I joined a sorority when I was in college, and Greek organizations (for those who are not familiar) utilize a formalized set of rituals for bringing new members into the group. These rituals were created by the founders of each group, written by young men and women with the intent of these traditions being kept over the years such that every new member would go through virtually the same experience. I found it really interesting, actually, to picture the group’s founders, meeting together in secret around the turn of the 20th Century, creating scripts for elaborate rituals meant to convey special meaning to those who were stepping into this world they were creating.
No matter what kind of tradition we are in, even if we are convinced that a divine being was the creator of that tradition, most of the formal ritual elements were created in the same way — humans sitting down and planning out the experiences that will be shared by fellow adherents over time. Few people, if asked to actually consider the idea, could claim that the god in which they believe actually decided what kind of clothes should be worn to a service or whether those in attendance should stand, sit, or kneel, what words should be said in what order, and how the room should be arranged. These are details created by people for the purpose of conveying meaning or status or evoking emotion in other people in a way which is meant to embody deeper spiritual content.
These are traditions and rituals created for us by those who came before.
I doubt many people actually think about why they worship the way they do and why or how these rituals and traditions and concepts even came to be. We follow them because that’s what we’ve been taught, it’s what feels right or good to us, and it is part of our spiritual culture. Even fewer question whether these things are actually serving the purpose they were meant to serve. Significantly, when religious communities as a whole start to look at the history and purpose and meaning behind their rituals and traditions, drastic things take place: schisms, the formation of new denominations or offshoots, complete overhauls of doctrine and practice. And it’s not until it becomes obvious that something isn’t working anymore that communities become willing to dig deep and create something new which works for them in that moment.
My parting from organized religions began with questioning where all the trappings, all the different practices and aesthetics, come from. I determined that many of them are beautiful and potentially meaningful, but they’re not particularly sacred any more so than the rituals I experienced in my sorority in college. And there is certainly the danger, when asking questions such as this, that when the sacredness vanishes we will be left with no significant meaning after all.
But that’s only really true if we consider these things to have no meaning if they are not sacred.
Experiences can connect to our spiritual selves without having anything to do with god or doctrine or a church. Ritual experiences will be meaningful to us if we connect with the intent of those who created the ritual. It’s the formation of the community of people who agree on something, who find the same things important, which makes a ritual or a tradition meaningful. And so, I think, to find meaning we first have to find a practice or tradition in which we can find a connection to those who created it, in which we can find connection to a larger community, and in which we can find meaning which speaks to us. And to do that we must start asking why we do what we do, why we follow the rituals we follow, and why they came to be in the first place.