Have any of you been following the Sally Quinn affair? I had not heard about it before – but I found my way to the Washington Post’s religion section “On Faith.” Almost all the panelists there are describing, defending, or otherwise commenting on fellow panelist and non-Catholic Sally Quinn and her reception of Holy Communion at Tim Russert’s funeral. Since I have not really followed it, nor do I want to make any snap judgements, I only want to focus on the piece “Rituals and the Modern Search for Meaning” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. (It’s the most interesting of the articles – the others are particularly disappointing, and I do feel entirely comfortable making that judgement.)
Rabbi Kula suggests the following:
For people like Sally Quinn, religious rituals and practices are, with the best of intention, resources that can be used to create personal meaning and connection independent of their metaphysical contexts and belief structures. They are personal tools of meaning that one can choose to use as one feels appropriate to deepen one’s own self awareness and one’s own capacity for compassion and empathy. Obviously, from a traditional perspective this transformation of ritual and practice into a personal resource disconnected from any specific religious authority and any particular historic community is offensive and threatening.
In essence, the Rabbi has identified a growing tendency outside of mainline religious beliefs whereby people ‘shop’ around for the rituals they like, regardless of their proper context, and take them for their own use because it makes them ‘feel better.’ There is perhaps more bitterness in that last sentence than I quite intend, but the main point is that the ritual or practice is divorced entirely of its intended meaning for the sole purpose of making the ‘celebrant’ feel better about his or herself. In the end, one is left with an empty ritual or a meaningless mantra to the cult of the individual.
I think this is a dangerous trend not just outside mainstream tradition, but even within Christianity. Oftentimes when the liturgy is debated, one hears arguments such as “it makes people feel more at home and in community” or “Joe and Mary Catholic couldn’t possibly understand the meaning of this or that phrase because it’s not in their everday speech.” Obviously in these instances, we’re not dealing with a usurped ritual, but we are talking about an emphasis on personal feeling. As humans, we do long for happiness, but as Christians we know that happiness is found only in God. The rituals we practice are intended to elevate our thoughts and lead us to God. And yes, in finding God we find happiness, but the ritual itself shouldn’t be centred on making one feel a transitory good feeling inside.
If the ritual, or the liturgy in this case becomes focused on providing a fun musical concert, or an entertaining sermon, then we are left with an empty shell, devoid of its proper context and focus. Once the good feeling subsides, people are left trying new mantras or casting new spells. Simply put, it’s spiritual consumerism.
Another panelist, Susan K. Smith, who is a protestant pastor offers these absolute nuggets of wisdom in defending Sally Quinn (and attacking the Catholic Church):
A ritual that makes anyone feel ashamed or frightened or worried cannot be pleasing to God.
On the other hand, a ritual that invites anyone who wants to get close to God has to make God smile.
That’s cute, isn’t? Given these guidelines, there better not be any preaching against sin – cause that could be scary and give one a stomach ache. Here too we see this emphasis on feeling good at all costs. I’m certainly not saying that one shouldn’t be, as Jesus was, welcoming to the tax collector and the prostitute. But the purpose in welcoming them is, as Jesus said, for them to go and sin no more. We can’t offer a transitory good feeling; we need to point the penitent to the true happiness found in God. Any ritual that does not point to God, or one that is divorced from that context, is a meaningless mouthing of words aimed at the worship of self.