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Rituals are about cultivating attitudes

August 22, 2009
Cant eat; fasting.

Can't eat; fasting.

I was reading an article from Jeff Schweitzer — a critical look at fasting. I didn’t have to go too far to find out that, even from a skeptical purpose, Jeff misses the point of rituals such as fasting.

To be honest, he has a few zings that sound nice from a material aspect. For example:

What is so curious about these supposed episodes of “self-denial” is how little is being denied in the effort to get closer to god.  If missing a meal is a criterion for spirituality, every anorexic supermodel is going straight to heaven.

But this zing is good not because it’ll actually fluster any religious practioner, but because it shows exactly how reductionistically Schweitzer views fasting and ritual. Quite simply, what he fails to realize is that rituals are about cultivating attitudes, not about actual material effects.

Now, if Schweitzer wants to say that the attitudes religious people attempt to cultivate aren’t worthwhile, that’s another argument, or if he wants to say that most people are unaware of the attitudinal cultivation they should be practicing, then that’s another argument. If he wants to say that such little sacrifice has little chance at succeeding in such an effort, then even that’s a better argument. But all of these arguments are different than the one he has.

I mean, growing up Mormon, I was used to Fast Sunday once a month. And even back then, I found it unglamorous and even I felt I wasn’t sacrificing a lot — like tithing, the requirement seemed fuzzy for for all of us, but the popular idea was two meals (in before other Mormons chastise my fellow ward members and me for fasting too little).

And the members I knew would do the things that Schweitzer says — there’s a lot of psychological prepwork for it that could be said to completely miss the point. The two meals skipped, generally, would be breakfast and lunch…oh wow, the two meals that you’d be in church for anyway! So, when Schweitzer comments:

Jews have elaborate psychological preparations so they can go an entire 25 hours without stuffing themselves.  Go to a synagogue, take a nap, sniff spices, don’t talk about food…

I can nod sheepishly (and I think many people could nod, if not publicly, then in their hearts).

But I think most people could also recall — or at least I can from my wards — lessons in church about how to magnify the fast. There’s a famous quote — don’t know where it originated, but I’m sure many Mormons have heard it: “If you haven’t begun and ended your fast with prayer, then you were just starving.”

The sentiment is simple, and I think it’s one that most members should at least be able to conceptualize, even if they don’t follow it. Fasting is not about the actual action. It is about the attitude you engage it with. So, Mormons are supposed to provide fast offerings as well when they fast — to cover the meals they forwent (…can I conjugate that verb like that?). And even though guidance on the offerings also was fuzzy, we could easily tell the scrooges who would offer begrugingly — calculating to the penny the bare minimum breakfast might have cost (not joking: people morph into cost accountants for this task, measuring out how many bowls of cereals they average per box and then allocating a bowl or two) — vs. those who understand the spirit of the guidance, giving liberally and without complaint. In fact, if any Mormons care about the scriptures these days, then they can open to 3 Nephi 13: 16-18, where Jesus says:

16 Moreover, when ye fast be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.

17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face;

18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

Or, for those who dislike the Book of Mormon, let’s look at Matthew 6:16-18, which will look eerily familiar for all of you King James Version readers.

That being said, Schweitzer does take aim at the philosophical and theological association between piety and pain, but this quickly reveals a thinly veiled attack on the theodicies of the major religions that’s simply above my pay grade (e.g., why must one cultivate “good” attitudes through suffering and sacrifice? How does this point to a good God?). Nevertheless, I can hear the Mormon answer — a world in which everyone is already programmed to do good and know God, where one cannot progress and grow through adversity and strife is downright Satanic. But then again, there are enough other disagreements to find about Mormon cosmology (namely: how do the three omni-s affect a god who “organized” the universe rather than creating from nothing?)

Regardless, for the world we live in, regardless of how or why it’s like this, we do seem to gain benefit from adversity.


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  1. Good points, Andrew.

    I’m reminded of “hell week”: the initial week-long conditioning period for Navy SEALS recruits. One of the components of the week is severe sleep deprivation. Does this help in conditioning? Does it have some physical benefit? Of course not. Its benefits are purely psychological. It cultivates a certain hardness. It forces recruits to adapt to suffering, to develop and demonstrate a measure of will power far beyond most other people. In the line of duty, when faced with a choice between defeat and personal suffering, they will have the self-confidence to choose personal suffering because they have been tested and know it is within their power to endure for the greater good.

  2. I should add that World Vision does an annual 30-hour fast in which youth groups across the country participate. The object is to teach kids what it feels like to be hungry so that they will be more aware of world hunger and more willing to help when someone is in need. The groups also spend their thirty hours engaged in activities designed to create awareness and to raise money to solve hunger crises in other countries. It was one of the most memorable and constructive church events I ever helped organize during my short time as youth pastor several years ago.

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