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In his recent blog posting Tim Fitzgerald has offered some highly informed and trenchant observations on my attempt to urge caution upon those who might be perceived by a wider public as engaged in the deconstruction of the term ‘religion’ in ways that verge upon the wholesale destruction of entire dimensions of human experience. I am absorbing and digesting Tim’s comments.

In this posting I would, however, like to focus upon ‘ritual’ as a concept that has recently re-emerged as a key topos in many contexts, one notable example of which is the massive German 9.2m Euro ‘Ritual Dynamics’ project at the University of Heidelberg. I wish to focus upon this concept because I experience an affinity between the highly ambitious claims made for ‘ritual’ by the influential anthropologist Roy Rappaport in his ground-breaking book Ritual, Religion and the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and my own experience in the course of a decade of intense fieldwork.

My conscious journey into transformational ritual began in 1999 at a ‘Council of All Beings’ led the rain-forest activist John Seed in the north of Scotland. This consisted in a ritualised three day process involving exceptionally deep, indeed primordial regression that then culminated in the first explicit ‘open-ended’ ritual I had ever taken part in. By ‘open ended’ I mean the enactment of the classic ritual structure of preparation, departure to the limen, return and re-aggregation in which the outcome was not predetermined in the same way that the many Eucharists and Lord’s Suppers I have attended as a Christian are focused upon and structured around the symbolic re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ with a view to the successful programming of the believer.

In the course of the Council of All Beings event I underwent acute disintegration – and then freaked out. In more formal terms I would regard this in Roy Rappaport’s language as an ‘operational’ abreactive rebirth experience that in cognitive terms was experienced and articulated as confrontation by and surrender to the Divine Feminine manifested as Gaia.

The upshot of this experience was the disturbing discovery that I had undergone an inner reversal, a kind of field switch, as though the polarity of my entire being and its energy flows had been reversed. For many years I had climbed the slippery pole of academia as dialectical Barthian theologian holding together by sheer energy and workaholic intensity contradictory tensions between the theological traditions and the versions of modernity I had learned and then taught. I lived in an ocean filled with books, cruising through the world of learning like a wandering basking shark that consumed almost everything of any interest it encountered, both the books – and sometimes people as well. However, I was also, like Calvin – and Carl Gustav Jung’s father – a repressed and driven Freudian, with a hungry and aggressive ego beating down and subordinating libido, and sublimating Eros into the super-ego of what Karl Barth helpfully, if fatefully, calls ‘God the Commander’ (Church Dogmatics, III/4).

With a Protestant identity shattered there was much to learn about ‘getting a life’; this involved growing and expanding the part that had undergone an energy inversion – all the rest has had to be melted down piece by piece through regression and surrender. As reported in a first posting on the Critical Religion web-site, I set out to do this through participant fieldwork in (e.g.) psycho-drama, Celtic spirituality, death-awareness training, trans-organisational shamanism, (neo-)shamanism, fire-walking, dry and wet rebirthing, the initiation practices of the men’s movement, Neo-Tantra, and so on. All such practices present challenges if observation is, as it were, for real and not intellectualised voyeurism – or an entomology directed at human insects. I am fully aware that this does not fit into the strict separation of the emic and etic.

After leaving an archaic role like that of Professor of Divinity at Scotland’s ‘first university’ and taking up a ‘modern’ chair in Religious Studies at Lancaster, I ceased teaching theology completely and developed the research base for a large book on Religion and Social Theory, the material of which I taught at Lancaster, and then recently here in Stirling. A complex conundrum then gradually emerged, part of which became the question I set myself to address at the recent BASR meeting in Durham. As reported in a posting following the BSA Sociology of Religion Group conference in Birmingham at Easter this year, it was apparent that whilst advocates of secularisation and globalisation theory had been engaged in a struggle for subdisciplinary hegemony in the study of religion, it would appear that the proponents of secularisation theory and its variants had won hands down, and the traditionalised life of the sub-discipline had been restored to its normality.

Given this broad context there is a pragmatic question as to how, and to what extent a concept of ritual might be used as an integrative paradigm, a middle rank theory capable of providing a framework for the comprehensive decipherment of the resurgent and highly complex contemporary religio-spiritual field to which Tim Fitzgerald rightly draws attention. This organisation and classification would it seems to me be possible on the basis of developing and then applying the model of ritual that evolves from Arnold Van Gennep through the work of Victor and Edith Turner, and the performance theorist Richard Schechner in, for example, his remarkable essay, ‘The Future of Ritual’ (1993). The basic pattern of preparation, departure, touching the limen, return and re-aggregation can serve as a template in relation to which a myriad processes ranging from small-scale spiritual workshop bricolage to global events such as the ever more elaborate quasi-rituals that attend the openings of the modern Olympic Games or the regular Parliament of the World Religions might be categorised.

There is beyond this pragmatic perspective a far more difficult theoretical question, and this concerns the reception of the claims of a renewed ritual paradigm advanced in magisterial terms by Rappaport in Ritual, Religion and the Making of Humanity. This is a text that divides opinion between definite enthusiasts and those who regard it as an obscure, even obscurantist book. Why should there be this difficulty?

Rappaport’s work is in my view grounded in a hermeneutical circle created on the basis of affinities between the role of relatively unambiguous ritual processes studied in, for example, such classics as his ground-breaking study of the Tsembaga Maring people in Papua New Guinea, Pigs for the Ancestors (1968/1984), and then theorised in the later Ecology, Meaning and Religion (1979), and the essentially modern and self-consciously grand theory of his posthumous masterpiece to which a global readership ought to relate. My contention is that the latter connection fails: most people in modernity have little or no conscious experience analogous to the primordial rituals of initiation, exchange, adaptation and transformation that form one pole within the ellipse underpinning Rappaport’s hermeneutic.

The terminal problem that has confronted me when attempting to write the kind of book I conceived in the outline of Religion and Social Theory: A Critical Introduction is this: on what assumptions or transcendental basis ought such a work be constructed?  Should an attempt to map the recomposition of the religio-spiritual field between the putative universality of globalisation processes and the infinite variety of the anthropology specific locales and of the body and consciousness assume the marginality of residual ‘religion’, or inspired by Rappaport, be worked out on the basis that ‘ritual is the basic social act’? But would the latter strategy be possible in the actual absence of the experience of the constitutive power of such ritual on the part of the vast majority of a projected readership? How could such a textbook be regarded as more than a dialectical fantasy informed by the tormented experiential trajectory of one individual?

Unwilling, indeed incapable of expending energy on what would be futile efforts to convince those without the first hand experience of the ritual process that there was plausibility informing Rappaport’s complex theoretical contentions, I now take my leave. For the moment the conundrum defeats me, and so I withdraw from the field until such time as a viable solution occurs to me.

I believe that there is a parallel between the phenomena which departments of Religious Studies purport to study and explain and the theories used in such explanation, and a parallel relationship between music and musicology. I now take my own hint – and leave to work at the music in the hope that the theory will eventually interpret that which has given me renewed life on the margins of a societal reality now in bondage to the market, subjected to omniscient surveillance, and dedicated to the manufacture of humankind in an inflated higher education industry.