A few months ago, in the hype surrounding Prince William and Kate’s then-upcoming marriage, a story emerged that Prince William would choose not to wear a ring–apparently because he just doesn’t like jewelry. Boundless posted about it, and the predictable comments that followed trod the well-worn path of nearly every argument I’ve witnessed concerning tradition. On the one hand, you have the traditionalists. They perceived that something was wrong with the choice, but because they could not articulate that perception (and perhaps did not understand it), they came off as saying that tradition should always be followed simply because it is tradition. If you follow it, you’re morally correct, and if you do not, you are morally wrong. On the other hand, you had the modernists who deemed that tradition was completely arbitrary and therefore could be dismissed for any reason–or no reason at all. The ring, they said, is just a piece of metal. It is a morally irrelevant ritual, and the only thing that makes the ritual symbolic of commitment is a choice to see it that way. Since that choice is purely personal, there is absolutely no basis for moral judgment whatsoever.
Nearly every debate I’ve seen over any particular tradition ends up along these lines, which is unfortunate, since neither point-of-view is rich enough to really evaluate traditions. We all know traditions are not moral absolutes, for the latter often demand that we violate the former. We are allowed to question and, at times, reject them. At the same time, however, relegating tradition and physical matter to mere symbols with only subjective meaning–in a way in which “merely,” “just,” and “only” are the key words–leads to a highly impoverished view of life which cannot take the world around us seriously. Instead, I’d like to use this ring issue as a case study in which we examine tradition as a kind of incarnation of moral value–a way in which higher things become enfleshed.
The issue surrounding the wedding ring is all about marital fidelity–a commitment to be entirely faithful (including, but not limited to sexual fidelity) to one’s spouse. If someone refuses to wear this ring, does that really indicate a rejection of marital commitment? The answer, I think, is “probably.”
Commitment does not exist in abstraction anymore than humans exist in abstraction–both exist when they are incarnate in the world around us. For example, if someone punched you in the face, would you accept the excuse that they didn’t really punch you they merely punched some bits of flesh and bone belonging to the real you that you happen to be rather fond of? After all, we’re more than just flesh and bone, right? While humans may be more than just flesh and not all flesh is human, we nevertheless are flesh. It is in precisely this way that wearing a wedding ring is commitment. Abstract commitment is no commitment at all just as an abstract human isn’t really a human. Both must be incarnate. Wearing a ring is marital commitment and a refusal to wear one is a rejection of the same.
But you say “our commitment is incarnate in our actions!” Indeed it is, but in which ones? In resisting temptations to divorce and other forms of adultery? Certainly; if you don’t have that, you don’t have commitment at all. Nevertheless, bare-minimum commitment is hardly what a spouse looks for. It would be like eating only when you’re about to starve. Sure, it’s “enough” in a purely mechanical sense, but that’s precisely the point: why would a sane person want to reduce it to a purely mechanical sense? Likewise, why reduce commitment to the mere mechanism of only inserting tab A into slot B rather than into slots C-Z? In engineering, it is said that perfection in design is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away (while still leaving the essence of the design intact). It should be obvious, however, that life is deeper than just an engineering problem. It is not all about tolerances and extremes–it is about living well. Practicing commitment only when it is being tested to its breaking point is foolishness. Rituals like wearing a ring give one the chance of making his commitment incarnate even when one is not under assault–to nurture it to withstand those breaking points when they do come.
But you say, “what about people who are allergic to metal, or those who work in a machine shop & have serious saftey concerns, etc? Are they therefore less comitted?” Certainly not, any more than someone who has lost an arm is any less human as a result. Nevertheless, they clearly suffer an injury. Whether it is mild or severe is up for debate, but it is an injury to commitment to be unable to participate in a key cultural ritual that enfleshes commitment. A wise person in such a situation would make an extra effort to compensate for the injury by making commitment incarnate in different ritual. On the other hand, only a fool would arbitrarily take deprivation upon himself for trivial reasons. Rejecting a ring because one doesn’t like jewelry is akin (in kind, but certainly not degree) to cutting off an arm because one doesn’t like meat. A sane person who actually does such a thing surely has a deeper reason than simple distaste. Maybe this reason is good; maybe it is bad. What we can be certain of, however, is that there is a reason.
But you say, “there are lots of ways to ritualize commitment! A ring is just one among thousands–each one as good as any other.” This is true as far as it goes. Likewise, a person can become incarnate in an infinite variety of ways (skin tones, hair color, height, strength/weakness, intelligence/stupidity etc), but it’s always a combination of particulars which were handed over by those who begat their offspring. In the same way, meaningful ritual is begotten by those who came before and handed over into the care of their successors. There are certainly other ways in which commitment could become incarnate than wearing a ring; different cultures have produced an abundance of options. Nevertheless, the ring was an incarnation that the prince’s culture handed over to him. It is not merely a little piece of metal or a symbol that he willfully rejects, but an incarnation of commitment that he already posessed.
Perceptive readers will notice that none of this means that tradition and ritual ought never be changed–the key point of contention in the typical argument. What it does mean is that changing such things is neither trivial nor meaningless–something implied by every commentator who described wedding rings in a way that hinges on “just” or “merely” or “only”. We are not really in a position to appropriately judge the prince either guilty or innocent. “He doesn’t like jewelry” is a reason he gave that the media picked up on, but is unlikely to be the whole story. Those who assign him guilt make themselves into judgmental busybodies, but recognizing the real (not symbolic) meaning of wedding rings that he rejected is not the same thing as a guilty verdict. Nevertheless, those who assign him innocence by means of shutting their eyes to real meaning impoverish themselves.