by Reinder Bruinsma | 12 February 2020 |
When speaking about rituals, we are confronted with a cluster of terms that are closely connected and are at times used interchangeably: customs, traditions, rituals, symbols.
A custom is what people have become used to doing. A congregation’s custom may be to begin the Sabbath School at 9.45 AM. This becomes a tradition, after it continues for a considerable time. There may have been a reason why at some point in the past it was decided to start the service at that particular time (for instance, if some members came by a bus which arrived around that time), but when it continues even after that reason is no longer relevant, it has become a tradition.
When at the start of the church service certain acts are performed and a particular formula is used to mark the beginning of the service, we are dealing with a ritual. In that context symbols may be used. In some faith communities that may involve the lighting of candles, wearing of liturgical vestments, and displaying particular colors corresponding to the “church year”.
In our church, at least in some countries, carrying your own large black leather calfskin Bible next to a quarterly was a kind of symbol of one’s piety and sincerity.
Traditions and Rituals
Life is unthinkable without traditions and rituals. They are an important element in our communal life in the village, the city, the region and the country where we live. And they are indeed also an essential aspect of the life of every faith community.
One’s personal life is shaped by traditions and rituals. I do certain things because I have grown accustomed to them. I rise early, make tea for myself and my wife, which I usually take to her while she is still in bed; I put on the news (first the Dutch news, then the BBC, followed by the CNN headlines and usually also by Euronews). This is a ritual. Now that I am retired, I accompany my wife on Friday mornings on her weekly shopping expedition. It is becoming a ritual to reward ourselves with a stop in one of the coffee places in the center of our small town. Symbols, too, play a role. My wife and I wear wedding rings as symbols of our lifelong commitment to each other. Giving flowers expresses our feeling towards others.
Although the traditions and rituals may vary, in the society in which live—with its different religious streams that make up the fabric of our communal life—we share with many others in traditions and rituals that accompany the ‘rites of passage’, especially at the beginning (baptism, circumcision) and at the end of life, but also as people reach certain stages of maturity (baptism, bar mitzvah) and during annual feasts (Christmas, Easter, Pascha, Ramadan). As our world became more secularized and commercialized, other special days became traditions with their own rituals, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
The village, town or city where we live usually has its own traditions, with some annual events, such as carnivals, special market days, major sporting events, that may be characterized by specific rituals.
Faith communities do not only differ in their doctrinal convictions, but even more so in their worship traditions and liturgical practices. There is a world of difference between the high church and the low church traditions in the Anglican Church. Adventist services differ sharply from Pentecostal services, and celebrating mass in a Catholic church differs significantly from participating in communion in a Protestant one. Some faith families, such as the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, have extremely detailed handbooks (missals, the Book of Common Prayer) to explain rituals and symbols, while others may only devote a small part of their church manual to the way their worship services are conducted. Yet even churches without such detailed instructions, like ours, still have rituals.
Many of our traditions, also outside the church, have religious elements and contain religious rituals and symbols, but as society has become increasingly secular, traditions have often been subject to change and many religious elements have been either downgraded or replaced by non-religious rituals. This is, particularly, noticeable in funeral practices. New rituals are emerging that may be non-religious but often still retain a quasi-religious flavor.
Our Traditions and Rituals
In general, Seventh-day Adventists have had a rather ambivalent attitude towards traditions and rituals. There had been a strong sentiment that the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches have lost their spiritual power, their zeal for biblical truth and their evangelistic fervor, because of traditionalism and formalism. Our remnant church was called to be different, not to succumb to the trappings of tradition and ritual!
However, it is undeniable that we Adventists have traditions and rituals, which often prove to be just as much set in concrete as the liturgical practices we condemned in other Christian communities.
While the liturgical church year, with its roster of carefully selected Scripture readings and seasons such as Advent and Lent, continues to be a “no-no” in Adventist circles, we have our own special annual Sabbaths and periods of emphases. Besides the annual Week of Prayer, with its readings that are supposed to be used worldwide, a new annual period of prayer in the month of January has recently been promoted for global use by the highest church leaders.
For some, even the use of the symbol of the cross is seen as sending the message that we want to become like other churches. The crucifix is an even more striking example of how Adventists reject certain symbols. But pictures of the crucified Christ by Harry Anderson and other Adventist illustrators are used without reluctance. In some countries putting up a Christmas tree is still taboo in Adventist church buildings, but the resistance against Christmas trees is gradually disappearing, and even Christmas and Easter services have been introduced in some places.
Early Adventists did not want a religious creed or a confession of faith, and strong resistance against anything resembling a formal creed remained strong for decades. However, gradually, the need was felt to formulate summaries of the main Adventist doctrinal convictions, and today’s very detailed Statement of the Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs may not yet be the end of an ongoing process of codifying Adventist doctrine in a creed-like fashion.
Whatever criticisms may be voiced against the practices and rituals in other faith communities, Adventists cannot deny that they have gradually—intentionally or unintentionally—developed practices that have become solid traditions, with accompanying rituals. Think of practices around family or personal devotionals (using the Sabbath School quarterly, for example) and patterns of Sabbath keeping. Often we are rather inflexible about how we do Sabbath School and more so the Divine service. Baptism and communion services have a well-defined pattern, as do weddings, child dedications, and ordinations.
Before Adventists get too agitated about ‘borrowing’ liturgical practices and rituals from other Christians, we do well to remember that this borrowing has been going on since the days of the pioneers. The early Adventist leaders brought theological ideas as well as many ecclesiastical practices with them when they severed their former denominational allegiances and started a new movement. They allowed themselves to be inspired by other Christians’ organizations as they shaped the various elements of their emerging denomination. Sabbath School, for example, was directly borrowed from denominations that had developed Sunday School programs. The quarterly rhythm of the Lord’s Supper rite was patterned after the practice of the Methodist circuit riders.
The world is constantly changing, and this means that Christians must, as time goes on, bear witness of, and experience, their faith in changing contexts. In pre-modern times Christians lived in an ‘enchanted’ world, in which all things that were not readily understood were thought to be caused by supernatural forces. Magic and superstition were closely allied phenomena. However, a drastic development occurred when pre-modernity gave way to modernity, as, in the words of sociologist and theologian Peter L. Berger, “the sacred canopy” was removed. In the new modern age of science, rational solutions were sought for the things that were as yet not understood. “Enchantment” was, gradually but thoroughly, replaced by “disenchantment.” Christian believers were greatly affected by this development, and rational thinking about religious matters was more and more valued above non-rational attitudes towards matters of faith.
In the western world during the last few decades modernity has to a large extent given way to postmodernity. In this new approach to the world around us we notice a major degree of what might be called a “re-enchantment.” Those of the younger generations, especially, do not just ask what happens in the world and what kind of things they see and experience, but they also ask “Why?” They do not just want to understand the Ding an sich, but ask for its meaning. In the process they have become much more open to the non-rational aspects of life and to spiritual things. They may dislike organized religion, but they often manifest a strong interest in rituals and symbols. For them religion is not primarily a matter of the brain, but rather of the heart. For many of them religious experience is more important than intellectual knowledge about doctrines.
It is no secret that the Adventist Church loses a large portion of its youth and young adults. Many of these church-leavers no longer have any interest in organized religion, but some (and I personally know a few of them) have moved towards Roman Catholicism or have become members of the high version of the Anglican Church, or of the Orthodox Church. They may have lost their faith in some Adventist doctrines, but their main reason for seeking another spiritual home is their search for a kind of religion that is not primarily rational, but offers an experience that is felt rather than understood. It is something they miss in the mainly rational approach to religion in Adventism.
I wonder whether this is not an important reason why Adventists ought to reconsider their attitude towards rituals. Of course, traditions, rituals and the use of symbols that are adopted or developed must fit into what Adventism stands for. Some of our current traditions and rituals may need modifications, or be radically reshaped.
Foot washing, Loren Seibold suggested in part one of this series, may be one of these traditions that we can look at again. Perhaps it ought to be made optional: Steve Siciliano shows in part two that it is very difficult to argue on the basis of John 13 alone that it must be practiced in the exact way it is in the Adventist Church. So new rituals must be allowed to emerge, and space given for responsible experimentation. Theological expertise must guide the church to ensure that no elements are introduced that are at odds with the core of Adventist beliefs.
The question must always remain: Do these symbols and rituals lead people to faith in Jesus Christ and towards a deeper spiritual experience? Is it safe to make these rituals part of the Adventist tradition? And let’s not forget: rituals must add meaning to church life, and mere formalism is an ever-present danger. However, when all is said and done, it is essential that the Adventist version of Christianity does not only speak to the minds of people (as it so often does), but must also address all of the senses and speak to the heart. For this, rituals and symbols are vital ingredients.
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest book is I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.