Reformacja w Polsce, Reformation in Poland

Biblical Horizons Blog

James Jordan at

Biblical Horizons Feed

No. 43: Gordon Wenham on Ritual

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 43
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
January, 1995

In a brief article entitled, “The Theology of Old Testament Sacrifice," Gordon Wenham, expanding on a comment about ritual from anthropologist Monica Wilson, states:

In a similar way, Wenham goes on to argue, rituals provide a key to a culture’s most fundamental and important values. From this basis, he examines the Old Testament sacrificial system with a view to discovering what communal values are embodied therein.

I don’t mean to beat up on Wenham. Much of his article is unexceptionable, and I recognize that he is trying to explain a complex topic in a few sentences. Wenham perhaps realizes that he is writing to an evangelical audience for whom emotional excitement is nearly the essence of religion, and therefore tries to defend ritual on that basis. Still, the exercise of critically examining this paragraph will be useful in thinking about ritual.

1. It is not true that we express our “deepest feelings” in ritual, if this means, as it seems to for Wenham, that the degree of ritualization is directly proportional to the intensity of our emotions. In fact, both in daily life and on special occasions we often go through “rituals” without feeling any strong emotions at all. My wife will not, I hope, be offended to learn that I generally feel no more intense emotion when I kiss her goodbye in the morning than when I wave to the postman. (This does not, I hasten to add, mean kissing my wife is no more important than waving to the postman.) How often do we move through a worship service without being deeply moved? Often, I suspect. Indeed, it is a common criticism of ritualized activity that it is dry and unexciting and provides no outlet for strong feeling. I do not believe that is correct, but neither do I want to endorse the opposite extreme by making a direct connection between intense emotion and ritual.

The error is fundamentally in Wenham’s apparent equation of “regarding something as important” with “being moved by strong emotions.” It is true that we frequently ritualize events and actions that we deem important (see #4, below), but we do many important things and recognize many important events without necessarily being moved emotionally. Moreover, different participants in a ritual have different kinds and intensities of emotion. Christmas is intensely exciting to a young child; the same “ritual” brings quite different feelings to an adult and perhaps nothing more than a vague contented numbness, or relief in having a day or two off work.

2. What can it mean to say, “the more moved we are emotionally, the more ritual we employ”? Degrees of emotion make some sense, but does it make sense to talk about degrees of ritual? Is it “more ritualized” to dress up for a wedding than it is to wear old jeans and a sweatshirt to a baseball game? Is it “more ritualized” to kiss an aunt you haven’t seen in years than it is to shake hands with a business partner? In the latter case, we might say that kissing your long-lost aunt is more emotional but is it helpful to say it is “more ritualized”? Perhaps the notion that there are degrees of ritualization is useful if “ritualization” means “degree to which conformity to specific rules is required”; in this sense, it is meaningful to say that Orthodox worship is “more ritualized” than that of the Plymouth Brethren.

In daily life, it would be more accurate to say that it is on important occasions ‘ marriages, deaths, important milestones ‘ that we highlight the ritual character of our behavior. In daily life my gestures of greeting are not marked off as “ritual” in the way a wedding is. We employ “more ritual” in a wedding than in daily greetings in the sense that we employ various means ‘ clothing, food, music, the act of gathering ‘ to make the wedding a special occasion. The differences in the “amount of ritual” is really a matter of the degree to which we consciously and intentionally engage in special kinds of behavior.

3. Is it true that we engage in ritual activity to “express” emotions? This formulation implies that the emotions pre-exist the ritual and are given visible, public form in the ritual. On the contrary, rituals evoke and guide emotions. We don’t plan a wedding because we feel strongly and want to perform a ritual to express those feelings. We feel strongly, if at all, in the course of participating in or observing a wedding; the words, gestures, setting, music conspire to move us. Funerals are different; for the family at least, strong emotions of sorrow precede the ceremony. (At least this is true in the West. In some cultures, anthropologists observe that ritual expressions of grief are strangely detached from any feeling of sorrow; a woman will interrupt her heart-rending lament to gossip, laugh, or helpfully explain something to the anthropologist.) But even in the case of a Western funeral, it is not enough to say that the ceremony “expresses” the emotions. Instead of merely expressing grief, the funeral ‘ with its words of comfort, its expressions of friendship and love, its reminiscences, its meals ‘ provides a pathway helping those who grieve to cross the threshold into a new world in which the loved one is no longer there. The rite shapes emotions as much as it expresses them.

4. Perhaps Wenham does not mean “deepest feelings” in the sense I’ve been taking it, but instead means something like “deepest concerns” or “things that are most important.” Thus, his argument would be: People ritualize those events and actions that are most important to them, and the rituals of a culture express its fundamental convictions about itself and the world. This is a much stronger argument. I’m still not sure that “express” is the best way to think about it, because it implies a priority of belief to practice that, in turn, suggests a primacy of the intellect. It is better to recognize that practice often precedes conscious belief, as for example in the case of children. At a theological level, John Frame has rightly argued that there is a circular relationship between knowledge of God and obedience, between belief and practice. And it seems unreasonable to suggest that every “ritual” is based on deep convictions; what beliefs are expressed by my nod to the neighbor?

Even with these qualifications, Wenham’s claims, while they may apply well enough to the biblical material, do not fit the evidence of ritual in general. Far from expressing the deepest beliefs and convictions of a culture, many rites quite explicitly reverse community values. Fertility feasts permit indiscriminate sex that is prohibited in daily life; beatings and other forms of violence are frequently part of primitive ritual, though they are not necessarily encouraged in daily life; foods normally forbidden are consumed at certain feasts. Max Gluckman has argued that these “rituals of rebellion” do, in the end, reinforce a community’s moral values by providing a catharsis for hostilities that cannot be expressed in daily life. Even if this is true, the possibility of reversals introduces a complexity into ritual behavior. Communal values cannot necessarily be directly and easily read off from rituals. Moreover, ritual forms may persist when the values with which they were originally associated have evaporated; they become to ritual what “dead metaphors” are in speech.