Acts define faith: Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies



I’ve just begun reading Ronald Grimes early ground-breaking work in ritual studies (1st ed. 1982), Beginnings in Ritual Studies.  In popular thinking, the notion of “ritual” is often negatively appreciated as empty routine actions.  Yet the truth is, ”ritual” permeates all human life, such as daily getting up on a fixed schedule, then bathing and dressing in certain manners.  Related to “ritual,” and drawing on Victor Turner’s insights on liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”), Grimes roughly defines “ritualizing” as practicing certain actions aimed towards moving us (e.g., liminal movement) from one state to another (pp. 49-51).

Observing ritual within Christian practice, particularly referring to practices of worship, is called liturgics.  In his first chapter, Grimes outlines seven critiques of “classical Christian liturgical theory and practice” (referring to practices of Christian worship) (p. 5)  For me, three critiques particularly stand out.  First is Grimes’ charge that “classical liturgics” up till his time, “has typically operated from the top down— . . . from intellect to soul or body . . .”  This leads to the next critique, wherein “words” often “obscure most of the tactile, gustatory, and kinaesthetic aspects of liturgy.”

Building on these two critiques, Grimes then concludes with his final critique, presented as a question regarding how we identify Christian “faith.”  He thus ask, “What would happen” if we identified “the faith ritologically instead of theologically?”  (p. 7)

Grimes is foremost referring to apologetics; how we prove our faith.  The actual term he uses is not “identify” but “defend”: “What would happen if they [e.g., “Christian ritualists,” which described all Christians engaged in Christian behaviour] defended the faith ritologically instead of theologically”?  He then states for example, “if they said, for instance, ‘My sister or brother is whoever breaks bread with me,’ instead of, ‘My religious relatives’ are those who assent to this creed?’”

Grimes finally poses the question: “What would be gained and lost if action took precedence over word or if the community defined who is a Christian descriptively and gesturally, rather than confessionally and theologically?” (p. 7)

I am recalling both theological and biblical precedence that substantiates Grimes’ challenging question.  Theologically, one thing that comes to mind is the ancient Christian dictum: “How we pray shapes what we believe” (lex orandi lex credendi).  We can just as well say, what we practice shapes our belief, and shows what we believe.

Meanwhile, there are really a lot of Scriptural themes that parallel Grimes’ question.  Let me recall some.

  • “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matt 9.13)
  • “By this all people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13.35)
  • “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace . . . without given them the things needed . . . what good is that? So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2.14-17)

Finally, another thought comes to mind, which is what Grimes is really talking about.  Those confessionally outside Christian faith, yet act in ways congruent with God’s mission to heal creation, do a better job demonstrating the reality of God and his redemptive involvement within creation, that than those who verbally or creedally confess Christian faith, yet do not practice a way of life that is congruent to God’s moral aims.

To conclude, Grimes’ reflections on ritology reminds us that the apologetic of Christian faith, or better yet, an apologetic of the triune God we confess as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, really depends as much on ortho-praxis (“right practice”) as on orthodoxy (“right belief”).  Yet really, perhaps even more.  Both our confession and witness is not simply a matter of verbal truth.  Rather, it involves practicing the goodness and beauty of God; and that is how we make known the Gospel we profess.

Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. 3rd Ed. Waterloo, Canada: Ritual Studies International, 2010.