Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#106. Ritual & the Evolution of Culture


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This is the 6th in a series of blog entries beginning with #101. It's a collection of notes and essays from my files all dealing in one way or another with the emerging new religious consciousness. They are mostly things I've written over the last decade or so to clarify my own thoughts but which I now want to make available for anyone who might be interested. This post (#106) originally was a followup to a phone conversation with a friend about the sophiological ideas of Sergius Bulgakov described in post #104.

If you have questions and think I might help, you're welcome to send me a note: 


Dear R,

As I said on the phone, this topic is too big! But I can't pass up the opportunity to try to spell out some thoughts about it, and hope that something here may be along the lines of what you're interested in. I hardly know where to start, there are so many inter-related things to think about! 

Ritual may be the focal point, but in a sophiological context things like church, eschaton, the cosmic evolutionary process and our place in it-- all go together along with ritual. Since my last note to you was about Bulgakov's Bride of the Lamb, some of his ideas about church may be a good take-off place for talk about ritual.

In section 5-1 on "The Essence of the Church" (where he begins with what he calls "the primordial significance of the Church") he says that the church is nothing less than the foundation and basis of the created world. God’s eternal plan is "to gather together all things into one" and the church is the fulfillment of that plan.

It is, as I've said, a profound set of ideas. The created world has a purpose, that purpose the unity of all things, and the fulfillment of that purpose is the church. What a contrast, indeed, this is with the prevailing conventional views of scientific rationalism (that can't acknowledge that there is any meaning or purpose to our existence) and also with the views of religious dualism (that claim only that we are to escape from the world rather than be united with it utterly). And as I also mentioned, even many of the new cosmologists seem unable to acknowledge a goal to cosmic evolution. So right from the start, "the sophiological perspective stands in the greatest contrast to all the conventional views about the world as either evil or meaningless."

To all that I added the note that it is precisely sophiology's unitive perspective which makes it so relevant to our understanding of the church tradition and the new cosmology. What the church is all about is unity; its very essence is the unity of all things. "To gather together all things into one."

This means that "church" can be understood only within a cosmic context. In the old (static) cosmos, church became the means of escape from the cosmos. But the very essence of the new cosmology is its understanding of the cosmos as dynamic, and this is totally in accord with the original ekklesia's self-understanding. In Bruno Barnhart’s words, the essence of the New Testament vision is "the transformation of cosmic matter (in the human person) into its ultimate unitive state in God." And it's that unity of cosmos, anthropos and theos which in Bulgakov’s view is church.

One thing we can see immediately is how the central place of individuals-- as the agents of this cosmic unity-- stands out in this dynamic and transformational view. It's clear that sophiology and the new cosmology agree on this critically important point: that we exist and live in a dynamic person-centered cosmos. Far from being incompatible, the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the emerging scientific worldview see the one same thing. (And indeed, they have the same source: the Exodus experience and Hebrew ontology.)

It's easy to say that "church" is what sophiology and the new cosmology have in common, but conventional Christianity has little real sense of ekklesia, and of course ekklesia is not part of the contemporary scientific perspective (even though the new cosmology supports the ekklesia's self-understanding and they have a common source). In both conventional Christianity and new cosmology, what's missing, as you've heard me say before, is eschatology: that the world has a purpose and we are its agents. So the new cosmology is much closer to a sophiological anthropology than is conventional Christianity, in that it sees human persons as participating in the cosmic process; it also clearly supports sophiology's view of personal creativity and inspiration in that context. Both Bulgakov and Brian Swimme even use the same word, "mission," to describe our personal participation in the process, and Bulgakov calls it the church's "very life."

So all that is the very messy situation in which we have to pursue the question of ritual!


When I mentioned Bulgakov's note about language not being precise enough for what needs to be said about "church" I added in parenthesis, "[That's] one of the reasons why realistic ritual remains a major need in the immense transition!"

I emphasize "realistic ritual" because an authentic understanding of ritual is as much in contrast with the conventional dualistic perspectives as are sophiology's ideas about the world's purpose and about the church as the fulfillment of that purpose. It is also, of course, equally in contrast with rationalist secular views, which see ritual at best as only meaningless and at worst as repetitive or compulsive-- pathological-- behavior.

The situation is even more complicated, however, in that, for religious dualism, "ritual" is considered to be only empty gestures except when those gestures are done by authorized persons (and for the purpose of providing temporary freedom from the possibility of eternal punishment once the individual is freed from the cosmos). 

I'm aware how odd that sounds, but you know it's not a caricature of how sacraments were (and, alas, still are) understood.

For many good-willed church people today, those who have titles such as "religious educator" or "liturgist" or "liturgical musician," and who thus find themselves responsible for educating people (primarily kids) about ritual ("sacramental preparation"), "ritual" takes on the meaning of educational activities or artistic performances. They are essentially thought of, at their best, very much like plays or lectures and concerts, or even spectator sports, where the few do something for the edification and/or entertainment of the many. I don't, of course, mean to say there's anything wrong with concerts or lectures or games; but I do mean that such spectator events are not ritual.


In her talk, "Teilhard and the Fabric of the Universe," (which I sent you a while back), Sister Kathleen Duffy, from the physics department at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, describes Teilhard as a pioneer who had to "break through to the core" of both science and religion. Today, many have broken through to a post-rationalist view of science; and also many are at work on a post-rationalist view of religion. But the break-through to a specifically post-rationalist view of ritual hasn't happened yet.

The best we've come up with so far is the New Age movement from back in the 60's. It was a mind-blowing mixture of authentic ritual and utter nonsense, and although it had a broad impact on people interested in spirituality, almost none of it (good or bad) rubbed off on church leaders (clergy, DREs, liturgists, musicians). Thus church-goers (the people in the pews) are for the most part in an incredibly impoverished situation.

And of course ritual was held in utter disdain by academic people. That includes even cultural anthropologists, who do pay attention to ritual, in that they collect and record data about it. But nobody, as far as I'm aware, is into studying what it is and how it works in itself. Ritual in the academic world seems to be much like "religion" was until the early 20th century or shamanism was until the late 20th century: irrational activity, unworthy of serious attention.


So. All of that (all those many words!) is background explanation for why I said, when we were talking on the phone, that any talk of evolutionary ritual may be premature. It's just "too big" an issue to deal with. I said the old things (of tribal, native, "first" peoples) are best: sweat lodge, vision quest, talking-staff council, sacred pipe; things that allow us to be in right relationship with the earth. That's essentially what rituals are, a saying "yes" to our human situation, an affirmation of our belonging to the universe; and the more authentic they are, they more they result in empowerment for growth and development. (They "give grace," exactly what's said of the sacraments, but it's much more clear when we see "grace" as Bulgakov does: a "new how, not new what"). So authentic ritual is about our personal and communal growth, our development as participants in the developmental cosmos. (Which is why it is especially powerful in liminal moments, such as dawn, sunset, winter solstice, spring, puberty, birth, sickness....)

The issue, as I see it, is that for ritual to be authentic the persons involved need to have an active, participatory role in the rites themselves; they can't be passive spectators or recipients. Remember "active participation" as the rallying cry of the liturgical movement back in the 50's? The liturgists of that time were on the right track. One of the (many) reasons the liturgical movement fizzled was the "active participation" that was permitted was almost totally verbal, whereas participants in authentic ritual have to do something, not just say words. It has to be something primarily physical. (This also explains why dualistic religious disdain for matter and body is also a disdain for ritual; it explains why even the seven "legitimate" church rituals are almost totally reduced to nothing but words.)

As far as I can see, we won't be able to evolve appropriate contemporary ritual until we have moved beyond projecting "sacred" in to another worldly category. (Again, it's consciousness of making the "immense transition"-- to a dynamic cosmos, a unitive theos and a participatory anthropos-- that makes all the difference.)

Once we are moving toward making that transition, we see that there is, in fact, a treasury of appropriate ritual available to us. Much of it from tribal (native) peoples, but also much of it that is long-neglected, indeed buried, within the Christian tradition, covered over with the dust of the centuries. Someday, those buried treasures will make sense as "just what we need" by future new cosmologists and post-patriarchal Christians.

One more point to all this. I don't mean to say that we have no appropriate rituals available to us right now. But we have to "do" them in a non-dualistic and non-rationalistic context: with non-dualistic and non-rationalistic attitudes. Whatever we do, it always has to be in affirmation of our real lives in the real world, a 'yes' to our material and biological existence. It either allows us to stand at the center of the world or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it's either escape from the world, which is why secularism condemns it, or it's only artistic performance or audio-visual education. Neither of which is bad in itself, but they have to be distinguished from ritual.

Making that distinction is nearly impossible in our culture, due to the pervasiveness of rationalism and dualism. The contrast with authentic ritual-- affirming our belonging to the universe and thereby being empowered to active collaboration with the cosmic process-- is great.

In a sophiological context, authentic ritual makes good sense. It is precisely our affirmation, to use Vagaginni's neat terms, of the caro that is the cardo of salvation. (And of which the essence, as Irenaeus says, is healing and wholeness; or in Bulgakov's blunt statement, "that the body will be restored to the person and be changed.")

Also helpful are the terms of sarx and pneuma: ritual is affirmation of the developmental cosmic-body process (sarx) in light of its realization or fulfillment (pneuma). It's easy to see why rationalism would dismiss all this, and why church sacraments so easily slip in to a dualistic framework. But it's a delight to see that the new cosmology gives us a much better context for keeping ritual grounded and thus authentic.


So one of the main things I want to say about "evolution and ritual" is that, in the immense transition, an understanding evolution, not an understanding ritual, takes priority. Conceptually, an evolutionary cosmology supports and helps us to understand ritual, but ritual can't help us to understand evolution. We have to have some real sense of the evolutionary worldview before we can ritually "own" our place in it. (This would be true even if we created an initiation rite for moving into the evolutionary worldview.) But we don't need to "ritually" embrace the new cosmology; what we need to embrace is the cosmos. We don't really need any new rites or ceremonies; we only need to do the old ones, even the Christian eucharist, in the ways they were done before religious dualism set in.

And Homo sapiens has been doing earth-rites-- cosmos-embracing rites of belonging and participation-- for many thousands of years. If we want to recover good ways of doing ritual we have to go to those indigenous peoples whose early cultures pre-date Western civilization and who have managed to hold on, to some extent, to something of those old ways. They are, as Matthew Fox said many years ago, a great gift to the world. So at least with regard to ritual, the immense transition includes a going back as well as a moving ahead. (All this is "very messy," indeed!)

In a nut shell, what's needed, re "evolutionary Christianity," is not ritual but kerygma. Only after there's been a proclamation-- a declaration, a consciousness-expansion-- is there something to which we can give our fiat. As I mentioned in one of the earlier notes I sent, the old Angelus provides a clear pattern for authentic ritual: first the announcement by the angel, then the fiat by Mary. And only after that comes grace, cosmic empowerment, "not a new what but a new how," an incarnation of the holy breath/wind/spiritus.

So people like Michael Dowd and his wife Connie are on the right track. If you looked at the list of churches participating in "Evolution Sunday" (on one of their links I sent recently), I'm sure you noticed how few RC groups were listed: out of more than 460 congregations, only two were RC for sure. (Maybe three. There were two "Antioch Catholic" parishes listed, one of which also calls itself Malabar rite, and which may or may not be in communion with Rome; the other, also called "Antiochan Catholic," is definitely not: it lists a female bishop!) Quakers and Unitarians, the least sacramentally oriented groups, are leaders in the proclamation of the evolutionary kerygma. (I find it interesting that it may be because they are the least sacramentally oriented groups. An interesting question to pursue sometime!)

In any case, the main point I'm trying to make with all this is that-- far from being a pathological escape mechanism (from the universe and from punishment in the hereafter, as sacraments are, in a dualistic context)-- ritual is essentially the acceptance and affirmation of our cosmic-material-physical-bodily reality and, thereby, of our active role in the world's on-going development. As I've said before (probably too many times!), "it all fits together."

In a sophiological context, all these things-- evolution, cosmos, matter, caro, non-duality, salvation, ekklesia, eschaton, ritual-- all are part of a post-patriarchal "package." If we move into any one of these areas, we eventually find ourselves dealing with all of them. One very nice example is Bulgakov's comment that the physical universe is "the cosmic face of the ekklesia." Here are a few more examples of that interconnectedness.

1) As I've mentioned before, the Sanskrit term rita, from which our words "rites" and "ritual" come, means the order of the universe, the way the world works: the wisdom of the cosmos which (or who, as the old Advent hymn has it), "orders all things mightily." As the very means by which we enter into and are empowered by the universe to participate in that wisdom-ordered cosmic process, ritual is what makes evolution happen at the human culture level. So just from the Sanskrit word alone we can see how Sophia-wisdom, cosmic evolution and our unitive participation in it are all connected.

2) Thomas Berry's Principle Twelve of New Cosmology is that “the main task of the immediate future is to assist in activating the inter-communion of all the living and non-living components of the earth." Ritual activates that inter-communion; it empowers us to enter into communion with "All our relations." (Native Americans use that phrase in connection with almost all their sacred ceremonies and even in public talks.) So ritual is at the heart of the New Cosmology.

3) The "inter-communion of all the living and non-living components of the earth" is the human task. In Panikkar's words, the focused energy or concentrated consciousness of ritual is “the act by which the ‘thing’ is converted into a bit of the human world.” That's the "public work" which is accomplished by every person and community participating in the cosmos process to bring about the new creation of diversity and communion, peace and justice(In Bruno’s words, that work is "the transformation of cosmic matter [in the human person] into its ultimate unitive state in God.") This is the work of the ekklesia, done "on behalf of all and for all," and for which the Greek word is, of course, "liturgy." So once again we see evolution at the cultural level, cosmic unity, ritual and ekklesia to be utterly interconnected.

4) The almost forgotten Christian image of "the lamb slain at the foundation of the world"-- an image which goes back to the Paleolithic (hunting culture) understanding of the game animal willingly giving itself "so that the people can live"-- is an image of the most primeval of all rita: God's, not ours, the divine kenosis by which the world comes to be.

The New Cosmology doesn't have the lamb imagery, of course, and neither does most of the Christian world. But Sophiology has it, and sees our on-going participation in the world's evolution (what Bulgakov calls Bogochelovechestvo) as nothing less than our participation in that original creative kenotic ritaSo yet again we see how ritual, evolution and participatory unitive reality all go together.

Here's a few comments about our basic 'mind and body' needs with regard to ritual. I see dealing with those needs as essentials in the recovery of an authentic religious anthropology:

1) Patriarchal culture's lack of understanding of imagery makes understanding life-giving ritual all but impossible. So whatever can be done to raise consciousness of the four-fold nature of the psyche-- and thus help validate images, intuition, feelings and emotions as legitimate modes of human awareness-- is important.

2) Our collaboration with the workings of the wisdom of the universe obviously depends on our contact with nature. Legitimating for people things like walks in the park, "wasting time with the ocean," enjoying good cooking, are important. Ultimately, the need here is to see our very caro as nature. The chart on page 40 of Mary Conrow Coelho's book is invaluable kerygma.

Well, as I've said, the topic is too big. I hope something here is along the lines of what you were interested in. If it's helpful, great. If not, let me know. I can give it another shot. - Sam


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