walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 16, 2012
"Most of the time I am alone with my ritual…"

In the words of “Monty Python and the Flying Circus”—now for something completely different:

When I started writing this blog, I had no preconceived idea about the frequency or schedule of its postings. After a while it became clear to me that once a week was about the right frequency (since there are a few other things I do, such as trying to retain a sense of reality in the current political season). And somehow Wednesday became the day on which the week’s post goes out into the mysterious world of the blogosphere. I had not decided on this schedule; it just happened; then it became a repeated fact. As such, it has acquired what the legal philosopher Hans Kelsen called the “normative power of facticity”: If a fact stays around for a while, it produces a sense of obligation—specifically, the obligation to keep it going. This happened with my blogging Wednesday. I feel obliged to meet this deadline, I know pretty well when I must have a text ready for posting, and I get anxious if it looks as if I won’t have it on time. I am not sure whether this has become a ritual; it is certainly a habit; every habit has the potential to become a ritual. Since ritual is at the very heart of religion, and since I have assumed the obligation to blog about religion at least most of the time, the topic is not out of order here.

Forming habits is a basic requirement if human beings are going to live in a society (which in turn is a requirement for surviving as a species). Society is only possible because its members share mutually predictable programs of behavior. We are different from even our closest zoological relatives in that our biological makeup falls far short of supplying the required programs. The social philosopher Arnold Gehlen interpreted our species as being instinctually deprived, a “deficient being”. [He could also have called homo sapiens a biologically under-equipped chimpanzee, but philosophers, especially German ones, don’t use such colorful language.]  Since our instincts provide us with only a few programs of behavior, we must invent such programs ourselves. These ersatz instincts are what we call institutions (Gehlen has built a very interesting theory on this phenomenon). Let us assume that Adam and Eve, when they met for the first time, did have a built-in program driving them toward each other. Beyond this primal interaction, nature did not tell them what else they should do with each other. Consequently human beings constructed these immensely varied and complex institutions, which provide programs for tackling the problems of sexuality, procreation, child-rearing, nomenclature, the rights of property, and so on. If these institutions—we commonly call them kinship—did not exist, the rules of engagement would have to be renegotiated every time a man was attracted to a woman, down to the property rights of great-grandchildren. This process of endless renegotiation would take all available time: Nothing else would get done, including such urgent activities as agriculture and warfare. But I am digressing: Back to ritual

Ritual is, as it were, a solemnized habit. Suppose that I decided to declare myself a reincarnation of a minor Tibetan sage and started a cult in my condominium (because I finally went crazy, or because I wanted to stop paying real estate taxes). Wednesday would now become the day when, amid awe-inspiring ceremonies, I pronounced the latest bulletins from a higher realm. Habit would definitely have morphed into ritual. Also, a solitary performance would have morphed into a collective one. Much of the time rituals are solitary. The caption under one of William Steig’s best New Yorker cartoons reads “Most of the time I am alone with my ritual” (the cartoon shows a man standing by himself, juggling with a number of objects in the air). Collective rituals may occur at quite different occasions, but even when these are mundane (national celebrations, say, or academic ones), they have a religious flavor. Religion and ritual have a deep affinity. With this statement I get to the main points of this post: Ritual behavior typically occurs in the face of danger. Religion is dangerous business.

The danger may be real or imaginary. An individual getting ready for serious surgery or embarking on a dangerous journey may perform some private ritual (which others might call superstitious). Neurotics and psychotics live in illusionary worlds full of terrible perils, which are fended off ritually (for example, by avoiding stepping on certain objects, or by muttering incantations). Soldiers are prepared for the dangers of the battlefield long before they get there, by all the elaborate rituals of military life. There may well be biological roots of this behavior (for once, our simian heritage may show itself). Gorillas engage in ritual dances before attacking, as do elephants (most impressively). Konrad Lorenz, the famous observer of animal behavior, tells some wonderful stories about Martina, the goose with whom he undertook many experiments and who fell back into ritual actions whenever she became frightened.

The Latin word religio has often been linked to the verb religare—“to tie again”. Religion can then be understood as the ligature that binds a community together. Fair enough—that is indeed one of the social functions of religion. However, some Latinists have disputed this etymology, have proposed instead that religio comes from relegere—“to be careful”. In other words, religion is how one behaves in the face of very dangerous realities. Rudolf Otto, one of the great religion scholars of the twentieth century, has explicated this insight in his classical work of 1917, Das Heilige (misleadingly titled as The Idea of the Holy in the English translation—misleading because one of Otto’s key points is that the holy is not an idea but an experience). He took the Roman term for religious objects, numen, and coined the new word “numinous” in German or English. The word denotes a reality that is terrifying (mysterium tremendum), that is totally other (totaliter aliter) than ordinary life, that can destroy human beings that inadvertently touch it (like the ancient Israelites who, with no ill intent, stumbled over the Ark of the Covenant). The high point of Otto’s description of the numinous is his comparison of two of the most awesome encounters with the divine in religious scriptures—the throne vision in the Book of Isaiah and the vision of Krishna’s universal form in the Bhagavad Gita. This cross-cultural quality of religion is aptly illustrated by the first words frequently spoken by a divine being in addressing a human being—“do not be afraid”—because, of course, there is every reason to be afraid in such an encounter. In the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—such comforting words are typically spoken by angels, the messengers of God.

If the full force of numinous experiences were permanently unleashed, ordinary life would become impossible. Social order would be destroyed. Throughout history defenses were erected to avoid such a catastrophe. The numinous must be assuaged (mostly by way of ritual); it must be limited to certain places (holy places) and times (holy days). Religious institutions are in charge of these defenses. They contain—domesticate, defang—the numinous, so that human beings can go on with the ordinary business of living. The same institutions transmit, in an attenuated form, the numinous experience to those who have not themselves encountered it in their own lives. This mediation can certainly be powerful, but nowhere near the power of an angel’s speech.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in the first poem of the Duino Elegies, wrote: “Every angel is terrible”.  There is an Islamic hadith (an authoritative tradition) about what the Prophet Muhammad did after the angel had for the first time spoken to him on Mount Hira. It tells that he ran down from the mountain, all the way to his house in the city of Mecca, and said to his wife Khadija—“Hide me, hide me, so that he will not find me again!” Khadija is called “the first Muslim”, because she believed Muhammad.

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  • WigWag

    “Forming habits is a basic requirement if human beings are going to live in a society (which in turn is a requirement for surviving as a species). Society is only possible because its members share mutually predictable programs of behavior. We are different from even our closest zoological relatives in that our biological makeup falls far short of supplying the required programs.” (Peter Berger)

    I’m not sure that it is accurate to say that our biological makeup falls “far short” of providing the habits, rituals and mores that human beings need to function in society. In fact, evidence is accumulating rapidly that biology trumps environmental factors as the main determinant of human behavior including habit and ritual formation. Insofar as religion, or more accurately the human proclivity towards religion, is related to these phenomena, the human proclivity towards religious beliefs seems to be biologically based.

    Professor Berger’s essay put me in mind of the old “nature versus nurture” debate that has been discussed since what must be the dawn of human history. In recent times this debate took on its most entertaining dimensions in the 1970s; it started with the publication of E.O Wilson’s “Sociobiology: A New Synthesis.”

    Shortly after Wilson’s controversial book was published, it was attacked by skeptics like Stephen Jay Gould (the evolutionary biologist who sadly died young and was the theorist behind the concept of “spandrels”) and Richard Lewontin. In fact, Gould and Lewontin published a famous review of Wilson’s treatise in the New York Review of books where they criticized Wilson for being, among other things, a “biological determinist” (as if that was some type of terrible curse). For the rest of Gould’s life he made a career of criticizing proponents of sociobiology in the popular press. He frequently wrote critiques of sociobiology for the NYRB; this one from 1978 is characteristic of his views;

    The debate continues to this very day; only the protagonists have changed. On the side advocating for a strong degree of biological determinism is Stephen Pinker (who interestingly and somewhat ironically is a protégé of the greatest linguist of the 21st century, Noam Chomsky). Criticism of Pinker and those who agree with him continues to be most vociferous on the academic left. What makes the fact that Chomsky was Pinker’s mentor ironic is that, of course, Chomsky practically defines the academic left.

    For those interested enough to sort through the frenzied debate, there is actually quite a bit of literature in the neurosciences examining how habits and rituals are formed by the human brain. A variety of techniques now exist that allow investigators to examine these issues that were not available when Wilson and Gould were hurling stink bombs at each other. These techniques include functional magnetic resonance imaging (which allows scientists to measure blood flow in an active brain), Positron Emission Tomography (which allows scientists to assess what parts of the brain are using the most energy during certain behaviors) and even dissecting cadaver brains which provides quite a lot of information about brain anatomy (Harvard curates the largest brain bank in the world). Scientists can also examine ritual and habit formation by examining animal models of human behavior. Even more informative is the evaluation of patients who exhibit aberrant habit and ritual formation such as patients with autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome and stroke and traumatic brain injury.

    The evidence is pretty overwhelming that Wilson and Pinker were right and Gould and Lewontin were wrong; the formation of habits and rituals are overwhelmingly determined by genetics and brain structure and only influenced to a relatively marginal degree by culture. Many people, including me, find this unfortunate and somewhat depressing, but it is the reality nevertheless.

    Perhaps the leading expert in the world on the neuroscience of habit and ritual formation is a University Professor at MIT, Professor Ann Graybiel.

    I have attached an abstract to a 2008 review she wrote on the subject; while it is technical, it is probably understandable by most lay people without grounding in the neurosciences.

    Unfortunately, the body of the article is behind a pay wall, but anyone interested in the subject who has access to a university library should read it; it’s quite fascinating.

    Parenthetically, unless I am mistaken, Professor Graybiel is chairing the Search Committee to select MIT’s new President.

  • John Barker

    “If the full force of numinous experiences were permanently unleashed, ordinary life would become impossible.”

    I think that spiritual disciplines and meditative practices can connect the outer self with the inner senses in a way that enriches rather than disrupts daily life. I meditate on two questions: Who breathes? and Who dreams? Spirituality is not transportation to some transcendental bliss, but rather a means of enabling us to better cultivate the gardens, great or small, in which we find ourselves. The inner senses can give knowledge and energy that enrich the outer self. We are greater than we know. I remember hearing Sri Sunyata (Alfred Sorensen, the Danish/Indian mystic)discuss the “conceit of agency” meaning that our vitality comes from a loving presence that supports and helps us flourish.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    One commenter above states that “biology trumps environmental factors” and champions the Social Darwinism of sociobiology as shedding more light than religion on human nature. To the contrary, the newest findings of biology are from what is called “epigenetics” (beyond genetics). There are several new books out on the findings of epigenetics. One is Nessa Carey’s “The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance” (2012).

    An interesting epigenetic study found that a wet year in I believe Sweden some 150 years ago or so resulted in an eating binge from the harvest of plenty. Two generations down the line the offspring of that generation lived much shorter life spans. Since the Swedes kept copious records this could be documented.

    A parable or moral could be made from the above described epigenetic study that sounds like something out of the Hebrew Old Testament: “the sins of the fathers shall be inherited by the children.” A set of institutions – such as Dante’s Seven Deadly Sins – one of which was gluttony – might have been useful in prolonging life. I’m sure many social institutions originally developed out of intuitive, if not empirical, understandings about health, happiness, and longevity.

    I find it amusing that those who seem most prone to believing that gender is plastic also seem to believe in sociobiology and genetic determinism. It is also interesting that the social movement for same-sex marriage is an attempt for those who are attracted to the same sex to institutionalize their relationships. This may be for health reasons among many other reasons. This seems to be misunderstood by those on both the political Right and Left. Same sex marriage is not so much a civil rights issue as a craving for institutions.

    And why do those who advocate same-sex marriage seek religious legitimation for the new institution they want to create? Why isn’t it a purely secular and administrative process of civil rights? I am commenting from a purely agnostic position on same sex marriage.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Professor Berger’s remarks about Rudolph Otto’s approach to religion as fleeting and momentary experiences of stark terror and fear resonates with that of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

    The novels of American writer Walker Percy are inspired by Kierkegaard’s understandings. Many of his novels fictional characters experience “the holy” after having a grand mal seizure, electroshock, or a life threatening event. I would especially recommend reading Walker Percy’s novel “The Second Coming” for those who may not want to plow through Rudolph Otto’s book.

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  • Inga Leonova

    What about the understanding of the ritual as the means of elevating the mundane experience of creation to the encounter with the divine? The action of blessing in the Orthodox tradition, for example, is understood as the restoration of the original uncorrupted essence of the object blessed.

  • Anthony

    Normative power of facticity = ritual, religion, and obligation; fundamentally yes, most of the time we are alone with our ritual…as humans we acquire a ligature and may transpose it into ritual nee numen.

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  • Gary Novak

    Many cultured despisers of religion would assure Berger that they do not need an angel to lessen their fear of the numinous. Only children and Neanderthals fear spooks. One thing I’ve always liked about Berger’s unofficial ministry is that he has never felt the need to try to throw the fear of God into people. Even in a secular age with all its “Oh my God’s” (who wouldn’t have understood OMG?), the name cannot be domesticated. Berger is right to presuppose the the experience of the holy and focus on contemporary possibilities of religious affirmation.

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