Rituals: Why Are They Important To Humankind?

A long time friend has an insatiable curiosity about everything on earth and in the heavens.  He’s also an Enlightenment man who has expressed little interest in things spiritual, even though our conversations often turn to matters of morality and a smattering of philosophy.  So I was surprised when he asked ‘why rituals are so important to people in all times and places?’  He didn’t ask what they are or how they work, but why are they important?

There must be thousands of books, articles and dissertations about rituals, but he asked my take on it, maybe because we are old friends, and I’m an Episcopal priest who won’t beat him over the head with a Bible and threats of hell.

I couldn’t answer the question of why without first going into the nature of rituals, what they are and how they work, which to my mind, helps explain why they are so important to humanity.  Rituals mark important transitions from the present to what is not yet the present.  All rituals are conditional and have a spiritual component, even if they are entirely secular.  But the spiritual nature of religious rituals are what come to mind most frequently, so it’s a good place to start.

Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are familiar rituals during which an adolescent passes from youth to adulthood, at least within the context of Jewish worship. The same might be said of Native American rituals that signify the transition from child to adult. Both involve engaging divine presence to bless entry into a new way of being. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are celebrated on the condition that boy or girl can demonstrate adequate knowledge of Jewish tradition and scriptural Hebrew.  An American Indian boy has to demonstrate an encounter with the divine, and the courage to hunt for and defend the tribe. All rituals, whether religious or secular, follow a similar pattern, although secular rituals substitute tradition or magical thinking for the divine.

Christian rituals are governed by formal liturgies, at least in denominations arising from Catholic traditions. They mark significant transitions from one state of being to another seeking God’s blessing to make them holy: birth, death, marriage, absolution and the like.  All are conditioned on trusting acceptance of the blessing, through oaths of commitment.

Secular rituals, like the religious, mark transitions from the present to what is not yet the present.  If not overtly seeking divine blessings, they seek spiritual meaning from tradition.  Military Change of Command rituals, for example, are rich with tradition and a sense that there is a spiritual presence in it.  Following a tradition faithfully assures that it is passed on with spiritual integrity intact.  But rituals come in more mundane versions where tradition looks more like magical thinking. Most people have a ritual of morning ablutions that mark transition from a time of sleep to the world of work outside, often with a silent plea that the ‘fates or gods’ will be kind. If the rituals are not done properly, the day gets off to a bad start and nothing seems to go right.

Whether religious or secular, no one is forced to cooperate with the divine or spiritual.  Even while participating, one can be a passive observer, skeptical of faith in the ritual’s efficacy, and gaining no personal benefit from it.

The question yet remains: Why are rituals so important to humanity?

Western Enlightenment bequeathed a new way of understanding how the world works, and a new vocabulary to go with it. It ushered in the age of science and rapid technological advancement that has made modern life possible. The new vocabulary made it possible to articulate revolutionary ideas such as human rights, civil rights, the ability of the people to choose their own government and hold it accountable. It made divisions between classes more permeable. Excepting the exponential increase in the deadliness of war, it was for the most part good.  The price it extracted was to confine spiritual reality to superstition and the religiously fervent – tolerated to be sure, even adopted as a social requirement, but taken with a grain of salt.

Until then, it was commonly believed by scholars and peasants alike that the material reality of every day life coexisted with a spiritual reality of both good and evil. The Enlightenment could not erase the vague feeling that there was something divine and spiritual about existence, and wholeness of being could not be had without understanding something about it.

Maybe that’s what drives fads in new ageism, crystals, pyramids, and periodic religious revivals that flourish for a season. Even the most ardent atheist prays to unknown gods in charge of the weather, tee shots, promotions, good grades, and romantic love.  

It’s out of collective embarrassment that western culture tends to dismiss lingering echoes of spiritual reality to superstition and unsophisticated religious exuberance. Centuries of abuse from incompetent religious leaders has only exacerbated the skepticism. Why not put religious rituals in the same category as horoscopes and parking spot gods?  At least formal secular rituals have tradition to hold them up. 

Be that as it may, the hunger to rediscover the coexisting reality of the material and spiritual could not be erased in the Enlightenment.  Worthy as they are, formal secular rituals are a poor substitute for divine presence bringing wholeness.  As Augustine discovered, there is something missing in human nature that cannot be filled until it is filled by God.

Anglican Christianity is rooted in Celtic Christianity’s understanding that material and spiritual reality coexist to make creation whole. Centuries of adherence to Roman Catholicism, with all the turmoil of the Reformation, could not prevent it from being passed through generations, if only as a footnote to history implied in the liturgy and reflected in Anglican writing.

For Episcopalians, coexisting material and spiritual reality has its source in God and only God as revealed to us in Christ Jesus. It is teaching understood, by most I hope, that is not exclusive to Anglicanism or Christianity as a whole. Rituals of the church are passages through which we are invited to walk into new ways of being in God’s presence, making spiritual and material whole. Being human, even the most faithful often turn back or are distracted down side roads and dead ends. It’s why we regularly need the Eucharist where God comes to us spiritually and materially in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, nourishing us to resume the journey ahead.  

2 thoughts on “Rituals: Why Are They Important To Humankind?”

  1. You’re right about why I asked you, but you left out the most important part: I asked you because I expected a thoughtful, illuminating answer. Which this was, and thank you for it. I hadn’t associated ritual with transition before (after all, one Sunday service going into the next week is pretty much the same as the last Sunday service going into the last week–no big life transition involved). So this raises a further question, should you care at any time to tackle it: why is repetition such an important component of ritual?

  2. One more thing: Saying theere may be no limits to time may be inadequate. We measure time with hardsticks, which is OK for ordinary time. But imagine a large celar glass ball appearing to have nothing in it. It is not empty but filled with time that extends everhere at once to the limists of the ball. We don’t know how big the ball is, indeed it may have no limits. At the center of time is God for whom our linear time is real and in which God engages out of love for us and creation.. Will our new life with God be temporal? Probably because we are temporal creatures, but we might experience it in a timeless environment.

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