Minister's Blog

Meaningless rituals?

Meaningless rituals?

One of the most common misunderstandings about rituals is that it's necessary to understand them in order for them to be meaningful. In particular, we are told, unless we understand:

(1) what the significance of a given ritual is (what we might call the meaning of the ritual); and perhaps also

(2) why the ritual has the significance it does (what we might call the rationale for the ritual);

then the ritual means nothing.

At least, that's how the argument runs.

The trouble is, the argument is complete nonsense. It's very easy to see why.

Consider an example: What do we do when someone celebrates their birthday? Well, lots of things. Including (normally) giving them a birthday cake, which (normally) has candles on it. One candle for each year, to be exact, until it becomes a fire hazard, when we switch to a token handful of candles instead. We all sing "Happy Birthday to You", and then the birthday boy or girl blows the candles out and we all cheer and clap.

It's all part of the celebration.

Just think about that for a moment: We put candles on a cake, and they blow them out.


Well, perhaps there's a reason, long buried in the annals of Western anthropology. But I think I could pretty much guarantee that you have no idea why we put candles on a cake and then someone blows them out to celebrate their birthday, and I bet no one else at your party does either. But this doesn't stop us: we still do the cake-plus-candles thing anyway. And if, for example, you're the parent of a 10-year-old, ad you decide that one your you're not going to bother on the grounds that neither they nor you could explain the rationale for the ritual, then you'd have a lot of tears to deal with.

Claim (2) is therefore patently false. In other words, the significance of a ritual does not rely un an understanding of it rationale. On the contrary, a ritual can indeed be extremely meaningful even if no one has the faintest clue why it has the meaning it does.

But what about claim (1)? Surely it is at least necessary for us to understand the meaning of a ritual in order for it to be significant. You might think so, and indeed it's certainly true that we far more often understand the meaning of a ritual than its rationale. Yet it's still not essential to understand this in order for a ritual to be significant - at least, not at first.

This becomes apparent as soon as we ask what happens at a birthday party for a 1-year-old. Do we have a cake-plus-candles? Of course we do. Do they understand their significance? Well, not really - at least, not yet, and certainly not in a way that they can articulate.

What actually happens is that mum (and it normally is mum) produces the flaming confection, and everyone smiles and cheers, and little Johnny suddenly notices that there's something going on, and that something looks a lot like cake, and this is a really cool cake with a bright shiny thing that looks good to eat. Mum (or, more likely, big sister, if there's one available) helpfully assists with the blowing-out process, and Johnny escapes without burnt fingers. He has no clue what just happened (never having seen candles before), except that (like much else on this special day) it was fun, and it was for him.

In other words, not only does he not understand the rationale for the ritual, he doesn't initially understand its meaning either. Rather, he comes to understand it simply be engaging in it. It's not necessary to explain it to him first, or to wait until he's old enough to understand (or worse, explain) what the ritual means. You just get on with the birthday party business, and over the years little Johnny figures out as much as you and I understand about the ritual and its significance, without anyone ever explaining anything about it at all.

It seems to me that this analogy provides some potentially helpful insights not just into the rituals of Leviticus (in which connection Jay Sklar has made a similar point in his commentary on Leviticus in relation to the ritual of men raising hats), but also into how the Christian rituals of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, along with other such actions as kneeling for confession, standing for prayer, shaking hands, saluting a senior officer, kissing your spouse, and so on.

A ritual does what it does not simply because "we understand the symbolism" (though of course there's no reason to eschew such understanding if it's available), but as much because of what the ritual itself is, and because of the network of other cultural and social phenomena connected with it.

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