Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomena to Sacramental Theology
By Dru Johnson
Eisenbrauns, 289 pages, $39.95
Epistemology and ritual are rarely considered together. They are often opposed (“mindless ritual”), and ritual is more often associated with belief than with knowledge. At best, ritual is understood as an expression of knowledge that has been arrived at by other means. Dru Johnson doesn’t think these positions do justice to either ritual or epistemology. In Knowledge by Ritual, he argues that human knowledge is “ritualed.” Ritualed knowledge isn’t some bizarre mystical form of knowledge but a central feature of scientific learning, modernity’s paradigm of knowledge acquisition.
Johnson works with a general definition of ritual: It is “a practice that is scripted (usually by an authority) and performed by a subject.” In short, “rituals are something scripted and something done.” Epistemology has neglected ritual because it often assumes a mind-body dualism and has little interest in physical action. It focuses on propositional knowledge in the mind: “‘The sky is blue’ is true if the sky is in fact blue.” But this captures only a small slice of what knowing is. Drawing on the work of philosophers and neuroscientists, Johnson insists that our knowing is connected to what we do with our bodies. We don’t know as disembodied minds; without bodies and the tools by which we extend our bodies, we couldn’t know at all. Further, we don’t come to know in isolation but in community—specifically, in communal rites.
All this makes sense as long as we’re talking about knowledge-how. A pianist comes to “know” the music he plays by repeated practice, a cyclist’s knowledge of cycling isn’t propositional but physical, and Steph Curry knows how to make half-court threes because he shoots half-court threes before every game. Johnson, though, argues that knowing-that is likewise acquired by habit-building practices.
Knowing-that is learning to see, which occurs in a three-stage process. At the outset, potential knowers are insensitive to the patterns of data, sometimes even to the data themselves. The untrained student doesn’t recognize what he’s looking at through the microscope or telescope, or when he views an EEG output. Through ritual practice guided by mentors, trainees first come to recognize patterns and to see what they could not otherwise see, and eventually to discern the significance of what ritual has trained them to recognize. Even at higher levels, Johnson says, science depends on ritualized action: “The ritualized practices of science form part of the theory generation, disposing scientists to see the phenomenon from new vistas, similar to the way they learned the craft of science in the first place.” Knowledge begins in embodied ritual practices and grows to skilled discernment through ritual repetition in a community.
Johnson illustrates by describing his family's discovery of a jar handle during a visit to an Israeli archeological site. He wasn’t able to assess its age or value, but “when we showed one jar handle fragment … to an antiquities dealer, he immediately interpreted the piece: ‘This is from the Mamluk period.’” Other dealers agreed, since they “recognized something that we were incapable of seeing, even with concerted and modestly informed effort.” Another fragment required more effort—the experts had to perform various tests before determining its age and value. But they were able to discern the significance of their tests because they had been habituated by ritual.
All this helps to close the supposed gap between scientific and religious knowledge, since knowledge-by-ritual is also a key feature of biblical knowing. When Abraham asks, “How shall I know that I shall possess the land?” the Lord responds not with a lecture on divine truthfulness but by giving Abram ritual instructions (Genesis 15). According to Leviticus 23:43, Israel was to keep the feast of booths “in order that the generations may know that I made the sons of Israel live in booths.” Apparently, telling the story of Israel's wilderness wanderings couldn’t communicate the kind of knowledge that the Lord wanted. The wilderness had to be re-enacted, and Israel’s knowledge “ritualed.”
Deuteronomy is full of exhortations to “remember” often in ritualized memorials: “The prescription to not forget what YHWH had done for Israel included keeping the Torah rituals. Just as important as keeping Torah, Deuteronomy specifically warns Israel to avoid rituals that might syncretize Israelite rituals with the worship of foreign deities,” which indicates that “foreign ritual negatively affect[ed] the children’s knowledge” (cf. Deuteronomy 4:25). These rituals are intended to enable Israel to see, “properly disposed to interpret reality accurately.”
As fresh ritualizations of Israel’s rituals, Christian sacraments have the same purpose: “Any attempt at a sacramental theology that regards the authority of Scripture must reckon with this principle: we practice rites to know.” On Johnson’s telling, Christian rites extend the ministry of Jesus, who opened blind eyes and illumined dark minds, who continues to teach his disciples to see the world rightly and skillfully to discern the significance of what he teaches us to see.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.