Religious Recursion

It does annoy me, on occasion, before I catch myself and remember that the whole Christian project is a project of open futility–

About that: the Second Sunday of Easter is always Doubting Thomas Sunday, so doubt is much on my mind, being a fervent believer, liturgically speaking, meditating on the elements of my faith, which is something else, at my age, having lived through the emergence of a culture which was mostly Christian into one which is mostly not, especially up here in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Doubt, right? It’s essential to the Faith.

They were upstairs, behind locked doors, afraid, those Eleven who were with him from the very beginning, and they all saw him die. Thomas, called “The Twin,” puffs his chest out, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Well, Thomas, can’t you do that to a corpse?

Strange things.

I don’t understand the intellectual hostility to Christianity, especially when people I consider friends publicly wish there were fewer of me, less of my influence in life and culture. Why? Because there are bad Christians? And the half-baked dismissal of the fervent, you know, glib high school angry atheist stuff, always as an aside, never as a grown-up inquiry into this two thousand year old faith with a billion adherents, and growing (despite Europe and North America), which has roots in a strange Ancient Near Eastern blood cult another two thousand years hence.

The Christian project is a project of open futility, though, and I have to remind myself of that.

Nevertheless, I do take a little pleasure in some of the materialist investigations into the Faith, first transforming Christianity into a “religion,” which is a neat intellectual move, making the Faith, which dominates the life and culture of Western Civilization, indistinguishable from shamanistic druidic magicka, only distinguishing by time elapsed. When the materialists talk about ritual, ignoring my own call for distinctions within these hallowed halls

Remember, the Christian Faith is in defiance of ritual and religion. When Christianity develops rituals, it’s always a threat to itself.

This behavior of the materialists, all of them together, namely, wishing there were fewer of me, reducing my beliefs into a primordial pool of beliefs, and talking about my rites and rituals without making proper distinctions, creates in me a sense that a kind of recursion is going on:

The materialist sees the Christian, and comments. The Christian sees the materialist commenting, and comments. The materialist sees the Christian commenting on the comment, and so forth. To me, it’s like one of those wonderfully absurd Monty Python sketches:

Scene: Lower middle-class apartment, evening, husband sitting in comfortable chair reading The Times, wife making efforts at wifely cleaning. Two men appear in the window, dressed in safari clothing, writing in notebooks.

Wife: Herman, they’re watching us again!

Herman: Who are, Margret?

Margret: The Materialists.

Herman: Oh, that’s all right, dear, they’re just researching.

Margret: Researching?

Herman: That’s right, Margret; they’ve come from a long way away just to learn about our behavior in the wild instead of in captivity.

Laugh track

Margret: Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. (closes curtains. The materialist safari move to the other window)

Laugh track

Margret: They won’t go away, Herman!

Herman: Of course not, dear, they’re Materialists.

Laugh track

Herman: Ask them what they want, and maybe they’ll go away.

Margret: What do you want?

Materialists don’t answer. Whisper to each other, writing in notebooks.

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Laugh track

Herman: Do what?

Margret: They don’t think we can see them.

Herman: Well, what are they talking about?

Margret: Normativity.

Herman: Normativity? Did you hand them a copy of Proverbs?

Margret: I told you, they don’t think we can see them.

And so forth. The laugh track is to my advantage, but you, O Materialist, have the last laugh, the true laugh.

The whole project of the Christian Faith is a project of open futility, and it is actually encoded in the Faith. Saint Paul–excuse me–the Apostle Paul, after fifteen chapters on the wisdom of God putting to shame the wisdom of the world (that would be you materialists) finishes his exposition by saying in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If there is no resurrection of the body, then we are to be pitied more than all men. Send money.”

So, since miracles = impossible (cf. G.E. Lessing), and since the resurrection of the body = a miracle, then, it follows, therefore there is no God.

The materialist has the advantage in an ever-improving society and ever-progressing technology as a result of Science, material proof. The only way for me to prove my faith is for me to become a corpse.

They called Thomas “The Twin” for a reason, you know.

Image borrowed from


Fantasy, Myth, Ritual

The Roman world, when the early Christians exploded onto the scene, was a world awash in myth and ritual. When Christians came proclaiming that they had one additional god to which they prayed, it was natural for the Romans at the time to ask exactly which one they had in mind. Jupiter perhaps, or Apollo, or one of the mystery cults like Dionysus, or some other God, like the God of the Persians or of the Egyptians. The Romans were entirely used to new myths coming along, or new sub-cults seeking to elevate one of the deities above the rest. The pagans dealt with this tension, these competing cosmologies, by separating truth from religion, from rituals. The philosophers, lovers of truth, wanted to encounter the divine through reason, and therefore rejected the myths, even as they demanded duty to the God their reason identified.

The paradox of ancient philosophy is that intellectually it destroyed myth, but also tried to legitimize it as religion, as ritual. If you could pay homage to the cult of the emperor it didn’t really matter whether you actually believed that the emperor was divine, and fulfilling your duty to Neptune demanded sacrifices, not anything so prosaic as intellectual assent to his creation myth. This uneasy balance was destroyed by the early Church, who insisted that the God they worshiped was not a God of myth, but Being itself, the God that the philosophers had begun to apprehend. That their God demanded, not sacrifice but belief. That true religion was not empty ritual, not merely a useful custom that must be performed for the sake of edification, but was actually true. As Tertuallian formulated it, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom”.

This reconciliation between truth and myth was always fraught, as a faith that professed itself as Truth needed to carefully ensure that reason was never entirely unbounded by myth, and once myth could no longer constrain truth, to change the myth to fit the new truth. But there is only so many times that the myth can change, and only so quickly, only so many parts that can be hived off before the whole myth is called into question, and the ritual stands empty once more. A culture that was not prepared to entirely sacrifice the idea that myth and Truth should be at cross purposes created a new myth, which subsumed the old and imbued the traditional rituals with new meaning. The old God of the philosophers was replaced with a new telos, Reason, Liberty, Equality, Progress. But the new gods were as austere, only slightly more atheistic than the pagans found the Christian god. One can provide their assent to mystical Equality, but that mystical union that accompanies the dissolution of self and submersion into a larger whole must come from rituals that involve other personalities, and the God of Equality is not personified. Ritual union, if it is to occur, must be union with a community, not union with an ideal.

The new gods require new myths, but as the new gods are social gods, the new myths no longer need to be true. The new myths are created rather self-consciously to serve as myth, intially by Christians seeking to preserve what wisdom they could by implanting some of the old myths into the new, what JRR Tolkien called Mythopoeia, but the myths that survive are ones that serve the appropriate social function of bringing together a community to engage the ritual and propagate the myth. This can be political, like the myth of class solidarity or natural rights, or the apotheosis of founding fathers into paragons of virtue, like George Washington and the cherry tree, but just as often is not explicitly so. The most popular myths and rituals are cribbed from Germanic pagans, Christmas trees, Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. Liberated from the need to be true, and from the need to appear true, the new myths are instead selected for their role in ritual, until the ritual and myth become entirely severed from any tether to any teleological end, a self-sustaining ritual cosmology, protected from collapse by the complete lack of any expectation of coherence.

One of the functions of ritual is to bridge the gap between the fact of continued inequality in an egalitarian age, and the yearning for unity, of the kind which can only be found amoung equals. It is in this context that the new myths thrive, by creating a world so alien to our experience, that they can be encountered without our baggage. The triumph of the new myths is to make the characters so archetypal, the story so uncomplicated, that a vast swath of people with widely varying backgrounds and experience can immediately identify and lose themselves inside the story unreflectively, providing a common experience that can be shared across lines of gender, class, occupation, generation or race otherwise unavailable. A world where lawyers, doctors and engineers cosplay cheek by jowl with installers and plumbers, retail workers and draughtswomen, lost together in a fantasy of power and triumph which transcends them.

Participating In The Death Cult

Statistics predict that a city of 1 million should expect to lose about 105 people this year to automobile accidents. Those are the statistics, an average for the last ten years or so. Recently I was driving from Buffalo, NY to Barrie, ON, which means that I drove through a population of about 6.5 million people within two and half hours. Therefore, in my immediate circles, between now and May 1, 2016, over six hundred people will have been killed on the highways. Six hundred people!

On the way back from Barrie, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, when we were all tired, I passed two injury accidents in the Greater Toronto Area. I don’t think there were any fatalities, but there was considerable property damage, and, in one case, a rescue responder was furiously trying to pry open the car door to get to the driver. Add that as an appendix to the death toll. As soon as we had all acknowledged the wreckage, we accelerated up to speed, hurtling our automobiles toward the exchange from the 403 to the Queen Elizabeth Way, which invariably yields a thrilling experience on the western shores of Lake Ontario. Toronto, by the way, is a magnificent city.

Business, not pleasure, took me to Barrie and back, business which I needed in order to pay for my stuff and my activities, as well as all my family’s stuff, activities, and needs, all of which I am loathe to acknowledge as unnecessary; I will not say no to a single thing as long as I can drive my automobile to fulfill a contract which enables me to earn money to acquire it.

This February, on the way to a hockey tournament in the Southern Tier of New York State, we encountered a massive blizzard and plummeting temperatures. The northbound I-90 suddenly emptied of traffic. There were no automobiles, no, not one. “Uh oh,” I said to the boys. “That means there was a fatality.” A few miles down the road, there it was: an automobile exactly like mine, same make, same model, same year. What saved me, evidently, was the color: his was red, mine is green. We saw it on the news: the man’s 11-year old daughter was killed when a tractor trailer plowed into the passenger side in a “freak” accident. “Freak” accident in the middle of a gigantic snowstorm.

A roll of the dice in the heavens, I suppose, sent a gust of wind to catch his automobile at just the right moment, turning it into the path of a tractor trailer.

I looked at my 11-year old son and said, “There but for the grace of God go we.” He sits where she sat when she died.

My wife will no longer buy chocolate unless she can be confident, through certification and other means, that slaves did not produce it. But I don’t know: what certification process actually gives confidence that phones, shoes, chocolates, etc. aren’t produced by slaves?

Hence rituals, where “we now call to order this august branch of the International Men’s And/Or Women’s Horned Beast Lodge” to spend some money on communal food, pick a charity to benefit, socialize, gossip, and then disperse.

Maybe it’s as simple as “Wilma! I’m home! No, Dino! No, no!” There exists for just about everyone something done which is ritualistic, formal, expected, a something which is an effort to wash away the stench of participation in The Death Cult. Stepping in cat dirt everywhere comes to mind, which functions for poor Ren as an everyday ritual to recommence home life with his dear Stimpy.


Rituals push aside The Death Cult momentarily, creating spaces wherein we exhort one another, wherein we enjoy a respite from what evil lies beyond, wherein we love one another. Rituals can even occur within the confines of the automobile, those moments for us when the now 12-year old connects his iPod to the stereo system, adjusting its parameters until he has filled the interior space with his music. Outside is death, celebrated, encouraged, sacrificed to, and we participate in it at the expense of only one hundred people per million per year.

Well, that’s just the death toll. You know what I mean.

Making Distinctions

William F. Buckley Jr would famously slouch into his chair, pushing it as far back as it could lean, so that he could stare with glassy-eyed calculation at his interlocutor as a frog might stare at a fat fly, and he would bite the end of his pen, intoning, “Er, very well, Mr. Ambassador, but shall we, um, make, ah, some distinctions?

The electricity evoked by this laconic request was a sight to behold, week after week, for decades, and in many and various contexts, because he was asking the interlocutor to analyze his own argument, which, in front of people, is a terribly uncomfortable thing to do. The forensic quality of Buckley’s forensics is instructive for use in the forum, or as we like to say here at Sweet Talk, in the agora, where debate is open and, more importantly, lively. The problem, of course, is that in a pluralistic environment, an argument–nay, even a mere observation will be made that will create a visceral response, and the initial reactions will be formed by viscera. Generally, petards and hoisting are subsequent, and probably consequent. This is what makes it fun, at least until the psychopaths arrive.


An article was forwarded to me, entitled “What is Ritual?” and I clicked over to read it. At once I was delighted; moments later, I had a visceral reaction–I didn’t like the article, but I should have–and it has taken me days to, um, make, ah, some distinctions. I was flummoxed how the piece was lucid, well-researched, well-written, and relatively jargon-free–indeed, I learned a great deal from it in a short time–but, for some reason, seemed convoluted and confusing, as I put it in my initial visceral reaction: hopelessly so. Of that I do hereby repent.

Remember: “Shall we make distinctions?” is an invitation for the interlocutor to examine his own argument, so, disciplining myself, I turned my reaction around upon myself. Therefore, “Why am I confused?” replaces “Why is this confusing?” The onus is now upon myself.

As a general rule, I am seeking application of ideas, not description; in other words, I want to shoot the arrows I have more effectively, not add more arrows to my quiver. “What is Ritual?” actually says “application” in two different ways. First, the notion of ritual is an active and participatory reality. Ritual, like crime, is everywhere, in little ways and in big ways, and ritual is a common human experience presently. Second, the present tense of the copulative “to be” (is) seems to say that the post is going to define this participatory reality so that I can better understand and do application. Because of my desire to read for application, I read the title as drawing an equals sign: “X = ritual.”

My expectations stretched the second point; “is” is simply a copulative, and can function in many different ways, regardless of tense. As the piece unfolded, my own expectations, not the piece itself, disappointed me, but if I may offer the gentlest critique, perhaps the piece should have been entitled, “How Ritual Came To Be.” That’s not a big change, but change enough to reveal a distinction that should be made, a distinction that can apply quite broadly.

Take any social-economic phenomenon: for example, the practice of tipping rarys, something all the kids were doing back in the 1940s, but let’s pretend we all tip rarys this very day, and our lives are wound up in the pleasure of tipping rarys. “My God, Chet,” someone exclaims. “Why do we so love tipping rarys?” If we are all in the act of tipping the rary, or preparing to tip the rary, it is inappropriate and useless, utterly useless, for Chet to describe the historical process which brought forth tipping rarys.

On the other hand, when the academy finds it worthwhile to study the social-economic phenomenon of tipping rarys, the history of the practice is absolutely necessary and essential so that we can make some distinctions, namely whether the practice of tipping rarys is the flower of its own root, or whether it has been plucked and is being kept alive in a new context with its own historical-social-economic significance. The determining factor is, of course, not the practice itself, but the community which practices it. From there a study of the history of the community flows, which study has a goal of identifying the present circumstances of the community, its practices, and its tenets over against its historical identity, not to somehow confine and limit it.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this? More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

It’s a long way to tip a rary.

Dead Ritual

Final Advent Musings

In my introductory post on ritual, I drew some DIY distinctions, teasing out some components of ritual in order to talk about them with a little more clarity, namely: Rite (change of status); from Superstition (invocation of luck); from Ritual (communal edification). These are fairly arbitrary, but upon hearing no objections, I shall proceed.

I avoided religious practices in developing my definitions because so much freight comes with the topic, not least of which is the phenomenon of the mass exodus of Europe and North America from its cathedrals and religious identity. Why? the question is asked. Why the mass exodus? Oftentimes the answer is “dead ritual,” in an effort to draw a distinction from “dead god.” Why should I submit to practices and institutions that are basically dead? If God is alive, he is not bound by an institution of bricks, mortar, and incantation.

To be sure, the response cuts both ways. I’m about to attend a handful of masses to commemorate the Nativity of Christ Jesus, along with a majority of attendees who are there because Grandma wants them to be there, and if they do not attend, they risk precluding themselves from Grandma’s love and affection. Why should you submit to practices and institutions that are basically dead, even for one night, as a token for your close kin? Why not be an honest Puck and forgo the ritual of attending so that the rest of us can benefit from the change of status the mass effects without the constant awkward rubrical flubs?

The rituals are dead because the rites are dead, no? If the invocation does not bring the name of God upon you, if the eucharistic prayer does not bring the body of Christ to you, and if the benediction does not confer the blessing of God upon you, then, naturally, everything else attendant is dead.

Christmas Mass

If the religious artifacts are dead, then, as attendant rituals to your own familial Christmas rituals–holiday rituals, whatever–if the religious artifacts are dead, then also your familial Christmas rituals.

But you can’t do that to Grandma, can you?

One Grandma I know absolutely clobbers the Sanctus, every mass, every time, just blows it out of the water. And the attendant ritual of singing the Song of Simeon as a dismissal: she hits the line, “A light to lighten the Gentiles” with such a sublime force, it brings forth a moistening to my eye, as though she has seen the little Christ child, as promised, and now she can die in peace. It’s a ritualistic requiem, if you will, repeated, given life by her attending to the change of status.

I suppose this little post started out as a screed to encourage those ignorant of the rites to steer clear of my rituals, to come to peace with Grandma, you see, and finally tell her that it’s impossible to be an honest Puck and attend to dead rituals because the rites are dead, but it wouldn’t be right, somehow. Let the light of Grandma’s attending lighten every familial Christmas ritual.

The Welcome Opiate of Participation

Introduction to a series on ritual

Participation in a ritual is a scary thing because the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined. Those lines which are drawn with a black permanent marker suddenly become gray chalk, smudged, imperceptible. Perhaps, as you look around while you are participating in a ritual, the boundaries are coextensive, and the self is absorbed into the community. Some days that is a welcome moment.

Some quick distinctions to bring forward a frame:

  • Rite is a performative speech act which may have some associated ritual, but its focus is a change of status, e.g., “I now pronounce you husband and wife;” e.g., “I sentence you to be hanged by the neck till dead.”
  • Superstitious order may resemble ritual, but its focus is an individual’s invocation of good luck, e.g., a hockey player putting on his elbow pads before his shin guards; e.g., a degenerate gambler clutching his lucky rabbit’s foot while negotiating with the one-armed bandit.
  • Ritual is a set of elements arranged into an organic whole whose focus is the edification of a group of people, e.g., a family dinner at a major holiday; e.g., fantasy football draft day.

It might be more helpful to define ritual, instead of by what it might be, by what it does. Ritual creates an invitation into a closed society. For example, shotgunning beers before a college football game could be a ritual, but when you shotgun beers in the parking lot outside Bryant-Denny Stadium just before an Alabama Crimson Tide football game, you are most certainly relinquishing your self to a close and very elite society (WOOOOOOOOO! ROLL TIDE! <breath> woooooooooo <thunk>). Is it a ritual now? Yes. Likewise addressing a haggis during the celebration of Robert Burns’ birthday: you have given your identity, in part, to an enviable group, namely those who imbibe exclusively in scotch whisky, despite how the Japanese have polluted the market, and when the knife is plunged into that stuffed pig’s bladder, the identity of the society is reborn (Gah! What is tha’ stench?!?).

Now you are, at the very least, an initiate into a club/fraternity/religious order/lodge/etc. A healthy club has subsumed your self to it without actually reducing your value as an individual; you are not necessarily subverted to the club, but you cannot assert individuality without pressing against the boundaries created by the ritual. If you do not partake of a haggis, you really aren’t a member; you’re an observer, and you cannot receive the benefits of the club, which are mostly transcendental.

As an aside, “club” is transcendental to begin with, and cannot exist without ritual. If your club is equivalent to a building or a meeting room, it’s not a club; it’s a social gathering which gives no benefits, having no manifest identity. Thus, Calvin and Hobbes built a tree house, which was a meeting place, but it became a club (G.R.O.S.S.) only after a ritualistic costuming and recitation of a complex hymn to the transcendental ideals of G.R.O.S.S., which were both close and exclusionary at the same time. “Close” is the invitation, whereas “exclusionary” is the–well, not.

Moreover, the rituals evoke timelessness, at least insofar as the club can cohere. Some rituals are regrettable acts only beyond the confines of this timeless realm; i.e., shotgunning beers gives you the benefit of shouting certain slogans in the everlasting struggle against the Auburn Tigers, but the hangover manifests itself only after the fraternity has dissolved into incoherence, hopefully some time after the Tide has vanquished the Tigers. Perhaps the “a haggis” is consumed, and the club members must be dismissed to politely disgorge the wretched culinary abomination, hopefully some time after Robert Burns has been toasted. Outside timelessness, Robert Burns and his ode can be cursed; individuality can assert itself once again.

So, several components are present in ritual, wound together. When we disentangle them, we might be instructed.

Dipping Your Toes Into the Irrational World

I keep my vinyl records on the opposite side of the room from my record player (or “turntable” for the more effete vinyl connoisseur), which is twenty-one feet away (I measured). I’m compelled to do so by something within, something which is out of reach of the rational self; there’s no sense to it. In every way it would be easier to put my collection right next to my stereo system. In fact, if someone from HGTV were to come by and blanch at the arrangement, I’d be highly offended, on camera even, at the suggestion to rearrange, for any reason, aesthetic or practical.

There is now attached to the arrangement a ritual; that’s right, a ritual. From my collection I pull several records–by the way, this is all predicated on whether I’m in a record-listening mood. If I’m not in the mood, then I don’t do the ritual: I click my mouse through iTunes until I find the playlist I desire to hear, or just click Pandora. See, that’s the point. What kind of ritual can develop organically from some easy scrolling and mouse-clicking? A ritual of frustration, I suppose, if you don’t know what you want to listen to.

Where was I? Oh, yes, kneeling before my collection on the bottom shelf: I pull several records to put them in a designated “on deck” spot so I don’t have to flip through my entire collection for the duration of the mood. I walk over to the turntable, turn on a special light which illuminates it (that’s so I can see the print on the record label; I’m getting old), lift the lid of the turntable, walk back to the On Deck Circle, pick a record, remove the actual record within its sleeve from the cardboard packaging, gaze at the artwork for a moment, walk all the way back to the record player, remove the vinyl from its sleeve, mount it onto the turntable, set the needle into the groove on the outer edge, close the lid of the turntable, place the sleeve atop the lid, turn off the special light, walk to my chair in the middle of the room, and from there I listen until the needle lifts itself from the groove on the inner edge. It’s an invocation and a benediction, with an entire liturgy between, complete with genuflection and pauses for silence for meditation.

Music, especially long play music fit for one side of a vinyl record (before progressive rock artists discovered the 74-minute compact disc), is a work of art whose purpose is largely to affect the emotions of the listener-participant.  Such art has a penchant for stirring the passions, not the least of which are love, hate, anger, happiness, and fear, along with the more subtle ones, such as longing, loss, sadness, and hope. All of these are buried deep within the breast, only tenuously associated with the intellect. For example, I am much moved by Rush’s 2112, which has no small amount of literary influence upon it, yet I am not moved to discourse about the music intellectually. That, of course, kills the experience, and creates an artifact out of living music. The same with Mozart’s piano concertos, and Beethoven’s late violin concertos, and Genesis with Peter Gabriel, and so on.


So, why the ritual? I know that I feel like performing this ritual, which grew organically, mind you, in order to prepare my body for the emotional encounter it is about to experience. The intellect, apparently, desires to have its body’s passions aroused, but also desires protection from them. A ritual sets boundaries, guides, and rules: “This far, anger, and no further!”

This far, love, and no further?