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A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 1

What good is ritual? Doesn’t ritual get in the way of directly encountering the risen Christ in worship and turn Christians into numbed automatons who merely go through the motions, all the while becoming more and more dependent on an impersonal, institutionalized approach to faith? I have no doubt that ritual badly performed is every bit as soul-draining as the above sentence implies—and probably a thousand times more. But there is also much to be learned from a positive appreciation of the processes of ritual.

I believe this because the author of the book of Hebrews believed this. You can’t read far in Hebrews without realizing that the author knew his stuff when it came to the rituals of the Old Testament and early Judaism. A careful reading suggests he held these rituals in high esteem. He never once calls them bad; he merely insists that Jesus is better. Furthermore, his core argument—and his lasting contribution to Christian theology—is to depict the death and exaltation of Christ in ritualistic terms, despite the fact that there was nothing overtly ritualistic at all about these events as historical occurrences. Jesus was a layman who suffered a humiliating death outside the gates of Jerusalem, but for the author of Hebrews he was the Great High Priest who offered his own blood in the heavenly sanctuary as the definitive sacrifice for sins.

Why does the author of Hebrews tell the story in that way? What does he mean to tell us by couching common Christian teachings in the language of ritual?

Few if any Westerners in the twenty-first century share the cultic presuppositions of the author of Hebrews. Even if we agree with him, for example, that blood is necessary for atonement, this is the imposition of a particular Christian context. It is not the general assumption of our culture (and evangelicals who try to explain the importance of blood on rationalistic terms just dig themselves into a hole!).

In reality, all of our theological models are culturally conditioned. Even such a well-known image as that of God as Shepherd is not universally understood. If someone unacquainted with sheep and shepherds appreciates this image, it is through taking an imaginative leap. How much more then must we think ourselves back in order to appreciate fully Hebrews’ cultic depiction of spiritual realities.

Liminality as a Hermeneutical Key

One possibility for applying a thoughtful hermeneutical approach to Hebrews would begin with the anthropological concepts of rites of passage and especially liminality. Arnold van Gennep first suggested that a rite of passage has three distinct phases. First is the phase of separation that clearly demarcates sacred space and time. After this comes the phase of transition, often called the liminal or “threshold” phase, in which the subject of the rite passes through a period of ambiguity. Finally, the rite concludes with an aggregation or incorporation phase in which the subject returns in a new, relatively stable and well defined position in the total society.

“Liminality” has to do with the qualities that characterize transitional times of life, the betwixt and between experiences where social norms are inverted and even subverted. As Victor Turner has demonstrated (The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure [Cornell University Press, 1969]), liminality is at the heart of how rituals work in cultures all over the world. In itself, liminality is neither good nor bad. It is mystically potent, and as such it is a potentially dangerous element lending itself to the ambiguous and paradoxical (Christopher Crocker, “Ritual and the Development of Social Structure: Liminality and Inversion,” in The Roots of Ritual, ed. James Shaughnessy [Eerdmans, 1973] 70). One purpose of ritual is to harness this force for the good.

Turner has suggested that growing numbers of Westerners sense a need for the liminal. He further states that liminality is a category “suggestive for the understanding of many social processes and states found outside of ritual contexts” (“Liminality, Kabbalah, and the Media,” Religion 15 [1985] 208). In this light, I suggest liminality—and humanity’s apparently universal need for it— as an appropriate category by which to forge a link between the New Testament world and our own.

By our standards, life in preindustrial societies appears tedious in the extreme. Ritual, however, interrupts the accepted routine from time to time to carry individuals, groups, and even whole peoples through life’s passages. These transitions are characterized by a loosening of normal social restrictions and obligations, thus permitting creativity and criticism of society and, paradoxically, reinforcing people’s commitments to society. As Turner observes, the need for such transitions is common today as well:

Many of us have highly stable status roles in massive bureaucratic and professional structures, often on a national or even international scale. Many of us clock in and clock out of factories. Others are tightly bound to the wheel of the market and Stock Exchange. We are held in the group of les villes tentaculaires. But only the observant in churches, sects, cults, and religious movements have well articulated ritual liminality. And these groups, too, become bureaucratized, and to a greater or lesser extent secularized; or else defiantly and rigidly desecularized. (“Liminality,” 212)

Certain qualities commonly associated with liminality escho the ideals of various strands of Christian spirituality. Among these would be humility, simplicity, obedience, egalitarianism, and acceptance of pain and suffering. Many of these figure prominently in the spiritual path the author of Hebrews sets forth. Christian authenticity, at least in this tradition, therefore becomes an institutionalized state of liminality where transition has become a permanent condition. Herin lies a clue toward a fuller understanding of the pilgrimage motif of Hebrews. It is “outside the camp,” in the liminal realm, that believers meet God (13:13).

Using the category of liminality as a point of departure, we can appreciate something of why the author of Hebrews chose to describe the Christian life in ritual terms.

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3 Comments

  1. SingingOwl says:

    This should be a magazine article. Really good, Dr. P. 🙂 Thank you, from one who keeps pondering this stuff and wishing she could have it all..

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  2. Anne Mikkola says:

    hmmm. This is going to take some more thinking..

    My first reaction was that ‘well, Hebrews is beautiful exactly because it says there is only one high priest, the OT rituals on gone and fullfilled. But thinking about it more, I may have sometimes had the quickly passing question in mind asking why did he focus so much on this kind of language.

    Else this liminality business may make some sense, seems to agree with even my experience to some extent: ‘institutionalized state of liminality where transition has become a permanent condition.’ Right..I used to think that it will pass some day, but no…

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