Contributions to FaithSpace: On Ritual

Material below is a collection, not often in date order, of my contributions to Faithspace. Each text may begin some way in to the contribution, but then gaps are signified by three dots. The contributions here extract from the conversational style into something more neutral. They do not include contributions from other people unless absolutely necessary and then they are unnamed. Punctuation is altered for clarification. Extra text is in square brackets which sometimes involves a little removal of text in favour of the given alternative.

August 13 2006, 11:42 pm

I have no difficulty with humanism, and we learn from it. Humanism is a kind of ideological summary of the dominant broad based intellectual basis of thinking and also the practical way we operate through life.

The problem is that it comes in 57000 varieties, and when a text states that it is "based on humanity and reason" I want to know what constructed view of humanity and what kind of reason. Because of course its ethics can be constructed which way and any based on humanity and reason.

The Unitarian mantra is "freedom, reason and tolerance" which is more precise as an outlook, but that raises questions about what sort of freedom, whether tolerating is grudging from a position of conviction or a kind of active, open tolerance of variety.

And as for reason: I have a problem with reason pure and bald. A lot of thought can be advanced through narrative, through anti-reason, through artistic appreciation which is little to do with reason, and from moments of inspiration. Story and being creative, imaginative, might have more to do with being human that simply reason. It is not to downplay reason, but to see it as limited.

A lot of mumbo-jumbo is being creative, being imaginative, and creating a world of meaning out of which something else is discovered that would not have been understood otherwise.

So what of religion? Religion is to bind, and religion can have a very useful expressive and social function. It links the personal with the collective, and organises ethical values. It considers history and time, and the past, present and future. It considers beginnings and endings, and spirals and circles.

Why do people have rites of passage? And why link ourselves with others in this?

Marcel Mauss, nephew of Emile Durkheim, produced a sociology of the gift. And there is the connected sociology of exchange. This is where you take yourself and give of yourself into something from which you receive something greater. We give and receive more when we have sex, when we make something in the economy, when we tell someone something we know and find out more, when we approach a ritual in order to connect with others. The sociology of the gift and exchange can be, should be, understood theologically. That is to say a fundamental situation of exchange exists that makes the cultural world and the world of life go round. [This is my development of his view, his view is that the symbols represent society in their meaning: very Durkheimian]

In that this happens there is to be, for us thinking humans, reflection upon it, on the whole as much as on the part. What religion does it takes a step back, and inside an imaginative universe, carries out a role of reflection on all.

When you go to the altar rail, and in so doing take time out and some money and effort, and humbly bow, and receive, and go away refreshed for the life ahead, what happens is that a gift ritual is enacted that reflects on the rest of life's exchange rituals. It is wrapped up in myth, in that if it was not it would not work for many. But what it does, and other such exchange rituals, is place the individual in the wider whole, and means the ethics, the culture, the other, comes into the self.

I don't think humanism quite appreciates, or can do, something like this. Now there have been attempts, such as with the Ethical Churches, but they have never understood quite what they are doing. On the whole, humanism has not been comfortable with the likes of Ethical Churches. Also alternatives like Labour Churches never quite worked. It took a bit of the old fashioned, a bit of the old language, something formal and magical, something of the story, to make the binding bit and gift bit work.

And so whilst I have no difficulty with humanism, its universe is too limited regarding the humanity is addresses itself towards.
August 13 2006, 11:58 pm

No. I'm showing the place of religion - the "mumbo-jumbo". I wouldn't expect humanism today to provide a religion - though, as I say, some did have a go. I have used some liturgical texts from the Liverpool Ethical Church for example, which was purely humanist and from which God was removed.
August 15 2006, 2:25 am

I think [humanists] recognised the communal aspects of religion and therefore its binding nature. They understood the point and purpose in ritual. As I understand it, the British Humanist Association (as opposed to the harder line National Secular Society) is in two minds about life marking rituals. There is a softer humanist view, and that view merges into the religious humanist view (the kind promoted by the Quaker David Boulton, who I used to know quite well). The religious humanist view also has a view of "mumbo jumbo" but recognises the positive side of much religion.

Humanists, I repeat, have many views, and there is as much disagreement among humanists about realism and non-realism as between Christian theologians (on the theological left).

As for Christianity, I see no need to create anti-barriers with humanism, because each informs the other, just as I do not see the need to create barriers with Paganism (especially, again, the stuff that understands ritual and liturgy), or indeed with faiths in general. What humanism offers is the need to put ethics first and as the most important driving force in religious faith.
August 19 2006, 12:53 am

Humanism is a narrative and there are rituals of a kind. It is not a system of belief and/ or practice, so not a religion - but I was saying some did have a go at this.
September 17 2006, 3:44 pm

Ask the Catholics. You're born anew at baptism, on objective act they say. That's it.

My view is that being born again or anew is something done at each ritual involvement.
September 27 2006, 10:34 pm

As a matter of information, when at Unitarian College I was taught that as a minister there would be a legal right to retain someone's confidence and not be forced to divulge it; thus a person who confessed to something in confidence and given it by the minister could expect to have it maintained. ...The minister/ priest can stop the confidential session. This [confidentiality] is something teachers do not have, for example, with pupils: a teacher who is about to hear something in confidence, or hears something believed to be in confidence, cannot maintain it. The teacher has to make clear pretty quickly that information must be passed on. A minister/ priest is able to give and keep confidence. An example might be information about the IRA known by Catholic priests by one means or another that was never given on to authorities, and the authorities had no right to interrogate them.
October 4 2006, 1:08 am

[Prayer:] God give blessing and spiritual reward to those who have given and continue to give sacrificially and in the way of Christ to make this website a community for many. The Lord is here and his Spirit is with us.
October 4 2006, 1:15 am

My main preference is for calm and repetition (from previous times) of reflective words in a holy space. Yet I also find enrichment and enchantment in something of the more symbolic and even theatrical. Evelyn Underhill refers to "tokens" which are means to assist in the coming forward, processing through and going out the other side. These tokens we use in the symbolism, that draw on a surrounding myth (like immersing oneself in the story), and allow the enchantment and enrichment to take place.
October 5 2006, 9:09 pm

Worship is worth-ship - and many do so and a number do not. Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Bahais, Pagans, all worship, as well as Christians. Oh and Unitarians. Buddhists and Jains worship too, but better to call it meditation because it is programmatic and a long term project. These are rather obvious points but ought to be made, simply because the meaning of God varies. Plus it is fine to "believe that", but "believing in" is something rather different. It is not about existence, but purpose. God, for example, might be your alter-ego, something you are not but strive to achieve, and you believe in that purpose, and so worship as part of your orientation to that higher purpose. Believing in is what matters.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful