What is the point of “external” religious rituals if God is within us?

Blog Published: March 29, 2010
By Sister Julie

From one of our blog readers ...

“I have a spiritual question. In my opinion, one of Jesus’ most profound statements was, ‘The kingdom of God comes not from observation; neither shall they say lo here or lo there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you!’ To me Jesus is saying that you cannot obtain God’s kingdom by merely observing or following outer religious rituals and believing in outer doctrines. Rather you can only discover His kingdom by going within your heart and mind to discover and become one with God’s presence within.”

“If this is so, why do most Christian churches (including the Catholic Church) place such a heavy emphasis on following particular outer doctrines and creeds – often accompanied by implicit or explicit warnings of damnation if theses rules are not adhered to – despite the fact that Jesus is clearly telling us that God’s kingdom cannot be found in this manner?”

- Steve

Thank you for the question. The passage to which you are referring is Luke 17:20-21 in which Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come. The last word of verse 21 can be translated as “within” or “among”. “Among” is often the translation because it fits better with other statements that Luke makes in his Gospel regarding the presence of the kingdom.

Given the context of this statement (as well as the larger context of the Gospels) I don’t think one can draw the conclusion that Jesus thought that “outer religious rituals and “outer doctrines” had nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. Clearly the Gospels give us a Jesus who is very much a practicing, faithful Jew.

On the other hand, you are right about the fact that Jesus was not one to follow the letter of the law when it opposed God’s Word. And so, for example, Jesus would heal on the Sabbath even when “work” was prohibited on the Sabbath.

The outward practice of rituals and the adherence to doctrine is not diametrically opposed to what happens in one’s head and heart. Yes, rituals, prayer formulas, doctrine can become hollow when they are not connected with our head and heart, but their whole purpose is to help us connect with God and with one another as a faith community. But they should never become a substitute for a relationship with God.

I’ve not come across a ritual or teaching that was accompanied by a warning of damnation. Damnation is a result of a life choice to use our God-given free will and talents in order to reject God, to turn away from God with the whole of our lives.

What are your thoughts on the relationship of external rituals and personal experience of God?

Archived Comments

Lutheran Susan March 29, 2010 at 8:56 am

Sometimes rituals give great meaning to my life and help me feel more deeply connected to God. They can help me find the God who is within me and focus on what God is asking me to do or be at a particular moment in time. At others times, the rituals can seem, as Sister Julie said, hollow. It is at those times I feel I need to do them more, not less, because even when they don’t seem to help, I have to trust in God that there is still meaning there and something for me to learn. I discover this most when my life is really upside down, when difficulties have arisen and I feel unable to cope. Often the last thing I want to do is sit down with my office and pray. But it is in those times that God lifts me up the most. I usually can’t see it until later, when the crisis has passed. The rituals themselves help sustain me when I cannot think or concentrate–they keep me going in God’s way, reminding me how God wants me to act, even when it seems that God is nowhere to be found. When I’m back to being able to think clearly, I am reminded that God truly is within me–all the time.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF March 29, 2010 at 9:20 am

Ah, but how else do we express our inward reality of an experience of and relation with Jesus but by outward signs and expressions?

Lovely icon, by the way!

Amparo March 29, 2010 at 9:39 am

Interesting what you say about the among/within issue… You know? as soon as I read that I went to the Bible in greek to see how it was in that ancient language. The greek word there is εντος (and St. Jeronimus translates it “intra” in his Vulgata). The “Biblia de Jerusalén”, direct translation from Vulgata, says the spanish word “enter” (etymologically comes from “intra”, but while “intra” means “within”, “entre” means “among”) The greek word εντος is an ambiguous term which can be used either as “within” or as “among” (funny, eh?). So I went to the TOB (Traduction oecumenique de la Bible “Ecoumenic translation of the Bible”) translation to french and it uses the french word “parmi” which means “among”… So, as it happens in English, in the roman laguages, the more common tranlation would also be “among”… Although in latin St Jeronimus used “intra” but, given the fact that it is a medieval latin, its most probable that it already meant “among” in those days.

Tom Cloutier, SFO March 29, 2010 at 9:46 am

Steve is correct in saying that the mere following of rituals will not obtain the Kingdom of God. Our ability to enter into the Father’s Kingdom flows from the graces that flow out from the God who desires us. Ritual, when done well, done mindfully, can awaken our spirits and open us to receiving that which is always held out to us: the depth-less love of a God who, through Jesus, literally loved us to death. Ritual, done thoughtlessly, to quote Macbeth, becomes little more than “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Cynthia Brown March 29, 2010 at 11:57 am

This is a great question Steve asked and Amparo’s feedback on how a word can redefine its meaning. Jesus lives in all of us, whether we care to recognize it or not. I had a problem with doctrine, because it remind me of rules and I thought I hate rules, putting it strongly. However, over the recent later years of my life I have learn that doctrine, and Torah law is a guideline to to help me not to stray into wide open spaces without thought or discernment and I am still learning. I got tired of “Christians like me” whinning about the Torah so I purchase a old copy of the “Code Of Jewish Law by Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried Translated by Hyman E Goldin, LL. B and read a few items in it. Its not bad at all, actually it a very interesting read” The question I asked myself is this; Is the law contridiction to my own beliefs or is it trepassing my own personal desires. Naturally its the latter for me. Therefore, I have become more open and honest to myself to read doctrine and Torah laws and be open and allow them to redefine the meaning of life to me. A honor to experience someone else life in another time or maybe still now. Its like experience different cultures or lifestyles. Some are written by people as ourselves and some came directly from God. A suggestion to read also “The Wisdom of Sirach” In the Catholic Study Bible”, tough read for me but a delight to look at another perspective of life. Its a journey to a new beginning and a direction that a few of us dare to follow. God Bless friend in Christ!

Karen March 29, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I think the translation issue of “within” or “among” is a really interesting one. Maybe there is a point to not being able to pin it down. While the Kingdom of God is within us, it is also among us as we interact as brothers & sisters in Christ, and one way we do this is through the shared experience of our faith communities, and the prayers & rituals we experience together…One of the nicest parts about being Catholic is that even if you’re REALLY far from home, and you go to Mass, you can still feel at home because it’s all being done in the same way, and that’s comforting when everything else around you might be new and strange. I like the ambiguity of those words and what that might represent…human language has its limits while God never does…that’s nice and humbling.

Amparo March 29, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I agree wth you Karen! The greek language tend to have those kind of multisemantic words, but that’s precisely whta it wants to mean, we the greek writes εντος, it is saying that the Kingdom is within and among us at the same time… If English or spanish don’t have a word with all that semantic information, well that doesn’t mean that the we should omit that fantastic aspect of God’s Kingdom… Well I bette leave now or I’ll star with a filological study of that versicle and it could take hours and pages, LOL.
Blessed Holy Week to all!

Sr Therese COS March 30, 2010 at 3:00 am

Beautiful thread. Within/among – the Kingdom of God, the gracious, loving, powerful, just, holy wholeness of God’s presence is both within and among us. I find that my own experience of God is both enhanced and deepened when I share it in community. Communual prayer, and especially communual, shared silence, is a much deeper experience than prayer on one’s own (I do a lot of this, being a Solitary with my Community overseas). Our experience of God’s saving-ness (I know this isn’t a real word but it I dislike “salvation” as I think it’s been hijacked to mean something else!) is lived in our lives, but it is also lived through our communual life.

For me, this is most strongly experienced at the Table of God: the feast of Jesus’ body and blood where we share simple parts of a simple meal, that have an awesome Reality that is far deeper than what the elements themselves are. It’s that “outward sign of an inward and invisible grace” again. And yes, I’m definitely saying that all of our lives are sacraments – or at least, sacramental: outwardly reflecting the inward and invisible grace that God has poured all over us.

Also, my personal experience of God is useless unless it is lived out in community with others. It’s a triangle of love: God-me-others (but all joined up – I can’t do diagrams here!).

rosebud March 31, 2010 at 1:24 pm

To some, rituals are beautiful and meaningful parts of their faith. They could hardly live without them. To others, ritual does not play so significant a role. Their faith is simpler, more streamlined. And it is fine either way. You can be holy without ritual but you cannot be holy without compassion and love – the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

I understand what the initial post was getting at when the writer said that if you don’t follow doctrine, etc. to a T, you are in for eternal damnation. Some Catholics do play those games. I don’t advocate missing Mass, but think of the religious ed teachers who tell young children that missing Mass is a mortal sin – punishable by …? Or some of the bishops who play communion wars. Then there are those that claim certain folks are not REAL Catholics if they vote for certain political candidate. The list could go on ad infinitem … Most of these folks are probably into politics and control tactics. Unfortunate really.

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