Redeeming Ritual

Protestants tend to brace themselves at the mention of the R-word: ritual. The word is a trigger evoking a Reformation history that has sunk into our bones. We associate ritual with dead orthodoxy, “vain repetition,” the denial of grace, trying to earn salvation, scoring points with God, “going through the motions,” and various other forms of spiritual insincerity.

Anyone who has mastered a golf swing or a Bach fugue is a ritual animal.

And yet we affirm, even celebrate, ritual in other spheres. We recognize that the pursuit of excellence often requires devotion to a regime of routines and disciplines that are formative precisely because they are repetitive. Anyone who has mastered a golf swing or a Bach fugue is a ritual animal: one simply doesn’t achieve such excellence otherwise. In both cases, ritual is marked by embodied repetition. Ritual recruits our will through our body: the cellist’s fingers become habituated by moving through scale after scale; the golfer’s whole body is trained by a million practice swings.

Because we are embodied creatures of habit—God created us that way—we are profoundly shaped by ritual. That’s why ritual can de-form us, too: we know firsthand the destructive power of routines and rhythms that can hold us captive and make us someone we don’t want to be.

In all of these cases we intuit that rituals are not just something that we do; they do something to us. And their formative power works on the body, not just the mind. So why should we be allergic to ritual when it comes to our spiritual life? Could we redeem ritual?

Habitations of the Spirit

Our negative evaluation of ritual stems from a couple of bad assumptions. First, when it comes to religious devotion we tend to see ritual observance as mere obedience to duty, a way of scoring points with God and earning spiritual credit. We see ritual as a bottom-up effort—and “effort” starts to sound like “work.” It doesn’t take long before this all seems part of an elaborate system of “salvation by works.”

Let’s grant that some religious folk undoubtedly observe ritual with such misguided intent. We join Luther and Calvin and the Reformers in rejecting such superstitious attempts to curry God’s favor. But why should we settle for simply identifying ritual with “works righteousness?”

We have a more nuanced take on ritual in other spheres of our life. We can tell when someone is “just going through the motions,” but we don’t see the motions themselves as the problem. We know the difference between the piano student practicing scales because she “has to” and the student who does so in pursuit of excellence.

If I commit myself to the “ritual” of playing scales for an hour a day for years on end, it’s because I know this is a way for me to become something I want to be. It’s not just a bottom-up exercise on my part; it’s also a kind of top-down force that makes me and molds me and transforms me. It’s a way for me to be caught up in the music—a way for my fingers and hands and mind and imagination to be recruited into the symphony that I want to play.

If that is true on a “natural” level, why shouldn’t it also be true for our spiritual life? Historic Christian devotion bequeaths to us rituals and rhythms and routines that are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit”—concrete practices that are conduits of the power of the Spirit and the transformative grace of God.

Think of some “ho-hum” rituals in Reformed worship. Week after week some congregations are asked to stand to hear the Word of God. Why? That shift in bodily posture sends a little unconscious signal: Listen up—something important is coming. After speaking the Word, the preacher announces: “This is the Word of the Lord.” To which the people reply, “Thanks be to God.” You might say it without thinking about it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doing something. That little ritual trains your body to learn something about the authority of God’s Word, and to respond in gratitude.

Spirit-charged rituals are tangible ways that God gets hold of us, reorients us, and empowers us to be his imagebearers. They are ways for the Spirit to meet us where we are—as embodied creatures.

Worship Is for Bodies

A second reason we Reformed folks devalue ritual is because we tend to reduce Christian faith to a set of beliefs and believers to primarily thinking beings.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor would describe this intellectualism as one of those Frankensteinish outcomes of the Protestant Reformation—a sort of unintended monster that outruns the good intentions of the Reformers themselves. Rightly criticizing superstition and “magical” views of ritual, the Reformers unleashed an impetus toward what Taylor calls “excarnation”—a dis-embodiment of spiritual life that reduced “true religion” to “right belief.”

The eventual result was a complete reconfiguration of worship and devotion. Christian worship was no longer a full-orbed exercise that recruited the body and touched all of the senses. Instead, Protestants designed worship as if believers were little more than brains-on-a-stick. The primary target was the mind; the primary means was a lecture-like sermon; and the primary goal was to deposit the right doctrines and beliefs into our heads so that we could then go out into the world to carry out the mission of God.

The problem with that, however, is that we are not created as brains-on-a-stick; we are created as embodied, tactile, visceral creatures who are more than cognitive processors or belief machines. As full-bodied imagebearers of God, our center of gravity is located as much in our bodies as in our minds. This is precisely why the body is the way to our heart, and this “incarnational” intuition has long informed the rich history of spiritual disciplines and liturgical formation.

Some of this incarnational intuition already shapes what we do. Congregations that celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly (as they did in John Calvin’s Geneva) have a deep appreciation for the tactile nature of the practice. Here is a ritual that pictures the gospel and that activates every one of our senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight. It is a ritual whose repetition is a gift, not a bore. Through our immersion in it, the gospel sinks into our bones. We absorb the story of God’s grace in ways we don’t even realize.

Or consider the value of a simple ritual of confession that involves both repetition and the body, one that might be especially appropriate for Lent. By adopting a standard prayer of confession, worship constantly puts a prayer on our lips that seeps into our hearts and comes forth from our hearts throughout the week. When we kneel to confess, our physical posture both expresses and encourages humility before God. We know God’s grace differently because it is inscribed in our bodies.

We need not be afraid of ritual. If we appreciate that God created us as incarnate, embodied creatures, then we will recognize his grace lovingly extended to us in ways that meet us where we are: in the tangible, embodied practice of Spirit-charged rituals. Reframed in this way, we might be able to redeem rituals as gifts of God for the people of God.

For Discussion

  1. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “ritual”? How do you define the word?
  2. What are some of the rituals you routinely experience in worship?
  3. Does the ritual you participate in engage your body as well as your mind? What is the benefit of “embodied repetition”?
  4. Jamie Smith says that “Protestants designed worship as if believers were little more than brains on a stick.” Do you think that the goal of worship should be to “deposit right doctrines and belief into our heads”? What is the goal of worship?
  5. What ritual practices are most meaningful to you? How do they mold and transform you?
  6. Has your understanding of ritual changed through this discussion? What new insights do you have?

About the Author

James K.A. Smith holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College and is editor of Comment magazine. His new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos) will be published in April. He attends Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (13)


Hey, James, Pete here (I'm a first name kinda guy, using formalities creates distance that makes conversation difficult). I do associate ritual with dead orthodoxy. It is what the religion I grew up with looked like to me. Some of the other descriptors also apply, with denial of grace and earning salvation less applicable. So I was not tracking with you right from the start. Then you said:Anyone who has mastered a golf swing or a Bach fugue is a ritual animal.

Those who have mastered a sports move or a musical instrument are not doing ritual in the same way religions do. So I was tracking with you even less after you made that point. You use a good word "mastered" in presenting what you believe to be parallels. But the point of religious practice is not mastery or excellence, is it? If so, then I'm on the wrong track with my spirituality of submissive imperfection.

The danger of embodied repetition to me is a disengagement from meaning. I want the vast majority of my worshiping actions to be loaded with meaning and significance. If I simply go through repeated motions, the meaning of the motion fades each time. If I go to a conference and learn a new song, and try to reach that same feeling each time I sing it by trying to repeat it exactly as it was done at the conference, I am futilely reaching beyond the original significance for either a repeat or an overreach. I create a traditional ritual trying to relive instead of appreciating the value of the original moment.

We are indeed embodied creatures of habit, but when we have mountaintop experiences we want to build tents on the spot and relive the event, creating rituals as the meaning fades. Habituation may be more a role of 'the flesh' than of the spirit.

So my case is this: ritual is hugely likely to become meaning-devoid religious activity. Unfortunately, such ritual makes the pew comfortable, worship patterns robotic, and the Word familiar, dead and impactless. That is why it is so dangerous, and the dangers to me outweigh the weak benefits you describe.

So, my habituation of the Spirit is to seek meaning, deeper relevance, more creativity, greater impact, by varying my spiritual and religious practices and not having them become rote.

By the way, you demonstrate how meaning in ritual has been lost in your example of standing to hear the Word. Practically it has been done to 'wake' everyone up a bit before a long sit, yes, but standing used to be a sign of respect, so that is why it was done. Another meaning lost in ritualization.

Pete, of course the goal of the Christian life is not super man style mastery or excellence. But, I'm sure you will agree that Christians are to grow in Christ, put on the character of Christ, produce fruit (etc).

Prof. Smith is merely arguing that, given the way we are wired (embodied creations), well-chosen rituals can be important means God's Spirit uses to help us attain that end.

His argument rings true for me. I tend to be impacted more by seeing, feeling, and tasting that God is good (through the Lord's supper)than I do by merely hearing that God is good.

David S said: "I'm sure you will agree that Christians are to grow in Christ, put on the character of Christ, produce fruit (etc)."
I would, but it is not a pursuit of mastery or excellence accomplished by rote repetition.

For me, he has not made the point you claim he argues, namely that: "well-chosen rituals can be important means God's Spirit uses to help us attain that end."

I too find richer mind/soul meaning if tactile experience is involved. But that does not make the case for the value of ritual for me. It merely points out that having sensory involvement improves religious/spiritual experience for some.

My flesh may benefit from ritual activities however, my spirit needs none of that. As a former Catholic I was ingrained in religious ritual and yet, I didn't really know Jesus. It was through the teachings of the Back to God Hour's Faith 20 television program that I came to have an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, my God and Savior. And that doesn't include ritual.

Perhaps I'm taking liberties with the word "ritual," but when I read this I thought about the church I grew up in. The same greeting, reading of the 10 commandments, doxology . . . I go to a different church now with a more modern worship style, but there's something about going back to my home church, singing the same hymns, hearing the same words, the feel of the Psalter Hymnal and the curve of the pew. I wonder how many of our churches have "rituals" they're not even aware of, but that seem odd to people who did not grow up there.

I kiss my wife before and after work. That is a ritual. Once a month we have a potluck with four other families. That is a ritual. When my granson comes over we always go feed the aquarium fish first thing. That is a ritual. When we go to Lake Michigan, we look for flat stones to skip, as my family has done for generations. Also a ritual. It is all mixed up with relationship, joy, continuity, and a subtle way to teach the next generation what we hold close to our hearts.
I can really relate to a lot of the negative comments about ritual, having grown up in a church that was very liturgical, yet devoid of the gospel, and devoid of joyful worship. Doesn't that define "dead"? When I became a Christian as an adult I attended churches that avoided liturgy, the church year, creeds and confessions, etc. However, now I have grown to appreciate, and even see the necessity of rituals in worship. I tend to look at ritual as a continuation of the old testament mandate to teach our children the ways of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6). In the recent past any kind of rote/ritual learning has been scorned by many, but as a teacher I know that there are some kinds of rote learning that is just necessary. We have to memorize some things, whether we like it or not.
I have a dear Assembly of God friend who was raised Lutheran, squirming under all the dry ritual. Now though, those snipets of catechism, liturgy and ritual will pop in her mind when she needs them, giving her comfort, peace and grace in times of crisis or doubt. My grown children have come back to doing a lot of those family "rituals" that they thought were boring or stupid when they were younger, I suspect because they know that is where they find healthy memories and rich food for their souls.
I think the problem is how we program ritual in our worship; if it is all done in a joyless, boring manner, then it will be, ummm joyless and boring. Those churches we grew up in were doing the same old in the same old way. The challenge is to keep them fresh, not to throw them out.

Amen! Worship is for whole persons in a whole community.

In times of despair when I have no words of my own to utter, the rhythm and cadence of the Lord's prayer which I learned by rote over half a century ago, have brought peace and comfort to my thirsty soul. Through ritual God's grace is infused. May we be protected from its misuse while not neglecting how ritual forms our faith.

Lent - The article was worth reading, but I protest the word Lent.
Lent is never mentioned in the Bible. A man-made tradition. Ditto for Ash Wednesday. Where does it say in the Bible that that Lent begins 6 1/2 weeks before Easter?
We should always be lamenting our sins - and we should always celebrate Christ's Ascension into heaven so that now He sits at God's right hand.

Excellent Essay! Agree 100%! Would not the Lutheran or Episcopal liturgy be adaptable to CRC worship?

The CRC churches inventing a new worship service every week is as silly as baptists inventing a new creed for every local church and naming it "Statement Of Faith."

I wish my congregation had a set liturgy with "approved" readings and prayers that taught through the church year. Sometimes I don't know what our "wing it for the day" prayers are getting at.

I grew up evangelical fundamentalist within a free church tradition that had hymns, sermons, healing prayer and altar calls as the primary liturgies. I have slowly moved from being suspicious and biased against catholicism and ritual and towards a hunger for deeper, more intentional practices for spiritual formation.
I think it is true that excarnation marks much of evangelical history. As i think of appropriating the resources of the Christian tradition i think more robust liturgy is desperately needed esp. in our alienating cultural life.
I particularly enjoy traditional forms of prayer related to the book of common prayer and other sources. Formed prayers intentionally take our hearts somewhere as opposed to the "God and so" and "God and so" evangelical prayers.
love Jesus prayer, trisagion, Augustine's holy spirit prayer, John Baillie prayers.

Ritual is our natural inclination (for most of us). It is a way of making life easier, having to think less, plan less, be more efficient, and in some cases not neglect essentials that are good for us (brushing our teeth, or kissing our spouse). But ritual can be deadly if it becomes an end in itself (which it often does). It is good to kiss your spouse everyday, but if it becomes mere habit, a mere form or show, a mere end in itself, it will kill romance and dull love. The same is true for ritual prayers, ritual scripture reading, and ritual doxologies. Even the altar calls and miraculous healings can become rituals, and when they do, they lose their power and significance.

Customs ought to be maintained, such as attending church, praying, singing, sermons, bible study. But woe to those who ritualize the customs and traditions. They must lead us to Christ, and they must make our salvation fresh and secure every morning, or they will accomplish the exact opposite of what they were first designed for.

I don't think you've represented at least the English Reformers' view of ritual fairly. Cranmer was not opposed to all ritual and symbolism but to 'dark and dumb' ceremonies. Kneeling, standing, confessing, eating the bread and the wine of the communion, reciting near poetic liturgical phrases and the like were all part of his view of ceremonies. And far from conceiving of us as 'brains on a stick', Cranmer had a very strong view (arguably the key to his liturgical work) of the need for regeneration and sanctification of the heart.