Context is everything

The inner work and the outward sign

Viewed outside the context of their meaning and purpose, rituals can often look silly. When I first saw a CUUPs ritual online, I thought, why are they lighting a candle in a chalice? This was because I was viewing the ritual through a Wiccan lens, and in Wicca, a chalice represents water, and is used for drinking consecrated wine. Whereas if you view the lighting of a chalice through the lens of Unitarian and UU symbolism, it makes perfect sense. The chalice represents community, and sharing the wine with the laity, among other things; the flame represents inspiration, and connection with the Divine, among other things. It is a rich and complex symbol whose meanings are evolving all the time. So it is vital to view a symbol in its cultural context and find out what it means.

Similarly, a criticism often levelled at Judaism is that it has lots of nit-picky rules. One of these is that you can’t light fire on the Sabbath, so some Jews tape over the light in the fridge so that opening the door doesn’t turn on the light. To someone unaware of the context and the corresponding inner work, this looks a bit silly. Once you understand that the whole edifice of Jewish observant practice is all about remaining constantly aware of the presence of the Divine, and one’s relationship with it, the action of remaining observant even in such a tiny detail makes more sense. There is a prayer to accompany every action, so that the observant Jew remains in communion with the Divine at all times. Also, for this practice to make sense, you have to understand the deep affection in which the Sabbath is held in Judaism. It’s not like the dour Protestant Sabbath. First, on the Friday evening, when Sabbath begins, the lady of the house lights the Sabbath candles, which invites the presence of the Shekhinah. Then, on Friday night, the husband and wife make love, also inviting the presence of the Shekhinah. The whole family comes together for a meal and to spend time together. At the end of the Sabbath, the whole family sniffs a spice box, so that the loveliness of the Sabbath can be remembered for the rest of the week. In times of persecution, the Sabbath, taking place behind closed doors, would be an affirmation of Jewish identity and community, and the only time when you could be truly at peace.

Another example is the custom of covering the head, which is found in a number of different religions (and some Pagans have started wearing veils). This might look like oppression of women – and if it is enforced rather than voluntary, I think it is – but its original meaning was as a reminder that the Divine is always present (that’s why Jewish men wear a kippah).

I expect that some Pagan practices look a bit daft when viewed outside their context. The casting of the Wiccan circle, with its elaborate preparation, might look a bit over-the-top to outsiders; but in context, it makes perfect sense. The series of different actions prepare us for the inner work, stilling the mind and readying the body for an encounter with the mysteries. They also align us psychologically with the sacred directions; this alignment symbolises our connection with the universe. The thoroughness of the preparation also means that the circle feels like a safe space, which is important as rituals can sometimes be profoundly transformative. Another example which might look daft to outsiders is the Heathen practice of offering libations of mead. But of course, mead is a precious thing, and when making offerings to the deities, it is customary to offer something of value; and Heathens want to connect with their deities.

All of these practices  are aimed at cultivating our connection with the Divine; they are a reminder to live life in a sacred manner. Of course, some people practice the outer observances without managing to do the inner work, and this can lead to an over-emphasis on the rules at the expense of the inner work. Sometimes, when the practices have lost their inner meaning, and adherence to the tradition has become more important than the inner work, they need to be changed, and either a new religion results, or the existing religion is reformed. The prophet Amos criticised the practice of sacrifice, saying that God would prefer people to practice justice and righteousness instead –  so clearly the practice of sacrifice had lost its function of connecting with God, and become merely routine. Jesus criticised the rigid observance of Sabbath rules, and placed emphasis on being kind to people instead – so clearly, in his day, the Sabbath rules had lost their inner meaning. At the Reformation, Protestants criticised Catholic practices of praying to saints, and the concept of transubstantiation. They were viewing these practices through a rational lens and forgetting to look at their inner meaning, and the inner work that they represented.


There is also a tendency to take sayings and quotations out of context. When Jesus formulated his version of the Golden Rule, he meant it to be a summation of the Law and the Prophets, not a replacement for them; he would have wanted it viewed in the context of Jewish practice and culture. When Gerald Gardner formulated the Wiccan Rede (“An it harm none, do what thou wilt”), he probably assumed that it would be taken in the context of the ritual which introduces it, and the whole body of Wiccan lore and practice. When Dávid Ferenc said, “We need not think alike to love alike”, he said it in a specific historical and cultural context, which needs to be understood in order to apply his saying effectively. Of course, these utterances are quotable out of context, but if we want to live by them, we need the whole body of lore and practice that goes with them, in order to implement them effectively. It’s all very well exhorting people to love one another, but then you need specific techniques to overcome things like projecting your shadow-side onto other people; the damage that can be caused by group dynamics (e.g. in-group versus out-group); and other aspects of human psychology.

The practice of taking quotes and practices out of context and applying them without regard to circumstances is one of the most damaging aspects of religion; and it is also one of the major causes of misunderstanding between religions. We need to look at the context of any practice, quote, or rule, and ask, what is the real reason behind this? If it is harmful, can it be reformulated in such a way as to restore the original intention (to remind us of our connection with the Divine), and remove the harmful aspect of the practice?

3 thoughts on “Context is everything

  1. I think this also explains why lifting a ritual from its original context and trying to apply it in a different context, without checking back to the underlying purpose, and working out a purpose for the ritual in its new context, often does not work.


  2. Perhaps the most harmfully misunderstood word currently of this kind is “jihad”. “Islamist” terrorists and some Western commentators use it to mean “terrorist” or more specifically, suicide-bombers and their assistants. In Arabic it means “struggle” and in the Qu’ran the primary meaning is the inner struggle to align with God and Good rather than Evil, similar to what in Hindu teaching is analogised as “the Battle of Kurukshetra” in the Gita. Properly understood, religious jihad is a noble aspect of Islamic self-discipline, with no connection to war and weaponry.

    Jihad can also mean struggle in the political sense, as in “we Pakistani women are struggling for equal rights”.


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