Thursday, October 6, 2011

People Love Rituals

People love rituals and therefore people will have rituals.

People love religion and therefore people will have Religion.

One of my favorite rituals is the celebration of Thanksgiving. I love getting together with family and friends once a year to enjoy good food (usually a turkey) and good company, in the spirit of gratitude.

The meal is the central act of the celebration, and turkey is the orthodox entre. The origins of Thanksgiving have become legendary and are part of the oral tradition of those who celebrate the ritual. Very few people care enough to study the history of the ritual to get a realistic understanding of its origin. Most are content with the oral tradition and would think odd or irrelevant, any academic sort that would want to clarify the foundational events of the holiday. As long as everyone feels good, the ritual goes on.

There is a power to Thanksgiving. It can cause family and friends to travel many miles to renew their bonds of friendship while subtly causing many to reflect on the past (and the present) with gratitude.

Who can deny that the world is a better place because of the ritual of Thanksgiving? It is inconceivable to think that the world would be a better-off without Thanksgiving.

Burning Man

Most people like Thanksgiving, even anarchists. In fact, anarchists love rituals too; just look at the annual Burning Man event, with its ritualistic temple construction and burning, and many other predictable attractions. This is an exhibition of primal human activity, and an example of the formation of new rituals.

Kasey’s Baptism

Baptism is a ritual. While some call it an ordinance and others call it a sacrament, it is still a ritual performed by people for people. And there is a power that inheres in this ritual, although that power is not magical but psychological.

A little over a year ago, on a Saturday afternoon, my wife’s friend, Kasey, was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I attended the baptism with my usual smidgin of Sherlock Holmes awareness. I played the piano, as requested, for the couple of hymns that were sung and Pam directed the music. The crowd was limited to a small subgroup of the congregation and were congregated in the Primary Room which was converted to a Baptismal Room by rearranging the chairs and by opening up the baptismal font by sliding open the metal curtains. Mormons believe in baptism by immersion. The font was filled with about four feet of fresh warm water.

Before the intimate meeting started, Kasey and the Elder (missionary) who baptized her were dressed in borrowed white jumpsuits and barefooted. They sat on the front row along with Kasey’s extended family and husband, all of whom knew very little about the Mormon Church. After some welcoming remarks, an opening hymn, prayer, and a brief talk about the ordinance of Baptism, Kasey and the Elder proceeded to the font. The Elder entered the water first and then faced Kasey as she descended into the water. Many of those in attendance stood up and crowded around the sides of the font to get a better view, children sat on the floor next to the glass; others remained in their chairs. There are always two official witnesses at Mormon baptisms that stand on both sides and watch carefully that the initiate is completely immersed.

The Elder raises his right arm to the square position and repeats one of the few scripted prayers in Mormonism:

“Kasey [Full Name], Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Then the initiate bends both knees and slowly leans backwards into the water as the baptizer supports her in a rehearsed fashion.

The baptism symbolizes the death of one’s old life and a rebirth into a new and better life, with new commitments and resolve to live a Christ-like life, a life of charity, and to build up the Kingdom of God on the earth. And in so doing, one’s sins are washed away and forgotten.

Kasey, like so many others before her, came out of the water exultant…and dripping wet. She and the Elder changed into their dry clothes and rejoined the meeting a few minutes later.

Before the meeting came to a close Kasey was asked to speak a few words. This was the good part for me. I sat on the piano bench at the side of the room and could see both Kasey and the audience. All eyes were on Kasey. All was silent. I watched Kasey carefully as she approached the small podium. She was beaming. She was nervous but spoke with a strong voice,

"The Church must be true. [Pause] Otherwise, why would I feel so good."

Everybody quietly laughed. I liked Kasey's words and thought that they captured the essence of all religious rituals.

Mormon baptisms, in my opinion, are among the most uplifting meetings conducted in the LDS Church.

The next day, Sunday, in the chapel, in front of the entire congregation, Kasey was asked to come forward and sit in a chair while a small group of Elders from the Church stood around her,placed their hands on her head and conferred upon her the gift of the Holy Ghost with these words:

“Kasey, By the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood we place our hands upon your head and confirm you a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And say unto you: Receive the Holy Ghost. [A few more sentences of blessing and admonition are added at this point.] In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Afterwards, Kasey stood and shook each of the Elders’ hands and then returned to her seat in the congregation.

The Bishop then addressed the congregation and said , “All those in favor of welcoming Kasey [Full Name]as the newest member of our Ward, please manifest it,” whereupon, the entire congregation raised their right hands.

No matter how much rationality and objectivity I use to analyze this initiation process I must conclude that it is powerfully inspiring to those that watch and participate in the event.

How Rituals Can Go Wrong

Just as there are good rituals in the world, there are also bad ones: being jumped into a gang or murder as prerequisite for admission to some secret society are two quick examples.

The thanksgiving ritual could go wrong if, say, a family would bicker over the serving of ham instead of turkey and thereby weaken the bonds of familial love. While turkey is the customary entree, it is not worth fighting over in the short-run, but in the long-run tactful and gentle persuasion should be used to reason out the situation; No more. Likewise, churches have no need to contend one with another.

Baptism can go wrong when people think that the event itself has magical powers of cleansing rather than the event being a symbol of cleansing, or of turning over a new leaf. For instance, some have wished that they could be baptized just prior to their death in order to be perfectly qualified (clean) to face their judgement and enter heaven. Such a literalist mentality can lead to fundamentalist thoughts and sometimes to bad choices.

All rituals have the potential to go wrong.  I will not take the time now to list any of the many egregious over-beliefs (literalistic beliefs) in rituals, though it would be easy to do so. Besides, to focus on the over-beliefs would detract from the spirit of the ritual, and so I guard my words while ever maintaining my religious sobriety just in case I am needed as a designated driver (so to speak).

Religions are full of rituals and those rituals can be truly powerful, although their power is not in magic, but in the effect they have on the human mind. The power is real nonetheless because ideas have consequences in the real world. And that is why those who administer the rituals have a big responsibility to see that the rituals and their theological interpretations are not carried out too far (not taken too literally), beyond what makes this world a better place.