This is just about the most MTD thing ever: a design lab that comes up with rituals for non-believers. Excerpts:
Ritual Design Lab has its roots in Stanford’s Institute of Design, where Ozenc and Hagan both teach. In 2015, they proposed a new course on ritual design. To their surprise, more than 100 students signed up. Most were secular. “The interest was huge—so we thought, we should harness this interest,” Ozenc told me. “The new generation, they want bite-size spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses. Design thinking can offer this, because the whole premise of design is human-centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions somehow forget this—that at the center of any religion should be the person.”
Oh, wow. They’re actually serious about Self-worship. Here’s a little secret: masturbation is not the same thing as sex. The latter takes you out of yourself, and might produce new life. The former is nothing but sterile self-pleasure.
A rabbi warns that this stuff is ridiculous:
“In earlier generations, the more we could objectify religion as something that lives outside of you, the more authentic it was,” Steinlauf said. “Now, if you’re really going to speak Millennial, ritual has to be fundamentally subjective in the sense that it has to be intensely personally meaningful and relevant. As soon as it speaks to my truth, that’s authenticity—that’s how we define authenticity now.” If the bespoke and the legitimate used to be inversely proportional, today they are directly proportional.
Although this may be a reality of the 21st century, there are several downsides to it. For one, ancient rituals are technologies that have been debugged, fine-tuned, and time-tested over millennia. They evolved to respond to human needs, and in their crystallized form, they contain deep insights into those needs. By jettisoning the rituals, we also jettison the wisdom they house. “One of the great critiques of modern Millennial spirituality is that the sense of lineage is being utterly destroyed in this radical democratization of spiritual life that we’re seeing,” Steinlauf said. “You lose something very precious when you obliterate lineage.”
To the rabbi, there’s an even graver risk that comes with separating ritual from religion. “When it’s ensconced in religious life,” he said, “ritual doesn’t just serve to validate your experience or to help you through a difficult moment.” It also situates your experience within a larger framework of moral imperatives, and makes demands of you, including that you be of service to others. “Someone may say, ‘I’m just helping somebody who had a bad day at work to process and move on.’ Well, okay, that could be effective—but to what extent are you actually helping the ultimate job of all ritual life, which is to give you the message that it’s not all about you? Rituals that are designed as one-offs for individuals are divorced from that—and that’s very dangerous.”
It’s hard to improve on what Rabbi Steinlauf said, but here are a couple of thoughts.
It seems that what the Ritual Design Lab people are dealing with is the ancient human fear of chaos. Rituals can be seen as a human attempt to impose order on experience, to order chaos by subjecting it to form. The rituals the Design Lab comes up with can only ever be that. They are empty rituals.
But to religious people — at least to Jews and traditional Christians — rituals do not order chaos, but rather reveal and glorify the order that is already embedded within creation. This is why we cannot simply make things up as we go along. Rabbi Steinlauf is right: this stuff is dangerous. It’s dangerous in part because it leads us to believe that all ritual is empty, that it is nothing more than something we invent for aesthetic purposes.
Last weekend, at the Bruderhof retreat, I met a civilian who teaches at West Point. She loves it there. She said there is something moving and inspiring about being around cadets who are shaped by the rituals handed down by the institution. She didn’t put it like that, though. She talked about things like the way they will all go rucking in the mud and cold, suffering physical trials, but doing it cheerfully, and how that all builds a sense of camaraderie. Things like that.
“What you’re telling me,” I finally said, “is that you can see a positive difference in the character of these cadets who have submitted to ascetic disciplines. You admire how it forms them.”
In that sense, non-religious rituals can certainly be important. Here’s the thing, though: the West Point cadets don’t do these exercises because they see them as useful for building camaraderie. They do them because they have been handed down by the institution’s authority, and carry with them the gravity of the past. By submitting to the rituals, the cadets join themselves to something greater than themselves. At the center of the West Point rituals is not “the human person” (per the Ritual Design Lab), but something greater than the human person. The West Point cadets become themselves by virtue of losing themselves to the rituals, and being remade by them. Do you see what I mean?