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.