Ritual, The Husk of True Faith

Brian Johnstonfaith, Mormon, parables, religion, sacrament 31 Comments

Tao Te Ching 38
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

Ritual is important in religion. It is important in life. Can we become so clever that we reject the rituals? Sure, we know that waters of baptism don’t actually clean someone physically from intangible sin. The person doesn’t really die and then come back to life. The bread and wine of sacrament are not flesh and blood.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, spilled his blood and died for our sins upon a wooden cross. He was a symbol of great sacrifice. Did God really have to do that physically? Isn’t it the same to just think about the symbol? Can’t we just talk about? We can be very logical and concrete. There is no proof that it really matters. It is silly and naive to do such things, childlike. They are not necessary.

Or does that perspective tear away the husk of true faith?

We seek the sweet kernels of corn inside. We seek the fatty meat and milk of the coconut. It’s hidden inside past the husk. Those delightful morsels can’t become fruit without the husk to shield and protect them while they grow. Once the fruit is mature, is the husk of no use? No. It holds and protects what is inside — a container for something delicious.

The master knows that deconstruction beyond ritual is the borderline of chaos. The capstone can not shine and reflect in the rays of the glorious sun without the base stones holding it up.

Ritual is the husk of true faith. This is the reality. Can you let go of your illusions and let it happen?

Comments 31

  1. The church has such an interesting relationship with ritual, IMO.

    On one hand, the church is critical of other religious groups who have memorized prayers, or weddings with pomp and circumstance. On the other hand, it has a memorized sacrament prayer, and other ordinances such as baptism, temples, and the sacrament have to be done just so, or the participants start over and do them again and again until they are right. (for example, I was baptized 3 times because my hair didn’t go completely under the water).

  2. I’m not sure what I think on this issue. I definitely see the importance of ritual (or structure of any kind, really) in religion and in life in general. Whether or not specific structure is/was physically necessary (i.e. Christ being killed) is a matter that I suppose only God knows. As for the ritual in the church I’m not too concerned about the actual structure of it, nor if one particular action etc. is what actually works the magic, but rather what kind of person one becomes after years of performing the ritual, whether it is the sacrament, home teaching, temple work, etc.

    #1 Me – I really wanted to respond with some pseudo-scholarly words of my own, but I won’t. What I’m really wondering is, what is you’re point? If you are an expert on the Tao, however, I am interested in hearing more from you (sincerely). Maybe scholarly guest post?

  3. “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, spilled his blood and died for our sins upon a wooden cross. He was a symbol of great sacrifice. Did God really have to do that physically? Isn’t it the same to just think about the symbol? Can’t we just talk about? We can be very logical and concrete. There is no proof that it really matters. It is silly and naive to do such things, childlike. They are not necessary.”

    For most of us I would assume they want it to be physical, logical and concrete or your basing it on fiction. Basing our beliefs on the eyes of our understanding feels weak and like a good novel!

    * J. Reuben Clark: “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”

  4. Valoel,

    Wow! Just wow! That was great. If it’s okay, I’m going to pretend I wrote this and claim credit — except that it’s too smart for me so everyone will be able to immediately tell it isn’t mine. 🙂

    Martin Luther wrote about this, indirectly, when he spoke of why baptism was needed for salvation. I need to find the quote and put it up here. The basic idea is that everyone needs a something concrete to place their faith in and baptism is how one concretely accepts Christ. Thus it’s not a ‘work’ you do that brings salvation, it’s God’s work that he does to bring salvation.

    I think this is why Christian religions that have removed the concept of baptism as the basis for accepting Christ had to come up with their own replacement ritual (i.e. “getting saved”) because they still needed the concrete action in which to wrap their faith around.

  5. I think of rituals + faith as being like physical + spiritual. Many traditions emphasize faith over ritual (and spiritual over physical), but I believe that is a mistake to disembody our faith in this way. Form creates functionality.

  6. When I cook there are two things that happen. I can be cooking for the simple act to provide food for myself or for my family or I can make a meal that becomes an art were I take care with every ingredient and with what I am doing and I put thought into the food I am preparing.

    Rituals can become mindless repetitions or rituals can become acts of thoughtfulness where we ponder on the act and it’s significance. Have we all sat back and really considered why the Lord wants the sacrament prayer said in such a way?

    And as with Shakespeare you don’t really understand him until you’ve memorized his lines and acted out his plays. Rituals become the husk of true faith when people no longer think about them or they can become small gateways into an impressed message.

  7. #8 – That is a wonderful way to think about and phrase it. Thanks.

    I feel like sharing three experiences – much along the lines of Breakdown’s comment:

    1) I LOVE performing baptisms in the temple. It is, without question, my favorite activity there – even though I thoroughly enjoy all the ordinances. I particularly am grateful that the Church practically has demanded that those who perform the baptisms slow down and do so at a “normal” pace.

    A few years ago, I decided to treat each and every baptism as a separate and distinct ordinance, as it should be considered and truly is. I know the baptismal prayer without having to think about it, so before each baptism I look at the name, memorize it (with a few exceptions – you’ve seen some of the names!), bow my head, close my eyes and voice the prayer in the exact same manner as I have when I baptized my own children. I speak clearly and pronounce each word with care. Then I open my eyes, look at the proxy and lower him or her into the water the same way I would if I were baptizing a new convert or one of my children. It has been amazing experience.

    2) In my current calling, I receive e-mails occasionally from the Stake Executive Secretary asking me to indicate approval of a stake calling that needs to be issued. Whenever I see such an e-mail, I pause, close my eyes and say a very quick, simple prayer that I will be able to know if there is any reason why the calling should not be extended as proposed. I don’t know if I will ever receive a “Don’t approve this” answer, but just taking time to honor the “ritual” has been a neat experience.

    3) Whenever I am at the podium announcing a calling and asking if there are any who oppose that calling, I always take a moment and scan the congregation (clearly and distinctly) to see if anyone is raising their hand. Then I turn and look at those sitting on the stand. I feel confident those on the stand won’t be opposing the calling(s), but the pure ritual should provide them the honor of being included in the request to show disapproval if they so desire.

    I agree that ritual loses its power when it is not accorded respect and serious consideration – when it becomes nothing more than a vain repetition in practical performance.

  8. What a great post.

    As far as our mortal understanding goes, we are nothing more than the stories we tell. God is a storyteller of the highest order. I don’t believe this diminishes the power of God or the power of religion, rather it is a beautiful way of teaching and giving meaning to things that are too abstract or beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. When we explain complicated concepts to our children, we use stories. These stories are for all intents and purposes “true,” but as a parent we know perfectly well that “there is more to the story.” We know (hope) our kids will figure it out on their own, in time. In the meantime, however, they have something to hang onto, something to guide them. All this to say that when we participate in ritual, I think we are inserting ourselves into a narrative. We become part of the story. The baptism itself isn’t important, but our new understanding of who we are what is expected of us is vital. If it wasn’t the act of baptism, it would take another form. But there will always be a form. There will always be a narrative. So no, we can never become so clever that we can escape ritual. We may escape or reject certain specific rituals, but they will always be replaced (as Bruce N. already indicated) by another one, another form of narrative, another physical entanglement. We are all fully engaged in rituals in our personal and family lives, not sacred rituals per se, but set forms of behavior that bind us to other people, and represent chosen values and commitments. A light and goofy example: going on a date with my wife. Or calling my parents every Sunday evening. Or sorting the recycling. Or mowing the lawn. By doing these things, I am telling a story about who I am. I am committing to an idea of who I want to become. Looking at it this way makes me feel less nervous about the idea of ritualistic worship and more impressed with the system set up by a wise and merciful God.

  9. I agree with Ray on this one that ritual for the sake of it becomes meaningless. but ritual with a defined purpose that is respected and administered in the proper manner is a literal form of worship.

    I am glad the Temple is a ritual that I can partake of over and over again. In the right frame of mind, I learn something each time, both said and unsaid.

    On the other hand, a ritualized prayer as we can might hear on Sunday, that is spoken quickly with the appropriate buzz words and phrases is not very effective worship for us. My pet peeve is the way we close our prayer with competition as to who can say “in the name of Jesus Christ” the fastest and most unintelligible.

  10. Post

    I propose that vain repetition is not proof against ritual. It is proof of it. Vain repetition fails because someone is not really performing the ritual. It’s not enough to go through the motions, you have to believe it and put faith-focus into the act. There are no short cuts.

    I liked your description using the stories Joe. Thanks.

  11. Here is the quote I remember:

    But as our would-be wise, new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in us is of any avail but faith, as we shall hear still further. But these blind guides are unwilling to see this, namely, that faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water [of baptism], and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it.

  12. Thanks for the post, it makes me think of the lines from Julius Caesar (from memory – sorry if it is inaccurate):

    “When Love begins to sicken and decay, it useth an enforced ceremony. There are no tricks in plain and simple faith, but hollow men like horses hot in hand make gallant show and promise of their mettle, yet when they should the bloody spur endure . . .”

  13. C. Biden,

    But they’d also say the cross symbolizes that sacrifice.

    I think you are refering to this: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, spilled his blood and died for our sins upon a wooden cross. He was a symbol of great sacrifice. Did God really have to do that physically? Isn’t it the same to just think about the symbol? Can’t we just talk about? We can be very logical and concrete. There is no proof that it really matters. It is silly and naive to do such things, childlike. They are not necessary.”

    And I agree with you that Jesus’ sacrifice is oh so much more than merely a symbol of great sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t now symbolize to me great sacrifice.

    Still, the way Valoel words this, there is no consideration of the possiblity that there was a literal taking on of the sins of the world with Jesus’ death and so I do see your point here, C. Biden.

    And I do think your point is relevant because frankly what kind of God would have put his Son (or anyone) through what Jesus went through for no other reason but to symbolize great sacrifice for us? So we are left with a hanging question that the need for rituals alone never answers.

  14. Post

    #17 & #18

    RE: Christ’s sacrifice. I would be fine if my statement were changed to “He was a symbol of the great sacrifice.” It sounds like we would all agree really.

    My point was that some people say it doesn’t matter. I think it does. I don’t know why, but it does. That’s the marvel of ritual. I’m trying to work through the irrational husk of the ritual and believe, so I can get to the fruit.

  15. “what kind of God would have put his Son (or anyone) through what Jesus went through for no other reason but to symbolize great sacrifice for us?”

    Bruce, would it change your perspective if the question above asked instead:

    “What kind of a God would have **allowed** his Son (to go) through what Jesus went through (in order) to symbolize great sacrifice for (all of His children)?” The ancient Jews believed in and practiced both animal sacrifice AND the ceremonial cleansing associated with the scapegoat. Why is it abhorrent to think that God would allow someone to live and die as Jesus did, fully within the “normalacy” of His time, and allow that life and death to become the great symbol of His love for all?

    Seriously, I have a hard time understanding why seeing the Garden and the cross as just as important for its symbolism as for its actuality is a bad thing. Of course, the resurrection brings a very tangible “reality” to the events, but why does that need to lessen the power of its symbolism in any way?

  16. “but why does that need to lessen the power of its symbolism in any way?”

    Interesting questions, Ray. If Jesus is not literally the Son of God and didn’t literally atone for my sins but God *allowed* his sacrifice to come to symbolize great sacrifice and atonement… hey, who am I to argue with God?

    But I do think it’s a valid if a symbolic atonement could ever be the same as a real atonement. I would assert that there is no logic possilility real and “symbol alone” can ever be equal.

    Any comparision between a symbol alone and a reality (that is also a symbol) should quickly show that these two could never be equal. Does symbolically eatting have the same meaning as reallying eatting? Does symbolically having children? Does symbolically making a sacrifice? Are we moved by belief in the reality of a story as much as by belief in the same story as fiction? — even if we can be moved by both? I don’t think there is any comparision here. If there were, Hollywood wouldn’t slap “inspired by a true story” on every work of fiction they produce. 😛 (I especially enjoyed “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” since it was 100% a work of fiction.)

    That being said, for someone that only sees it as a symbol, the fact that I see it as a reality shouldn’t lessen the symbol for them and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

    But my point was not whether or not the Jesus story can be a powerful symbol or not to someone that doesn’t believe in it’s reality.

    My point was that C. Biden is correct that Christians do not buy it as just a symbol and that you can’t explain the story as just a symbol and get the same power out of it. I’m not saying Valoel was calling it just a symbol, as per his own follow up comment. But it could have been taken that way.

    My point was that as a believing Christian the power of the atonement is in the literalness of it. Jesus was God incarnate and nothing else will do. You can’t just turn his sacrifice into a symbol without destorying basically everything that means anything to a Christian. My wording wasn’t meant to be all inclusive of possible beliefs, but to simply illustrate the impossibility of reconciling the two positions.

    Even with your explanation, Ray, I’m afraid I am just not the type of person that could get anything out of the Jesus story without literally believing it. Even if God used Jesus post-facto to make a good story and ritual to help people lead better lives, the fact is that I have no desire to know any more about it once that is established as fact. It was nice while I actually believed in it, but now that I don’t, I’ll move on. (That’s how I would see it if I no longer believed in it, that is.) I am hardly the only person in the world where this is true, for better or worse, and we shouldn’t forget this.

    I was also trying to illustrate that symbols alone aren’t enough to explain the story. Just as you can’t do without rituals, you often can’t do without literalness — at least at some level. Even many of your NOM friends here still literally believe in God, at least, even if they don’t think of God as personal any more. But you can’t really just drop literalness all together.

  17. Surely the symbol is there to remind us of the thing itself-it is not the thing itself.We can only fumble towards an understanding of the thing itself,eventually hoping to achieve no will of our own,to be able to dwell,or tolerate,reality,to be able to let all of our cherished illusions go.I find this an immensely useful conceptualisation of faith.Thankyou.

  18. “But I do think it’s a valid if a symbolic atonement could ever be the same as a real atonement. ”

    should have read:

    “But I do think it’s a valid [question] if a symbolic atonement could ever be [equal to] a real atonement.”

  19. This discussion begs why I wish “myth” were not connotatively seen as a put down. The friction many face to see faith as fundamentally shaped by myth, makes them consciously reluctant to embrace the mystery, the paradox, the fusion of the symbolic and the real. This is the power of myth to mold a person today, and still have power to transmute to new times and cultures. Yet we want to reverse engineer what forms and shapes us. We want to know exactly what parts are “symbolic” (or imaginary, faked, invented) and what is “literal” (or real, trustworthy, actual). It would be funny how parochial this approach is were this Western worldview not so beneficial, and prevalent, to the way many of us live out daily life.

    When it is only the literal or only the symbolic that must win out, then, in my view, we have cheapened our human spiritual experience. However, that doesn’t settle any argument about what is precisely symbolic and what is precisely literal. 🙂

  20. “When it is only the literal or only the symbolic that must win out, then, in my view, we have cheapened our human spiritual experience.”

    I won’t speak for C. Biden, but I was just trying to affirm where I (at the time) thought he was going with this. Valoel’s wording sounded like it might mean the only issues is if we need a symbolic story of Jesus or no story (with his answer being “symbolic please.”) There was no consideration of the literal in the original text. He’s since clarified this.

    To put this in a different way, JFQ, you are now considering literal vs. symbolic when the original quesiton was not literal vs. symbolic.

    Also, I doubt anyone — if you really got down to it — feels it’s such a simple question of what is literal and what is symbolic. Obviously it’s always both at some level. But certain aspects of religion are non-negotiable to their adherents; a point that often gets overlooked by people that like to emphasize the more “spiritual/symbolic” approach to religion.

    It occured to me that my original statement that Ray asked me about made more sense if I dropped the aside: “what kind of God would have put his Son through what Jesus went through for no other reason but to symbolize great sacrifice for us?”

    By adding the “(or anyone)” I unfortunately derailed my real point: that you can’t look at Jesus’ sacrifice in a purely symbolic way and still view him as the literal and unique incarnation of God. These are mutually exclusive points, I’m afraid. I can imagine a very spiritual man that wasn’t literally the Son of God whom God used his sacrifice as a way of teaching about sacrifice. I can’t imagine God incarnating (His Divine Son) for the sole sake of making a symbol. That was actually the point I originally intended with my comment.

  21. Everyone, I probably need to be much more explicit when dealing with complicated questions like the symbolism and reality incorporated within the Atonement. I had no clue people would read my comment and think that “my explanation” was that the Atonement was purely symbolic – and that Jesus was not actually the Son of God. I was asking a question about the wording of a “how could God do . . .” question.

    My point was much like JFQ’s comment in #26. I don’t think we can separate the symbolic from the real, since we have no idea how it all happened. I think when we try to divorce the “symbolic” from the “real”, we end up killing what we are analyzing – just like trying to separate the spirit from the body to understand each better. Sure, we might end up understanding each part better in isolation, but we’ve destroyed the unique combination that made it worth studying in the first place.

    I choose to believe that the Atonement (all of it – not just the suffering part) is highly symbolic and highly real – and I’m not sure at all where to draw those lines. Honestly, I prefer to not draw them in permanent marker; pencil works just fine – and no recorded lines work even better. At least, for me that works better, since I have no problem admitting I have no firm clue.

  22. Bruce (27): I wasn’t writing to address any person in particular. Ray (30) I think got my point that I probably could have framed more clearly.

    I think these kind of questions deteriorate because of our general lack of comfort with myth (which many see means it’s fake, imaginary, invented, less than real) and our less than consciously self-aware grasp on the transformative power of myth.

    I also see ritual, like others have said, as providing a living, participative narrative. But I’ll go a step further that it isn’t just any narrative, but that ritual helps us to take a more active part in the myth that shapes us. I don’t mean to say this as a put down at all. Nor do I say it to be wishy-washy, as I don’t think all myth on the meta-narrative level is equal in value.

    However, I do think that all myth competes in a living way to survive time and cultural transmutation. Ritual aids this, but the loss of liturgical ritual is not chaos. Actually I don’t think chaos like the aformentioned Tao Te Ching seems to say is quite achievable. More essential to myth is the mental structure and ritual that contains it. If this ceases to exist, then _a_ myth dies. Is that chaos, though? Other myth fills the vacuum.

    (I also strongly disagree with Fowler’s Stage 6 definition of Enlightenment — it’s tangentially related to this point though I won’t explore it now.)

    So, similar to Ray, I don’t think it is a certain exercise, other than it being an important personal exercise for some, to deconstruct the literal from the symbolic within our personal myth. If someone asks me if I believe Jesus was only human or was he really divine? Was the Atonement real or is it symbolic? The only fair (short) answer I can give someone else is “Yes. He is real.” Sure, I enjoy the exploration of its symbolic parts, and I don’t think that compromises the reality of the Divine. Christ, He is the myth I respect, embrace, treat as the ultimate myth, and submit to be shaped by. The kind or amount of my external liturgical ritual isn’t really a good predictor of how securely my mythic commitment stands braced against chaos.

  23. Ritual can and should be understood beyond symbolically. Without getting into some of the alternatives, ritual can also be understood performatively. Here, the enactment of ritual (done properly) accomplishes something other than conveying a meaning for something else (as in a husk containing a seed). Specifically it accomplishes an embodied learning where the performance of the ritual serves to transform the individual through proper practice into a cultivated self (a ritualized self). It also serves to enact an ontological change, where a baptism, for instance, does not merely represent the cleansing of sin, but literally is the cleansing of sin. In this sense ritual is not instrumentalized to the degree you portray–ritual is not the unnessary means to an ends; rather it is an essential means, and in some sense can be regarded as an ends in itself.

    BTW, the Dao De Jing passage you cite is contextualized within a framework that interprets ritual performatively. In other words the suspicion of the author in regards to ritual is that it cannot really accomplish the performative claim others assert. It cannot ultimately lead to a ritualized self that is in tune with the Dao.

  24. Post

    I want to believe that performing rituals does what you say SmallAxe. I think you are right. The hard part for me is letting go and allowing it to happen. I’m pushing out the idea that it isn’t just a symbol and nothing more. You have to do it to experience it. It is the process of doing that matters, not just the understanding.

  25. Minor observation…

    I like the paucity of words with this post. Words on the Internet are cheap. It takes real skill to say more with less. And its more powerful too.

  26. The following idea was ‘lifted’ from Dr. Chris Foster of BYU.

    First, there was the Way.
    Then when the Way was corrupted, it became religion.
    When religion was corrupted, it became ritual.

    As I pondered this thought, I would put my spin on it in this manner:

    Christ is the way, the truth and the life. To stay there is the ultimate destination of the spiritual seeker. Devolving to religion, which corresponds to man’s attempt to organize things and people causes a loss of the path. As religion becomes stagnant, the emphasis is then on the rituals. as a means to try to remember that which no longer has meaning.

    Shoot, I don’t even understand that…

  27. Post

    #28 I see what you are getting at, but I am making the point that you still use them all. It isn’t a mutually exclusive choice of: Way or Religion or Ritual. You don’t escape religion and ritual by being a part of the way. That is my challenge to those of us (including myself) who might think that we don’t have to bother with such frivolities anymore.

  28. I would phrase things a little differently:

    At the individual level, there is The Way.
    In order to reach more individuals and expose them to The Way, there is Religion.
    In order to embody The Way and embed It into practical life, there is Ritual – within or without Religion.

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