, from the Babylonian Talmud

Christianity: Jesus ruffled the feathers of the Jewish priests when he healed on the Sabbath, thus breaking tradition to attend a need far more important than rules and rituals.

Buddhism: The Buddha once advised that the Dhamma (his teachings) were like a raft: It is useful for crossing the river (life, difficulties, liberation, etc.), however once you reach the other side, carrying it around becomes a useless burden. In other words, drop what you don’t need–even if that is your religion or ritual!

Hinduism: After listing a ritualistic process by which to take the practitioner to liberation, the author of this Upanishad follows with, “Such rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing the sea of samsara…Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross on these poor rafts (rituals).” –The Mundaka Upanishad

Islam: When they are told: “Follow what Allah has sent down to you,” they say: “We are following what we found our fathers doing.” What, even though their fathers did not understand a thing and were not guided! –Qur’an 2: 170

Sikhism: One day Guru Nanak went down to a river. There he found people in the river, tossing up water toward the sun. He asked them what they were doing. They told him they were offering water to their ancestors in the region of the sun. Guru Nanak turned the other way and tossed water in the other direction. The people asked what he was doing. Guru Nanak told them that if the water they tossed could reach the burning regions of the sun, then he could toss water the other way and nourish his farm, which was much closer. The people in the river realized their foolish practice and followed him.

Every religion is a revolution against the native belief system. Every new philosophy or faith reforms its predecessor, but the irony behind these evolutions in belief is stated beautifully by writer Franz Kafka:

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

It’s so easy to slip into a habit and routine and not even know it. This month, as I study Sikhi, I am constantly floored by the wake-up call of the Japji Sahib. In the very opening verses, we are told:

    1. “The purity of the mind cannot be achieved through ritualistic cleansing.”
    2. “Nor can the tranquility of the mind be accomplished through self-imposed solitude or meditation.
    3. “Greed of the mind can never be appeased, even by all the wealth in the world.
    4. “Nor can the countless acts of wisdom of the mind, acquired through mere ritualistic reading of holy books are of any consequence.
    5. How are we to become worthy of God’s Grace? How do we tear down the wall of separation?
    6. “By learning to live in His “Order,” which is engraved in our very existence.

Talk about having our egos slapped around. The three pillars of Sikhi are 1) meditation on the Name (God), 2) Seva (service to others), and 3) Sharing of your wealth, time, resources. That’s it! Everything else is religious gravy.

How often do we allow our rituals–our security blankets–become the noise of our lives and the shadows of our faith? Does it mean anything anymore when you read scripture or sing hymns? Do you know them so well that they no longer challenge/change/enlighten you? If so, one of two things have happened: Either 1) They have become your “raft” and you no longer need them, or 2) You have turned them into a meaningless ritual.

The other danger is that we too often depend on our rituals rather than our faith and relationships. Our actions become simple, mundane processes which produce no fruit. Sometimes I wonder if that is what happened to me with the river. Is that why there was so much anguish in leaving? Had I become dependent on the process instead of the result? Once we place expectations and parameters on our spirituality, it can no longer grow and move in mysterious ways.

Today I challenge you to analyze your rituals. What are you doing day after day–for your religion or otherwise–that has turned into a meaningless, mechanical function? Is your faith cold because of ritualism? Even relationships–once vibrant with excitment–fall victim. What can you do to spice up your spiritual life?



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abowen

posted September 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm


Marco,

You smacked the nail on the head there, Marco!



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abowen

posted September 16, 2011 at 10:09 pm


Erik,

Cool!



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Marco

posted September 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm


most of the problems occur when the followers start to worship the rituals/traditions and chain themselves with non sense adapted customs rather than focusing on the essense of their faith.
being aggressive and protecting some rituals/traditions rather than assimilating followers of the same faith with various rituals.



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Erik

posted September 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm


Andrew,
Fair enough. I guess I felt a somewhat anti-ritual bias in the tone of the post, and was responding to that… I am actually in the midst of analyzing a number of things in my personal and spiritual life and determining what no longer sustains me, what I can and should try to rejuvenate and what just needs to go, so I guess I’m actually doing what you suggested already! :)



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abowen

posted September 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm


Art,

Wonderful example, Art. Thank you for providing a Latter-day Saint perspective!



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Art Sherwood

posted September 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm


The Book of Mormon contains an interesting passage somewhat related to this in that it talks about the Law of Moses (which was full of rituals) and about its purpose. This is in 2 Nephi 25: 24-27.

24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

27 Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.

I think from this we can see that there is a purpose to the rituals and these outward motions that we go through and that they can be good as long as we remember what they are there for. The rituals themselves aren’t what change us and bring us in line with the divine, they are there to help us remember what truly is important and that continual remembrance is what exhalts us.

But, when we lose sight of that and begin doing the rituals for the ritual’s sake, then we are “tossing water towards the sun”.



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abowen

posted September 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm


B,

Baking bread is nice. I’ve learned wonderful truths just being in the kitchen. Hang in there, B.



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abowen

posted September 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm


Erik,

The point of the post was to get us to think about our rituals, why they work/don’t work, and what we can do about the issue. I actually don’t see anything contradictory in your comment because you find meaning in your ritual, rather than it being an empty process based on obligation/social pressure.



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Editor B

posted September 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm


Ha, I was wondering if anyone would call me on that. There are of course countless unexamined rituals in our daily lives, which are invisible to most of us most of the time. “How ya doing?/Fine and you?” I should have said I crave rituals that connect to some meaningful tradition, real or re-imagined. Right now my main religious ritual is baking bread.



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Erik

posted September 15, 2011 at 11:29 am


I’m actually going to take a (somewhat) contradictory position to this: I have found that there can be value in the very repetition that ritual provides. The beginning of a well-worn ritual signals my subconscious that it’s time to shift into “worship mode”, and – as the rabbis knew – the liturgy (often) both elevates my spirit and helps me to pray more deeply than I usually can on my own.

Sure, this doesn’t happen every time, but then life can’t be all peak experiences; and even when nothing special happens at all, that nothing special has brought me a little closer to the Divine.



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abowen

posted September 15, 2011 at 2:00 am


B,

I always find ritual beautiful when the meaning is understood and love flows from its practice. We could see a dead-end job the same way, I think. Sometimes we just go because that’s what we’ve always done, you know? It pays the bills, keeps life relatively normal…but still unhappy.

Next month will certainly teach me a great deal about ritual and its infinite forms. Really looking forward to that! You crave ritual because you have none…do you believe that the only way to have ritual is through a faith tradition?



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Editor B

posted September 15, 2011 at 12:52 am


Most edifying. I think you’ll find a very different attitude toward ritual next month, though. My attitude, anyhow, has been to crave ritual, because I feel like I have none. I have to beg, borrow, steal — or invent my own.



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abowen

posted September 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm


Mike,

My pleasure! Thanks for reading man.



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abowen

posted September 14, 2011 at 5:37 pm


Austin,

It’s pronounces like “sic”.



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Austin Faux

posted September 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm


I know I’m not answering your post question, instead I have another question that’s been on my mind since the beginning of this month…..How do you pronounce Sikh?..Sic? She-K? I don’t know.

Austin-



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mike p

posted September 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm


Andrew,

What a challenging post. One of my greatest downfalls as a follower of Jesus Christ is striving to not allow it to become a religious ritual, to keep my life with Him fresh, authentic… real. Unfortunately, I am constantly going back to the drawing board because I often fall into the trap of ritualism. I believe that we all as people must have a ritualistic gene. We can take the freshest expression of faith and begin to believe that ‘IT’ is the pathway to God and turn it into religious ritual. What was once alive and vibrant quickly becomes dead and meaningless. In Numbers 2 the people are being bitten by fiery serpents and God instructs Moses to craft a brazen serpent, put it on a pole and that those who looked upon it would be healed. In 2Kings 18 we see this “brazen serpent” became an object of adoration to Israel until King Hezekiah destroyed it. It’s like they felt the snake was a pathway. This began to ritualistically throw their worship in the wrong direction. I think it’s very easy for all of us to fall in this trap. God forbid we forget the what, why and most importantly, Who, of our worship.

I am a church planter, meaning that I have begun a new church. One of the reasons I did this was I felt a calling to bring a new expression of the church to people. I feel like we are in our region to help those who believe yet have drifted away or just not realized Who God is to them to have fresh eyes to see. To loosely quote a pastor named Mark Batterson, “You’re riding down the road and you see all these fields with cows. There are brown cows, black cows, white cows, some have spots, etc. After you’ve seen them for a while you quit seeing the cows – you see one, you’ve seen them all. But if you were riding down the road and saw a purple cow, now THAT would catch your eye. Why is that cow purple? You know, I’ve never seen a purple cow before? Do purple cows have grape milk? I want to know more about that purple cow.” I started a church that was different in my area to be an eye opener to Christians and those who believe in the Christian faith. It is our desire to be a fresh expression. Were still cows, we just desire to be the purple cow.

Thanks for this reminder of how easy it is to allow what can be alive and vibrant can quickly develop into “a meaningless, mechanical function”.



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