Ritual vs. mentalism

Reading Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity was somewhat shocking.

The book covers many of the same topics I plan to write about, both here and in the Meaningness book; and comes to mostly the same conclusions. Does that mean my work is wasted? I’m unsure. I plan to continue regardless. In the mean time, I recommend Ritual and Its Consequences highly.

The book illuminates diverse topics using a contrast between “ritual” and “sincere” modes of being. The authors’ choice of the term “sincere” may have been unfortunate, because normally it contrasts with “insincere,” and insincerity is often a genuinely bad thing. In fact, as they observe, part of modern hostility to ritual is the belief that it is not merely non-sincere, but anti-sincere, hypocritical, or duplicitous.

Perhaps a better name for the view they contrast with ritual is “mentalism.” Mentalism, in this sense, is the idea that meaning is a matter of mental contents. The classical version says that religion is about beliefs (either true or false, or perhaps meaningless); and ethics is about intentions. Classical mentalism was promoted by the Protestant Reformation, and then by European Enlightenment rationalism. The newer Romantic version says that meaning is about feelings and experiences.

Both brands of mentalism are now central to the modern world-view. Mentalism is, in fact, so taken for granted that most people can’t imagine how it could be otherwise. “What could meaning be, if not something mental?” Traditional views in which, for instance, enlightenment is not an experience strike modern Buddhists as nonsensical: not just false, but incomprehensible.

The central point of Ritual and Its Consequences is in its subtitle: the limits of sincerity. That is, mentalism is both factually wrong and harmful. Sincerity—expressing true beliefs and correct feelings—is often valuable, but not always, and not the only value.

In the mentalist worldview, the only function of ritual could be to express beliefs or feelings. But ritual is, at best, a highly inefficient and imprecise way of doing that. Why not just say what you mean? Worse, if you interpret rituals as expression of beliefs, most of what they say is obviously false or meaningless. If you interpret them as expressions of feelings, they are mostly inauthentic. Ritual, then, is clearly a bad thing, and should be gotten rid of immediately.

This completely misses the point of ritual, however. What matters about ritual is not what it says, but what it does. And what it does is create, sustain, modify, and destroy connections and boundaries. (I have written on this blog about this as the function of Buddhist tantric ritual.)

Because modern culture denies the value of ritual, it has lost important tools for working with boundaries and connections. Therefore, it tends to fall into dualism (hardening boundaries into absolutes) and monism (denying the existence of boundaries altogether). Fundamentalism is an extreme expression of dualism; New Age woo and Buddhist All-Is-One theories of enlightenment are forms of monism. Both these are harmful failures, due in part to rejection of ritual.

Ritual works by creating what the book calls “the as if,” or “the subjunctive.” This is the world of myth. In terms of Buddhist tantra, it is both the charnel ground and the Pure Land; it is the realm in which we become the yidam. All these are “practices of view”; we see the office as if it were a Pure Land.

For mentalism, myth is either a lie or madness. An office is not, in fact, a charnel ground or Pure Land. But this entirely misses the point. No one “believes” that an office is a Pure Land; that would be madness, and to try to convince someone of it would be lying. The value of the practice is the effect of seeing it that way, not truth.

The remainder of this post summarizes some aspects of the long, complex, abstract, and academic book. I have selected topics according to my particular interests; this is not a systematic précis. My text is mainly re-ordered, edited extracts, so it may be a bit disjointed. Also, I do not agree with all of it. (The authors seem to be social conservatives; I am not.) To simplify the writing, I’ve occasionally inserted my own jargon and ideas (which the authors might disagree with) without notification. Sorry for any confusion.

The first two sections below are brief introductions to the sincere and ritual orientations. Then a series of sections cover aspects of ritual:

The remaining sections explain some defects of the sincerity orientation:

My thanks to Sarah Perry, who recommended the book.

“Sincerity”

Sincerity is about what (supposedly) “really is”, rather than “as if.” It is a totalistic, unambiguous vision of reality. Taken to extremes, it produces fundamentalism.

Sincerity holds that if we can only get at the heart of what we “really” feel, or “really” believe, then all will be well—if not with the world, then at least with ourselves.

Sincere view: “If it is not ‘authentic’ it lacks meaning.” This is an overly subjectivist and individualist misunderstanding of meaning and interaction.

According to research the book cites, young evangelical Christians say that “if you don’t choose it, it’s not authentic for you” (which is quite contrary to traditional Christianity). The romantic expressivism of fundamentalist movements is a manifestation of sincerity. It understands religion—and religious politics—as a vehicle for self-expression and self-fulfillment. It is less God’s work that is being realized in the world than one’s own project of selfhood.

The value of ritual

Ritual has capacities for human realization and fulfillment which are often slighted in modernity. Ritual develops more productive ways of connecting with other people. Ritual is the major tool for building, refining, and rebuilding webs of relationships in an otherwise fragmented world. This work creates pockets of order, pockets of joy, pockets of inspiration, in which humans can flourish.

Tension between ritual and sincerity is pervasive across history and cultures. This is necessary (because neither is adequate alone). Our culture/time is highly unusual in the extent of imbalance, due to Protestantization and rationalization.

There’s been a surprising resurgence of ritual in the 2000s. Their examples range from Reform Judaism through yoga and Wicca to neo-Confucianism.

Ritual is not about beliefs

Ritual is wrongly seen by mentalism as nothing more than the external manifestation of internal processes—particularly beliefs. Many earlier social theorists misunderstood ritual in this way too.

Ritual is about doing more than about saying. It is best approached through what it does rather than through what it may mean, although a focus on meaning has characterized much of the social scientific literature on ritual. Ritual can even take place with no concern for meaning at all.

In ritual, often all mental states are irrelevant. What you are is what you are doing: external activity. This is very different from modernist concern with authenticity. Getting it right is not a matter of making outer acts conform to inner beliefs. Getting it right is doing it again and again and again; it is an act of world construction. This suggests the counterintuitive insight that in ritual the self is left more “room to wander” than when the self has to be firmly identified with its role, as when the social order is sincerity.

Ritual must be understood as inherently nondiscursive; it cannot be analyzed as a coherent system of beliefs. Semantic content is far secondary to subjunctive creation. That is one reason that so many rituals include nondiscursive media like music or masks; and even language may be used in ways that defy discursive interpretation.

They cover the history of Protestant de-ritualization (in favor of sincerity). Sincerity often appears as a reaction against the perceived hypocrisy of the ritually-created subjunctive.

Ritual creates an “as-if” world

Ritual creates a “subjunctive,” as if universe. Only this creation makes a social world possible; it is necessary for human life.

Ritual is a critical resource for cultural continuity. It creates an on-going shared reality; a world that allows the projection of a shared future through myth—stories of a common past.

Participants practicing ritual act as if the world produced in ritual was a real one. They do so fully conscious that such a subjunctive world contradicts the world of daily experience. Ritual is about the incongruity of the as-if with the actual; not an expression of congruity (as many earlier theorists supposed).

Ritual action occurs in a subjunctively shared arena; a space in-between. (This is not a place where individual entities dissolve into a collective Oneness, as in monism). This is similar to the “enactment” of the potential space between ego and object in the form of transitional objects, in Winnicott’s sense.

Example: “please” creates the illusion of equality by recognizing the other’s power to decline. The book gives a long, useful analysis of this case.

The continual possibility of falling out of illusion does not make it a lie, any more than a play is given the lie when the curtains come down.

Ritual and ambiguous boundaries

Boundaries are always negotiable entities: more akin to the walls of a living cell than to those of a fortress. It must be possible to send certain kinds of signals across the boundary, even as it remains impermeable to others.

Ritual recognizes the inherent ambiguity built into social life and its relationships. This recognition is necessary to negotiating them with a minimum of violence.

Rather than trying to eliminate or fixate boundaries, ritual continually renegotiates them, working with their instability. The ability to play with boundaries is a crucial feature of the ritual worldview that is missing in a world of pure sincerity. Ambiguous boundaries are crossed, violated, blurred; and also reaffirmed, reestablished, and strengthened.

Ritual is needed to overcome various current social pathologies. Notably, absolutization of boundaries: both the (dualist) creation of unassailable identities (racial, ethnic, religious, national), and the (monist) destruction of all particularism and denial of all constitutive difference between people and communities.

The modern ideal of social organization eliminates boundaries (social distinctions) rather than negotiating them. The only boundaries allowed in liberal visions are those predicated on the economic division of labor; their utility functions for the working of the social whole. “Denying social boundaries, however, does not seem to work.”

Ritual and illusion

Many “as if” activities are human universals. These include joking, riddles, playing, dreaming, daydreaming, storytelling, lying, mythmaking, as well as material artistic creation. These “as if” functions overlap with the capacity to sustain ambiguity.

Daydreaming is a laboratory in which actions can be tried out and outcomes imagined.

Lying is crucial for adult social interaction, and the capacity to understand and tolerate another person’s is fundamental to sustaining the social fabric. Studies have shown how lying can be used to protect other people from shame and exposure. Lying also can be seen as experimenting with possible worlds.

Splitting the self is as much part of ordinary life as of psychopathology. It happens automatically and benignly in identification with fictional characters, as in a novel, film, video game, or play.

Historically, drama grew out of Greek religious ritual. Drama allows the audience transient identifications with various characters and situations. In many Greek tragedies, the chorus occupied an ambivalent position, sometimes sympathizing with, sometimes blaming the hero or heroine, presenting a gamut of reactions. The chorus linked the audience and the main characters/actors; it cued and permitted the audience to view the action with an ambiguous mixture of emotions toward the heroes.

Greek tragedies presented in public the forbidden, unacceptable, and socially destructive, in a form that allowed the audience to both accept and deny the existence of imperfection, pollution, and malice. They allowed temporary crossings and blurring of boundaries between licit and illicit, the speakable and the unspeakable, the real and the imaginary. Through suspension of disbelief, much can be negotiated.

Winnicott recognized that illusions are an essential part of living and not something to be depreciated as unreal. Illusions create a shared psychological space in which cultural experience occurs. It is the space in which play occurs; in which the transitional object lives. It is a space that belongs neither to the subject nor to the object: it is a potential space, a third area of being that belongs neither to the self nor the other. Note however that a shared imagination does not imply that individual differences are erased.

Ritual, play, and humor

I’ve repeatedly promised to write about play as a central, fruitional aspect of Buddhist tantra, but haven’t yet. This book hits some points (but unfortunately not all the most important ones for tantra).

The modern idea that religious rituals are always earnest and serious is wrong. Irony and fun are often central. Anthropological account of such rituals surprise us only due to Protestant assumptions.

The ability to play with boundaries, recognizing their ambiguity, is pervasive in human being. Childhood make-believe already requires the ability to symbolize, to dissociate signifier from signified and so to create the illusionary world of play where the rocking chair is the mountain and the lamp shade the damsel in distress. Metaphors simultaneously accept and transgress the boundaries of the words that make them up.

Play, like ritual, creates an “as if” world, somewhat separated from ordinary life. It has its own rules, its own time and place, its own course and meaning, secluded from the rigors of the everyday. It creates its own order within that delimited sphere.

The following is highly relevant to tantric yidam practice:

Children playing imaginative games are not so much representing superheroes or puppies as being them for the moment. They are not even “playing,” in the sense that they have momentarily put aside self-consciousness of play. Within the world of the game, those children simply are superheroes and puppies, just as a wafer is the Body of Christ. The children do not need to be able to fly or wag their tails any more than the wafer needs skin and hair.

Funerals in Taiwan include a Buddhist ritual specialist, who performs elaborate esoteric mudras to help the dead soul through the underworld. At the same time, he keeps up a steady monologue of jokes at the expense of both the dead person and the society around him—certainly not excluding visiting anthropologists. Then relatives and neighbors watch for pure entertainment value as ritual performers turn somersaults, eat fire, and tell more jokes.

Jokes tickle the boundary between life and death, permanence and dissolution, cosmological universals and human particulars. Through ritual joking, many cultures enact a philosophy of the absurd. By revealing the arbitrary, provisional nature of categories, by lifting their pressure and suggesting other ways of structuring reality, jokes in sacred rituals hint at unfathomable mysteries.

Ritualized joking, in which people in certain relationships are required to tease each other, occurs when they must simultaneously transcend and maintain boundaries; for instance, with in-laws. When the boundary is absent (as with siblings) or total (as with enemies), jokes are unnecessary.

Playfulness dies when social boundaries are either denied or absolutized:

  • When boundaries are denied, people become private, atomized selves, each identical in its core characteristics, and everyone merges into a great mass. This is roughly the contemporary liberal market society. This atomized individual can imagine only one possible world—a world as is, instead of one of the multiple as if worlds that ritual creates.
  • Just as deadly to the sense of play is when boundaries become impossible to cross, so one moral community becomes the only acceptable community.

Either way there is no more movement into and out of a subjunctive world. We have only the world “as is.” This leaves no room for ritual, or even for play—or, in the extreme, even for society itself.

Ritual, individualism, and authority

Authority for ritual is in social institutions, whereas for mentalism it lies in the individual’s inner states.

Liberal modernity—based in mentalism—valorizes an autonomous, self-created universe of individual choice and private belief, freed from any traditional referents. For mentalism, ritual is an unacceptable submission of human minds to external norms; a rejection of individual autonomy. Ritual, from such a point of view, consists of discipline and constraint, whereas sincerity is a turn inward toward the true self.

Ritual is a pervasive aspect of human behavior, not a “traditional” form of authority. It’s true that ritual is sometimes bound by inflexible rules and controlled by oppressive authorities; but most aren’t like that. That assumption also ignores the subjunctive boundary crossing that every ritual requires. Views of ritual as mere boundary definition and maintenance, as a reinforcer of hierarchy, are thus too simple. In ritual, boundaries are also blurred and reworked.

A ritual order does not require all actions to be repetition of past rituals. Rather, spontaneous activity ideally should be “ritual without precedent.” Ritual training should enable practitioners to act as if there were always a ritual telling them what to do. One gains a sense of how the subjunctive world should work when there is no ritual precedent, or in situations where ritual obligations conflict. Example: humaneness is the ability to express gratitude effectively when simply saying “thank you” would be inappropriate or insufficient.

Boundaries—frameworks—do impose constraints. They appear as givens, imbued with the authority of the past. Yet, the future brings new frames, and reorders existing ones. The future represents both risk and the possibility of creativity. Boundaries are reframed, limits are broached, and new meanings emerge.

Though given, boundaries are never uncontested, and the open-ended nature of this contestation makes their negotiation an inherently endless project. Lasting social order rests on an integration of a future orientation (with change and risk) and a shared past: ties that limit and define—and hence give meaning. Communities cannot be totally future-oriented.

The tension between creativity and tradition gives rise to temptations to resolve it in favor of one or the other. “Closing the canon” absolutizes the boundary between ritual and non-ritual. This makes ritual pure repetition, acted against what is perceived to be a complete disorder in the world of mundane reality. Alternatively, authorizing too many people to innovate is the end of a meaningful tradition.

Ritual, improvisation, and innovation

All ritual has to deal with inevitable unexpected variations in circumstances. No set of ritual rules can ever be complete. Therefore, ritual is always partly improvised, and always breaks in and out of the “as if” world as the ritualist decides what to do.

Likewise, many children’s games constantly cross in and out of the frame as the players renegotiate the rules and roles of the game. What exactly constitutes “moving” in a game of freeze tag? Can the robbers capture the cops? The game pauses and restarts as rules are invented or adjusted for the contingencies of the moment.

Adults also negotiate such informal boundary crossings in our own forms of play, when, for instance, we begin to spell out elaborate and impossible fantasies as if they were truths and then switch back to the world of ordinary honesty and dishonesty. We do this when we speak ironically and expect others to follow; we do it when we flirt.

They are important indicators of how ritual allows us to play with boundaries, interpreting past and future in the formation of new modes of empathy.

Ritual traditions typically include mechanisms for making changes legitimate. Innovation often originates in ecstatic rituals, where intuitive inspiration lends itself to new creations.

Ritual and the risk of social breakdown

Play, ritual, art, and festival deal with the dynamics of boundaries and boundlessness, maintaining a tension that is built into human existence.

Utter freedom in extreme ecstatic experience opens up a world of new possibilities. However, “anything can happen” is a recipe for horror as much as delight. This is why most societies place great barriers around ecstatic practices, trying to keep them under control. They are hedged about with rules and interdictions, which act like the lead container of a dangerous radioactive isotope.

The formal frame of a ritual—acting, dancing, music, evocations of the divine origins of the ritual—all contribute to the communication and containment of what is, in life, “radioactive” material.

Anything from charismatic leaders to mass forms of spirit possession can crack open the container. The results can lead to rapid periods of social innovation and experimentation, which are sometimes reinstitutionalized, but often collapse in violent chaos. Their example: the Taiping Rebellion, an ecstatic/charismatic religious movement that led to twenty million deaths. Its leader tried to create heaven on earth by dissolving the boundary between as-it-should-be and as-it-is; and also created an absolute boundary between his followers and the “devils” (everyone else), who could only be slaughtered.

Ritual and love

Relationships that fail to construct a shared subjunctive fall apart. It is not enough to love each other sincerely if people fail to act as if they love each other; and that includes ritualized forms of expressing concern, verbally and in practical helpful activity.

Words are mere symbols. The attempt to express love in words is endless, as it can never conclusively prove its own sincerity. Ritual, by contrast, is repeated and unchanging, a form of practical wisdom rather than symbolization. The ritual “I love you”: its performance is more important than its denotation. This is why one can repeat it for years and years to the same person. In so doing, one is not adding any new information, but instead acting out a ritual, rather like a prayer.

In a family, there is everyday conflict. The parents then decide that everyone has to treat each other with a bit more respect, more civility, more use of “please” and “thank you.” This works. Ratcheting up the amount of love everyone feels, on the other hand, is not the way to make family life more pleasant. There is no need, and it is not even possible. Everyone loves the others. That is not the point. Instead, the problem is to get everyone to act as if they love one another. More real love (whatever that may be) is not needed, nor even reinstituting a feeling that has been lost. What was missing was the behavior that would create a shared subjunctive: ritual.

Erich Segal was wrong—love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. That is precisely what love does mean.

Pathologies of sincerity

Reactions against ritual cause specific social problems. The modern emphasis on sincerity over “mere” convention, on internal states over outward behavior, makes the difficulties of ambiguous boundaries unnecessarily bad.

Extreme sincerity-orientation discourages all subjunctives–not just ritual religious practice but music, adults’ play, dance, even humor. (These are banned in some Islamist theocracies.)

Sincerity criticizes ritual’s acceptance of social convention as mere acting without authentic intent; as performance without belief. It suggests individual soul-searching rather than the acceptance of social conventions. The sincere mode of behavior seeks to replace the “mere convention” of ritual with a genuine and thoughtful state of internal conviction. Rather than becoming what we do (as in ritual), we do what we have become through self-examination. Sincerity emphasizes “authenticity,” and each individual thus takes on an enormous responsibility.

The book’s analysis of the social pathologies of sincerity borrows heavily from the insights of Eric Voegelin. I’ve written about him in “Illuminatus!, Voegelin, and the politics of SBNR monism,” so I won’t say much here.

Sincerity taken to its logical extreme takes one entirely outside the social order. The model is the anchorite. The “true” self ends up in the no-self. (This is explicit in modern Zen, of course.) The self disappears when emptied of its social characteristics: age, gender, status, roles, etc. Human life, however, takes place within society. One must always step back from the otherworldly abyss and reengage with the world. As soon as one does, sincerity becomes mediated by ritualized activities.

Fortunately, reform movements based on sincerity get tamed over time with new creations of ritual (just as highly ritualized historical moments are challenged by sincerity, as in the Reformation).

On the other hand, you can’t go all the way with ritual, either, because it always runs into change. Ritual must be then rethought, and it thus becomes mediated by the reflective process of sincere reasoning.

This makes the integration of ritual and sincerity an endless project.

The unending, impossible quest for the True Self

To base self, society, and morality on sincerity runs into a deep problem. How can we express true sincerity except by filtering it through the mere social conventions of language? How are we to know if people’s professions of sincerity are genuine or acts of hypocrisy; representations of their true self or just what they would say “as if” they were sincere?

Worse still, even our own private thoughts work mainly through language. Verbiage can never dispel the suspicion that sincerity-claims (even our own) are just artifice. Thus we can never fully reveal, or even discover, our innermost sincerity (or lack of it). The Calvinist’s agonized “am I really saved?” and the teenager’s agonized “am I really in love?” are the result.

Sincerity and Authenticity discusses the historical role of Puritanism in developing the sincerity ideal. Diary-keeping and spiritual soul-searching were central aspects of Puritan religiosity. This presupposes a self that could be fully grasped, a well-defined inner state that could be judged: saved or damned, regenerate or unregenerate. Puritanism takes us on a trip inward, on an arduous search for the true, sincere inner self. Such an inward search for sincerity is necessarily never-ending, because the “true self” does not exist.

Unlike ritual morality, which is concerned with acts, the sincere form searches for purity of motives. This concern with intent has become the exclusive basis of much modern moral reasoning.

Without ritual, social relationships have to rely on a never-ending production of new signs of sincerity. These can always be simulated, resulting in an ascending spiral arms race of weaponized verbiage. This is visible in the pathologies of “political correctness”—modern public morality—about which more later.

Pathologies of monist utopian sincerity

Social life unavoidably requires us to make distinctions, to separate people and groups. Legitimate sex, legitimate violence, legitimate acquisition, and legitimate respect are bound to particular roles and denied to others. However, we all yearn at times to go beyond these boundaries of the social order.

Understanding and creative growth occur only by coming to grips with the unromantic and inevitably compromised nature of our lives. The sincere model does not allow for the realization that is and ought cannot be made to coincide. Faced with unsurmountable limitations, it generates a hypocritical consciousness that promotes a narcissistic, unrealizable, infantile ideal of wholeness.

Monist utopian movements try to create such totality. They promote a vision of the ideal society, whole and uncontaminated, in contrast to our fractured, imperfect reality. In utopia, all existing boundaries would dissolve; all “imposed” order would be overcome. This is why utopianism is often antinomian, denouncing all conventional rules.

Monist utopianism rejects ritual for sincerity. Sincerity roots out ambiguity and searches for wholeness. Ritual, which plays with ambiguity and allows the part/whole tension, has no place in utopia. Ritual accepts the existence of rupture and contradiction, whereas sincere monism seeks to bring all different orders of existence into a unitary totality.

Utopianism can entail violence in destroying boundaries as deemed necessary to bring about utopia. (This is Voegelin’s catastrophe of “immanentizing the eschaton.”) We seem incapable of ridding ourselves of this impulse, either individually or collectively, even though historical attempts to return to oneness—communism, fascism, fundamentalism—have brought horror and destruction.

Monist utopian movements proclaim absolute equality, but they always involve some kind of purist specialist professional, who has the knowledge, power, and means of coercion to bring about the new world. Monism’s denial of hierarchy blinds participants to authority’s malignant features, making them worse than usual. Its denial of boundaries blinds utopians to the ideology’s limitations, producing wild overconfidence—“cosmic hubris”—and social catastrophes result.

Utopianism paradoxically also embodies a “rage for order,” an impetus to save the world from nebulosity. This combines with the desire to overcome all boundaries by acclaiming a “true” order, to dissolve artificial distinctions and ritual conventions in favor of a genuinely sincere Truth. Utopias totalize: they seek to dissolve all actual existing order in an ultimate order beyond all change and partiality. As pure order or as the transcendence of order, utopias leave no room for the ambiguities, compromises, and ironies of life.

Pathologies of leftist sincerity

Ambiguity threatens the attempt to arrive at the “true” self. Sincerity tries to resolve all ambiguity to forge a “pure” consciousness. Fifty years ago in Russia and China it was the search for a “true” revolutionary consciousness. A current manifestation is “political correctness.”

Political correctness is a symptom of difficulty in dealing with ambiguous situations, due in part to our loss of ritual. Emphasis on individual conscience, and its capacity to trump all other considerations, is a defining feature of contemporary American leftist politics. It takes feelings and experiences as the ultimate standard of legitimacy, action, and the selection of collective goals.

The book has a long discussion of a Garrison Institute training camp for “social justice activists.” This was strikingly similar to the same Institute’s 2011 Buddhist teachers conference, which prompted me to start my Consensus Buddhism ranting.

With nothing beyond personal feelings to anchor statements in the public realm, it became terribly important in this meeting to have everyone “feel” the same—or else the group threatened to fly apart. Consequently, the group either denied differences in feelings or launched a huge mechanism to get everyone to “feel” the same. Some considered such mechanisms to be coercive and totalistic. Both spiritual activists and Leninist apparatchiks deny any constitutive differences between people. For both, the group has to be “whole,” “one”—and indeed the stress on oneness [monism!] was overwhelming and continual. For a group of spiritual activists committed to diversity and giving voice to all sorts of marginalized voices, this was an ironic unintended consequence…

They continue with much the same critique I made, including Garrison’s anti-enjoyment Puritanism, and its bizarre distortions of “diversity” and “inclusion”. David Brazier’s Buddhist critique is similar too.

Pathologies of fundamentalist sincerity

Fundamentalism is thoroughly modern; a reflection of the Protestant sincerity-orientation, not a return to tradition, which is pervasively ritual.

Biblical fundamentalist movements are officially dualist, but monist in striving for an integrative wholeness; an overcoming of all dissonances, which a more ritualized mode might find ways of accommodating.

Fundamentalism, despite its claims to restore “tradition,” is a form of modern “gnosticism” (in Voegelin’s sense). It actually rejects traditional religious practices in search of an “authentic,” “original” religious experience; a sincere religious expression that cuts through the historicity of all tradition. It is dangerously sentimental; alternately kitschy and violently aggressive.

Contemporary fundamentalisms borrow modern secular ideas of the autonomous and expressive self, and stress individual fulfillment. This totally at odds with the traditional religions fundamentalisms are supposedly based on, which cast the person as a subordinate entity under external injunctions. This covert shift is common in current Islamist movements. The book points out that these are strikingly similar, in their metaphysical stances, to New Age religious movements. (I hope to write about this someday, because it’s so funny.)

Fundamentalism rejects institutional tradition in favor of a putative “original truth,” of which it claims unique understanding. There is no actual tradition that permits a group, on the basis of its supposed radical understanding, to proclaim itself infallible.

Pathologies of artistic sincerity

For mentalism, external actions ought to come from true feelings and beliefs, and be unconstrained by social convention. Therefore it has a horror of pure formality in art.

The sincerity view doesn’t so much reject artistic content; it’s the form they have problems with. Examples include totalitarian kitsch, Puritanism, and the Wahabbite acceptance of television while rejecting visually representative art. These allow only utilitarian (not aesthetic) value—typically, didactic value. This is part of the rejection of the “as if” (artistic fantasy) in favor of the supposed “as is” (unadorned content).

Music is anathema because of its formal constraints and lack of discursive (conceptual) content. Mentalist fundamentalists generally try to limit and control music. They complain of excessive formal complexity; seek to restore simple melodies and harmonies and a clear vocal line with straightforward, didactic lyrics. Musical ornament—formal complexity—plays with musical structure. Like much of ritual, it is about the ability to maintain and transcend boundaries simultaneously.

Also, music is too much fun for dour mentalists.

Punk (which was very serious, at first) found that words could never be sincere enough, and took to literal physical violence as a more-sincere alternative. Also, for punk, sincerity meant being true only to the self and therefore rejecting anything that might result in commercial success. Like serialism, punk was an extreme rejection of convention and an attempt to find fresh means of “self”-expression. The book claims Cage’s 4’33″ is an ultimate version of this (but I suspect Cage was mostly trolling for the lulz).

Modern architecture rejects ornaments, because they blur boundaries; ornaments play with the world and thereby mix it with the building.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the icon (religious painting) is a transitional object (Winnicott), neither identical with the deity nor distinct from it. The Puritans were iconoclastic because sincerity demanded that everything have a single well-defined nature. Their view was that religious art was supposed to be actually the deity, in which case it was idolatry and Not OK; or else it was a mere empty symbol, and therefore meaningless.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

10 thoughts on “Ritual vs. mentalism”

  1. This seems to me to tie in to an interesting, paradoxical fact about creating art. My particular art is poetry. Beginning poets often think that sincerity is the most important thing in a poem. Later, you discover the extent to which artifice is needed in order to create something that can live on its own, separate from yourself, and do some work in the world. Jack Gilbert has a great poem called, “Poetry Is A Kind Of Lying” that beautifully expresses this fact. It ends with the lines

    “Degas said he didn’t paint
    what he saw, but what
    would enable them to see
    the thing he had.”

    It also occurs to me that one of our challenges is that we only know one way to know things, but one of the things we know is that our knowledge is always partial, and that there will be consequences of our actions that we cannot anticipate. Still we must act, and we cannot retreat into unknowing, or pre-knowing. But ritual may offer us another way to know things, things that we already know in a part of us that actually is connected to the universe, a non verbal, non mental part.
    I love your blog. Keep it up.

  2. Well, don’t stop just because another book hits some of the same points you are going for. Surely your perspective and style is different enough to be valuable. And maybe you should reflexively apply these ideas to your own work — maybe writing is not so much about coming up with original truths but a ritualized retelling of some things that everybody already knows to some extent.

    Most people our age have a jaundiced view of rituals because we were force-marched through dead ones as children, and our experience of them is anything but improvisatory or innovative. In some cases we’ve found or created new ones that have those qualities.

    BTW I gave a short talk on play recently that glancingly referred to your grad school work.

  3. Michael Nieman — Yes, that point about art seems exactly right. Thanks!

    mtraven — Good advice. I’ve always said my writing is non-academic, and makes no claim to originality.

    Thanks for the pointer to your talk on play! Interesting points. Ritual and its Consequences also discusses Bateson’s and Huizenga’s theories, and convinced me that I need to read Homo Ludens.

  4. This all seems very familiar from my own upbringing both before and after I became a Buddhist. I suppose I’ve never been mainstream.

  5. The following passage from a long discussion of “faith”, in the chapter on “The Hermit” in “Meditations On The Tarot” seemed relevant to this discussion. What he says about “faith” seems congruent with your comments about “ritual”. MedTarot is a book that is endlessly rich for me.

    “A force which can move a mountain must be equal to that which piled it up. Therefore, the faith which can move mountains can neither be an intellectual opinion nor a personal feeling, no matter how intense. It must be the product of the thinking, feeling and desiring human being with cosmic being-with God. The faith which moves mountains is therefore complete union-even if only for an instant-of man and God.”

  6. You mention storytelling as one of the “as-if” activities (like ritual) that allows us to mediate between “what should be” and “what is.” Storytelling–in the form of novels–is the form of “as-if” activity most familiar and beloved to myself. Many of the themes you mention in this post about ritual resonate with the novel I’m currently reading: “Leaven of Malice,” which is Book Two of the “The Salterton Trilogy” by Robertson Davies.

    In “Leaven of Malice,” the eccentric cathedral organist, Humphrey Cobbler, unlocks the cathedral on Halloween night–‘All Hallow’s Eve”–and leads a group of students in a “bawdy” dance, accompanied by music from the church organ. The dean of the cathedral is surprised to find himself admiring how strangely beautiful and proper he finds the sight of these young people amusing themselves. He strives to keep the musically talented Cobbler from losing his position as organist, in the face of disapproving conservative members of the congregation.

    The innovative rebel, Cobbler, represents the forces of play and transformative ritual. The bawdy dance on Halloween night ritualizes the chaotic Halloween pranks that are going on all over the town. The next day–All Saint’s Day–order will be restored. (“Hallow” is an old word for “holy.”)

    The conservative members of the congregation–led by “Auntie Puss” Pottinger and Mrs. Roger Warboys–want to oust the renegade organist. The ritual they want to see in their cathedral is the purely formal kind, subject to inflexible rules and oppressive authority. They fear these ecstatic outbursts by Cobbler, the renegade musician–because after all, a “bawdy” dance can undermine the whole social order of marriage and authority.

    The dean of the cathedral stands in the middle, with the task of balancing the disruptive and overly-staid factions of his ritual community. Dean Knapp has a reluctant sympathy for Cobbler’s antics. “[The dean] had never been the sort of Christian who wants to have things all his own way–to preach the love of God and to deny the existence of the Devil. Well, if he had to meet the Devil in the line of duty, he would do so like a man.” Dean Knapp marches into the cathedral, to face the boisterous organist and the girls showing too much stocking–but though he speaks sternly to Cobbler, he resists pressure to dismiss him from his post, for the dean appreciates the beauty and playfulness that music can bring to religious ritual, and does not see it as a pure “anathema” of chaos.

    I appreciate academic discourse on ritual, but the storytelling of Robertson Davies, which illustrates it, really resonates with me. One of Davies’ frequent themes is the illusory or transitional character of Canadian democracy–although democracy exists, it exists in uneasy tension with entrenched social classes and cliques, inherited from history. This is a beautiful local example to illustrate how ritual can be used (or abused) to mediate the fluid but tangible social boundaries we are all enmeshed in.

  7. David, as always, awesome post! I am most of my way through Ritual and its Consequences and my head is also spinning- started by your post. It has triggered a lot of thinking on a subject that I have been wrestling with for some time- usually provoked by friends with ideas that drive me insane for some mysterious reason. The insanity seems to be triggered by something along the lines of the Mean Green Meme, or Boomeritis. Specifically it gets triggered by Radical Dzogchen ideas. It gets triggered by people who say such things as “I don’t believe in teachers. We all have the Buddha Nature within us so we just need to rest in it. All the rituals do is distract you. They are just for those who can’t rest in their Nature.” I then typically point out that those ‘rituals’ are how we unite Nature with Embodyment in a laboratory like setting. We also get out of our personal ego in the process. The teacher, along with teaching, acts as a placeholder for our egoistic selves to submit to the higher Nature. In addition, how can one be so sure that one is accessing one’s Nature? If the great masters continue to perform those rituals don’t you think there might be some reason that you don’t yet understand? One of the responses to that last question was “Well, that’s just a cultural habit and has no purpose.” I liked that one- greatest masters who don’t notice their performance of stupid habits. OK. Sure… This subject reminds me of one your articles about AI and how you couldn’t have intelligence without a context (or something along those lines)- we can’t just use logic to think. This connects to the idea of embodied cognition, or to the left brain/right brain idea. I’ve been slowly making my way through The Master and The Emissary by Ian McGilchrist and have been reading about embodied cognition for some years. In this view there is no thinking without context, or the thinking/intellectual function is only a servant of embodyment or the emotional/holistic self (‘right brain’). It is the holistic right brain self, the embodyment, that is actually the Master and is primary. Thought is only its tool. In the same way, the left brain, or atomized self, is only a component or servant, of this greater self. Applied to meditation, the search for the Self, or the Nature, would only be auxiliary to the holistic, ritual embodied self. The individual, similarly, is nothing without the community- which is primary- or more complete. Both work together, as neither is complete without the other. To get to the point: ritual is actually more complete. We need to have access to the Nature underneath, yes, but actually ritual (ideally) points to an integrated Nature and Form. Ritual gives us an embodied feeling experience of these principles, which is far greater than an isolated yogi staring at his inner sky in a cave. Dharmakaya is nothing compared to Svabhavikakaya- all form bodies together in union. When practitioners abandon ritual they are throwing out the entire Bodhisattva ideal and 2/3 of enlightenment. Big topic, very interesting!

  8. Thank you very much! Yes, those are all good points.

    Sometimes it seems that when I write about Buddhism now I’m just translating the approach I took to cognitive science 30 years ago. Odd thing!

    Dharmakaya is nothing compared to Svabhavikakaya

    That’s a way of putting it that I hadn’t thought of. Nice!

  9. I enjoyed Foster Ryan’s comments above: “This subject reminds me of one your articles about AI and how you couldn’t have intelligence without a context (or something along those lines)- we can’t just use logic to think. This connects to the idea of embodied cognition.”

    I love the idea of an AI having to learn from its physical and social experiences (the same as everybody else). To quote from the novel I’ve just been reading: “The metamorphosis of physical man into philosophical man: a great theme.” The novel is “A Mixture of Frailties,” which is Book Three of “The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Davies opens the novel with the following quotation from Halifax; “Nothing softeneth the Arrogance of our Nature like a Mixture of some Frailties. It is by them that we are best told, that we must not strike too hard upon others because we ourselves do so often deserve blows.” Clearly, the Skynet supercomputer in “The Terminator” movies could have benefited from some ritual, to offset its mentalism.

    It’s really striking how Davies’ themes resonate with the subject of this thread. His main character is alone for the first time in Paris. She goes to the Pantheon, which is an old church converted into a “Temple of Reason” during the French Revolution, when they banned Catholicism. She can’t find any comfort there, so she goes a cathedral instead, where she stumbles on the tomb of a saint who was once a living, breathing person. The physicality of the tomb, and the ritual of kneeling to pray, give her the comfort that she couldn’t find in contemplating the intellectual works of Voltaire.

    Anyway, thanks for the great posts. They gave me a lot to think about and helped to develop my ideas.

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