The other day, someone passed along to me this excerpt from a poem by W.H. Auden:
“When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?
No, I’d say: I’d swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories,
that their real earnest
has been to grant excuses
for ritual actions.
Only in rites
can we renounce our oddities
and be truly entired.”
It’s from a poem called “Archaeology,” written in 1973 (the same year Auden died). What struck me about it was how handily it sums up contemporary academic theories of ritual — as sociologists have widely come to recognize the primary role of ritual action in religion since maybe the mid-90s. Auden beat the academics to the punch by at least two decades¹; funny what being a practicing religious believer will do for your insight into religious practice.
What the poem critiques first is the older rationalist theory which saw mythologies and rituals as basically explanatory devices. It’s the definition of myth that we were given in grade school: the Norsemen (or Indians, or Israelites, or Africans) couldn’t understand natural events because they didn’t have Science, and so they created this colorful and rather illogical story to “explain” how it happened. Even as a kid, this scheme seemed suspect to me. My experience reading the Old Testament as a believer made me sense that when ancient people told stories about gods or spirits, they were dealing with more than their curiosity about how the tiger got its stripes. Surely it was possible that the millions of people in the world who lived before the invention of empirical science might have been less interested than we are in finding out “how” things happen.² The stories themselves had a much deeper imaginative resonance.
Sociologists today generally agree that such a reductionist understanding of myth and ritual is inadequate. Ritual, in particular, is no longer seen as something extrinsic to religious belief, something “added on” to a core set of doctrines to help explain or remind us of our beliefs. So far as that goes, then, Auden was right to suspect the explanations of a rationalist cultural anthropology.
Then what about his other suggestion: that our “real earnest” is ritual action, which “entires” us?
This spring, I’ve been chewing over Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011), which essentially argues that it was ritual that created our capacity for religious belief, not the other way around. If he is right, ritual action and the ability to participate in ritual is at the center of our experience of God and the key to what makes us different from the rest of creation.³
Now, because if I were to talk to my grandparents about the importance of “rituals” in Christian life, I would face a lot of consternation, I should assure you that “ritual” is not just a smelly, smokey thing that Catholics do in dimly lit churches. Our lives are filled with rituals of different kinds and degrees, none of which threaten the sincerity of our relationship with God. There are rituals for school and work, for riding the bus, for going to the mall, and for the ways we play, even aside from the traditional rituals we use to celebrate holidays or mark special times in our lives. It’s often hard for us to even imagine what life is like stripped of certain rituals: try and celebrate Christmas without any of your favorite traditions‡, maybe in a tropical part of the globe, and no matter how many times you remind yourself of the reason for the season, you might have the nagging sense that, this year, “Christmas” (as you know it, as it really is) never happened at all.
Ritual is a kind of collective social action, but (contrary to “Protestant” strand of interpretation†) it doesn’t have to obscure the meaning contained inside it. Meaning isn’t really contained within ritual at all (as if societies invented rituals the way you create a Powerpoint presentation to go along with your report — adding in some pictures and pretty backgrounds to tempt the less attentive). It is not the packaging that just symbolizes the idea inside. Rather, ritual enacts meaning, and the people involved in the ritual may not be able to understand what it is they are doing until after they have done it (or better, “made it”). Trying to come up with a discursive (logical, expressive) meaning might not even be possible, or desirable, at all. Maybe it’s unsettling to think that the most important, the most human, things that we do are things that we can’t “express;” for others, it’s more threatening to suggest that even the things that we do seemingly by instinct, “without thinking,” still carry a meaning and form the way we live, interact, and worship.
So what does this mean for me? Well, I’ll go back to Auden’s description of ritual as something that makes us “entire.” One of the most obvious things about ritual is that it is something “acted out,” usually physically. The satisfaction of kneeling, bowing, eating, and drinking is that, in the context of the rite, they are actions that speak for themselves. And as you do the kneeling or the eating, as you become a participant in the ritual, it becomes completely clear that you didn’t make up this language on your own: like any living language, ritual only becomes real in community.
For those of us who grew up in Christian traditions that devalued the idea (and, so far as they could, the practice) of ritual, this is something new and different. The worshiping community is no longer understood as a collection of individuals expressing an inner experience, though expressing it all in one place and under the direction of an especially talented expresser-performer. Instead, the worshiping community receives its words and its actions from someone else — handed down by the Church throughout time — and enacts them. By enacting rather than expressing, the horizon of worship widens out again and we don’t have to be suffocated by subjectivity, which, for me, meant being anxious that I was not feeling the right things at the right time in order to authentically express them. Worship understood as ritual action has a different goal. It exercises the most human parts of us: not just our ability to express and reason, but our ability to intend, act, play, and experience the world on multiple levels. It swallows us “entire.”
I hope I’ll be able to write more about my forays into ritual studies, because it’s a fascinating subject and I’ve only scratched the surface.
¹ Although, in fairness, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens was published in 1938, and was really a major forerunner of ritual studies, explaining culture (including its religious aspects) as a form of play, and claiming that “play is older than culture.” Huizinga was a medievalist, so I am eager to give him his due.
² We are the only society that has really enshrined the task of “explaining how” with all the trappings of a religious conviction.
³ My 50-word hack summary of a magisterial 700-page work I haven’t finished reading yet.
† I’m following terminology used in Ritual and Its Consequences (Seligman, Weller, Puett, and Simon, 2008).
‡ Personally, I don’t understand how anyone can claim to have celebrated Christmas unless they watch the 1990 animated feature “The Nutcracker Prince.”