Friday, February 8, 2013

Ritual, Religion, and Relationship

Last week I posted a link on Facebook to the article “The Truth About Salvation”.  I excerpted the end:
“Shouldn’t it alarm us that such simplistic pathways to Christianity are nowhere to be found in God’s Word? Shouldn’t we who follow Christ be concerned that the Scriptures contain no references to people asking Jesus into their hearts or reciting a prayer of salvation?...It’s a lie. With good intentions and a sincere desire to reach as many people as possible for Christ, we’ve subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow Jesus.” 
I concluded by saying that sounded like Mainline talk (or talk that I’ve heard from Mainliners) from an Evangelical. Someone commented on my post and said, “It's a horrible lie...that one only need to walk an aisle and quietly repeat a prayer. And it is a horrible lie that the rituals of any religion will bring salvation, too. Relationship not ritual!”

I think it would be a horrible lie that the rituals of any religion will bring salvation if I had ever heard someone say that; I just haven’t. Growing up I heard similar things about more liturgical traditions, “They think that if they just go to Mass they’ll get to heaven.” Not quite. It’s a lot more nuanced than that because the approach is different. Rather than being about praying a prayer, there is an understanding that grace is conveyed not through rituals, but through materials. Grace and salvation don’t come from what we do (receiving communion, being baptized), but what God does in the bread and wine, in the washing water, in the healing oil So much are these actions about God and not us, that the Church long ago decided that the state of grace of the person doesn’t matter for them to be efficacious. (For those who say otherwise, see donatism).

I whole-heartedly reject the notion that relationship is not ritual. Ritual is an invitation to or expectation of relationship as the Body of Christ does something as one. Baptism gives people with five senses a way to engage their senses as they make promises to Christ and are brought into a community. When asked, “Will you do these things that we’re all trying to do?” the baptizand replies, “I will, with God’s help.” In that moment we have a relationship with Christ. Like all other relationships it takes work, but we are marked as Christ’s own forever. When we come to the table of grace we are continually joined to Christ as Christ continues to take up residence in us. The practice of it may be different than some others’, but God is active, even if we don’t always understand how.

These moments of relationship bring us to salvation. For a long, long time the Church (for the most part) has believed that grace is conveyed in these acts. The Nicene Creed explicitly says, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” That statement is inherently relational because it’s what we believe. It was put into the Nicene Creed in A.D. 381. Rather than being “just a symbol,” the Church believes that something happens. Because something happens from God and not from us, we only have to do it once at that.

There are a lot of things that seem like equating relationship and ritual, but those are often from a place of a very narrow definition of what a ritual is. Disciples are also rituals, from keeping a prayer journal to having a daily quiet time. Doing it over and over again is a ritual that is used to build relationship. I have been critical of the “Praying that prayer” model because although there is an expectation of relationship, there isn’t necessary follow-up — and often the statement that it’s okay. You prayed that prayer and that’s all you’ve got to do.

For this very reason I’m critical of drive through baptisms, where the parents have no intention of bringing their child back and are not in relationship with the community. The difference in my mind, though, is that God is active either way. When done well both models have safeguards built in, but the one I prefer is one that is about God’s action and then the community promising to be a part of the ongoing life of the newly baptized. Because it’s the Spirit present in the water, though, it sticks.

“Asking Jesus into one’s heart” is arguable a ritual in and of itself, and that’s not a bad thing. Letting that be the stopping point (which Platt is arguing against in his work) is what bothers me — but that’s not the ideal. What also bothers me, though is an outright rejection of ritual based on one’s preference (which, in my experience, often comes from lack of exposure over time, so hard to understand) rather than wondering how someone else’s practices may be formative for them.

How might we wonder with others about their practices? Through asking questions rather than making assumptions based on our outsiders’ perceptions. Through asking ourselves how our practices are formative for us and inviting others into them with us. How else?

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