But they are very different.
Routines can flatten life: contribute to zombification. Rituals can thicken life and reverse zombification.
With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. The “double-tap” routine, illustrated in the movie Zombieland, has a clear link to its purpose–making sure a downed zombie stays down. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.
A ritual does not have this clear relationship between the act and its purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. You don’t carve a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat onto the handle of your pistol because of its aesthetic appeal.
The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.
In some circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.” Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of being human still dominates the Western world. The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are supposed to be mindless. Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense? Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform our essence, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.
James K. A. Smith says in this book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us. He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings, rather, we are desiring beings. Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.” Smith says, “I love therefore I am.” Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies. If you must watch “The Talking Dead” with a Bud Lite Lime every Sunday night, you are embodying a devotion not just to a television, but a community of “Walking Dead” lovers. This simple ritual of watching The Talking Dead, shapes your identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person to a community. This is kinda cool. Unfortunately, because of the choice of beer, this ritual ultimately degrades the individual. It shows a mindless dedication the efficiencies of mass production. Bud Lite Lime is to beer what a zombie is to a human being.
We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long. I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.
I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.