Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ceremony of Innocence

Sorry for the silence; the night I promised to write something, I fell into a drooling sleep, on the sofa, over my knitting.  Then yesterday was New Zealand Saturday, and I was battling the garden and so forth. 

Melanie, the scene with the Papal Court held me as well, and started a train of vague thoughts about ceremony and ritual, and what ritual does in and for the body of Christ.  I remembered how much I enjoy those scenes in ballets and operas where the dancers and singers just process in, accompanied by breathtaking music.  To us lumpy bumpy types in the cheap seats, it’s a vision of prelapsarian humanity in all its dignity and beauty and strength, as all the nations of world (or at least, in the context of classical ballet, Poland, Spain, France and Italy) pay homage to the king who represents right rulership.  (Sometimes, je m’amuse by imagining a haka added to the mix.)

Seeing this, knowing I am disqualified on multiple grounds from ever taking part, I am still cheered and heartened by the sight.  Those dancers, those singers, those wonderfully gifted people, share common humanity with me, and so their dignified acts of homage become mine. 

Such homage can only properly be offered to God, though we persist, in the triumph of hope over experience, in offering it to political figures, who in the course of their tenure are, unless they have the good sense to die in office, bound to be a let-down.  Hence, the Papal Court is the only place where ceremony won’t be empty, or ridiculous, and where the participants won’t end up as Mabel does, disappointed to death. 

The poor spoiled priests in the book who offer their services as masters of ceremony to the new cult thus remind me powerfully of something I read about some disciples of John Shelby Spong, who, entirely unironically, expended much mental energy inventing new and more elaborate church rituals for themselves. 

There’s a fantastically interesting article here, about the hidden social costs of atheism and the place of ritual – do read it –

“And so here’s the thing: the reason we’re increasingly rejecting ritual and seemingly absurd religious beliefs is because we can afford to. The beneficiaries of a massive world economic system, we have the ample time, energy, and resources to spend on negotiating and re-negotiating our relationships, day in and day out. For the most part, we don’t have to spend our time planting, harvesting, herding animals, or doing eight hours of laundry a day. We’re free to redirect our energy into making social relationships explicit – which entails using analytical, logical, “system 2”-style processing to crunch an enormous amount of social data consciously.

Ritual, on the other hand, uses intuitive, holistic, “system 1”-style processing to establish and solidify social roles not by talking about them, but by demonstrating them. A wedding, for example, isn’t a symbol of two people getting married. It isn’t a discursive negotiation of their relationship. A wedding is two people getting married – the act is the same thing as the concept. In the same way, a bull elk that’s lost a ritualized sparring contest doesn’t negotiate his subordinate status with the victor by walking away. He demonstrates it.

To briefly talk semiotics, ritual keeps the signifier and the signified – the thing doing the communicating and the thing that’s being communicated – much, much closer to each other than analytical, verbal communication does. The extra distance between the signifier and signified means that verbal communication is always going to be more costly, in terms of energy input, than ritualized communication. This is even true in the physical brain, where explicit, analytical cognition – which fuels verbal discourse – uses up significantly more energy (in the form of glucose) than the intuitive cognition that powers ritualized interactions.

So is atheism a luxury of the wealthy? Yes. But this isn’t simply because the wealthy don’t need the comforts of a posited afterlife. It’s also because materially comfortable people have more energy to expend on negotiating their social worlds. Ritual and religion use intuition and demonstration; they prioritize efficiency and clarity of signals. Secularism uses logic and abstract reason; it’s comfortable with ambiguous social roles and signals. In part, this is because it can afford to be.”

Hmmm.  This would in part explain why, in a wealthier New Zealand, I seem to go to fewer parades than I used to when I was a child.  There used to be lots – brass and pipe band parades, marching girls, Festival Parades to mark the founding of the province, Blossom Parades to mark the fruit-tree blossoming in Central Otago, Capping and Graduation Parades.  Where they still exist, these public processions are a shadow of their former selves.  Presumably they were needed only to weld and meld society together, a process which is now solely political.  In a more polyglot country, though, the verbally negotiated process is much trickier than it used to be. 

I notice that Connor Wood makes no suggestion as to how language difficulties are to be overcome in a negotiated social world.  Language difficulties already make some social processes difficult  - law courts, medicine, education - how much capital, social and monetary, Canada must have expended on bi-lingualism!  And how much we spend here, on the same project! 

If language fails us, we ought to be able to turn to public ritual to unite us, but, already, we’ve failed before we begin because of the absence of a common culture.  There’s only one parade in which all people can have an equal portion, and that’s the one where “the Blessed Sacrament [goes] through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns.” (p111, kindle loc 1447)  May I live to see this in my town, and when the Sacrament processes in all dignity and beauty, may I have the grace to kneel as it – He- goes by.


Otepoti said...

Do yourselves a favour: skip this post and read these instead, especially the John Wright stories.

Best, Otepoti

Enbrethiliel said...


It's too late to skip your post, Otepoti, so I'll comment anyway. =P

I'm also a huge supporter of rituals--which I like to call "cultural plays"--and I think there are certain traditions which are as good as a book (if not better!) when it comes to transmitting truth. To give them up because they don't seem very rational would be as bad as giving up books because we are now able to learn everything from videos. Our loss of so many cultural plays over time is a kind of illiteracy.

This goes with what you've noticed about ritual relying on a common culture. We also see it in the way a Great Books canon relies on a common language.

Emily J. said...

I haven't read the Wright stories, either, but I did read your post, and the link about E. B. White's use of language. The article you quote about the power of ritual is equally thought-provoking. One flaw I felt in Lord of the World was that it was too short - it seemed to jump ahead rather than develop what the world looked like after Felsenburgh takes over. For instance, the idea that some kind of worship service is needed just sort of pops up in the story - it would have been interesting to see this developed further - especially since it is so obvious today that people want to come together to worship even if they don't know what they believe in contrasted with the ritual that IS what it is representing as the article points out (the wedding, the Eucharist). And going back to the last point, the pomp and circumstance of the Mass with all the deposed kings seems jarring because so many hierarchies have been dismantled and the idea of a "divine right" is so foreign to us, but I thought maybe it was supposed to show how even these lords of the world bow down to the Lord of all, although it did seem like a nostalgic nod to a world that was already crumbling before WWI. There is something offputting about the church in Rome as the church of the nobility - no wonder people could turn away from it. I liked - was it Melanie's? - contrast with the church in the upper room in the end of the book when even the catechumen gets to come in and worship with the pope in humility.

Mabel's recognizes that the Humanist religion isn't what it purports to be - that it can't tolerate opposition even though it claims to be a source of peace for all people - sounds like the rejection of opposition from both sides of so many political issues. I wonder if it isn't that cultural rituals have been lost, but they just have become something completely different. People are still gathering in hordes for things like concerts and sports and movies - but I guess the difference is that people are gathering to spectate and not participate. Not sure where I was going with this - on the one hand, I find some of the little ceremonies for awards and promotions at the kids' schools kind of - or a lot - tedious, but on the other hand, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and then some of the military ceremonies - change of commands, retirements, homecomings - are usually worth attending, and well attended, despite some effort and expense. People are able to set aside differences momentarily at these sorts of events in their common desire to celebrate a life.