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The Table Video

James K.A. Smith

Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
March 27, 2014

Dr. James K.A. Smith of Calvin College argues for the importance of ritual to Christian development. He explains that people are formed by the habits in which they participate, so training in faith is comparable to training in athletics or musicianship in that it requires repetition. Dr. Smith considers why evangelicals tend to oppose ritual and offers differing viewpoints in favor of liturgy.


As Greg mentioned, the title of my talk is Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice. If you are a North American Evangelical, that title is loaded with bad words. [crowd laughs] Ritual, penance, I’m gonna use more bad words tonight, liturgy. If you’re from Saint Matthew’s, your heart is strangely warmed by all of these terms. [crowd laughs] But if you’re like me, somebody who’s coming from Evangelical Protestantism in North America all of these terms, along with the very notion of Lent, all sound a bit religious.

So my goal this evening is really both modest and audacious at the same time. I wanna convince Protestants that we need not be allergic to ritual. And that Lent in fact is a wonderful season to practice our way to new convictions on this score. But ultimately I want us to think about holiness, and I want us think about the nature of sanctification. If penance takes practice, it’s because holiness takes practice. So let me begin by asking, who’s afraid of ritual? Protestants tend to brace at the mention of this R word.

The word is a trigger, that kind of unconsciously evokes a whole reformation history, that is kind of sunk into our bones. So we, a lot of us North American Evangelicals associate ritual with dead orthodoxy and vain repetition and the denial of grace, and trying to earn our salvation, and scoring points with God, and going through the motions and all kinds of forms of spiritual insincerity.

And yet, we affirm, even celebrate, ritual in other spheres of our lives. We recognize that the pursuit of excellence often requires a devotion to a regime of routines and disciplines that are formative, precisely because they are repetitive. So anyone who has mastered, unlike I have not. But anyone who’s trying to master a golf swing, or anybody who has mastered a Bach fugue, is a ritual animal. One simply doesn’t achieve that kind of excellence otherwise In both cases what you have is ritual that is marked by embodied repetition.

Because what’s going on is ritual, recruits our will through the body. So the cellists fingers, become habituated by moving back and forth through scale, after scale. And the golfers whole body, is trained by a million practice swings. Because we are these sorts of embodied creatures of habit, and I would emphasize we’re created that way by God, so this isn’t a surprise to Him. We are profoundly shaped by ritual. Now that’s also why rituals can deform us. We witness, or we know first hand, the destructive power of routines and rhythms that can hold us and make us captive. And make us actually somebody we don’t want to be.

In all of these cases we implicitly intuit that rituals are not just something that we do, they do something to us. Rituals aren’t just something that we do, they are doing something to us. And that formative power works on the body. Not just the mind. So why should we be so allergic to ritual, when it comes to thinking about our spiritual life? We embrace ritual when we’re learning the cello or when we’re learning golf. And yet we tend to be somewhat allergic to ritual when it comes to discipleship. Could we perhaps redeem ritual? That’s what I wanna try to do tonight.

Our negative evaluation of ritual I think stems from a couple of bad assumptions that I wanna sort of explore and think through. First, when it comes to religious devotion, we tend to see ritual observance as if it was a mere obedience to duty. A way of kind of scoring points with God, or even earning spiritual credit and I think what’s going on here and this is the mistake, is we have a tendency to see ritual as a bottom up effort.

That is, it’s just that notion of effort then, something that we do that starts to sound like work and it doesn’t take too long before you can understand why somebody worries that this sounds like salvation by works and we’re denying the gospel. Now, I think it’s important to grant that in fact, some religious folk undoubtedly participate in rituals in that misguided way. That is, we can join John Calvin and Martin Luther and the reformers in actually rejecting forms of ritual observance that are what they called superstitious.

As if these were magical things that we do to sort of earn and curry God’s favor, but why should we settle for simply identifying ritual with that kinds of works righteousness, or I would put it this way, why should we let the Pelagians get to own ritual? We can have a much more nuanced take on ritual and we do so in other fears of our life. So for example, we can tell when somebody is, we’ll say just going through the motions right?

But, we don’t necessarily then see the motions themselves as a problem, so for example, we can tell the difference between the piano student practicing her scales because she has to, because mom said so, but you know, there’s another piano student who is practicing the same scales and going through the same rituals, because she wants to. How do we tell the difference? See some might enter ritual as merely bottom up duty but others appreciate why the ritual is important.

Not just because it’s an expression of my devotion, but because it is a means by which I am shaped and formed and transformed. I think the first reason why we misunderstand ritual, is we assume that it is just this bottom up expressive activity that I engage in to show my devotion and we forget that actually ritual has a formative dimension that is shaping and molding me. You could say it’s top down because the Spirit of God is at work in the rituals.

So, if I commit myself to the ritual of playing scales for an hour a day for years on end, it’s because I know this is a way for me to become something I want to be. So when I first heard the first Mumford and Sons album about what is it, four or five years ago now, I literally heard the album, went and bought a banjo. [crowd laughing] I thought, I was born to play the banjo and I know it now, because I just heard the banjo played this way. I still can’t play the banjo, however, I know what it would take for me to be able to play the banjo, and would actually take me committing myself to ritual practices that I actually haven’t been able to carve out the time to do. But, the reason that I want to enter those rituals, is because I want to be a banjo player. I want to be that guy.

I want to be Marcus Mumford right? It’s because I see the ritual not as just something I do, but as a formative practice that does something to me. So the ritual is not just a bottom up exercise on my part, it’s also a kind of top down force that makes me and molds me. I’ll see the ritual as a way for me you could say, to get caught up in the music. It’s a way for my fingers and hands and mind and imagination to be recruited into the symphony I want to play.

Well, if that’s true on the natural level, why shouldn’t it also be true when it comes to our spiritual life? Historic Christian devotion bequeaths to us rituals and rhythms and routines that are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit.” They are concrete practices that are conduits of the power of the Spirit and the transformative grace of God. Think of just some very ho-hum rituals in Christian worship.

For example, I come from the Reformed Protestant tradition and in some of our congregations what will happen is week after week, the congregation stands to hear the Word of God. Why? Well, that shift in bodily posture, sends a little unconscious signal. Something important is coming, listen up. And after we hear the Word, the preacher then announces this is the Word of the Lord, to which the entire congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” You might take that for granted, you might even say it without thinking about it but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing something.

It’s a tiny little ritual that sort of trains your body to learn something about the authority of God’s Word, and then to respond in gratitude. I hope we’ll get a … By the way, there’s gonna be question and answer afterwards, so come with your criticisms, worries, comments, questions at the end. One of the things I would love for us to talk about, is the significance of little things. The macro significance of micro practices.

Spirit-charged rituals are tangible ways that God gets hold of us, re-orients us, empowers us to be His image bearers. They are the ways for the Spirit to meet us where we are as embodied creatures of habit. We are not disembodied angels. We’ve been made as material creatures and the Spirit of God meets us in that way.

Now, I think there’s a second reason why, let’s say particularly North American Evangelical Protestants tend to de-value ritual. The first reason I’ve suggested is, we think of ritual primarily only as a bottom up expressive effort, and don’t realize that actually, it’s an invitation to a top down formative force of the Spirit. Second reason I think we de-value ritual is because in a way, we have a tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of beliefs.

That is, we tend to treat Christian faith as primarily a heady affair and see human beings and believers as primarily thinking things and in fact, my own Reformed tradition kind of has the corner on this market right? We are the champions of talking head Christianity, or what I sometimes call bobble head Christianity right? You know, you go to a Dodgers game and they’re giving out bobble heads and it has this humongous head and this tiny little body because it doesn’t really, it’s not really, it doesn’t have the same sort of significance.

Now, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, describes what he calls “intellectualism”. Now this is an odd use of the phrase because what he means is, an intellectualist view of the human person, is one that tends to overemphasize the significance of ideas and beliefs. Now Greg and I were talking about this at dinner. It would seem very odd to say that North American Protestant Evangelicalism is guilty of being overly intellectualists, because in another way actually, a big part of our problem, is that we are anti-intellectualists.

But what’s ironic is that even our anti-intellectualism takes the form of an intellectualist view of discipleship which says becoming more like Christ is getting more of the right Biblical information, ideas and beliefs in your head. Discipleship is primarily construed as a matter of knowledge and Charles, this Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggested this is actually a little bit of a Frankensteinish outcome of the Protestant Reformation and I’m owning this as a Protestant.

I’m like okay, I actually think he’s onto something here, and it’s one of the reasons why Protestant worship is sort of dominated by the 45 minute lecture in the middle that we call the sermon right? Why? Because Taylor says, one of the sort of unintended outcomes of reform was this criticism of magical views of ritual, which I actually think is good. The critique of superstitious views of ritual, but it led to what Taylor calls, a dynamic of excarnation. Excarnation right? If you think of what incarnation is, which is this remarkable gospel mystery that the Creator of the Universe becomes flesh and I would say that’s the same thing that’s continued in sacramental worship right?

Is that same condescending God continues to meet us in the material practices of the ritual. That’s incarnation. Taylor says one of the things that sort of got unleashed by the Reformation and took off afterwards was a dynamic of excarnation which was a disembodiment of spiritual life that reduced true religion to right belief. Reduces true religion to right belief. So the result, was eventually a kind of complete reconfiguration of worship and devotion. Gradually Christian worship was no longer this full-orbed exercise that recruited the body and touched all the senses. Any night I get to sing the creed and smell incense, is a good night okay?

That doesn’t, for most Protestant worship experiences, it’s coming in and waiting for the information that you will receive. Protestants designed worship as if believers were little more than brains on a stick. Now, and part of what we should talk about here to is then, well what do we do with the overwhelming emotivism that also seems to characterize so much contemporary Protestant worship and we can talk about that.

The primary target though was the mind. The primary means was a long lecture-like sermon and the primary goal was to deposit the right doctrines, beliefs and ideas into our heads so that we could then be sent out into the world. The problem however, is that we were not created as brains on a stick. We are not merely thinking things. We are created as embodied, tactile, visceral creatures who are more than just cognitive processors or belief machines. So such excarnation is in a way, a denial of our good embodiment. As full bodied, image bearers of God, our center of gravity is located as much in our bodies as in our minds. This is precisely why the body is the way to the heart.

And it is this incarnational intuition I think that has long informed the rich history of spiritual disciplines and liturgical formation. Human beings are liturgical animals. We are shaped by ritual practices because we are embodied creatures. Now, let’s then explore why penance takes practice. The fact that we are liturgical animals, and by the way, for me that’s synonymous with saying that we are desiring creatures. We are lovers. You aren’t defined by what you think, you are defined by what you love. You are what you love and liturgies, I’m using the term in a broader sense. Let’s say liturgies are love-shaping practices. Liturgies are love-orienting rituals. We are liturgical animals because we are desiring creatures. We are lovers and our loves are shaped by those kinds of embodied practices.

We could also talk about how I think that’s bound up with the fact that we are imaginative creatures. Our orientation to the world is shaped by the imagination. Now, I’m suggesting that that is a structural feature or creature hood, of human creature hood that cannot be erased or effaced by sin. To be human is to be a lover, is to be a desiring creature and is to be a liturgical animal. Ultimately I want us to think about what this means for how the triune God meets us as liturgical animals and sanctifies our perception in Christian worship. But, we also need to recognize that the same dynamics are at work underneath our disordered loves as well.

So, this liturgical model not only provides a framework for appreciating sanctification, becoming Christ-like, I think it also gives us new resources for understanding temptation. The deformation of our loves. More specifically, it provides resources for us to discern the how and why of our assimilation to visions of the good life that are in fact rivals to the vision of flourishing that God desires for His coming kingdom.

If discipleship is a matter of Christian formation and the formation of our imagination, we need to recognize the dynamics of the deformation of our loves works in the same way. If we learn to love the wrong things, that’s not just because of informational data that’s been put in our heads, it’s because we have been subject to rival liturgies. Now, I think this would require that we resist merely intellectualist accounts of sin. Let me, sorry, I bit off a lot more than I think I can chew tonight. Think of it this way, sin is … This is why this is so appropriate to be thinking about in Lent right?

This is a season of sort of renewed repentance, and I think part of that is recognizing that sin is not just or always the outcome of rational choices that we make. Our sin is also the outcome of habits that we have acquired. And I think that we will not come to appreciate the force and power of ritual and liturgy until we also own up to the reality of habit and the power of habit. If we have disordered loves, if there are things that we have not done and things that we have left undone, that’s not just because we made conscious, deliberative choices, it’s because we are the kinds of people whose loves have been habituated by rituals that have taught us to love the wrong things in the wrong way.

And so, undoing that, is not just about getting the right information in your mind so that you will know what you need to know to make the right choice, it’s a matter of rolling back your habituation, your habits. It’s a matter of being re-habituated. Re-habited. Much of our action I would say, is not the fruit of conscious deliberation, but is the outcome of acquired, habitual dispositions. And those dispositions are woven into us through practices, through rituals, through liturgies.

We absorb rival gospels as Habitus, as habits. And so we kind of act towards them. We’re pulled towards a rival vision of what we think the good life is. And this isn’t because we are intellectually convinced. It’s because we are habitually conscripted by practices that work on us unconsciously. So through a vast repertoire of what we might call secular liturgies, we end up becoming quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves governed by self love and the pursuit of domination. That’s Agustine’s “City of God”, that’s the entire summary of his analysis of the earthly city.

So, we toodle off to church or Bible study week after week comforting ourselves that we’re devoted to, as Jeremiah says in chapter seven, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, but then don’t realize what he says later in Jeremiah seven that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols, because we have failed to appreciate the religious nature of some of those “secular”, seemingly secular practices. So we become the kind of people that are inclined to a sort of low grade, socially acceptable greed that remakes us remarkably tolerant of the exploitation of the global poor.

It’s not because you showed up at the mall, and somebody gave you an argument and convinced you that that was okay. It’s because you’ve been living immersed in ritual practices that have unconsciously trained you to imagine the world in that way. You have to turn the tape off for this, but anyway, no I’ll say it, so I fly way more than I should, and all that means is I have all of these air mile points and such. Whenever you see somebody at the airport and they have diamond status, you should feel really sorry for them, because it means they’re never home.

So, because I fly so much now, I regularly get these free upgrades to first class, and part of me thinks it’s awesome and free bourbon, the other part of me thinks that, but I also recognize that it’s actually not super good for my soul, because it is so interesting how easily the rituals of that experience on a totally unconscious level, just sort of start training me to have expectations, and I was thinking about that on the way out here and then contrasting it with the fact that I used to ride the public bus to work every day. The city bus to work every day, which is a totally different cross section of society and that was actually very good for me.

And so, I step back and I look at now these two very different experiences with liturgical eyes you could say, and I just start asking myself, what am I unconsciously absorbing, how am I being pre-consciously trained to inhabit the world in a sense. I’m not … Look, I’ve never turned down an upgrade. [crowd laughing] I’m just saying there’s something at stake to recognize what’s happening to us unconsciously. A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life without thinking about it. That’s what habit is.

Habit is when you pursue a way of life without thinking about it, and that happens when you have absorbed a Habitus that’s oriented to a corresponding vision of the good life. It’s the things that you take for granted and never think about which are the most powerful often. So, we could talk about that a lot more. Pierre Bourdieu, who’s a theorist I talk about in my book, “Imagining the Kingdom”, has this really powerful analysis where he looks at the significance of seemingly insignificant practices that nevertheless have kind of cosmological significance for how we look at the world.

Let me turn to this now positively in the few moments remaining, to talk about how this might reframe what’s at stake in Christian worship. Spiritual disciplines and liturgical practices are not just expressive means of showing my devotion to God. They are formative practices through which the Spirit re-habituates, and re-narrates my identity. I think there are two features of this. First, there is an irreducible and in articulable understanding of the gospel that is carried in the rituals of Christian worship and spiritual disciplines.

There is an irreducible and in articulable understanding of the gospel, a kind of know how of the gospel that you get in the practices that you can’t get in any other way. There’s a great quip from Mark Twain, who said, “He who carries a cat by the tail, “learns something he can learn in no other way.” “He who carries a cat by the tail, “learns something he could learn in no other way.” What does he mean? I could explain to you all day long, I could articulate propositionally what it’s like to carry a cat by the tail, that is never going to be the same as trying it yourself.

I wanna suggest that there is an irreducible know how and kind of pre-intellectual understanding of the gospel that we absorb in the rituals of Christian worship and the spiritual disciplines. The gospel sinks into our bones in those practices in a way that you could never quite fully put into words and it’s precisely because it’s operative on that register that it is shaping your pre-conscious habituation and orientation. It’s like poetry critic, one of the new Agrarian critics, named Cleanth Brooks, this is back mid 20th century, came up with a principle of poetry criticism that he called the Heresy of Paraphrase. The Heresy of Paraphrase and what it meant was this, the meaning of a poem is inextricably linked to the form of the poem.

So you can’t ever paraphrase the meaning of a poem just into prose, because the meaning of the poem is totally bound up with the pauses, the line breaks, the diction, the meaning is tied up to the physical form and oral form of the poem. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about the poem. If that were the case no English professor could get tenure, that has to happen. But it means that there is something irreducible in the experience of the poem. So there’s this totally apocryphal tale in which T.S. Elliot gives a reading of “The Waste Land”, and at the end of it, somebody has the temerity to ask him, “Mr Elliot, what does it mean?”, to which Elliot’s reply is, to re-read “The Waste Land”. Right?

Because the meaning is bound up with the form. I think something like that is true about the form, not the style, but the form and shape of Christian worship. The kind of narrative logic of historic Christian worship carries the story of the gospel that you can learn in no other way. And so there’s reasons why we need to think about that. Second feature, there is no formation where there is no repetition. There is no formation where there isn’t repetition. Now this is a real hurdle for some of us, because we feel like repeating stuff just seems insincere right?

Now, that only is the case if you are locked into this narrow understanding of Christian worship as merely expressive, right? If worship is just expressive and you just keep doing the same thing over and over again, we’re like, oh, you’re totally just going through the motions. No, you need to keep looking for new ways to show your sincerity. But, if you step away from that narrow model of expression, and realize that worship is also and may be fundamentally formative, that God is the primary actor in worship not me, then repetition is just the rhythms by which the Spirit is trying to get this into you right?

It’s not about your sincerity, it’s actually about showing up so you put yourself in the way of what the Spirit is doing in these habitations of the Spirit. It’s why, and this list will sound heretical to some, but it’s why there is a virtue to going through the motions. Now we can talk about, that’s for the question and answer time okay? If you’re upset about that.

I hope this gives us new eyes to recognize what’s at stake in the practices of Christian worship, and perhaps come to a new appreciation of the gifts that are bequeathed to us in historic forms of Christian worship in particular. I think the most important insight for the 21st century church in North America, is to realize we don’t need to re-invent the wheel and we don’t need to come up with the next best thing. We need to remember creatively the gifts that have been given to us. Those congregations for example, that celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly, have a deep appreciation for the tactile nature of that practice. Think of it, isn’t it fascinating that Jesus gives us this supper, this ritual and it’s one that pictures the gospel. It activates every one of our senses, taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight.

It’s a ritual whose repetition is a gift not a bore and because of it’s wholistic nature, the gospel sinks into our bones through our immersion in the ritual. We absorb the story of God’s grace in ways we don’t even realize. Or, in this season of Lent, let’s consider especially rituals of confession, even penance. I would encourage congregations to see the value of adopting a form of confession that involves both repetition and the body.

So, and by the way, St. Mathews you do this. Okay? I’m preaching to the choir for the most part here tonight, but by adopting a standard prayer of confession, what happens is worship constantly puts a prayer of confession on my lips that seeps into my heart and I need that prayer on Thursday and Saturday, and actually early Monday morning. It will be a prayer that comes to my lips, and comes out of my heart through the week and I think that’s especially true when it’s a prayer like Bishop Cranmer comes up with, which aesthetically touches the imagination. “Most merciful God, we confess “that we have sinned against You in thought, “word and deed by what we have done “and what we have left undone. “We have not loved you with our whole heart. “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. “We are truly sorry and humbly repent. “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, “have mercy on us and forgive us, “that we may delight in Your will “and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your name, Amen.”

If we had time, I would love for us to sit down and scan that prayer of confession like a poem, and it’s not because it’s pretty, it’s because its cadence. It knows that we are aesthetic creatures. It walks us through a ritual that now sinks in because of it’s poetry and then wed that now with a congregation that kneels to confess. This is gonna sound like one big apologetics for Anglicanism right? When a congregation kneels to confess, our physical posture both expresses and encourages our humility before God. There’s something about even …

When in our congregation, Reformed congregation, we kneel for confession during Lent. Why we don’t do it the rest of the year that’s a longer story, but what’s … Even the awkwardness of doing it ’cause our pews are so close together and we don’t have kneelers, so it’s all uncomfortable, it’s like oh … [crowd laughing] And it’s all this awkward, and yet, the awkwardness is actually kind of part of the genius, because it is messy to confess your sins. It’s awkward right? To go through that physically does something.

Or finally, think of the Lent and disciplines of fasting and abstention. Lent invites us into practices where the gospel is felt in our bodies in pretty tangible ways, in hunger, in longings that go unsatisfied. In wants that are deferred and these aren’t just intellectual realizations. You’re growling belly kind of has stories to tell you about who you are and what you’re made of. Or consider even, and I wish, I should’ve asked Blake beforehand, is it intentional that the Alleluia is not in the Gloria? It’s Lent right?

Okay, so get this, those of you who are coming from free church context like where I’ve come from, during Lent, every time that we say glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as was the beginning, is now and evermore shall be, world without end. Normally, you say Alleluia right then, but for 40 days, for 40 days, we don’t get to say Alleluia, and that’s why on Easter, we can’t stop saying it. And it’s just, that might sound like a little thing right?

First of all, when you have a cadence that wants to go there and you can’t say it for 40 days, and you’re wondering why can’t I say Alleluia and it reminds you of a sort of season that we’re in, and now the poetry of your heart wants to say Alleluia and it’s a discipline to not say it for Lent, and yet it makes us break out in Easter shouts. Interestingly, I mean we could talk more about Lent and disciplines. I think it’s worth noting the overwhelming power of individualizing rituals in our culture and how they can transform even how we try to observe historic Christian practices.

I think the rituals of individualism are so powerful in our culture, that it has transformed even the communal rituals of the church so now one of the things I worry is happened, is we have effectively individualized Lent, and we’ve ironically turned it into a kind of Pelagian exercise in willpower. Which is so crazy, because it’s about the exact opposite. The point isn’t to prove that I can deny myself. That’s not the point. The point is to feel the hunger and that’s not about personal willpower, it’s about creating an institutional ethos that invites us communally into practices so that we can collectively inhabit a season of hungering and thirsting after God.

It’s worth thinking about, how much our own spiritual disciplines have been individualized because we inhabit secular liturgies that encourage individualism. In closing, we need not be afraid of ritual. If we appreciate that God has created us as incarnate, embodied creatures, then we will see that His grace is lovingly extended to us in ways that meet us where we are in the tangible, embodied practice of Spirit-charged rituals. Reframed in this way, we might be able to redeem ritual as the gifts of God for the people of God. Thanks very much. [crowd clapping]