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.
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.