You Can't Think Your Way to God
Let's take some case studies in ritual. First, a large number of Catholics and Anglicans have been schooled in the classic Christian practices, and yet they don't seem to live the faith. Then there is Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is every bit as ritualized as the classic liturgy, yet it is very successful. Why does one work while the other often fails?
Liturgy and spiritual practices should be attended with reflection. Roman Catholicism has not always done a great job of catechesis, of inviting people to understand why they are doing what they're doing. If you don't have that accompanying formation in the practices, then the practices become rote. I worry about romanticizing liturgy. It's good to have friends who are cradle Anglicans who are good skeptics about some of my claims.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is quite a bit of catechesis. A lot of the routine is trying to help people understand why it's important that they go through the motions. Rituals, routines, and liturgies need to be owned by those who participate in them.
Let's take two different rituals aimed at getting people to repent. Some traditions invite a revivalist to preach repentance every year. Other churches use Lent to call people to repentance. Are these two things essentially interchangeable, or are they fundamentally different?
A wide repertoire of Christian practices can accomplish the call to repentance. But if something is going to be a liturgical practice, it can't be just a single event. We have to do it over time and cycle back through it. The camp-meeting model almost has a liturgical calendar aspect to it.
In my Pentecostal background, it was also attended with specific bodily practices. The altar in Pentecostal renewal is the site of confession. It's a very physical, very affective experience when someone lays hands on you while you kneel at an altar.
What characterizes historic Christian observation of Lent is the narrative shape of the story that those practices embed us in. There is something about the fullness of the whole counsel of Scripture implanted in those practices. Unfortunately, in some of the free-church repertoire, certain aspects of the story can drop out, and therefore we miss the opportunity to be formed by that chapter of the story.
In some Baptist churches, the practice of baptism itself is declining.
In my Reformed church, people are baptized only once. But when a family brings a child to be baptized, we all relive our baptism. And we relive that part of the story because it is a congregational practice, as opposed to something that happens at the end of summer camp. The ritual itself involves the congregation in the story. God's covenant promises are marked on the child, and the parents make promises in response to God's promises, but then the whole congregation promises to be cofamily with that child and those parents. That's a rich enactment of the biblical notion of covenant, and it's a tangible expression of the church as first family.
That's true of all the life-cycle rituals in a church.
This is a reason to revisit the Christian funeral. Every funeral I go to is training for my own death, and learning how to live and to hope as a community.