Tag Archives: James K.A. Smith

Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.
Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

Reimagining United Methodist Education

pfeiffer
Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC.

What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice?  Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.  Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.

To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise.  I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds.  The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education.  See what you think:

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.

Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America.  Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition.  Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self.  With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more.  And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament.  I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend.  I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?

But I was told “no” by the alumni office.  So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.

For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable.  The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.

I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related.  We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.

But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life.  At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.

At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others.  We educate soteriologically.  Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational.  James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.

A lofty ideal, of course.  But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection.  What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?

One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.

What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?