Power of Ritual

Social science is finally catching up to religion. Shankar Vedantam of NPR and host of the podcast, Hidden Brain, did a piece on the power of ritual to influence what we believe. Research by social scientists at the University of Toronto find that rituals, even arbitrarily constructed ones, oriented our thinking toward certain topics and tended to increase trust between people who share the ritual. Of course, this can work the other way as well, where ritual tends to make people distrust those who do not share in its exercise.

True ritual, the science of cultural anthropology tells us, arises organically to meet a deeply felt need. It may have an explaining story or myth behind it, but it expresses some deeply held assumption by a person or community. It is also formed and adjusted by intentional action by those who have the authority to define them. We stumble into some ritual—finding that a given action captures for us something important, and we repeat it. Some rituals are short-lived, like seeing how many teens one can squeeze into a Volkswagen bug, whereas others last for millennia, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Jewish Shema, or the more ancient Hindu chants.

If Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence(2008), is right (and I think she is) we are going through a period of social disintegration that will lead to a new social synthesis. She traces the same pattern in Western society, especially as it relates to the Christian Church, about every 500 years starting at the time of Christ and leading right up to the present. The social disintegration is like the innards of a caterpillar in a cocoon that literally dissolve into an organic soup and reform into new structures that allow it to emerge as a butterfly. In human society it is a bloody, hard-fought process, but she notes that the Church (and every religious tradition that engages it authentically) emerges stronger than before. The process affects ritual, of course. Sometimes it changes the form, but more often its deep understanding. A lot of trial forms punctuate the transition, most of which are not very lasting. The ones that do endure capture the future synthesis in some way and emerge with a feeling of being eternal.

A lot of ritual experimentation is going on today, within organized religion and beyond it. People want to feel the anchor that ritual provides, even if for a short time. I think it is time to hold ritual tightly and lightly. Repeat the time-tested forms, and let new organizations of their innards simmer in the psychic soup of our collective soul without a lot of direction. With time (and we must be especially patient because, though the internet and mass communications move information so much faster, this time the process is global rather than just western European) a new form will appear. If I know anything about the history of the Spirit of God throughout Christian Church history she can be trusted through this process to bring us forth into a new vision of God that is at once faithful and relevant to the day.

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