[W]e need to beware . . . of shallow talk about “empty rituals.” To be sure, rituals can indeed become empty, performed habitually and thoughtlessly, without regard to their meaning and the ethic that is supposed to be associated with them. The prophets of Israel were unstinting in their condemnation of just that sort of pro forma religion. But it is also important to remember that, like other habitual behaviors, rituals are hardy—like habits, difficult to break—and thus likely to survive the spiritual dry periods when faith and feelings are just not there.
The ritual without the theological truth to which it bears witness, the act without the affect, can come alive—the empty ritual can be filled up—when the dry period passes. Indeed, the very existence of the ritual can help the spiritual dryness pass from the scene. Conversely, when the ritual is no longer observed, the likelihood declines that the message with which it is associated will survive, and the likelihood that old practice will come to be associated with new meanings declines still further.
Jon D. Levenson, The Love of God, pp. 32-33
I just finished Levenson’s most recent book The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, and like anything the man writes it is überdeep, thoughtful, and insightful. I swear the man can write a to-do list and you’d think, “Wow. Yeah. Never saw that.”
Anyway, I’ll likely throw up a few more quotes over the next few days/weeks. But this quote resonates with me and explains why several years ago my gut moved me toward liturgical worship, including The Book of Common Prayer and an iPhone liturgy app based on Common Prayer Pocket Edition: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
It goes without saying that in expressions of Christianity that historically are overly intellectualized (i.e., the American Evangelical and Fundamentalist experience), the value of rituals (other than “daily devotions” and “going to church”) is hardly taught.
But rituals are indeed valuable, as other iterations of the Christian faith know well and as the history of the Christian church attests (not to mention Judaism). Rituals are a practice of the faith that provide the structure for our spiritual lives. Rituals are not beholden to our thinking but shape our thinking and when necessary step in the gap when our minds are tired and our feelings empty.
Sooner or later we all need that kind of help.