The two-edged sword of religious ritual


I’ve been in ecclesiastical ministry more than fifty years. A sense of sobriety comes with serving that long. Nary a week goes by that I don’t contemplate the possibility that religious institutions – all of them – may be counter-productive, encouraging people to take refuge in ritual when righteous and compassionate behavior would and should be the proper response to proclamations of faith. It is frustrating to think that your work may be a contradiction to your message, that the rituals at the heart of your work may offer a dodge to people, a way to “feel” religious without doing righteousness on the ground. 

Judaism and Christianity were born of a flaming insight into the heart of reality. They proclaim a message initially grasped by a handful of people who in turn shared that with others, and they grew to be sizeable movements.   

Three hundred years ago, German philosopher Gotthold Lessing taught that historical events cannot reveal eternal truths. Lessing called this the “ugly ditch” separating faith from history.  Many people argued against Lessing since that time, but his idea informs contemporary thinking.  To Gotthold Lessing, the Exodus, central to Jewish consciousness and faith, or the Cross and Resurrection, central to Christian consciousness and faith, cannot be drafted to reveal eternal truths. Historical moments fade into the past, like the volcano that consumed Pompeii or the Norman Conquest. What meaning they have remains time bound. Yet both Judaism and Christianity continue to live out of ephemeral events, laden as they are with mythical content, as if they revealed eternal truth. We continue to believe that Lessing was wrong, that memory can salvage the meaning.

For these timebound events to retain relevance, however, they had to be packaged in exercises that constantly recall and rehearse the historic event. In ritual they are re-membered, literally brought back into the visceral experience of the participant. 

The problem, as we observed above, is that rituals can be a substitute for experience. They are double-sided or, to use another word, ambivalent. One side leads you into the heart of the experience; one side leads away from it. It is hard to maintain the effort to stay on the side that leads into the experience.

The Zen proverb says that all ritual actions are but a finger pointing at the moon when people need to experience the moon itself. You can focus your attention on the finger, but by so doing you miss the experience. Hence the thought that comes to every minister or priest or rabbi at some point: Am I simply getting people to focus on the finger when the moon is the important thing? At its best, ritual sinks the experience into our hearts and minds and bodies and makes us forget the finger. At its worst, ritual drives us away from the experience and makes us focus on the finger.

I take refuge in Scholar Jan Assmann’s distinction between “collective” and “cultural” memory. The former lasts a few generations. The significance of Jack Kennedy’s assassination will fade into the mists of history. Cultural memory, however, lasts millennia. The stuff of Judaism and Christianity is the stuff of cultural memory.  With this insight, Assmann offers us hope that Lessing was wrong, that some historical events are so momentous that they can bear meaning over the centuries. That’s the hope and the wager made by the great religions, even those that eschew a god, like Buddhism or Taoism. The hope is that the deep and true meaning they have known can be experienced anew in each generation. 

And so, I soldier on for a little while longer.

Fr. Gabriel Rochelle serves as interim pastor for St Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission. Contact him at

Worship, Fr.Gabrial Rochelle