Human Rites

Andrew Hong summarizes some ancient Confucian rites and their meanings, and then writes:

We don’t have many rituals in our modern world – but if you take that one simple ritual, and multiply that into every sphere of life, and every relationship, then you are coming close to the kind of society that Confucius sought to create through the rites. The rites become the means for society to go from inhumane behaviour (in the form of warfare during the Warring States period) to humane and dignified behaviour.

The rites were also the way for society to go from disordered relationships (in the form of rebellion) to ordered and reverential relationships… You may recall that there were five key relationships in the Confucianism: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older-younger, and friend-friend. These relationships were largely hierarchical in nature, and the rites gave people a way to express and reinforce those relationships.

This is what missiologist Paul Hiebert has to say about the importance of rituals,

“Modern people commonly regard rituals as harmless interludes or discount them as meaningless performances. But rituals play a central role in most societies. They are multilayered transactions in which speech and behaviour are socially prescribed. [...] They give visible expression to the deep cultural norms that order the way people think, feel, and evaluate their worlds. [...] Because rituals dramatise in visual form the deep beliefs, feelings, and values of a society, they are of particular importance in studying worldviews.” Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 82-83.

And so it should come as no surprise that Chinese Christianity will express itself in forms that contain rituals. And in particular rituals that express some kind of relationship. They may not be elaborate, but if you tinker with them you will discover that they are jealously guarded!

Consider the period of reverential silence before a service. Consider the call to worship, the rituals surrounding the offering, the threefold Amen. Consider the practice of holding the service on a Sunday morning. Consider also what is appropriate dress for a worship service.

All of these function to express and reinforce a humble and reverential relationship to God. But more than that, they are considered important: the feeling would be that something would be missing if the collection was done through electronic funds transfer, it would be wrong to wear untidy clothing to church – because of what that would mean for them about that relationship. Remember that the rituals give expression to the relationship!

Now in saying this it is quite legitimate for a particular culture to express it’s love for God in its own forms. And for a culture that prizes rituals, it is entirely appropriate for it to create Christian rituals to express Christian realities. As a result Christians from other cultures should be careful of demanding that they relinquish those rituals and becoming just like them.

However what is important to consider is the reality that is being expressed by those rituals. Is it expressing an awe-filled, grace-filled, gospel-shaped relationship with God? Or is it expressing a transactional Christianity and a distant God? Does it acknowledge God as glorious and sovereign? or as a deity easily fooled by our attendance at his shrine, whose favours are easily bought off with cheap offerings?

It would be terrible if our rituals more closely resembled and reinforced the Confucian reverence for the distant t’ien. Or if they promoted a transactional relationship that is at odds with the Bible. Our wordless rituals, just as much as our words in a sermon, must reinforce, and never undermine the gospel. They must uphold the truth of God, and not a lie. [1]

Even in our iconoclastic, secular culture, we teach reality with rites, don’t we? Rites that are the inventions of man are liable to misinterpret reality and miscommunicate it. The rites that God gives us are intended to be correctives to our collective insanity. They re-establish the Covenant relationships broken and defaced in Eden. The question is, have we twisted the inspired rites, as Israel did?

Baptism and Table are the beginning, middle and end of the story. They both re-enact and prefigure. Are we Christians, with legal access to the new Eden, using these holy rites to tell a different story about our relationship with God — a false reality that appeals to our carnal natures? If so, we are historical revisionists concerning the Fall, we are liars concerning the requirements for unity with Christ, and we are false prophets concerning the future judgment.

They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.”
(Jeremiah 6:14 NLT)

[1] HT: Albert Garlando

Share Button

Comments are closed.