Rituals and the Modern Search for Meaning

We are living in a moment of profound transition in the way many Americans understand and use religious ritual and … Continued

We are living in a moment of profound transition in the way many Americans understand and use religious ritual and practice. Not surprisingly, as with any transition in life whether personal, familial, or social, there are fault lines, divisions and serious misunderstandings that arise between people. Stated very simply; for millions of Americans religious rituals and spiritual practices no longer function as they have for millennia. They are no longer sources of identity or behaviors necessarily connected to a particular tribal or creedal identity nor acts embedded in a coherent or larger theological framework.

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.

Not surprisingly, but sadly, neither Sally nor her critics are capable of seeing the partial truth of each others position. Sally is mystified and her critics apoplectic and as is so often the case polarization ensues and none of us grow. Sally, a non-Catholic, used Communion not as Communion is “supposed” to be observed – her comment “notwithstanding transubstantiation” is sufficient proof of this – but as a way to commune with and connect to her dear friend Tim Russert. Sally employed Communion as a spiritual tool to evoke some sort of transcendence in an attempt to bridge the seemingly firm boundaries between death and life that saddened, pained, and frightened her and that distanced her from a person she dearly loved.

In her personal “spiritual” quest, she transformed an ancient practice that embodies the heart of Catholic theology and connects Catholics to Jesus and to each other into a personal meaning making tool. She was so caught up in the “spirit” of the moment and she so yearned for some deeper experience of reality that could comfort her in the face of the death of her dear friend that she did not even stop to think that tasting from someone else’s cup might be offensive. It never even dawned on her that for observant Catholics religious practices, especially a practice as “substantive” as Communion, might not be one more commodity or resource available for the taking.

In no way am I questioning Sally’s motivation. I believe her intentions were good and even ennobling. She is simply using religious practice in a new way. For post-modern Americans like Sally, who see themselves as spiritual and not religious, religions are tool boxes filled with wisdom and practices to be used to find personal meaning (here as an expression of love, respect, and connection with Tim Russert) and metabolized in a personal manner. But it would be good for those of us like Sally who choose to use religious practices from communities to which we do not belong for their pragmatic effect on our own consciousness to recognize that this is a significant shift. Rather than simply thinking that our traditional critics are crazy, nasty, exclusivists, we might be a bit more sensitive and recognize that from our critic’s perspective we are engaging in their community’s sacred practice without actually being part of or committed to their community. We are cashing in on spiritual capital we did not create without adding any value. Surely we can imagine how this could feel invasive or exploitative even if our motivations are pure. As we develop this sensitivity we might actually come to choose a little more judiciously how we use religious practices that “belong” to another community. At the very least we might use these practices with a sense of gratitude, honor, respect, and even humility towards the community that has kept them alive and who uses them in deep and profound ways. We might even find ways to contribute back to the community that has treasured these practices. This will help insure that we are not spiritual narcissists and just might mitigate a bit of the anxiety of traditionalists.

Of course, we Traditionalists in every religion are going to have to get use to this way of having our religious wisdom and practice used. With 25% of all Americans claiming that they have a different religious identity than their parents, 40% claiming that they have changed their religious identity at least once in their lifetime and intermarriage across religious boundaries increasing choice with regard to religious practice is here to stay. Traditionalist’s discomfort and even distress is understandable but we do have a choice. We can be judgmental and angry with those who taste and tour in the gardens that we and our ancestors have planted and tended and in which we live every day. But this will not change anything as the Pandora’s Box of freedom has been opened and we will only push away people who are seeking meaning and purpose. Perhaps, instead of anger we can come to realize that in some important ways this admittedly unnerving use of “our” religious practices and rituals is a significant upgrade from the dismissiveness and trivializing of religion that most intellectuals engaged in for so much of the modern period. Perhaps we can even learn to smile and laugh at how God works in mysterious ways to connect people and to model the deep security and confidence and love that ought to come from our religious commitments.

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  • catholic_dude

    Excellent piece, Rabbi Kula!The rest of the panel are (Chopra, etc.) simply dismiss the offense and embrace Sally’s relativism/individualism.Great explanation of the issues at hand and the religious disconnect of the “founder” of this site.

  • daniel

    Your comments are always thoughtful.

  • Liam

    I am not as inclined to presume that Ms Quinn has been as forthright as is claimed on her behalf. She is not a twenty-something born and raised in the current post-Christian era. She is in her late 60s, and unless she lived in a very WASPy bubble would perforce have come into previous contact with the Catholic understanding of Communion – after all, the “communion wars” were among the chattering classes favorite topics of Kerry’s 2004 campaign. (Even my Jewish friends in suburban Long Island in the 1960s and 1970s were familiar with the Catholic understanding of Communion – it’s one of the most distinctive elements of the faith). The Jewish equivalent perhaps be for Quinn not to understand, let’s say, the place of circumcision in Jewish faith and identity. So Quinn’s being innocent of knowledge here is quite at odds with the world she swims in, and I don’t think she’s that dense.

  • brian levine

    You write as if Ms. Quinn was off at the beach at sunset, meditating on our friend’s death, with the Catholics 50 feet down the shore.Ms. Quinn is welcome to her own profound transition and spritual quest. It seems to me though, that when she goes to a Catholic Church, she ought to follow the Catholic’s rules.

  • MarcV

    While the Rabbi makes an honest attempt at bridging differences, he gives Sally Quinn far too much benefit of the doubt.For Catholics, receiving communion is not the same as reciting the Lords Prayer or making the Sign of the Cross. If a non-Catholic wants to perform those gestures in a Catholic church, no offense is taken.But receiving communion is far and above any other “ritual” in the Catholic Church. If Solomon’s Temple still existed, would the Rabbi be as lenient if Sally Quinn sauntered into the Holy of Holies to take a look around?

  • Anonymous

    Much to commend here especially the end where you see your way through to the value of what is taking place. But that such behavior is “obviously…threatening and offensive” is not at all obvious. Taking offense here is a question of eschewing a wise response to the gesture that has taken place. The threat is nothing real except that one of the overall situation of the defections from authorized historical communities and their rituals. That is not a threat against anyone or any religion from the outside but a matter internal to the community.I was also amused by the mercantilist trope of someone partaking without having contributed to the spiritual capital, no value added. I think the situation works quite the reverse: it’s an investment. Sally Quinn is the one who looks a tad foolish here — until this article makes such a big deal of her dalliance.

  • kj

    I wrote a short story 25 years ago based on classmate who did the same thing 45 years ago as I watched from the choir loft. It had its humorous, as well as touching, aspects. She wanted to join in the ritual she was shut out of and had not been invited to join due to a combined class/ethnic bias that was probably unconscious and certainly unrecognized on the part of the nuns at the school we attended. Watching the nun (whose lifelong career physical/mental cruelty was later made public) trying to go against waves of children going to and returning from the communion rail in order to stop her was something I will never forget. You would have thought she was trying to prevent an assassination. The child’s single mother was brought into the office soon after, and the 13-year-old girl was kicked out of school as the phrase goes. WWJD? Yes, indeed, what would Jesus have done with such a determined sinner? What indeed. I called my story Faith because she seemed to have more than most of us at the time and she was seeking to join in something–perhaps in an inappropriate way–but something the church otherwise spent a great deal of time and tender to spread throughout the world. She was the least of these, probably still is, and I often wonder what road we set her back on by herself and where she is today. I agree with Rabbi Kula that there is a transition going on and that adults at least need to have respectful of the exclusionary rules most religions have embedded in their traditions and doctrine, while those traditions might do well to notice those who perhaps have their noses pressed to the window who are pacing at the door. Angels waiting to be entertained? With any family, a stranger who walks through the front door and helps themself to your table and papa’s favorite chair is going to be viewed with suspicion and worse. An introduction and an invite are in order whether or not one feels entitled to commune with an established group. My classmate could be excused for her naive wish to join. Ms. Quinn, being an enlightened adult, should have known beforehand or inquired about the appropriateness of her actions. It is rather presumptuous to coapt a ritual–communion lite– totally apart from its historical intent for a one time expression of solidarity with a member of the group. Light a candle, donate to a charity, talk to fellow parishioners. I am not a fan of exclusion–the universe is too vast and marvelous for that to necessary to me–but we petty humans seem to organize ourselves in these ways to keep control and contact with our neighbors. I’m not a fan of monarchy either, but I’m not going to express that by seeking QE out and then sweeping past her to bounce on her throne.

  • Phil Epstein

    I find it somewhat sad, but indicative of our “consumer” culture that you use terms like “spiritual capital”. You make it sound as if people who don’t belong to a religion yet attempt to learn and grow from it are somehow lessening the religion. Is there some finite amount of wisdom or grace available from a particular religion, or religion in general?Or is this perhaps a reaction of jealousy or anger towards people who have decided they can harness the benefits of religion without suffering the detriments (as they may seem them)?

  • Farnaz

    R. Kula,What troubles me most in Quinn’s taking “holy communion” is her blogging on it, first informing the world that it “nauseated” her, and then posting what can only be seen as a disingenuous apology (explanation). When one tells practioners of another religion that one has been “nauseated” by one their most sacred rites, I would think many practioners would be offended, particularly, when the person in question had no business partaking in the first place. Any ten-year-old knows this, and Ms. Quinn is not ten.If she had legitimate questions, she could have consulted Catholic clergy. What good she envisioned her posts would accomplish, I cannot imagine.