When we come to faith in God, our response is to witness to God, to help others know the God we have come to know. And yet, God is so transcendent, so other and yet so near, that we can never wrap our minds completely around this mystery.
We often get stuck in post-Enlightenment thinking that lifts up analysis, descriptions, and theories as the best or only ways of knowing. It’s head knowledge.
But you know as well as I do that there are lots of other ways of knowing things, ways that come through our spirit, our gut, or our intuition. Limiting our ways of knowing to our heads downplays what we might learn in other ways.
We are minds, to be sure, but we’re also bodies. At this time of year, when we celebrate God’s incarnation, when God consented to life in a body, it’s worthwhile to see how our bodies might teach us.
Bodies have ways of knowing that are different from and yet intimately connected with the mind’s ways of knowing. Some neurobiologists hypothesize that we automatically, almost reflexively, confront an unknown stimulus with the question “What is it?” If we think of God as the ultimate first, we can understand our constant questioning, trying to understand “what is it?”
Even as our minds are constantly trying to know the world, the primary way we have to do this is through our bodies. While Enlightenment thinking would tell us that we can use “pure” reason, realistically we know that everything we consider with our minds passes through the filter of our bodies.
The ancient church had a saying for this - lex orandi, lex credenda – which just means that what the people do truly reflects what the people believe. If we say we believe in serving the poor, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, yet do nothing toward these beliefs, you can be pretty sure we don’t really believe those things.
One intentional way we teach ourselves through our bodies in through ritual. Theologian Theodore Jennings writes that “ritual action is a means by which its we discover who we are in the world and ‘how it is’ with the world.” Or, to put it more simply, the way we learn to do things is by doing them.
Sounds ridiculously simple, right? But consider learning to ride a bicycle. If I were to say to someone, “Here is a bicycle. There are two wheels, which are attached to a metal frame. The brakes stop the wheels by friction by either pads or discs and are controlled by levers on the handlebars, which you hold with your hands. To ride the bicycle, you sit on the seat and balance on the wheels. To move forward, place both feet on the pedals and push them around in circles.”
This is only one silly example of how many times people learn how to do things by doing them, rather than by explanation or instruction. Jennings goes on to say that “the performance of a ritual, teaches one not only how to conduct the ritual itself” but also how to behave “outside the ritual space – in the world epitomized by or founded or renewed in and through the ritual itself.”
To put it another way, just as a bicycle teaches us how to ride it, the bread and cup at the Lord’s Table teach us how to be fed and share with one another. In baptism, we gently, carefully use water to symbolically wash a body, knowing that there’s also a soul being renewed. It’s simple, but indescribably beautiful.
We can be transformed by the rituals we follow. The hope of all of our Christian rituals is that the way we are in worship – loving, kind, patient, attentive, joyful – might become the way we are in the world. In worship, we practice being a citizen of the Kingdom of God so that we can carry our passport into the world, re-presenting God to all we meet.
Christmas Eve is a rich time for ritual. When I was a child, we baked cookies and put the best ones out for Santa Claus with a big glass of milk. When I became a Christian, I added the ritual of worship – hearing the story of the Christ child in the manger, sharing communion, and lighting candles. If you want to know God, consider joining us at the Krum Church at 7pm. There’s always a place for you at God’s house!