What Is Ritual Realism?

Ritual realism is a phrase that names a point of convergence in the circles where I travel in the United Methodist Church and ecumenically.  Put simply, it means that what we do in ritual is at least no less real than what we do in other venues of our discipleship to Jesus Christ. It recognizes what ritual studies scholars have been saying for decades, that ritual is not merely a metaphorizing of our truth before God. Rather, ritual action compresses and intensifies the reality of our lives with God and each other.

Ritual realism takes seriously what ritual accomplishes, concretely, in the lives of those who participate in it.  Most significantly, effective ritual creates a powerful connection among all present with what is “really real,”  “real beyond real,” or “super-real.” Christians and other theists call this super-reality God.

The perception of “super-reality” that emerges both from ritual action and from more intensive “spiritual practices” over time is now being explored in some depth in both ritual studies and neuroscience. Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford University Press, 1997) especially in Part III, describes what makes ritual work from the perspective of performance and its effects on those who participate in it in various ways.  Worship That Changes Lives (Alexis Abernethy, editor; Baker Academic, 2008) is a more recent collection of essays by pastors, sociologists of religion, and theologians that explores the factors in ritual design and performance that seem to predict or promote both reinforcement of Christian values and change toward greater faithfulness in the lives of worshipers. Newberg and d’Aquili’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine Books, 2001) has been a pioneering volume in the emerging discipline of “neurotheology.” Perhaps their chief contribution in this volume is to describe the biological and neurological responses of persons experiencing “super-reality” and both the ritual and individual practices that seem to support and correspond to such experiences.

What both ritual studies and neuroscience are showing, increasingly, is that what happens in ritual has real, measurable, and if repeated over time, lasting physical consequences in the brains, bodies and behavior of worshipers.

This means that what we say, symbolize, and do in worship matters.  Indeed, our brains and bodies are wired to make it matter, not just as metaphor, but as real encounter. In faithful Christian ritual, we are not pretending. We are not living out any “pretense” that we control our lives or the one we worship.  We are not “suspending disbelief.” We are, in fact, very literally “making believe.” From a neuroscientific perspective, we are wiring our brains and strengthening neural connections every time we repeat the same practices. This is why for those who receive the Eucharist regularly, for example, there is actually not a sense that it is “less important” over time. Quite the reverse: the importance is amplified, the reality more concretely felt– perhaps not in each instance, but definitely so over time.

Put negatively, the failure to recognize how our brains are wired for ritual realism, and not just for “pretending,” means we create the potential to reinforce neural disjunctions for people every time we “interrupt” the reality of what we’re doing with any sort of disclaimer.

Neural disconnects and their reinforcement can happen through words, symbols, or actions. Our words might say something like, “We say this is the body of Christ, but we don’t really mean that.” Or consider what often happens after the final line of the hymn, “Praise to the Lord the Almighty.” The final line is “”Let the Amen sound from God’s people again, gladly forever adoring.”  The sung text calls for some kind of enactment of an Amen by the people, does it not? Many hymnals, however, provide no means for that. And so, instead, one is more likely to hear the worship leader say, “You may be seated.” Examples of the poor use of symbols creating a neural disconnect would include the use of hardly any water in baptism, or the use of bad tasting bread or wine/juice at the Eucharist, or not actually reading from a recognizable Bible in the service of the word. Actions that create and may reinforce disconnects include reading rather than praying the Eucharistic prayer, failing to use any sort of “manual acts” (failing to embody the prayer), or treating the consecrated bread and wine with disrespect during or after the distribution, thus violating the principle of real presence we say we believe.

Ritual realism, among other things, invites us to recognize how our brains actually work and so to embody by our words, our symbols, and our actions such coherence between what we say, what we show, what we sense (taste, hear, smell, see and touch), and what we do (gesture, rhythm, motion) that no neural disconnects take place. When these things happen with deep coherence, stronger neural bonds are made over time and deeper encounters with God are made more possible for all in the assembly.

Ritual Realism and Ritual Controversies: What “Really” Happens to the Bread and Wine

Whenever one works on theology, dialog, or worship in an ecumenical context, one of the things that becomes immediately apparent is the level of disagreement about how to account for what happens to the bread and wine at the Eucharist. Ritual realism, as a way of approaching this and other questions that divide Christians, may provide one avenue for more fruitful exploration and consensus, even in an environment where rejection of one specific view or embrace of another are required by the canons or doctrinal commitments of the various Christian communions.


Anglicans and Methodists, for example, are generally bound by their adopted doctrinal standards to reject transubstantiation. (See The 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England, Article XXVII, and The Articles of Religion adopted by most Methodist bodies, Article XVIII). Some Lutheran and other related bodies have committed themselves in varying degrees to a view sometimes called “consubstantiation.

Ritual realism sees both transubstantiation and consubstantiation as “second order” doctrines. Each tries to explain, after the fact as it were, what is already said, sensed and enacted ritually at the Eucharist.  Ritual realism would consider “first order” what the ritual itself proclaims and enacts. At the Eucharist, what has been undeniable for Christians and has been reinforced by both the language of the prayers and the actions that accompany them is that worshipers encounter and receive the body and blood of the Risen Christ in this ritual. Transubstantiation tries to explain that in categories of substance and accidents borrowed from Plato and Aristotle, arguing for a change in the substance (the breadness of the bread) but not in the accidents (the particular form of that particular bread). Consubstantiation rejects the Platonic/Aristotelian construct of ontological change in favor of arguing for a “divine addition.” In this view, during and as a result of God’s gracious response to the Eucharistic prayer, the real presence of Christ is added by God “in, with and under the signs of bread and wine.”

Ritual realism can live with either of these explanations, in principle, but requires neither of them. What ritual realism cannot live with is the notion that any specific explanation must take priority over the mystery the ritual itself enables worshipers to proclaim and enact. Prioritizing an explanation over the reality ritually offered and enacted creates both a ritual and a neurological disconnect. The ritual disconnect is that we are pulled away from what we are doing to thinking about what we are doing. That corresponds to a neurological disjunction in which the inputs from the limbic, visual and motor systems are interrupted and superseded by inputs from the prefrontal cortex. Prioritizing explanation over ritual experience at that moment moves worshipers away from the reality itself, Christ present, to an abstraction of that reality, the explanation of how. The ritual proclaims and seeks to enact communion with and worship of the present Christ. A commitment to the explanations, at that point, thwarts the very reality the ritual is designed to present and enact.

Ritual Realism as a Way of Ritual Integrity and Responsible Convergence

As the disciplines of neurotheology and ritual studies continue to evolve and come into more dialog with each other, a commitment to ritual realism should enable the development of some common vocabulary and evaluative tools that can help worshipers in particular traditions and dialog about worship across many traditions grow deeper and more fruitful over time.

At the moment, the disciplines of ritual studies and neuroscience are only beginning to talk to each other. Much of what is being tested in the laboratories of neuroscientists, so far, is “spiritual experience” of individuals—people who have dedicated years to practices of prayer or meditation. These persons might be considered “outliers,” and the intensity of their experiences personally may or may not correspond directly to what might be seen if similar testing methods could be employed to measure what happens in Christian or other ritual practices happening in real time.

Even with these relatively small and limited datasets, there are enough points of correspondence between the findings of ritual studies and neuroscience that at least some tentative but fairly reliable lines of connection and dialog can be drawn between them. The disciplines themselves, however, may be more likely to work in parallel but divergent fields than in tandem. It will take those of us committed to principles of ritual realism that seek to promote, sustain, draw from and publish what might be concluded across both disciplines for this to be as fruitful an enterprise as it might be.

What is already known, however, is enough to point the way for worship planners, worship leaders, and worshipers to evaluate what they are doing ritually from the three disciplines of ritual studies, neuroscience and Christian theology, and to discern better ways forward that align our ritual action and with our discipleship to Jesus more faithfully. That the other two disciplines in this mix are essentially scientific may help take some of the toxicity out of conversations that propose serious evaluation of current worship practices. It might be possible to agree that the nature of these scientific findings do not require us to approach the task of worship evaluation in a moralistic way that tends to lead to more injury that insight.

For several years now, a number of us at the table of the Consultation on Common Texts have been proposing that we seek to refocus our efforts around common ritual more broadly. This is in part because the nearly 40 years of effort with Roman Catholics toward common texts has been unilaterally ended by the actions of Rome in the past three years. Common texts are simply not a realistic possibility now, and will not be for the foreseeable future. But what may be possible, several of us are saying, is to find ways toward mutual recognition and collaborative effort on common ritual. The words may not be the same, but we may be able to find consensus that what we are doing across our traditions, our ritual actions, represent faithful tributaries into or flowing from the same stream.

Ritual realism can provide some of the tools those conversations across the various communions of the church will need for the coming years. But it can provide more, as well. It can also point the way toward responsible interfaith conversations about worship and other forms of spiritual practice. Ritual studies can help ground those conversations in patterns of human cultures and the interplay between culture and religious expression. Neuroscience can help ground these conversations in responses to ritual and spiritual practice that appear to be common across the human species. These two taken together with our specific theological commitments may help provide tools for all of us to be more honest with each other about both effective connections and disconnections the ritual and spiritual practices we promote have with our own theologies, and move all of us toward commitments of alignment that bring greater integrity to each, and deeper mutual appreciation to all.

It all begins by agreeing that ritual seeks to be and to enact reality for us, reality compressed and intensified, reality that at once emerges from our cultural and biological heritages as humans on planet earth and that supersedes them all.