‘Empty ritual’ versus meaning that shapes us, imagines us, and makes us . . .
Cynthia Lindner wrote, “When we face the unfathomable, when history presents us with challenges like nothing that we can remember . . . sturdy rituals become sources that will bear us up, reveal the meaning for us and make us anew.” 1 Yet we live in an age where much of the ‘sturdy ritual’ of the faith community comes under fire by secular society as ‘empty ritual,’ and the quest for “relevant ritual” is undertaken by those who are searching for meaning in our time.
Lindner, a professor with the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, recently wrote of that search for “relevant ritual” in some corners of corporate America. In places where traditional faith communities are less sought after, companies have created what she cited as “a new corporate clergy” to address the hunger for ritual. Going by different names such as “ritual consultants” and “sacred designers,” their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America. These ‘divinity consultants’ are on a mission to usher in soul-centered corporate rituals in an increasingly secular society.
Lindner also referred to work by Angie Thurston, Casper ter Kuile and Sue Phillips in a Harvard Divinity School study called “How We Gather: A New Report on Non-Religious Community.” That study evaluated millennials’ flight from organized religious congregations and their search for connection in new places. They too noted that even those who rejected traditional religious disciplines craved spiritual practice and community. A result is the comingling of spirituality and management theory in the workplace, with strategies “from architecture to employee training to ritual design. . . to soften capitalism’s toll on the human spirit by making room for the soul.” The quest for environmental sustainability in the workplace is one of the positive outcomes of that effort. Rituals are created to celebrate the successful completion of an assignment, and ‘funerals’ are developed for projects that fail. Even screen-weary Zoom interactions are ritualized to sustain a sense of presence and connection, a sense of community in the video gallery.
Lindner, however, is not fully satisfied with these outcomes. How do we translate the ancient traditions that have given people access to meaning through rituals, meaning-making practices, in a context not centered in congregational life? After a long COVID summer, with hurricanes brewing in the south Atlantic and wildfires rampant in the west, with protests against police violence surging in our cities and millions of Americans assessing the risk of what had always been fairly risk-free annual back to school routines, in a time of economic uncertainty and pandemic fatigue, does the ritual of the gathered faith community have a relevance to complement our society’s increasingly secular worldview?
Richard Rohr recently shared in his Daily Meditations some of the writings of Adam Bucko, an Episcopal contemplative and activist for the poor, who mentors young people in discovering a spiritual life for the 21st century and in fostering lives in the service of compassion and justice. Bucko sees a spiritual awakening in the younger generation. He writes:
. . . a lot of young people don’t actually identify with a tradition any more . . . Many of our churches, synagogues and mosques are freaking out when they hear this, thinking that young people are no longer interested in the sacred. But to me it is clear that young people are not necessarily rejecting God, they simply feel that many religious organizations lost touch with reality and are too concerned with money, power, self-preservation, maintaining the status quo, and ‘having right beliefs.’ As a result, they tend to view them . . . as organizations that are spiritually bankrupt, that are no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time. And it takes deep insight and spiritual courage to see that. It is for this reason and many others that I don’t think of the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ among our youth as a sign of spiritual decline but rather a new kind of spiritual awakening . . .
We have to acknowledge that when people hear about spiritual and not religious people, they often immediately think that these are people who are just shopping around and not really that committed . . . But when we look at some of the people who come from that group, we realize that actually many of them spend more time [in spiritual practices] than regular churchgoers.
Adam Bucko, “Follow Your Heartbreak,” in Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change,
- Justine Afra Huxley (Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 2019), 67‒68.
Rohr concurred with Bucko’s assessment. “I can honestly say that I have observed many of these same things in my work with young people at the Center for Action and Contemplation. I do not see a lack of spirituality and good faith in many seekers of the next generation, but an abundance of it and a deep desire to live with integrity and in alignment with their values. Such people are not satisfied with a faith simply handed to them by an institution or the previous generation. They insist on investigating what is truly important for transformation and a more just and compassionate world.” 2
The kinds of challenges raised by Rohr, Bucko, Lindner and others are, in my mind, hope-filled gifts to the institution of the church. We need to be reminded that without a mission to live with integrity, aligning our worship and spiritual practice with a transformative mission to advocate for justice and touch the world in compassionate service, our rituals can become empty. To achieve “meaning that shapes us, imagines us and makes us,” our sturdy old rituals must be infused with lives that touch the world with an incarnate love, a love that is made flesh.
We need more than “relevant rituals,” workplace and daily life rituals that look and sound like us and are translated for our convenience, such as funerals for failed corporate projects. Although workplace ritual has a place, Lindner maintains that “when we leave behind the vital wisdom that is encoded in religious practice and religious community, we squander our inheritance, that vast cache of human experience that must be passed from generation to generation, kept, cultivated and deepened.” These are the meanings that we could never create ourselves, the meanings that can “imagine us, shape us and make us” as we seek to live in courageous, compassionate and resilient paths of discipleship.
As people of the 21st century American church, in a year unlike any in our shared memory, we can throw up our hands in despair in an increasingly secular culture or we can listen to the voices that are reflecting cultural and ecclesial shifts and seek to learn a new way. If we can align our ‘sturdy old rituals’ with engagement to bring about justice and compassionate service as a community of faith, those rituals do not risk emptiness. They become life-giving and directive as we gather the wisdom of the saints and that which they have transmitted to us from those who have lived in the way of discipleship throughout the history of the church.
Lindner wrote, “When we face the unfathomable, when history presents us with challenges like nothing we can remember, those sturdy rituals will bear us up, reveal the meaning for us, and make us anew.”
Enough for today. Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom