Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Ritual and Relationship

Our way of seeking to manipulate cause and effect has remained unchanged for as long as recorded history. We seek to bring about a desired result by first conducting an action or a series of actions. When physicists collide two atoms at predetermined velocities, they expect to see certain predicted forms of subatomic particles. When a ritual dance is performed, the devout expect to see certain predicted forms of divine intercession. At the end of a pre-launch countdown, aerospace engineers expect a rocket to launch successfully.

The performance of predetermined actions in sequence with the expectation of bringing about a desired result is called a “ritual.” In our civilization, we tend to view ritual as something that is performed only by primitive, superstitious, or religious people. Yet look closely and neutrally at a pre-launch countdown; you will see one of the most highly-ritualized activities in our civilization. It has the same subtlety, complexity, and precision of a Japanese tea ritual or a rain dance. In my last dispatch I talked about institutions. Institutions maintain their structure and activities over time, and perpetuate themselves, through rituals; they invoke the same actions in the expectation that the same results will occur over and over again. Look at the graduation ceremonies of the oldest European universities, as an example, or the bureaucracy you need to wade through to get your driver’s license.

Ritual has a powerful comforting effect on us. It suggests security and stability through constancy over time. It says, “OK, we’ve done our part, now its up to you.” It’s natural that science would follow this same pattern. Scientists expect that if they initiate the proper causes, nature will cooperate and the desired (or predicted) effect will result.

However, this means that a scientific experiment, which is built using the powerful (and relatively new) tools of logic and rationality, is subject to the same inherent limitations as a much-older religious ritual that has been built using a certain myth-tool. Our civilization believes that a scientific experiment is more likely to succeed in bringing about a desired result than an animal sacrifice, because the tools used to build the former have, over time, turned out to be more dependable and reliable than those used for the latter. But is the combination of logic and rationality with the ancient practice of ritual the most effective way to achieve an understanding of the way things work? By way of a crude analogy, would it be equivalent to limiting the size of a skyscraper based not on the limits of metallurgical and mathematical knowledge, but on whether it could be set up by an old-fashioned barn raising?

Can logic and rationality be used to understand how things work without recourse to ritual? Absolutely. By abandoning the preconceived notions and expectations that come from the practice of ritual, you create new, fresh relationships with an examined object each time you approach it. You can still use logic and rationality as tools to interpret what you are experiencing, but you can likewise use storytelling, myth-making, poetry, song, and any of the other beautiful and profound ways we also have to express what we experience. It is as if you are “listening” to what something has to say rather than “telling” it what you want or expect it to do. Ritual assigns places and roles for every participant; relationship, on the other hand, is a dynamic activity that is expressed in terms of the mutual effects on the participants, the “observer” and the “observed” in traditional scientific terms.

Breaking away from dependency on ritual is one way of freeing our minds from the idea that logic and rationality are the only really good explanatory tools, and that other tools — myths, stories, faith, for example — are of somehow “lesser” importance and can be lumped into categories like “art” or “superstition.” The trick is for each person to find the appropriate tools for interpreting relationships in meaningful ways. Not only that, we need to adapt and even change the interpretive tools we use as the relationship changes over time (something that ritual does not permit us to do), and sometimes that may require us to sing about the experience.

Ritual by its nature identifies nonconformity as a threat, but in turn comforts us in the knowledge that we always will have a script or assigned role to perform. Relationship demands of us constant imagination, intuition, and improvisation. How else can we really honor that with which we are in relationship, except by “being here now?”



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