An ‘Abundance of Rituals’: selling spirituality in a systemic vacuum

A few weeks ago, Timothy Brunk contributed a blog to this site titled Corporation Rituals (28 September 2020). It caught my eye because it captures an aspect of the ‘ritual boutique business’ that has exploded in the past 30 years (and because it is the focus of my sabbatical research and writing!) So, inspired by that thread of connection, I’d like to continue down the avenue of the business of ritual entrepreneurship but turn the attention back to the church and its realm of ‘popular religiosity’.

In the late 1990s, Gerard Lukken already noted the shift from what he called “a crisis in ritual to rituals in abundance.’ What he was tracing was the rejection of many traditional rites and rituals in the 1960s during a decade of tremendous cultural upheaval and religious shifts in Europe and North America (certainly elsewhere as well, but his focus was primarily Western Europe). To the surprise of many who predicted the end of religion, ritual, and – for that matter – God, new rituals emerged, along with re-crafted and re-purposed rituals which blossomed in the 1990s and into the 21st century. What was different is their importance, construction, and shaping was no longer limited to institutional religions – all of a sudden everyone was in the ritual business!

Dr. Brunk also mentioned the important work of Dr. Tara Isabella Burton, whose 2020 book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World is in parts informative, terrifying, and motivating to liturgical scholars and pastoral practitioners alike. She represents a whole universe of scholars and perspectives which keep tugging liturgical studies into wider circles of discourse, a swirl of interdisciplinarity. The insidious challenges of the overarching consumer culture and the omnipresent world of ‘spirituality’ in its broader contemporary meaning are realities that are unavoidable in our various branches of liturgical interest, but particularly in the most important realm of parish life and evangelism. And so, three related issues with a question at the end.

First to consider is the shift in meaning for the term ‘spirituality’ (which has always had numerous definitions). In classic Christian understanding, spirituality is a path to deeper immersion in the Triune God, often a path of discipleship involving understanding, practice, and renunciation through a particular “school of the Lord’s service.” While that understanding of the term as Christian formation continues, a parallel set of definitions has arisen. In the popular understanding, spirituality has come to mean a set of practices opposed to institutionalized religion. The clichéd “I’m spiritual but not religious” has been at the heart of so much of the conversation of religious studies, sociology, psychology, therapeutic practice, and cultural studies for the past 60 years now. More recent work, building on the importance of studies like Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart (first published in 1985) reminds us that those who self-describe as SBNR are not necessarily secular, most are definitely not atheists, and they are not the founders of a separate and coherent religious system.

Second to consider is our total immersion in a consumer culture, willingly or unwillingly. Many excellent studies have been written on the subject and its impact on religion (see particularly Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion (2003). It’s sufficient to mention here that when a society establishes its own identity, the worth of individuals, and solidarity between them based primarily on commodification, the ramifications of everything being for sale becomes the basis of evaluating the intrinsic worth of individuals and communities. To commodify objects (or practices or individuals) is to divorce them from their source and relationships with their origins and interpretive networks of meanings. To abstract objects (or practices or individuals) from their deep contexts which give them meaning leads to fragmentation and discontinuity. If we add to that the genius of the marketing world, which moved from selling utility (‘this bar of soap will get you clean’) to selling ‘meaning’ (‘this bar of soap will make you beautiful and desirable as the person using it in the advertisement is’), we are infused with the message “we are what we buy” – and there is always a new and improved object that will make us new and improved also (and until we buy it, we are incomplete).

Third to consider is when these two, spirituality and consumer culture, come together. We get at what Burton and so many others have noted, the rise of “the bespoke-ification of religion” and the “unbundling of rituals.” Choosing one’s spirituality is often a buffet of appealing options from a variety of religious traditions (and beyond) with no concern for the tradition in which they function and make meaning. We ‘buy’ and ‘borrow’ what are already unrooted rituals – at least to our eyes – just as the world of commodification has shaped us to do. Spirituality seekers are often looking for meaning through practices, objects and understandings, and meaning is for sale and for consumption, from an endless variety of sources.

This complex web of interwoven elements is often viewed with confusion or even disdain by those from within the safety of a particular religious system. To a certain extent, however, there is also a bit of envy. And so, in an age in which parishes feel compelled to try lots of new things to get new people into their communities, perhaps offering online ‘Christian’ prayer combining Buddhist meditation bowls, incense sticks packaged for Hindu offerings, recently created ‘celtic’ prayers, and a psalm will be more attractive to people than praying the ancient Christian office of compline, with its cohesive images of night and death, surrender and hope in God alone. Lest you suspect I’m making up the worst-case scenario I could think of, a couple weeks ago, expecting the latter, I experienced the former instead. But this is an obvious and facile description to exhibit a “bespoke-ification” of spirituality from a Christian community. What of the less blatant examples, and what do they mean?

An ecumenical and dynamic conversation has been taking place for decades now regarding the inculturation of liturgy (and here I mean a conscious reflection on what the practice means and how it changes both liturgy and culture, not a suggestion that inculturated liturgy is something new, there has never been a time when it was not…). Receiving less attention has been the inculturation of popular religiosity – flowing from the official liturgy of the church and weaving back into communal prayer and identity. How have devotions, popular religiosity, popular practices and traditions changed because of modern cultures and geographical realities? To name one example, ‘Ashes to Go’; in this ritual, usually clergy (one or two) take ashes and distribute them (with the traditional words “you are dust and to dust you shall return”) at train stations, on the sidewalk, in parking lots, in many places far away from the church building, the larger rites of Ash Wednesday, and the liturgy which begins a 40-day reflection on individual and corporate sin and the grace and forgiveness of God. There is no follow-up, generally (in my experience and limited research) no invitation to the parish, no catechesis, no scripture, no context – just a ritual often accompanied by photos of said clergy on various social media sites. Is this commodification of Ash Wednesday because it is divorced from its context and tradition OR is it inculturated popular religiosity, shifting to meet the needs of those partaking who may or may not be practicing (or even baptized) Christians? A second example, the Blessing of Animals (meaning pets) on or around the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. This ritual was created by the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine (NYC) in 1989 and is wildly popular in many places, often far surpassing the observance of Sunday eucharist in appeal. Its detractors argue that it domesticates St. Francis, who ceases to be a model of radical reform and becomes more of a kindly druid, offending no one. Others argue that it draws people in, and offers a meeting place between church and culture, especially in this time of pandemic (which resulted in various drive-by blessings as well as online virtual blessings this year). This is clearly a contemporary ritual creation, but again, is it the commodification of St. Francis (or of peoples’ pets) OR inculturated popular religiosity?

These two examples will suffice to express the web of complicated issues that come together in many of the practices of spirituality flowing from the institutional church, rather than toward the church from the fertile arena of individually curated rituals and religion. Rituals in abundance, ritual experts in abundance, new meanings of spirituality, commodification that separates ritual objects, actions, and language from their embedded systems, and the dynamism of ritual plurality and inculturation – what is a church to do?

3 comments

  1. The church, the Body of Christ, is creating the rituals that we need, independent of male celibate clerics, who have neither the lenses, the experience, or perhaps the desire to meet unmet needs of the Body that are not their own.

    We do not need or seek their aproval to provide blessings, nor per Vatican II, need we.

    Those who get tied in knots over such rituals not being codified by doctrine/dogma/clerics may be living in fear of the vagarious and ever transforming Holy Spirit, Who always blows where She (Ruah) wills.

    The Spirit leads the Body and the institutional Church forward (in via). Always has, always will. No fear or clinging to old ways of being church; just awe, wonder and delight in Her new creations (through contemplation and discernment).

    1. Hi Donna, we may be on different wavelengths here – my concern is not institutional approval or control for popular religiosity so much as it is a rootedness in the broader theology associated with some practices. Hence my concern about ashes to go with no follow-up in guilding people in an ongoing metanoia of life. My concern (especially this year) with the blessing of animals is that there is a great richness to Franciscan spiritualiity and what we know of St. Francis himself – which people are cut off from, truncating it to something that is often presented as anything but Christian. Could we use some of these newer expressions of popular religiosity to draw people into a greater rihness of spiritual tradition?

  2. Hi Donna, we may be on different wavelengths here – my concern is not institutional approval or control for popular religiosity so much as it is a rootedness in the broader theology associated with some practices. Hence my concern about ashes to go with no follow-up in guilding people in an ongoing metanoia of life. My concern (especially this year) with the blessing of animals is that there is a great richness to Franciscan spiritualiity and what we know of St. Francis himself – which people are cut off from, truncating it to something that is often presented as anything but Christian. Could we use some of these newer expressions of popular religiosity to draw people into a greater rihness of spiritual tradition?

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