Ritual design and privacy

The New York Times published an article last week “The Office Is Adrift. Divinity Consultants Are Here to Save It.”

There have been times in my life when I might have been friendlier toward the ideas in this article, but I’ve grown not only wary, but hostile to this kind of blurring of lines separating the personal and the private. The following is a slightly edited email I wrote to a friend this morning, who also reacted negatively to the article, for her own reasons.

Here is what is bothering me most about this article: The last thing any of us needs right now is compulsory religious practice handed down from on high by any ruling authority — private, public or (increasingly) both.

Another thing that bothers me for more personal reasons is encapsulated in this line: ‘Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility.” To which I commented in my notes: “Unitarianism in a fucking nutshell.” I grew up in a compulsory, artificial religion made up by folks who saw religion as serving utilitarian social and emotional purposes, and who saw traditional religious practices as crude, but salvageable social tools that could be put to better use by more evolved, rational, modern intellectuals.

Another line also leaped out at me: “‘We’ve seen brands enter the political space,’ said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: ‘The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.’”

This entry of brands into politics translates directly into the entry of political ideology into the workplace, which I view as a direct threat to the private realm of individuality. Suddenly your employer has a legit business case for meddling with your personal worldview, your private judgments, your utopian hopes, your faith. Suddenly, outward behaviors — etiquette and professionalism — are not enough. You must adopt certain sociological theories, attitudes toward spirituality, feelings about other people, because these innermost secrets do subtly affect other people, not only in what you do (motivated reasoning, biased judgments, microaggressions), but even worse, in what you do not do (silence is violence!) and these little actions and nonactions add up to grand-scale oppression. Therefore, we are entitled to rummage around in your personal convictions looking for evidence of thought crimes, because we take seriously our obligation to take part in creating a more just society. Besides (according to our own political view) everything is unavoidably political — we are just making our politics more explicit and intentional, which means abandoning pretensions of “neutrality.”

What can be said of politics can also be said of religious faith: everything is unavoidably a matter of religious faith. What we hold sacred and make central to who we are shapes what we think, how we feel, how we interact, what we are motivated to do. Our collective values have everything to do with the quality of our work lives, and so they are a valid concern of any enlightened employer. And therefore rituals that affirm these values are a reasonable thing to require from employees.

But even if those rituals are not compulsory, they create performative belonging and not-belonging. Back when I was a youth, the UUs created a little ritual where the children would leave the adult service to go to R.E. (Religious Education) and they would playfully skip out to this jaunty and saccharine children’s ditty on the piano. I resented being pushed into this ritual performance of what these assholes thought childlikeness was. The kids would produce childlikeness, and the adults would laugh, and rejoice and contemplate how they would like to recover their own childlikeness. I’d wait for it to end, then angrily sneak out, with renewed alienation. Years later, among Orthodox Christians, I was the one who never crossed himself, who never asked priests for blessings, who at Easter never said “indeed he is risen!’ In response to “Christ is risen!”, though, on occasion my agnosticism moved me to answer “perhaps he has risen.”

These actions put me outside of these groups, to them and to myself. And that is one of the functions of rituals, to exteriorize faith in visible behaviors. It is a physical way of confirming shared conviction, which is why *religious* communities do them.

And this points to why only religious communities should do them. We enter a religious community and gather with them precisely because we share a common faith and are happy to see others who share that faith with us. Synagogues, churches, temples are spaces set aside for gathering to affirm, share and cultivate faith in various ways. And those present who do not share the faith will feel with utmost tangibility the issue of belonging or not belonging.

Rituals remove that shelter of reticence which softens and downplays inner difference in situations where people of diverse faith must collaborate and accomplish things together. Instead of rituals of inner faith we do rituals of etiquette, where we demonstrate outer respect, willingness to set aside, suppress or even conceal inner differences in order to take up common goals and to collaborate effectively and harmoniously as possible. It is true, this does mean we must disguise ourselves in certain situations, that we will sometimes feel phony or compromised, or that many of the most important aspects of ourselves must remain un-expressed in work settings.

But if we are alert and reflective and work actively and intentionally to develop more mature understandings of personhood and social existence, something weird happens to us. We grow to develop an intense loyalty to these “soulless”, “formal” institutions that observe boundaries between public, social and private realms and preserve each with thoughtful tradeoffs. The etiquette rituals become almost matters of inner faith — the acknowledgement that not baring our souls to each other all the time permits us to develop as unique persons.

This ties into some thinking I’ve been doing on Richard Rorty’s idea of the public and private realm. I think there’s a third realm between the two, that we should call the social realm, where we come together as members of groups and interact in rule-governed ways but outside the scope of law.

The controversy of our time is where the boundaries should be drawn between these three domains. Which changes ought to be political, and are matters of legislation and legal penalty? Which are social, and are matters of etiquette and interpersonal penalty? And which matters are private, and should be protected from politics and society?