Their Overwhelming Nature and Power: Religious Rituals

Discovered in Tel Beersheba, Palestine, this four-horned altar was probably used for animal sacrifices.  Fugitives or asylum seekers in biblical times, as part of their ritualistic practices, would grab its horns for personal protection.


We Know Them When We See Them

With a serene demeanor, an old man, inside a nearby Hindu Temple, sits down on a colorful mat with his legs crossed and eyes closed, while incense impregnates the silent sanctuary.  In front of an altar with a small statue, fruits, flowers, and candles, he meditates and seems to be transposed to another world hoping that his gods receive his sincere acts of praise and gratitude.  Meanwhile, in the American Northern Great Plains, an Oglala Sioux Navajo girl returns to her family and members of her tribe and is received with a traditional celebration.  There are powerful reasons to welcome her with a festive spirit.  With only a blanket and a pipe, she has just spent a few days by herself on a special hill, fasting, talking to the spirits and nature, as well as finding herself.  After been enlightened by this mystical experience, she has come back not as a girl, but now as a woman.  Her Vision Quest, as many before her had done it, has successfully ended.

Across to ocean from these mystical scenarios, after a long journey, two parents, after doing the sign of the cross, enter a church in Jerusalem erected to remember Jesus’ suffering and death, and rub their daughter’s clothes on an old rock convinced that, through this symbolic action, the Christian God will protect their baby against the forces of evil and help her to grow to be a faithful disciple of the risen Christ one day.   In response to a loud invitation to celebrate Allah’s uniqueness and greatness, a devoted crowd of men and women in the city of Istanbul proceed to wash their necks, feet and hands, and slowly walk towards the Blue Mosque to pray to their Creator, all facing the city of Mecca as the sun sets in the horizon once again.

To many of us these are familiar images.  We know what they are and have some words to name them.  In our minds, like many others we have seen, they are samples of religious rituals. But the term “ritual” is not restricted to religious contexts.  In our daily lives we have applied this term to habits or behaviors that are repeated.

However, naming what rituals are or providing examples of out of our daily lives is not enough.   What else is there for us to know about rituals that might take us beyond a causal, anecdotal, or informal understanding?  What should we say about their seemingly magical and powerful nature and function, especially in religious contexts?  What are some of their main characteristics regardless of what world religions they represent?  Are they all the same or are there different types?    What criteria and methodology should we use to identify and describe them more accurately?

To answer these and similar questions, a much more formal approach to the understanding of rituals is more than welcome in order to improve our knowledge and interaction with people who use them.

A Basic Understanding

Taken from the Latin word ritus through its adjectival form ritualis, the word ritual(s)is a word that has been used in many languages since the 16thcentury.  This word, oftentimes associated with the term “ceremonial(s)” among average people, usually refers to a series of cultural, repetitive activities and actions that individuals and groups create, utilize, and engage in to make deep connections with what they believe to be the most significant aspects of their lives.  To simplify it, rituals are symbolic-reoccuring-routine-act forms whereby order, meaning, and direction, are established in any given social group to meet its ideological, psychological, spiritual, moral, and physical needs.

Since we all live in relation to others and experiencing different levels of influence, rituals may be secular or religious.  They both share all the same characteristics.  What makes the difference between the two, however, is that religious rituals make explicit, intentional, significant, symbolic contacts with realities that, through the eyes of faith, are regarded as absolute, ultimate, definitive or perfect.  Unlike secular rituals, religious rituals presuppose the existence of and directly appeal to what religious people call God, the Unknown, the Sacred Mystery, Deities, the Spiritual world, and other esoteric realities captured by other terminology.

Common Transcultural Traits

Rituals, being human creations done in space and time, have their unique or distinctive features no one can deny or by-pass.  Contextualized interpretations can unearth them for us.  However, there are some consistent characteristics they all have in common, which constitute criteria of analysis.  The following are the most important ones:

  1. Faith-Driven.  Rituals, in general, always presuppose strong beliefs as their generating force.  In the case of religions, they are the result, embodiment, and serving instrument of a strong trust in the existence and involvement of the Divine Unknown in people’s lives.  As we have indicated, everything that religions believe in, feel, and do is filtered through this lens.  Technically, faith is the heart of religious epistemology or philosophy of life.
  1. Universal.  Religious or not, rituals are essential parts of all cultures.  Regardless as to whether they are named with this word or not, or whether people fully understand what rituals are and the purpose they serve, rituals have been used in all societies throughout history.  They are pervasive and will continue to be so since they help objectify people’s feelings, beliefs, values, and other relational aspects of what it means to be human connected to esoteric realities.
  1. Communal.  Although rituals can and should be employed by individuals, it is only in the context of the larger community that they truly come to life, are shared, and validated.  For the sake of academic analysis, it is when believers come together that rituals lend themselves for a better appreciation of what they are, do, take for granted, and expect.  Rituals are part of a complex network of spiritual, psychological, physical, and behavioral realities that hold humans as the major agents and recipients.
  1. Social Mediations.  Rituals enables people to connect them with what they think is important, bringing them together and making sure that such a connection is culturally accessible, tangible, and, above all, relevant.  They are, in fact, social mediations, and/or human objectivations.  Without rituals, what people believe, feel, and value in life would be mere abstractions and their beliefs would be almost impossible to digest, understand, communicate, and manage.  They are, in fact, tangible existential outlets or life-vehicles with many goals or objectives.  Thanks to rituals, individuals and communities can express themselves.
  1. Sensorial.  As concrete act-forms, by definition, rituals engage all our five senses and are typically dramatic and life-giving. With a “sixth-sense” as a presupposition and guiding force, rituals are performative symbols we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.  They involve the entire person in the context of multiple relationships.  It is impossible to think about the examples given in the introduction to the present post without feeling all our senses stimulated.
  1. Forms of Communication. When we think of rituals as concrete media that facilitate a mystical relationship between the divine and humans and among believers themselves, it is obvious we must take them as channels of communication, limited and with possibilities as well.  They are part of broader notion of language that believers use to understand the deity, themselves, each other, the world around them and the rest of the cosmos.  By looking at them closely, we can obtain a better idea of who the religious communities are and what they stand for.
  1. Ontological.  Being sources of authority, rituals provide individuals and communities with powerful, concrete structures that help guide their lives in an orderly, meaningful, and goal-oriented way.  They help believers realize where they came from, who they are, what they must do, and where they are headed.  Acting as identity boundaries, rituals smooth out life’s existence and transitions, allowing believers to move from what they know to what they do not know with confidence.  They provide a more hopeful, trusting, and loving journey as they go through good and bad times.  Rituals bring people together, give visibility, and reinforce their common ground. 
  1. Multifunctional.  Life-experience has taught us that rituals are usually used as tools or instruments to please the divine mystery and meet the needs of individuals and groups.  They may embody and convey praises and gratitude and elicit the same feelings in others.  Rituals may be used to request favors, strengthen people’s faith, help them deal with uncertainty, bring them together, provide comfort, and celebrate victories.  In touch with the past, rituals may also serve as reminders of important community events closely associated with its identity and history.  Contrary to these goals, at times some rituals may be used to hurt people.  Some actions or activities in religious groups that practice black-magic or witchcraft, for example, are known for services provided to victims of someone else’s bad wishes and aggressive behavior.  Subject to different interpretations, the roles rituals play are concrete, changing, and diverse, not always with ethical goals in mind.
  1. Ends in Themselves. In their most radical forms, especially among orthodox religious communities, rituals are not simple tools, symbols, or vehicles.  As act-forms, sometimes believed to have been ordered by the deity,  in many conservative traditions, rituals  have intrinsic meaning and seem to be ends in themselves.  Rituals are not mere symbols or mediations; they have the power to change reality.  For this reason, sometimes it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate the faith of believers from the religious actions themselves.  In this type of worldview, content and form are inseparable. Take, for instance, certain oracles that must be memorized and recited, or taking a bath in a designated river (for example, in the Jordan or Ganges Rivers) for the sick person to be healed.  
  1. Proper Names.  Rituals are identified by words or phrases that, in the original languages of the religions that created them, communicate specific ideas that usually get lost in translation.  Because of their technical character, many times it is better to reproduce the sounds of those words in the receiving languages, instead of translating them.  For example, the Greek term “Eucharist” (which means “thanksgiving”) in Christianity conveys the notion that eating the bread and drinking the wine allow Christians, not just to identify with Jesus’ sacrifice and have spiritual communion with him, but also to express gratitude for God’s gifts.   Muslims are required to participate in acts of physical, mental, and spiritual adoration five times a day.  These acts are called “Salaah”, a loaded term that means “communication.”  A “Limpia,” in Afro-Caribbean and indigenous religions, refers to an act of powerful cleansing whereby negative energy, evil and/or unwanted burdens are cast out to generate peace, harmony, and balance.
  1. Patterned Usage. With respect to the implementation of certain rituals, one may find room for flexibility, freedom, and individuality.  For example, in Santería, an Afro-Cuban-pantheistic form of spirituality, the Santeros are allowed to create their own rituals to help the people who seek their spiritual services.  However,  in other religions many times one will find clear, guiding expectations regarding how rituals must be performed or implemented.  A set of guidelines or procedures is at their disposal.  As mechanisms of social control for the benefit of worshippers and to create order, there are rules to be followed in order to facilitate connections with the Unknown Mystery.  Life-Cycle, Life-Crisis and Periodical Rituals, as we will explain later, have norms they follow. 
  1. Worship Setting.  Rituals are normally used in ceremonies and important occasions of communal and religious significance.  Many of them happen periodically in contexts of adoration or worship.  Only then we will find a series of actions filled with sacred significance and symbolism.  They normally take place in places like temples, altars, synagogues, mosques and churches or by designated trees, rivers, or hills. 
  1. Contextual.  Rituals are context-bound and, from that point of view, they should be understood as historical artifacts that tells us something about the matrixes, time periods or cultures where they originated.  They do not come directly from heaven.  Not only did they rise in response to concrete historical circumstances of which they are reflections, but they are normally re-interpreted through the prism of new historical challenges and possibilities.  They are not abstractions created and used in a vacuum.  As human inventions with unique features, rituals maintain some continuity with the past in conversation with the present.  Although at times they disappear with the extinction of the religions that served as their matrix leaving for us almost no information (as in the case of Canaanite religions), rituals that continue to exist and develop put believers in touch with their own selves, heritage, and history.
  1. Significant Referents.  As context-bound entities, rituals are associated with important stories, events, people, places, times, and circumstances in life (good or bad).  Although rituals are created and used for ordinary life events as well, only the ones that are out of the ordinary or very special occasions are worthy of scrutiny.   As expected, many of them have great myths as their originating background, which believers tend to reenact ceremonially.  Take, for instance, the legendary belief that Adam and Eve lived in Mecca, and Abraham and Isaac made the first altar in that holy city, which gives legitimacy to religious pilgrimages to that place and to participate in other symbolic ceremonies.  The practice of circumcision among Orthodox Jews emulates Abraham’s circumcision in his old age to make sure that boys are made part of God’s covenantal community like he was.
  1. Polysemic.   As cultural media of communication, rituals are versatile, complex, and multi-faceted.  Regardless of the original intent of their creators and users, they can and should be interpreted differently and to meet different needs.  Meaning is socially constructed and is subject to many influencing factors.  Because they are human creations interpreted by human beings, rituals have no fixed or definitive meaning and implications.  There might even be a historical core, but this core is reinterpreted as time goes by.  The ritual of baptism, despite its original meaning, has been interpreted differently by Christians throughout history.
  1. Artistic Aura. Rituals have an artistic or aesthetic aspect to them, which must not be easily overlooked.  In fact, they may be taken as imaginative, dramatic, and performative symbols that take place for an audience in the stage of life.  It takes talent, experience, and skills to design and implement their use in a way that grabs the believers’ attention to facilitate a relationship with the sacred mystery.  And since no religion exhausts all life-circumstances, it is obvious that more rituals will appear thanks to the vocation and gifts that some individuals have.
  1. Unperceived Benefits.  Whether we agree with the use of ritual or not, there is no doubt that rituals provide participants with a series of social, spiritual, and psychological benefits hard to discern or fully understand by a scientific, agnostic, or atheistic mindset. Through the perspective of members of the worshiping communities, rituals have different, positive functions that must be acknowledged.  If this were not the case, why it that rituals are still used?  There is something very powerful about them, which is difficult to account for in words. 
  1. Morally Paradoxical.  Despite all the positive traits they have, rituals sometimes fail to achieve what they seek to achieve, for they are perceived differently by different people and could well be part of the sending of mixed signals.  Some times they fail to facilitate a connection with the deity; participants may also go through the motions without grasping the depths of the ritualistic activities or be critical of them.  In their extreme forms and situations when human beliefs and values are not backed up by their actions, rituals could well be expressions and reinforcing media of alienation.   If not used properly, they can easily turn our attention away from important earthly challenges (for example, issues pertaining to peace, justice, equality, diversity, inclusion, etc.) affairs that could make our faith irrelevant.  When religion focuses on just ritualistic, external behaviors, ceremonies and symbols and does little or nothing to participate in efforts to create a better world, rituals become part of the problem to be prophetically denounced.

Types of Rituals

Based on detailed analyses that focus on differences as well as similarities that rituals have in many cultures, scholars of religions have been able to identify at least three kinds of rituals.  To close our present reflection, let us briefly describe them.

  1. Life-Cycle Rituals.  These kinds of rituals are symbolic forms that deal with key, natural stages that, as intrinsic parts of their life-journeys, individuals, groups, and cultures experience.  As markers of positive life-experiences, and contrary to what life-crisis rituals represent, life-cycle rituals are connected to important thresholds which people typically go through, and which constitute milestones.  With this background in mind, there are rituals specifically designated for births, the coming of age, graduations, initiations, and marriage, just to name a few examples.  Many of the events associated with these types of rituals are marked by ceremonies that contain rites of passage, a symbolic movement from an older status to a newer one with the roles, expectations and/or responsibilities connected to each status.  In this kind of ritual there is usually a preparation phase, an in-between or transition phase (which some people called “liminality”), and the actual final phase incorporation into the new condition.
  1. Life-Crisis Rituals.  But as we all know, life is not a garden of roses.  Oftentimes our faith and character are put to the test to show what we are made of, because of our own poor choices or because of situations that are no fault of our own.  To help individuals get through tough times or move to the next phases of their journeys, religious communities have created life-crisis rituals in response to accidents, illnesses, droughts, death, war, and other trying situations in life.  What is their ultimate objective?  To restore harmony or balance in that person’s life, and his or her relationship with the divine and their neighbors.  When someone is sick, for example, the following actions might be helpful: acts of divination, oracles, mantras, prayers and fasting, mentioning the names of the sick, anointing with oil, sacred dances, ceremonial ablutions, and the reading of the last rights.
  1. Periodical Rituals.  Very much rooted in history and closely linked to significant events taken place in the ever-changing lives of individuals, groups, religions, and nations, these types of rituals are used to celebrate special seasons and dates in the religious calendars of communities.   The occasions and the events periodical rituals commemorate are many and vary from culture to culture; many times they are associated with central religious myths.  Although the time factor binds them with Life-Cycle rituals, they differ in that they are not intrinsic to all people’s normal or fixed stages of life.  Take, for example, the timely rituals that take place during the liturgical seasons of the Christian calendar and the month of Ramadan.  The activities and actions of Labor Day and Memorial Day fall under this category as well.

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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