Have you ever taught someone how to ride a bike? If you were to create a “how-to” guide for bike-riding, what would it say? What instructions would you include? Most people know how to ride a bike, but where does that knowledge come from? My guess is that, despite all the paper instruction we could give, one learns how to ride a bike by riding a bike. The ritual of getting on a bike, pedaling, balancing, falling over, and getting back up again teaches us, over time, how to ride a bike. We do, so that we may know. And once we know—deeply, truly, instinctively—we never forget. This is the power of ritual to instill knowledge.
In his book “Knowledge by Ritual,” author Dru Johnson argues that the deepest knowledge of God comes not through study, but rather through the continued practice of rituals that God has established for us as a people. Philosopher and author Esther Meek says something similar: that knowledge comes to us through a “covenant relationship,” with its attendant ritual dimensions.
The Bible is full of examples of this ritually-imparted knowledge. When God called Abram out of Ur and promised that his offspring would bless all nations, Abram instinctively wondered “How shall I know that I will possess the land?” (Gen. 15:8). God responds with instructions for a covenant ritual: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” (Gen. 15:9). Likewise, the recurring ritual of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13), and dwelling in booths (Lev. 23:43) were established so that God’s people “may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” And Israel participated in the Passover each year, so that fathers could teach their children that the Lord spared their houses from destruction in Egypt. (Ex. 12:27).
At first this may sound counter-intuitive in our rationalistic culture. If we want to know something, then we should study it with our minds, right? Scripture tells of a different way. In God’s providence, he has made us in such a way that doing leads to knowing.
The purpose of ritual, then, is to impart some sort of lasting knowledge. But the knowledge imparted does not merely reside in the head; ritualized knowledge permeates one’s entire being, such that we instinctively “know.” Think once more about riding a bike. It requires a tremendous amount of balance, concentration, and coordination. But once we have “ritualized” the bike-riding process through error and repetition, we could probably ride a bike with our eyes closed. How does this happen? The ritual teaches us comprehensively what it means to know bike-riding all the way down. Bicycle mechanics become second nature, and we are freed to enjoy the riding: the breeze flowing through our hair, the cool air against our face, or the rigorous climb up the hill. Ritual trains us to understand and appreciate.
The same is true of rituals that train our affections and knowledge toward Christ. If man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then rituals serve to impart knowledge in a way that makes glorifying and enjoying God possible. This is why, at TCS, we place a high importance on school liturgies—everyday rituals that orient our hearts and minds towards the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christ.
Think about the rituals in your own life—in your home, church, and at school. Are they geared towards imparting a knowledge and enjoyment of God and his world? What we do with our shared experiences every day shapes and molds us in ways that mere study cannot. In other words, daily routines matter. And if the daily routines and rituals of life seem monotonous, take heart! God has ordained these means to enable us to worship and enjoy him rightly. Every hymn, every scripture, every sound-off, and every opening prayer serve to impart a deep knowledge of God that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Armed with the instinctual knowledge of truth, we are freed to enjoy—truly enjoy—the glory of God and his world in its multifaceted ways. So pay attention to the rituals around you, and ask God to help you grow in knowledge through the use of godly, truth-imparting, Christ-exalting rituals.