The teaching power of ritual

Ivan Illich and one lesson we can take away from the pandemic response

This post will have some things in common with Mind the Secular Liturgies, but I wanted to say something more, particularly in light of reading The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich. Illich is an interesting guy to read, a sort of Roman Catholic priest + medievalist + sociologist, and I recommend the book, which critiques modernity from a unique perspective.

Among other things he has me well convinced that we should not refer to our world as “post-Christian”, but rather as “perverted Christianity”. If it was actually “post-Christian” in the sense of abandoning Christianity and reverting to never- or pre-Christian ways of thinking, that would actually be better in some ways. But it hasn’t and, as Illich likes to say, corruptio optimi quae est pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst”. Christianity built the West, Christian institutions served as the model for secular institutions in the West, Christian thinking about how we should relate to each other changed the way men think in the West… and now, all of that perverted has opened the path to new and worse forms of darkness. But you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that.

Below is a quotation from his chapter about “School”. I hope that one thing we can all learn from the pandemic response and remember in the future is that ritual is a powerful way to teach, perhaps the most powerful of all… and that goes whether the lesson is true or false. The following passage is not really about mask mandates (Illich died in 2002)… but just try not thinking about mask mandates when you read it.

Gluckman defines a ritual as any well-established form of behaviour which leads those who participate in it to a certain belief. It’s a procedure whose imagined purpose allows the participants to overlook what they are actually doing, that is, the idea that the rain dance will bring rain eclipses the social cost of organizing the rain dance and makes the dancers feel that if rain doesn’t come then they ought to dance all the harder. Rituals, in other words, have an ability to generate in their practitioners a deep adherence to convictions which may be, internally, highly contradictory, so that somehow, adherence to the belief is stronger than most people’s capacity to question what they believe.

That is what you get after a year of mask mandates, and that is why churches and Christian schools should be thoughtful about implementing them or any other ritual of healthism. You cannot separate human life into “over here are some things we’re doing just for the health” and “over here is what we’re actually trying to teach you”. The ritual does the teaching quite possibly more powerfully than whatever is your sermon or lecture today. That's one of many reasons why it's not "just a mask" or just social distancing or just a plexiglass shield. It is in fact a ritual and a lesson. It teaches things like:

  1. The most important thing I can do in life is care for my health.

  2. Other humans should be regarded first as dangerous disease vectors.

  3. We are all in great danger right now.

  4. Masks / distancing / plexiglass / whatever are a highly effective way to reduce the spread of disease.

Now if your church or school doesn’t believe those things, you probably shouldn’t be teaching them to people. I don’t want to end this post in a depressing way, but we can point to obvious negative results from this ritual:

Illich later, actually when speaking about communion, uses the word mythopoesis for a belief-generating ritual. Let’s leave this pandemic with greater conscious attention to what we are teaching by ritual.