Rituals without God
The magic of the ritual in a secular world
In the modern Western world we have turned our backs on traditional forms of religion. They seem no longer to fit with our outlook on life. At the same time we are regularly confronted with terror – in the name of belief. With this shift, the ritual seems likewise to have been abandoned. Indeed, what do we want with something which seems only to provide a breeding ground for violence of the most dreadful kind? Does this then indicate that we no longer have any need for meaning in our lives?
Essay by Koos de Wilt for Creatuals 2016
Foto: Arjan Bronkhorst
In times gone by art was almost exclusively dedicated to the depiction of religious doctrine. Also in depicting a landscape God was always present...
Why do we do what we do? To put it histrionically, what is the meaning of our lives? Once, we had the Roman Catholic Church mass with all its prescribed texts, the blessing of the bread and the drinking of the wine from a chalice. And until recently, the Netherlands knew various strains of the Protestant belief. Each had its own prayers, hymns and sermons and its own ideas about christening, wedding and funeral ceremonies. But for many people, these safe rituals defined by the church just don’t work anymore. Since many turned their back on God, the bottom has fallen out of the rituals. Or not...?
But still we feel the same need to lend significance to important life events: to lend a little colour to the official moment of a legal marriage; to make the earthly departure of a loved one just a little more bearable. This need for rituals, and preferably ones with a strong personal touch, has never been more clearly felt. Where once the verger knew exactly when to start pouring the coffee and cutting the cake after the funeral mass, mass being the operative word as one style fitted the mass of deceased, nowadays people tend to seek their own personal ritual. There might be champagne corks popping at a funeral and the deceased’s favorite snack served as David Bowie is turned up full volume. We choose to celebrate the final farewell with a final, tailor-made ritual. No God.
For many, traditional church rituals just don’t work anymore
What use is religion if we no longer believe in a traditional God? It’s like playing football without a ball. In his book Religion for atheists: a non-believers’ guide to the uses of religion (2011) writer and philosopher Alain de Botton (1969) states that by pronouncing God dead in our West European culture, we may well have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For him religion can play a useful role even for the non-believers amongst us. In his popular books, De Botton is in constant search of modern ways we mortals might enjoy a better life if only we were to listen to what the great artists and thinkers had to say in the past. De Botton is of the opinion that religion with all its wonderful rituals provides us with useful tools to help us deal with the darker sides of our existence. With the toolkit of our belief we are better able to cope with our loneliness and our mortality. It can provide us solace and compassion. That’s all very well, but we’ve gone and blanked out those churchly rituals and habits which were so useful to us for support and even enrichment in our lives. Alain De Botton proposes that we distil out of all the various religions everything that is ‘useful, interesting and comforting’ and incorporate them back into our lives. This should bring forth a kind of user guide for modern humanistic people in need of ethical guidance.
We are in danger of losing our sense of moral value.
De Botton provides us with a few examples. In a bid for better awareness of our modest role in world history, he suggests we build a ‘Temple of Perspective’, a tower some 50 metres high depicting the age of the earth. Right down at the very bottom a line one just millimetre thick would denote the period during which man has been around on earth. This would make us a little more humble and a little more realistic. An artistic deed. He also proposes a drastic restructuring of, say the Tate Museum. There would be themed rooms dealing with suffering, compassion, fear and love for example. The very top floor would turn its attention to self-knowledge. Not only would this prompt modern man to do good, it would also encourage social development. Art can function as a ritual, particularly the type of art in which we become involved together as a group. We all need to feel we belong to a group in order to be happy. Lately we tend to overestimate our capacities as an individual. Our life, our welfare and our happiness have all become our own personal responsibility. Fine on the one hand, but it’s quite a task for us alone, particularly if things don’t quite go according to our personal plan. What do we do with this ‘self-navigating’ individual? A church service for non-believers with some good stories and collective singing can be enormously comforting. We have also come to miss the sense of direction that regular repetition of a ritual can provide. According to De Botton, in the modern, atheist vision the human spirit has become a kind of pit into which something is dropped only to remain there for ever. But in reality even if we are moved by a poem we read or a piece of music we hear, often we have forgotten it the very next day. And the same goes for our sense of moral values. We know that it is better to be kind to our neighbour, it’s just that we forget it so readily. And this is the power of repetition in religion. Art can serve as a reminder. It can play an important role in the ritual, bringing us together and lending meaning and life to an act.
A sense of purpose through earthly acts
It is not only the simple souls of this earth who miss the handhold of belief. Ger Groot (1954), professor of Philosophy and Literature at the Radbout University, Nijmegen wrote in 2014 in the daily newspaper Trouw an article entitled Atheism, rituals and the good soul. He explains that he was pretty much done with religion as a young boy. But during his philosophy studies he regularly came across God again. He noted how the issue of belief in relation to increasing scientific interest became important over the course of time. The battle between God and Science would appear to have been fought and, for now, the rational thinking of science has won. But that is not to say that the role of belief has disappeared. Groot tried, from his own atheist point of view, to understand religion without assuming the existence of an afterlife. He gradually discovered that the life of a believer may appear to be rooted in all kinds of dogmatic convictions, but that acting through those convictions is just as important. Groot states: ‘The body must experience what the mind then provides the opportunity to think. From meaningless time meaning is created…’ Religion is not only, and indeed not primarily a matter of ideals but rather exists in the practical and earthly reality of the ritual and everything that involves. Beliefs and its dogmas, which might appear to form the basis of this, are in fact only an outcome. The figure of God manifests itself out of the rite, and not the other way around. The weekly visit to church breaks the sequence of days, is Groot’s theory, and brings to this sequence a rhythm in which, after 7 days, a fresh new week begins. Time is lent structure in a pattern, which is physically created. Meaningless time gains meaning through ritual. The world is transformed from sober indifference to a reality of fulfillment in which it finds its niche. This is the function of ritual.
‘The body must experience what the mind then provides the opportunity to think’
But what in fact is a ritual? The most salient characteristic of ritual is its function as a frame you could probably say. It is a deliberate and artificial demarcation. In ritual, a bit of behavior or interaction, an aspect of social life, a moment in time is selected, stopped, remarked upon. During a ritual, actions are carried out in a certain order and in a certain place. However diverse the outward elements of a ritual may be, the basis of ritual practices would appear to be universal. They are characterized by an emphasis on the form whereby the precise performance of an act is of importance and repetition and symbolism play a significant role. They are mainly the issue of a local religious and cultural context. Though the most well-known rituals do indeed stem from church services, a ritual is not by definition religious in nature. Non-believers also have their rituals. We see them in the corporate world, when someone celebrates an anniversary or a ribbon is cut. Equally our own personal lives know small events, which lend them meaning – think of an annual family dinner.
Where the earthly and transcendental meet
The famous modern Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1942) is a great proponent of rituals. In his view we not only need the spiritual element, but in fact it is an important part of our lives. Agamben sees in the ritual a gesture during which the transcendental and the earthly come together. This need not necessarily take place in a religious context: it could for example take the form of a promise made. Rituals are around us everywhere and always. The act of making a solemn promise to a close friend or family member can be more than just the uttering of a few words. We commit to those words. We raise two fingers, spit a little and lo, we have lent form to the ritual of an agreement. As we do this, the promise becomes sacredly charged. ‘A promise, a vow, whatever the ritual is, it brings these two worlds together in one single act, one single moment,’ as Agamben writes in his book The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (2008). Agamben rejects the axiom that an oath or a ritual has its origins in religion. In his view it is precisely the opposite: the oath and the ritual facilitate the origins of both religion and law.
In times gone by art was almost exclusively dedicated to the depiction of religious doctrine
And here lies the strength of creative alchemist Meike Ziegler’s creatuals. People wish to give depth of meaning to a particular moment – a collaborative project, a beginning or an end. We wish to serve the common good – and we want to do it together. We are in search of new ways of lending meaning to things, ways through which words have more than just their basic legal or official significance. We mortals need that company reshuffle, the set-up of a new organisation, the closure of another not just to be a piece of efficient management but to have deeper significance. And art can help here. In times gone by this was much simpler as art was dedicated to the depiction of religious doctrine. Followers of the Roman Catholic faith were convinced of the effects of conveying a message through music, painting, architecture and rituals. Almost all forms of art had this as their single aim. And this worked fine for centuries. Through a creatual art is once more implemented for the creation of a meaningful happening. Religious and secular art, ancient and modern art, painting, sculpture, land art, conceptual art, film, photography and music. There’s no digging out of old dogmas here, nor any search for something godly. Rather, meaning is sought in our daily environment, there where we meet and mingle. During a creatual, each participant contributes to something which becomes more than just the sum of all those contributions. Each word becomes a story and each personal heartbeat is transformed into a symphony of life. A creatual is a one-off ritual, rooted in day-to-day life and in art, lending meaning to our rationalised world.