Research data consistently reveal that many if not most Christians, even devout believers, tend to know little of what’s actually in the Bible.
Most go through the ritual motions of faith — praying, attending church services, baptizing their kids, getting married in houses of worship, etc. — but don’t possess a rich understanding of Christian doctrine or liturgy or think about it very deeply.
So one might say that Christians are primarily human doings, so to speak, in executing the oft-repeated rituals of faith, rather than intellectual beings focused on understanding and contemplating the meaning of it all.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, warned in 2016 that Christians didn’t know their Bibles.
“While America’s evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about the secular worldview’s rejection of biblical Christianity,” he wrote on his website, “we ought to give some urgent attention to a problem much closer to home — biblical illiteracy in the church. This scandalous problem is our own, and it’s up to us to fix it.”
He noted that researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli found that, “Americans revere the Bible — but by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”
Mohler added that fewer than half of adults then could name the four gospels, that many Christians fail to identify more than two or three of Jesus’ disciples, and, according to the Barna Research Group, that 60 percent of Americans were unable to name even five of the Ten Commandments.
Which brings me to the concept of religious ritual, and of exactly what its purpose is, if that’s the primary way most American Christians express their faith.
A fascinating paper published in a 1975 edition of Numen, a scholarly journal of religious history, concludes that observing religious ritual appears to generally be a somewhat mindless, doctrine-free activity.
Is ritual meaningless?
An early paragraph is revealing in the paper, “The Meaninglessness of Ritual” by Fritz Staal (1930-2012), emeritus professor of philosophy ad South/Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Staal concludes that:
“A widespread but erroneous assumption about ritual is that it consists in symbolic activities which refer to something else. It is characteristic of a ritual performance, however, that it is self-contained and self-absorbed. The performers are totally immersed in the proper execution of their complex tasks. Isolated in their sacred enclosure, they concentrate on correctness of act, recitation and chant. Their primary concern, if not obsession, is with rules. There are no symbolic meanings going through their minds when they are engaged in performing ritual.”
Staal came to this conclusion while studying with a colleague the 300-year-old Vedic religious ritual of the Agnkayana people in southwest India. The traditional Hindu ritual event lasted 12 days and was extensively documented. The elite brahmins who conducted the rituals seemed fixated on the ritual itself rather than its spiritual symbolism.
“Such absorption, by itself, does not show that ritual cannot have a symbolic meaning. However, also when we ask a brahmin explicitly why the rituals are performed, we never receive an answer which refers to symbolic activity,” Staal wrote in the Numen paper. “There are numerous different answers, such as: we do it because our ancestors did it; because we are eligible to do it; because it is good for society; because it is good; because it is our duty; because it is said to lead to immortality; because it leads to immortality. A visitor will furthermore observe that a person who has performed a Vedic ritual acquires social and religious status, which involves other benefits, some of them economic.”
Why we perform rituals
So there could be selfish or others reasons to perform rituals, besides the sense of wellbeing the physical activity itself can provide.
“To performing ritualists, rituals are to a large extent like dance,” Staal wrote, “of which Isadora Duncan said, ‘If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.’ Ritual, then, is primarily activity.”
In a charming concluding paragraph, Staal writes:
“There must be readers who are shocked, angry or depressed at the thought that ritual (not to mention religion and even language) is not only complex but also meaningless. I am not a bit sad about it. I prefer a thing, like a person, to be itself, and not refer to something or somebody else. For all we know life itself may be meaningless. Seen from without, the life of an ant seems to be just that, a thought that must have occurred to King Solomon (Proverbs 6:6). Neither ants, nor we are any the worse for it.”
I’m not sure how true that is in the end, but it’s important that Staal raised the point and that the rest of us think about it rather than just continuing to go through the mindless motions of our lives with little reflection.