Ritual has human and humane purposes. Ritual needn’t serve nefarious purposes, although it can. It does not always, invariably and inevitably, prop up the power of oppressive overlords and normalize the unjust stratification of privilege. Ritual can reflect any idealized social order, a beautiful one as well as a vicious one. Ritual can symbolically represent any system of meaning, an uplifting one as well as a dismal one. Ritual doesn’t have to make us worse; ritual can make us better.

Ritual involves performance. The overlap between worship committees and some kind of theatre experience is no coincidence. Ritual incorporates sets and props and sound and lighting and costumes. Ritual has scripts – parts, and lines; ritual has staging and blocking and business.

Ritual involves symbolic communication. Things and words have meanings, and point to deeper ones, or can. We may even think they should. Which deeper meanings they point to, and what they say about those deeper meanings, can happen accidentally or purposefully. It depends on who puts the ritual together, and how, and on the backgrounds and preparation of the participants. We might call some of those people “the audience,” but “the audience” is participating, too. “The audience” has a role to play, too. If a member of “the audience” does something improper, we notice it, as improper. That’s how we know that there are costumes and blocking and business and lines, with their cues, that are proper to the participants making up “the audience.”

Ritual makes things happen, and it makes those things happen in a particular way, a way that means something specific. Ritual can make things happen in a way that aims to include some meanings and exclude some other possible meanings. In particular, ritual can make things happen in a way that excludes unwelcome possibilities that might be lurking in people’s unspoken worries or in people’s subconscious, unacknowledged, and maybe not even clearly perceived anxieties. Ritual almost always includes at least a little exorcism.

Because of this, ritual can succeed, or fail. Ritual can succeed spectacularly or fairly well. Ritual can fail dismally, or not completely. Ritual can even succeed for some of the participants while it fails for others. It depends on how that whole complex set of elements is brought together, and on which meanings that orchestration brings to the fore, which meanings are addressed, which are forgotten or left unattended to. It depends on which considerations govern the ritual, which are subordinated, which are not even identified or known.

Corporate worship exemplifies ritual. Christian churches cover a wide spectrum, from “low” to “high” liturgical practice, but no corporate worship features no ritual at all. Prayer language is stylized in every sub-tradition. “Father God, I just want to say …” is as liturgically predictable as “In nomine Patri …” as long as the people know the order of service. So we learn about ritual at church, in church, from church.

Then, what we do with what we’ve learned is up to us.

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Image: Garden at Argenteuil, Claude Monet, Rawpixel Ltd, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons