Monday, March 26, 2012

The Meaning of Ritual(s)

May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body. Amen. (The last part of the prayer said before Holy Communion in Orthodox Christianity)

[R]itualization not only involves the setting up of oppositions, but through the privileging built into such an exercise, it generates hierarchical schemes to produce a loose sense of totality and systematicity. In this way, ritual dynamics afford an experience of ‘order’ as well as the ‘fit’ between the taxonomic order and the order of experience.—Catherine Bell

Perhaps all one can aspire to in relation to ritual is what Paul Ricoeur suggested a believer could achieve in relation to religious faith: a ‘second naiveté,’ a sophisticated, adult, reflective affirmation of ritual that never lets go of a necessary, corrective suspicion.—Sudhir Kakar

Inspired by Steve Shiffrin’s post on Catholic and Protestant approaches to Eucharistic ritual at ReligiousLeftLaw, I thought it might be of some interest to point out a few things about the specifically ritual component of holy communion, about “ritual meaning” generally (which of course cannot be divorced from any specific doctrinal or traditional meaning).[1] The various dimensions of a religious worldview might be analogically and metaphorically compared to the multifaceted jewels at the vertices of “Indra’s net,” each dimension: experiential and emotional, doctrinal, mythical, narrative, ethical, ritual, aesthetic and so forth, reflecting the others such that examination of any one jewel severed from the net, leaves out the necessary interdependence of the jewels within the net. Nonetheless, as the jewels are multifaceted and reflect all the other jewels, a close study of any one dimension (say, ritual) of religion within the net cannot but help reflect the other (doctrinal, mythical, experiential…) dimensions of spirituality. I rely here largely but not exclusively on the works of one of the foremost scholars of ritual, the late Catherine Bell.*

What follows may in part apply as well to “profane” or secular rituals, as not all rituals are necessarily religious in the conventional sense. The Confucian tradition in fact serves to efface the usual boundaries between the sacred and profane on this score, hence the title of Herbert Fingarette’s classic study, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972).[2] Its conception of li, ritual propriety, was widened and deepened in application by Confucius to refer to far more than holy rituals or sacred ceremonies proper, bringing within its compass social norms, conventions, etiquette, rituals, gestures, in short, the myriad forms of scripted or patterned behavior performed on a routine basis in daily life thought sanctioned by tian and indicating the proper ways (daos) of living exemplified by cultural ancestors: According to Ames and Rosemont, ‘Li are those meaning invested roles, relationships, and institutions which facilitate communication, and which foster a sense of community [and common good]. The compass is broad: all formal conduct, from table manners to patterns of greeting and leave-taking…from gestures of deference to ancestral sacrifices, all of these, and more, are li.’ An animating assumption here is that social behavior should be choreographed according to divine or sacred archetypes (e.g., tian) or models as practiced by the Sages of the past and exemplified by the junzi. Generally speaking, li is the proper or right way to do things given a proper consideration of tradition by the right kind of person. Everyday social interaction can be suffused with a holiness or sacredness that comes with the actualization of dao provided it is correctly—harmoniously and spontaneously—performed by individuals possessed of ren. This results in human behavior being in accord with the rhythms and patterns of tian, with its sacred cosmological and natural processes (or daos). Li performed by individuals lacking in the requisite amount of ren is akin to mindless habit, it is lifeless, mechanical, meaningless, awkward, self-conscious or egocentric and profane. Li without ren, dao and yi account for the fetters or shackles of tradition, of the veneration of tradition for tradition’s sake. More specifically, processes of reification or ossification will infiltrate li performed by individuals not committed to self-cultivation, hindering the truly personal and creative appropriation of tradition. Li are a social grammar learned through (1) socialization and acculturation (beginning with the family), (2) through the emulation of the right kind of persons (e.g., the junzi and the Sage), and (3) through informal and formal appropriation of the material found in the ‘Five Classics’ (Odes, Documents, Rites, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals). The junzi critically and creatively appropriates the li of tradition assessed in the light of ren and yi (morally right or appropriate), a process that entails making the tradition one’s own.[3] Because of the integral relation between li and ren, it seems one might speak of the moralization of human behavior with Confucius, in other words, the scope of ‘the ethical’ is not confined to infrequent or special situations or acts but refers in some sense to the entirety of one’s conduct, insofar as all of one’s behavior is capable in differing degrees of influencing, shaping, or contributing to an ethical disposition, to ethical character. Confucian li may in fact have many of the conceptual resources necessary for constructing a normative model of ritual action and behavior that is transcultural or cosmopolitan as well as humanistic in a spiritual sense.

Holy communion strikes me as having some mythical and historical continuity with ritual animal sacrifices (which fall under the heading of ‘rites of communion and exchange’), a view reinforced by the fact that the ritual begins with the Passover Meal, which itself was established after the destruction of the Second Temple in Judaism (the latter including the sacrifice of salvation or peace—zevah shelamin—‘in which part of the animal was burned, the blood poured out on the altar or earth, and the remainder consumed in a communal meal,’ the non-human animal a substitute for the life of the human offeror). Like other such rituals, they both embody and symbolize complex relations between “the human” and “the divine” as part of a larger “grammar of devotion” (Diana Eck). The “communion” component is what sets the ritual apart from earlier sacrificial rituals, as it closes the gap, as it were, between the divine and human worlds, indeed, it effects a “union” between them, in Catherine Bell’s words. Nonetheless, continuity is evidenced in several dimensions, not least of all in the process of “consecration” or “sacralization:” “Consecration or sacrilization can make the offering participate in the divinity of the god to whom it is being given, even to the point, in some cases, that the offering may be thought to become the god itself.” As Catherine Bell further explains, not only is this seen in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and Luther’s notion of “sacramental union” (‘consubstantiation’), it is found in “the offering and ingestion of the intoxicating sacred drink belché to feed the gods of the Lacandon Maya of Chiapas; the ritual consumption of peyote among some Native American tribes; and the Aztec sacrifice of prisoners of war to their sun god.” A process of “transubstantiation” generally is seen in rites of passage, when a person is said to change from one kind of being or person into another.

Ritual repetition in general, after Mircea Eliade, is said to provide an existentially necessary counterweight to the individual and collective experience of inexorable historical change understood as linear and teleological process, for ritual (as a ‘rhythm of imagery’) is close to if not emulative of the seasonal rhythms and patterned process of nature itself, defined by a tangible personal and communal experience of cyclical renewal and continuity. Stanley Tambiah uses the categories of the synchronic, continuous, and traditional in contrast to the diachronic, changing, and historical. The ritual process binds together a sociocosmic order, the natural order, and the communal order, and the belief that the human order should be an intrinsic and deliberate—meaningful—part of these larger and progressively surrounding orders.[4] This also resonates with Levi-Strauss’ argument that ritual seeks the resolution of the inherent conflict between nature and culture. The meaningful nature of ritual praxis as connecting individuals and communities to these various “orders” is clearly evidenced in the fact that, as Sudhir Kakar informs us, that “there is a widespread agreement among scholars in ritual studies that rituals are important to the formation of identity on cultural, social and personal levels.” Kakar fills out this commonplace yet possibly volatile function of ritual, the study of which must be sensitive to both its conservative and transformational functions in the formation, protection, and transformation of personal and communal identity:

“Psychologically speaking, the value of a ritual lies in the degree to which it contributes to strengthening a person’s sense of identity. This contribution can be to the individual aspect of personal identity, for instance, in rituals that encourage us to look and lend significance to our life cycle by emphasizing its beginning, transitions, end, as also its connection to nature and the cosmos. Or the strengthening may be of the group aspect of personal identity through rituals that accent our connection to others who belong to our family, caste, creed, tribe, nation and so on. These teach us our group’s sanctioned ways of doing things, heightening the sense of ‘us’ while at the same time excluding outsiders, ‘them,’ who do not know the right way. Another psychological classification can be between those rituals that defend or protect our sense of identity against a perceived danger by closing the psyche, and others that augment personal identity by opening the psyche to novel experiences. [….] The protective, conservative rituals can, of course, degenerate into rigid compulsions such as persistent hand washing while the enhancing, transformative rituals are in danger of slipping into delusional grandiosity.”

The formality and repetition (which is more than a matter of habit or mere routine) of ritual is testament to its significance, to its memorial power, to its links to hierarchy and authority. And this memorial power is enhanced by use of the human body in ritual, be it literally, symbolically, metaphorically, or mystically, for we are not acquainted with anything more intimate than our own bodies. In holy communion, we find a simple and brief aesthetic repertoire of sacred movements, gestures, and utterances: “the restriction of gestures and phrases to a small number that are practiced, perfected, and soon quite evocatively familiar can endow these formalized activities with great beauty and grace” (Bell). Holy communion is a microcosmic sacred performance with macrocosmic intimation and instantiation, at once a process of symbolic totalization and condensation.[5] As Bell explains, “The performative dimension frames a particular environment—such as an altar, arena, or stage—usually as a type of totalizing microcosm.” Ritual performance as formal patterns of behavior and action, often involves the performative uses of language (e.g., blessing, praising, purifying, consecrating). And the performance within a particular frame sets the ritual apart from the everyday and routine, marking off the sacred from the profane: “Acting ritually is first and foremost a matter of nuanced contrasts and the evocation of strategic, value-laden distinctions.” The value-laden distinctions are intrinsic to a ceremonial form which serves to deepen the individual’s ties to nature, the community, and the sacred.[6] Ritual allows us to act in a way so as to go beyond “the narrow, mundane world of daily existence:” “For a brief period of time, it lets us transcend what the Irish poet William Butler Yeats called the ‘desolation of reality’” (Kakar). This temporal transcendence might be conceptualized in spatial or ontological terms as well insofar as ritual transactions permeate or cross boundaries between the visible and the invisible, or simply the seen and the unseen. It is for these and other reasons that rituals are often said to “abolish” time (e.g., ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’) and space (e.g., any stream in which baptism occurs ‘becomes’ the river Jordan, in which case ‘space’ is abolished, but so too is historical time, or at least historical time becomes mythical or sacred time). Finally, “in the fixity of the ritual’s structure lies the prestige of tradition, and in this prestige lies its power.”[7]

* Catherine Bell’s memorial notice is found on this page (scroll down).

Image: Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

[1] Charles Taliaferro has rightly remarked, “It is regrettable that mainstream, contemporary philosophy of religion has largely ignored the role of ritual in Christian life and practice. Very few standard anthologies today in philosophy of religion contain any material on prayer, the sacraments, meditation, fasting, vigils, religious hymns, icons, pilgrimages, the sacredness of places or times, and so on, and yet these play different roles in much religious life. A neglect of this terrain results in an excessively intellectual or detached portrait of religion.” Taliaferro proceeds to present us with an account of the religious virtues found in eucharistic liturgical practice. See his essay, “Ritual and Christian Philosophy,” in Kevin Schilbrack, ed. (2004).
[2] I therefore agree with T.C. Kline III, that, “For the study of ritual, few sources are as rich as the writings of Confucian philosophers. From the beginning of the tradition, Kongzi (Confucius) describes the good human life in terms of ritual practice. He focuses on the way participation enables us to become fully human.” Please see his essay, “Moral Cultivation through Ritual Participation,” in Schilbrack, ed. (2004).
[3] Here we might consider Michael L. Raposa’s argument that “religious ritual is very much about the way that human beings pay attention. Ritual organizes and directs the attention of its participants, supplying a distinctive frame for human experience. At the same time, the repeated engagement in ritual activity can be a discipline of attention, allowing participants gradually to develop certain power of perception.” See his essay, “Religious Inquiry: the pragmatic logic of religious practice,” in Schilbrack, ed. (2004).
[4] Hence Kevin Schilbrack’s observation that a “ritual is a metaphysical inquiry…to the extent that it aims at increased knowledge of being in the world authentically, that is, being in the world in the way authorized by the very nature of things.” On this account, ritual metaphysics means performers will act so as to sense they are “participating in the very patterns and forces of the cosmos.” See his essay, “Ritual Metaphysics,” in the volume he edited (2004).
[5] Nick Crossley states accordingly that “the value of the ritual, qua body technique [i.e., embodied forms of practical reasoning], is its capacity to ‘condense’ meaning and circumvent verbal negotiation. The meaning of the handshake, funeral rite, the wedding ceremony, etc. are multiple and complex.” See his contribution, “Ritual, Body Technique, and (Inter)Subjectivity,” in Kevin Schilbrack, ed. (2004). I’m tempted to say that ritual is to praxis, or perhaps better, to tradition, what metaphor is to language.
[6] Thus Crossley informs us that “many rituals manifest…an understanding of the social world to which the agent belongs, that is, of its values, beliefs, distinctions, social positions, and hierarchies. Furthermore, at the same time, they constitute the practical know-how necessary for the reproduction of the social world.”
[7] After the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, we could say that this “prestige” is wholly deserved owing to the fact that tradition is a repository of the rituals necessary for a process of moral cultivation that is sensitive to the various somatic, affective, and cognitive aspects of our open-ended human nature and moral psychology. It is ritual that allows us to overcome the unrestrained pursuit of our spontaneous inclinations and uninhibited (unreflective) desires, the root causes of chaos and conflict. It is ritual praxis that serves as a restraint on and a vehicle for the transformation of dispositions and desires, teaching us how to appropriately express our emotions and understand the nature of suitable desires. Learning through rituals, allows us to discipline our speech, gestures, and movements, all of which carry symbolic value, and all of which are integral to our learned capacity to act harmoniously with others and the cosmos itself. See Kline in note 2 above.

  • Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008 (1992).
  • Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 3rd ed., 1998.
  • Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1959.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972.
  • Goldin, Paul Rakita. Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1999.
  • Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • Kakar, Sudhir. Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Schilbrack, Kevin. Thinking Through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Smart, Ninian. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhism and the Spirit-Cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.


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