Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ritual in the UU World

Before the big NCLC-CoG-hosted party on Saturday evening, I attended the Unitarian Universalist Scholars ad friend Discussion on the theme of "Celebrating Embodied and Transformative Worship and Ritual."  As a ritualist, I was intrigued by the topic, and as someone scheduled to teach liturgical design at a UU seminary, I was doubly intrigued.

The first panelist, Dr. Robert N. McCauley of Emory University, explained that in UU there are two kinds of members: anti-ritualists and non-ritualists.

The former are those who were reared in religious traditions with extensive, prescribed ritual practices.  They were pressured to participate in and perform these rituals and they experienced pressure to conform and censure for non-participation.  In addition, many carried the Protestant attitude that rejected the elaborate rituals of the Roman Catholic church in favor of simpler rites.  Further, one would assume, they did not find the rituals to be satisfying or enjoyable, the result being that they were anti-ritualists.

The non-ritualists, on the other hand, had little experience with religious rituals in childhood, perhaps from being brought up in secular families.  They were uninformed and indifferent; hence, non-ritualists.

Both groups overlook some of the benefits of shared ritual practice.  Rituals help create a shared identity and enhance group cohesion.  They foster a sense of "morality and ritual connection."  They separate the shared ritualists from non-belongers, and increase in-group cooperation while fostering out-group hostility.  They way I would put this is that shared rituals create bonding among the participants.

One of the examples Dr. McCauley used to illustrate his points was the cargo cults of Melanesia, a fascinating phenomenon of which I had been ignorant.

"Special agent" rituals, "those in which the relevant supernatural being is the agent of the action," acting either as the giver or the receiver.  They are performed only once, since the result is considered to be permanent.  Rites of passage are special agent rituals, which usually involve high levels of sensory pageantry (music, aroma, garb, implements, lighting, etc.) and are done once for each "ritual patient."

I'm intrigued by Dr. McCauley's work and intend to explore it further.

The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones of the First Unitarian Church of San José (California) spoke of using storyteller's art to embody the other. [her emphases]  This is a familiar ritual technique in Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft, particularly in the contexts of WitchCamps.  Embodied learning and experiencing the divine in the physical body is a distinctive characteristic of the Craft.

Dr. Emily R. Mace addressed the phenomenon of rituals within the overall UU world that draw liberally upon other, non-Christian sources, usually interpreted loosely.  To me, this tends to foster a reliance on scripture over lived experience.  While this borrowing from other religious sources acknowledges a wider range of wisdom, it also brings up the problem of cultural appropriation.  I'm sensitive to this phenomenon, yet I view most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, as being syncretic in many ways.  In addition, we live today in a wildly diverse multicultural world, one where we are exposed to all manner of religious and artistic expression of the spiritual dimension of our beings.  If we learn from those exposures, if we find value in their teachings, if we consider that those teachings enhance our spiritual lives, can incorporating them into our personal practices be wrong?  I know this topic is a big bugaboo, but we do need to view it clearly and discuss it honestly.

The Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake of Starr King School for the Ministry, serves the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, "the nation's first interracial, interfaith congregation," founded in 1944, whose mission was "to create a religious fellowship that transcended artificial barriers of race, nation, culture, gender, and social distinctions," is a dynamic presence who speaks in a deep, resonant voice.  He explained that the church is comprised of folks from diverse backgrounds who do ritual together.  They create shared experience; they find common ground.  He claims that members don't have to be religious, they only need to share values and want to do ritual with others.  "Isn't that community?" he asked.

He claims that "worship is radical."  An individual may be nobody in society but in ritual he or she is somebody.  Shared ritual deepens the spiritual lives of the people who participate.  He explained the overall format of the Fellowship ritual, which follows the sequence of Matthew Fox's Cosmic Mass, i.e., four phases progressing from via negativa (grief and sorrow experience) to via positiva (dance of joy, delight and celebration of existence) to via creativa (communion with the divine) to via transformativa (receiving energy of the ritual to, as Dorsey says, "fire souls with the energy of apostleship," or to transform society).  These phases include meditation, which can be yoga or breathing or standing and singing; drumming; music for "sitting in the presence"; "the word" (sermon).

The speaker and I share the goal in ritual of not having it become routine with too much repetition, but rather to mix things up, add elements of surprise, and make them participatory.  We also both believe that singing without reading the words can allow for "singing from the heart."

Where we differ on ritual practice is the inclusion of preaching.  I want ritual to foster an experience, or experiences, or lead to insights or clarity or serenity, or whatever.  I don't want to listen to someone tell me how to live or what's going on around me.  That doesn't mean I don't love an eloquent, inspiring orator; I definitely do.  But I don't necessarily want sermonizing as part of my ritual experience.  Perhaps this antipathy comes from my Christian childhood, which was full of preaching, but in any case, in ritual I prefer embodied experience .

The Rev. Clyde Grubbs, recently retired from the Throop UU Church of Pasadena, was the last to speak, but not before I had to leave.  This session has refined my thinking about ritual and inspired me to follow up on some resources I hadn't known of before.


Christine Kraemer said...
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Christine Hoff Kraemer said...

I attended a Cosmic Mass in 2000, and it was one of the most effective ecstatic large group rituals I've ever been to. I wonder if they're still happening somewhere? The last time I did a Google search for them, I didn't turn anything up.

Miriam S Pia said...

As a UU with occult tendencies, I went outside UUism to get ritual training, but that means I was not trained in any UU rituals - in terms of being able to give or lead or 'do' rituals. It was not caused by religious feelings but from purely occult tendencies [long story, don't wish to explain]. I grew up UU and have practiced as an adult. Within the past couple of years I began working to establish a UU monastic order: since I'm a woman it would be co-ed or all women/nuns. It came up that we could really use a few rituals. I feel that I am able to create rites, but not being ordained I thought maybe there are others with more training and experience in this area. I found this helpful and feel lucky to be able to connect with you.