Ritual Matters

January 2018 Credo

Humans are ritual animals. Their deepest ideas and feelings are not just communicated in words, but more deeply in actions, signs and symbols. In fact, in many Asian societies, it’s mostly actions. Traditional Chinese and Japanese don’t say “I love you” to their wives and children, but they show their love through a variety of ritual actions.

The evangelical emphasis on “word” may actually deprive us of our capacity to express our faith more fully in word and ritual. We have tended to reduce the Christian faith to a set of principles like the “Four Spiritual Laws”.

It is not coincidental that the magisterial Reformers understand Word and Sacrament as constituting the church. John Calvin’s definition is perhaps representative: “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there…a church of God exists.”

The theology underlying this affirmation is the Incarnation. The Logos takes on human flesh. The glory of God is revealed in a way that we could see and touch. Christ in the flesh is the Sacrament of God; through him we can see and touch the God who is otherwise invisible. The Incarnation shows that material and spiritual are not inherently opposed as in Greek dualism, but that the physical can ‘contain’ the spiritual. It is in the context of sacramental theology that we can appreciate the importance of rites.

Sacred rites are not “add-ons”, something extraneous, used for illustrative purposes. This is the way a lot of exclusively word-centered Christians tend to understand rituals. For them, rites are merely visible words or object lessons.

The necessity of rites can be seen in the fact that there is always a gap between concepts and actual practice, not because our practice falls short of our grand theories and concepts, but quite the opposite: our concepts always fall short of actual practice. This is being increasingly recognized even in the practical fields of economics, management and social planning. No matter how well we plan and provide guidelines and procedures to cover as many scenarios as possible, they always fall short of what is actually practiced by people on the ground. Practices are more complex than what planners could anticipate.

Most of us living in housing estates in Singapore are familiar with the meticulous ways the estates are planned. But one thing that these planners seem to have failed time and again is in the layout of footpaths. Residents often don’t use them; instead, they find more efficient ways of getting around by creating their own well-trampled footpaths across lawns and fields. We could say that these residents, in their daily walking ‘rituals’, have instinctively found a better way of getting around that the planners could not foresee. Ordinary people have a kind of practical knowledge that no amount of planning could cover.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of postmodern philosophers have highlighted the importance of practice. They have shown that there is an irreducible knowledge that comes from embodied practices which cannot come through verbal-rational expressions. Among them, I will highlight the theory of practice by Pierre Bourdieu.

Most of us tend to think that we start with thinking and follow it up with practice. Thus in traditional pedagogy, we often are told that we must first learn the theory and then apply it in practice. But Bourdieu says that practice itself is an irreducible, precognitive form of knowing, not just a consequence of prior thought. We see this, for instance, in the way children are socialized into a community. They begin by practicing speaking before they learn the grammar of speech.

Practice or bodily action and interaction is a way of knowing. Practice forms habits by which we make sense of our world. These acquired habits are formed unconsciously in cooperation with others in community. This is very much like the way the liturgy works. Orthodox Christians understand this truth well by not segregating worshippers according to age groups. Segregation (which is what many Protestant churches are doing as a matter of course) will inevitably result in the failure to socialize their children and youth into the church as a liturgical community.

In short, Bourdieu’s theory of practice implies that we are all liturgical animals. Rites form habits which shape our thought patterns and worldview.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is especially important in our present world shaped by the IT revolution and the Internet. In the internet world, there are many practices shaping our thought-patterns and worldviews without our even being aware of it.

But the internet world is a jungle. There are the good, useful, even beautiful, but also the ugly, the flippant and the downright evil. All of these are accessible to anyone at their fingertips—literally.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith warns us that the seemingly innocent smartphone may be training us ritualistically to “a heretofore-unimagined level of intimacy with machines”. It unconsciously inducts users into the secular story that says “I am in charge,” and in the end they become “more like Milton’s Satan”. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poet had Satan holding a conference in hell and proclaiming: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”

This is the kind of world that millions are inducted into via the Internet: “We are in control; we have the freedom to choose whatever we want to do, see and hear. What I feel is who I am.”

But the ‘freedom’ of the Internet comes at great cost: First, the new grammar of the Internet has so cut off its devotees from the literary traditions that they are no longer able to read the “great books” that represent the best of our human heritage, including the Bible. Second, with a largely under-developed capacity for face-to-face conversation, they have also lost the ability to engage deeply with others.

Rites do matter. But what kind of rites is the modern church inducting its members into in its segregated “contemporary” worship with its frivolous songs and flaky sermons? If the current generation of church leaders is sowing to the wind, the next generation will reap the whirlwind.


Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).