Do rituals have a place in modern life? Are they ultimately pointless, or rather essential for social life? Can rituals themselves become specific places where meaning and belonging can emerge? Might they offer social skills to “make-oneself-at-home” (Bergmann) in a world of homelessness and displacement?
Exploring questions like these demands an open and comprehensive mind-set. Rituals are sociocultural mediums that invoke the ordered relationships between human beings and non-immediate sources of power, authority and value. According to Bell, they enable people to embody assumptions about their place in a larger order of things. Ritualizations are those actions that transform a practice into a ritual.
The older assumption that religion and ritual would decline with the process of modernisation has, as we know from many studies, not come true. Instead one can follow and analyse processes of ritualization in different social spheres. One can even wonder if the skill to ritualise represents an essential human skill.
Here I will trace the significance of ritualization in two spheres: environmentalism and urban space. In both one can see how rituals contribute to the fabrication of meaning alongside the rational and scientific approach to understanding reality.
According to Rappaport, we must differentiate between a scientific and a religious mode of approaching reality, but also argue for a synthesis of them both. An fundamental tension in human life is found between the fabrication of meaning in terms of our environment and what he calls “the epistemologies of discovery” that aim to explain the laws of this environment. Can both scientific explanation and ritualised fabrication of meaning enter into a fruitful synthesis?
The exciting capacity of ritual lies in its normative power. The ecology of religion has shown how rituals work as “homoeostatic”: they serve as aesthetically normative regulations of social interactions with nature. Due to ritual practices, humans preserve images and norms about how to interact with nature through hunting, farming and modes of survival. Rituals can work as normative practices that regulate human ecology. Such practices are studied in our past as well as in our present. Buddhist monks in Thailand ordain trees (cf. Grimes), turning them into Buddhas in order to encourage local inhabitants to resist capitalist-driven clearance of the land. Native North American Mi’kmaq are ritualising decolonializing practices by defending sacred mountains against transnational mining companies’ exploitation (cf. Hornborg). Thanks to their eco-cosmology and creative ritualization, the exploitation becomes a desacralization, and as such, it prepares and anticipates a future of resacralization. Thus rituals have ecological functions, important for environmentalism by turning attitudes into practices. In rituals people can discover, embody and cultivate attitudes, and, I would add, build life-enhancing worldviews, perspectives and ethics.
Rituals regulate social behaviour and imagination in a normative way. But how is this true in late modern urban space today?
Even if the discourse about democracy persuades us that all places are open for everyone, reality does not support this. In a similar way as temples in premodern times had a hierarchy of spheres which were more or less open to all, or strictly limited to religious elites, the late modern city also offers what we could call ‘maps of avoidance.’ Some areas are only accessed with very specific purposes, such as banks, embassies, or business buildings. Similarly, schools, hospitals, shops, and theatres. Only a few buildings are truly open public places: squares, botanic gardens, museums and railway stations. An exciting example of a strongly ritualised space is the modern airport, where rites of passages take place frequently and where a strict regime of surveillance and control is surveying all movements in the sharply drawn territory.
"The relationship between ritual and place seems to be intimate, complex, and somehow reciprocal. Place and ritual affect each other mutually."
An exciting example for how an artistic process can break through (and out of) the segregated urban map is found in the Swedish city of Malmö where a short-term creation of a place for open ritualization exemplifies what in recent years has been tried out in many other cities. In 2006, one week after Halloween, the cultural association Rárika arranged a successful Festival of the dead with the aim of counteracting the asymmetry of life and death in modern culture. A couple of events in the darkening Nordic autumn took place and encouraged residents to share their practical expressions of the sacred, or rather of what one felt to be sacred. These events touched me deeply, as they did many others. A kind of open cave was designed in the city’s central park, installed without any signs referencing a specific religious confession. Yet residents used it to light candles, to contemplate, and to experiment with different forms of ritualization. Here objects attained a new distinction: “things as links between person and place” (Peterson).
Reflecting over rituals of the sacred in the modern city, one must ask two questions: how does urban space affect ritualization and what do rituals mean for lived space?
It seems obvious that the choice of place is essential for the development of a ritual. Actions create some kind of “ritual place,” and decisions about the choice of place are part of a broader negotiation. A procession, for example, moves from one (sacred) place to the other, or it carries the charisma of the sacred from the inner to the outer. A procession also changes the surroundings as it moves along. As long as the ritual endures, a place can no longer be used for transport or trading. And remembrance of a ritual affects the character and atmosphere of a place, even if the ritual is no longer being executed. The relationship between ritual and place seems to be intimate, complex, and somehow reciprocal. Place and ritual affect each other mutually.
Rituals regulate human movements, and as urban space offers complex potential for many kinds of movements, an analysis of ritual practices in urban space would generate a lot of new insight. Rituals represent a form of social practice that takes place in the city both as a visible and invisible religion. They can fabricate meaning but can also be meaningless. They are nevertheless able to create and carry a community, producing specific ritual places that affect a broader surrounding. Rituals transform spaces into sacred places , temporarily or permanently.
We can compare the spiritual pilgrimage with modern sport, for example. Pilgrims experience their walking as a tool for contemplation and for mental and bodily regeneration, which we could easily compare to the modern city marathons. Even if the runner wants to reach the goal, it is the process of running together with many others that gives meaning to the run and the whole marathon. Most of the participants are not professional athletes but ordinary people who have spent a lot of time preparing and training. They are sweating, they are limping, they are faltering, but the experience of partaking in a common exertion makes their pain meaningful and even sensual. The marathon appears as a deeply ritualized form of common movement in urban space. There is no doubt that it changes the city itself, and that it transforms the economy of the modern urban space for trading, transport, and symbolic encounters into something else. Like a carnival, a religious festival, or football match celebrations, the urban lived space radically changes its atmosphere through rituals.
Whereto might ritual power, as described here, take us in the future? Are rituals offering new modes of executing ‘power-with’ rather than ‘power-over’ others? Might they be able to create new places for conversion, creativity and social transformation? How can rituals fabricate meaning in their own sense as well, as in combination with rational explanation?
I cannot yet provide complete answers. Nevertheless, I hope readers might grasp the depth of these questions, and perceive not only the place of rituals in modern life but also perceive them as crucial places for ‘making-oneself-at-home’ in and beyond modern life.
Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.
Sigurd Bergmann, Religion, Space & the Environment, Abingdon: Routledge 2014.
Ronald Grimes, Ritual Theory and the Environment, in: The Sociological Review 51, Vol. 2, 2003, 31‐45.
Anne-Christine Hornborg, Mi'kmaq Landscapes: From Animism to Sacred Ecology, Aldershot: Ashgate 2008
Anna Petersson, Things as links between person and place, in: Sigurd Bergmann, Peter Scott, Maria Jansdotter and Heinrich Bedford Strohm (eds.), Nature, Space and the Sacred: Transdisciplinary Perspectives, Aldershot: Ashgate 2009, 131-144.
Roy R. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999.
Roy R. Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People, New Haven 1968.
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