What's Tony Thinking

Our Personalized Rituals


We went to the service of ordination for Susan Fairo at Alki UCC on Sunday. Susan is our new pastor at Spirit of Peace. It was a joyous celebration, fueled in no small part by the fantastic Alki Choir. Led by the African-American director, Marshan Goodwin-Moultry, the choir proved that white people can clap — and sing.

Ordinations, like everything else, have changed. A generation ago other churches in the denomination were expected to be represented and the services were scheduled to allow for that. I may even remember some kind of attendance being taken, noting the number of churches in the regional association that were represented. Certainly, other congregations felt some sense of obligation to be present. That is mostly over.

It was also the practice then for an ordination to be preceded by an “ecclesiastical council” at which the ordinand read a theological paper and responded to questions about the church and ministry from laity and clergy.

I had the feeling yesterday that people were there largely because of their personal connection to Susan — and that was true for us.

That is to say, the focus was more on the person than on the institution. In this respect, the ordination mirrors a similar shift in memorial services, about which I wrote in January. Also true of weddings, where the focus is on the principals, not the institution of marriage, still less the church.

I suspect most people see this shift from the institutional to the personal as great. After all, no one these days loves institutions. And “the personal touch” is everything. As usual, I am a bit of contrarian on this. We need to be reminded of larger contexts and larger purposes than ourselves. At their best, institutions do this.

An ordination is not only a celebration of the person and his or her journey but of the church, it’s nature and purpose. A wedding service is not only about the couple but about an institution that holds a couple even as they hold it. A memorial service too is more than a celebration of an individual life. It is also about the larger faith we hold and confess at the time of, and in the face of, death.

I recently read and reviewed Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed which connects to these themes. Also writing about Deneen’s book is Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan does a good job, better than I did, summarizing Deneen’s argument. Here’s Sullivan on Deneen.

“By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.”

The thread connecting this to my comments on our increasingly “personalized rituals” is what Deneen and Sullivan speak of as the project to “liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights.” Back to Sullivan:

“As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.”

Sullivan’s reference to “Pinker” is psychologist Steven Pinker and his book Enlightenment Now which argues that humankind has made and is making enormous material progress, so stop whining.

Again, for my point, the key lines are, “It (an older understanding of freedom) placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community . . .” The liberal project, as Deneen describes it, (and which characterizes contemporary “conservatives” as much as “liberals”) has been the liberation of the individual from all that might restrain whether government, religion, family, culture or community. In many ways, we have achieved this liberation of the individual. The shift I note in rituals is but one expression of this.

But there’s a problem. These “restraints” are not only shackles (as they are in some cases) to be thrown off, but something more and different. They are sources of context and relationship. They are the structures that give narrative and meaning to individual lives.

To take a quite different example, consider journalism. As described in a feature article in Sunday’s Seattle Times, the institution of journalism has atrophied in Seattle and elsewhere as individual options (like this blog) have proliferated. Our media world, some would argue, has experienced new freedom from restraint, but not without a cost. There are many many news sources, but few that we share in common.

We continue to advance individual liberation projects with great zeal. But when it comes to contexts, norms and purposes larger than ourselves?





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