The Transcendent Necessity of Rituals

Is the desire for rituals what makes us human?

All cultural endeavours require rituals. There could be no modern science without the rituals of the lab and academy, say. There could be no modern art if people did not understand the rituals of the gallery, and how to make the right gestures to break them. And, of course, human community and religious practice is unimaginable without rituals, from shaking hands to lighting candles.

So what is a ritual? Well, there are many answers to this question. But I'd like to focus on one that highlights the link between rituals and the transcendent. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, called it B-cognition, as opposed to D-cognition.

D-cognition is to do with the humdrum. The D stands for "deficiency" and Maslow saw this cognition as the kind of knowledge required for the daily business of striving and surviving, which is largely a process of finding what we lack. Hence, deficiency.

In B-cognition, the B is for "being", and this is the kind of understanding with which rituals and the transcendent are concerned. It is the felt or intuited sense of participating in the world at a deeper level of purpose and meaning. It is a different kind of knowing, one that reveals more than what's immediate.

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Maslow offered an example. One day he was participating in a university graduation ceremony; apparently, he tended to think of such occasions as silly rituals. However, on this day he suddenly imaginatively perceived the procession of professors and students he saw in front of him as ritually representing a far larger stream. It began with the great historic figures at the origins of his academic discipline. It reached into the future with the generations of psychologists and students not yet born.

He was not experiencing a hallucination. Rather, the university procession ritually conveyed a vivid and transcendent representation of the deep meaning of university life and the human quest for knowledge.

Consider another example: the rituals that surround monarchy. They work insofar as they can hold together all sorts of elements that other political institutions struggle to do. A modern monarchy, for example, conveys elements that are necessary for a democracy to thrive though which cannot themselves be voted in.

For example, you can vote in new leaders but you cannot vote in values like charity and trust - elements that a modern monarchy will try to practice and dignify in the work they do, day by day. In this way, the performance of monarchy can help to inject values like charity and trust into the lifeblood of the democracy.


"...rituals carry to us that which is beyond our grasp without closing down the possible meanings of what is being conveyed."


Alternatively again, consider the rituals that sustain the vitality of important symbols. Staying with the example of monarchy, take the crown. It holds and represents what might be called transcendental ideals, like justice. The law frequently fails to deliver justice, not only because there are miscarriages of justice but because many cases of injustice fall outside of the reach of the law. And yet justice is a vital virtue for democracies to aim for.

One way to secure this constant reaching is to have it represented by the crown, the symbol of which is embossed on every judge's seat, the vitality of which is sustained by the rituals of a crowned monarch. They remind those in the court that a transcendental ideal is what they strive to achieve, even as they routinely fall short.

A republican will say that an elected president can represent these things too, perhaps in the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of the office. Or that a country can be founded on explicit values that are sustained by reason not rituals - values like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, countries do opt for such alternative institutions, though it is astonishing how quickly rituals creep back in. In the US, it is a serious business to be perceived to dishonour the flag, which is to say, to treat it outside of generally accepted rituals. In France, the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe is ritually rekindled every day at 6.30pm.

Thinking carefully about the way rituals convey meaning is vital too, lest that meaning be lost. Religions are bound to worry about this. It is why religious people can be so sensitive to perceived abuses of their rituals. Powerful words are used to express the disapproval of such misuse, words like blasphemy and sacrilege. But secular states are readily, similarly offended, which is in a way only to say that rituals, at best, can achieve nothing less than speaking to us of the transcendent.

That is the supreme power of rituals, and it is important to recognise that these meanings are not sheer fantasies. They are real, rituals securing access to that reality. To put it another way, rituals might be said to have conceptual flexibility. Like their close cousin, symbols, they carry to us that which is beyond our grasp without closing down the possible meanings of what is being conveyed.

"Without the capacity for symbolic transcendence, for seeing the realm of daily life in terms of a realm beyond it," writes the sociologist, Robert Bellah, "one would be trapped in a world of what has been called dreadful immanence." This "beyonding", as Bellah continues in his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011), is vital for human beings. Without rituals, we would not be alive to this transcendence. We would, in short, be less than human.

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