Thursday, June 23, 2016

We practice rites to know. . .

In a review of Dru Johnson's Knowledge by Ritual, Peter J. Leithart invites to a renewed connection between ritual and knowledge -- not the customary ritual and belief but ritual in serving of learning.  It is not a common connection to be sure but it is deep and profound.  Johnson's book is now on my reading list and I expect that many who practice ritual and teaching will be very interested in the ties.

In the end it is should not be a surprise.  Do we not learn by repetition and do our repetitions not form a stylized ritual?  I think here of a child learning his abc's or multiplication tables.  Or, if you want to reach back in time, my own learning of cursive by the repetition of stylistic cues from the old Palmer method and its icons of alphabet and form.  Leithart reminds us of the pianist who learns by repeatedly practicing the form and notes as a ritual of rehearsal that does not merely remind but informs and, informing, renders competence.

Epistemology and ritual are rarely considered together. They are often opposed (“mindless ritual”), and ritual is more often associated with belief than with knowledge. At best, ritual is understood as an expression of knowledge that has been arrived at by other means. Dru Johnson doesn’t think these positions do justice to either ritual or epistemology. In Knowledge by Ritual, he argues that human knowledge is “ritualed.” Ritualed knowledge isn’t some bizarre mystical form of knowledge but a central feature of scientific learning, modernity’s paradigm of knowledge acquisition. 

Johnson works with a general definition of ritual: It is “a practice that is scripted (usually by an authority) and performed by a subject.” In short, “rituals are something scripted and something done.” Epistemology has neglected ritual because it often assumes a mind-body dualism and has little interest in physical action. It focuses on propositional knowledge in the mind: “‘The sky is blue’ is true if the sky is in fact blue.” But this captures only a small slice of what knowing is. Drawing on the work of philosophers and neuroscientists, Johnson insists that our knowing is connected to what we do with our bodies. We don’t know as disembodied minds; without bodies and the tools by which we extend our bodies, we couldn’t know at all. Further, we don’t come to know in isolation but in community—specifically, in communal rites.

The rites and ritual of the Divine Service (Mass) are the deepest and most significant ways in which we not only practice what we believe but inform that faith, learning from the repetition knowledge as well as expressing our trust.  I confess that my children knew the liturgy well enough for them to sing its words in the car as we headed in the long trips to the grandparents.  While other children might be singing the theme songs from their favorite cartoons, mine were singing This is the Feast or the Sanctus or even the hymns (most assuredly adult and yet not far from the ability of a child to learn, sing, and rehearse the faith in this way).

One of the greatest dangers of the aliturgical forms of worship so popular among evangelicals and the evangelical wings of liturgical churches is that the loss is not merely to the memory but to the body of knowledge of the faith.  I can well recall sitting at a pastor's meeting debating some point when a pastor who had been silent asked, "what do we sing in the hymn?"  He then pointed us to the answer in the form of the words to a familiar Lutheran chorale that we routinely sang in our own parishes and together as a winkel.  I can well recall visiting in the nursing home and encountering residents whose memories had largely left them until we repeated the familiar words of the old Divine Service and the many stanzas of hymns memorized for catechism and then sung throughout their lives.  It was not merely a recollection of the past but the rehearsal of knowledge that was accessible to them by the rote of many Sunday mornings.  I could go on.

Any attempt at a sacramental theology that regards the authority of Scripture must reckon with this principle: we practice rites to know.”

That is exactly the point.  We practice rites to know -- to know who we are, what we believe, teach, and confess, and what it is that is eternal in the face of an ever changing world.  This is why it is so important to be in the Lord's House on the Lord's day and for the Divine Service to remain consistent even as it may incrementally change.  This is why it is so important for raising a child in the faith to bring them to the worship services of God's House.  This is why when our faith is tested and when our lives are in turmoil, we return to the old and the familiar we have learned so that the words may continue to instruct our hearts when we struggle most to believe and to endure in the faith.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

The article is very thoughtful. Understanding the right place for some "rituals" we Christians practice requires us to remember they help us reinforce our beliefs, and reaffirm the truths God has taught us. For example, long ago I was a member of an orthodox Presbyterian church and I asked the pastor why we, as a congregation, did not recite the Lord's Prayer. He told me it was "ritualistic" and Jesus offered it merely as a "model" for a prayer. Some churches might agree with him, others do not. As a Lutheran for many years now, I love the reciting of the Lord's Prayer during every worship service, as well as the Apostles or Nicene Creed, and I love the Liturgy. These are wonderful "rituals." I say the Lord's Prayer every day as well. Why? Because Jesus taught me and you this prayer, and it is a ritual of great comfort to believers everywhere.

Janis Williams said...

The key here is how we engage the mind as ritual is performed. Too often the mind is engaged not in rejoicing in the meaning and Truth taught by the ritual of the Mass. Instead, it is engaged in questioning (why the heck are we doing this?) or complaining (why can't we sing 'peppy' songs?). I firmly believe part of the reason there are factions even in the LCMS is their minds are engaged not in learning, but cmplaint and question.

Second to this is understanding that catchesis (teaching and the resulting learning) is lifelong. Too many of us have graduated from the Catechism and Liturgy, and not into it.

Those aliturgical forms are teaching evangelicals, too. They are taught to disengage their minds and 'feel' instead. What they are learning is basically the same type o worship Israel engaged in when following the Baals.

The temptation to disengage or improperly engage the mind requires conscious effort. I'm an adult convert to the Lutheran Church, and there are Sunday's and services in which I fail miserably. Liturgy requires using the mind; if we have to think about it to perform the actions correctly, we should also hear, mark and inwardly digest what we receive.

Dru Johnson said...

I'd love to hear your critique if you get time to read the book.