Liminality: Ritual in religion, circus and sport

OK, this opener won’t be so much theological as anthropological. Let’s talk about the power of ritual for a second.

There’s a presumption in modern society that equates religious faith with a set of credal beliefs, a set of things I agree to claim to be true in order to affiliate with a religion, like a membership contract. If you ascribe to the notion that we are all rational actors who, if we are enlightened enough, examine evidence of fact or assess the priorities of our desires and make a selection that best fits our wants and needs, this makes sense. Free market economics carries this same mindset to the world of economy – if given enough information, we will make the appropriate trade offs of features, costs and benefits and select the optimal choice that our reason can discern.

This sort of thinking does happen. My dad, after serving in the Marines in World War II, wanted to discern what to do with his life, so he sat down with a pencil and paper and listed the things he liked to do and was good at, the things he wanted out of life, and the occupations that could meet those needs and values, and concluded that his best choice was dentistry. And it worked: he finally retired in his mid-80s from a long and successful career in the field.

But that doesn’t happen as much as rationalists would think. We have a deep-seated, pre-rational tribal and emotional nature that frequently puts a thumb on whatever rational scale we claim to be using, if it doesn’t flip the scale away completely. And if you can’t see that at work in our own life, well, think about your neighbors and relatives then. Or read Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind.

Across cultures and over history, rituals have served as the attractor and glue for connecting us through communities or tribes. Since at least the late 19th century and especially since the beginning of the 20th century, social scientists have studied the power of ritual to take people beyond themselves. There are some basic elements that are consistent across rituals – sensory cues that include coordinated special dress, unique scents, sounds, lights, music, call-and-response chants/shouts/songs, unique places, etc. The goal of ritual is an ecstatic loss of self into the collective, a melting away of the individual into a larger whole, and an experience of a transcendent reality that is often associated with an encounter with the sacred. Many rituals (especially initiation or rite of passage rituals) begin with rites marking a death to self and end with an initiation into a new way of being. While self-proclaimed non-believer Haidt’s TED Talk uses a term, self-transcendence, that I’m reserving for another use, his examination is otherwise very useful, and includes an interesting discussion of whether the experience of this liminality – this crossing of the threshold from the mundane to the sacred – is a feature of a bug of human evolution.

But here’s a critical piece that Haidt only touches on. Ritual has power in lots of settings other than the religious. He mentions war as an example of that liminal loss of self in the collective, but it’s used effectively by dictatorships and political causes of all sorts to bind people emotionally to the tribe, party, cause, country. And the elements of ritual also appear in not only political secular arenas but in truly mundane ones: sport and theater.

When I was in graduate school studying all this stuff all those years ago, my in-laws took me to an Ohio State football game, and I had a (non-religious) revelation: college football was a far better example of ritual than anything I found in my local parish. Special costumes and dress. Unique settings. Call and response and songs. Specific, scripted action and music. And the loss of the individual in the collective waving, chanting sea of scarlet-clad fans. In football, it’s the chants and songs and team colors of the school. I spent a weekend in Miami once in which one day, I teared up to the crowd at Dolphin Stadium uniting before a Brazil-Honduras soccer friendly by singing the (American) national anthem together before rolling into the obligatory Seven Nation Army chant. The next night a powerful (indoor) pyrotechnics display led the Miami Heat NBA team onto the court (again with the Seven Nation Army serenade). The next day, NASCAR at Homestead somehow lacked the Seven Nation Army chorus, but had plenty of its own rituals. All around, people lost themselves in the collective and a faux liminality. While it bonded participants to their nation, their team, their driver, to each other, sports ultimately has no reference to ultimate meaning. Sorry to burst that bubble.

But that same sense of ritual, of being transported into another reality beyond the mundane by unique sights, sounds, dress and setting also happens in theater. Many of us recall in childhood the power of theater, movies, or TV to transport us to some other reality, and as our senses have become more accustomed to being overwhelmed by media, shows have sought to achieve that same effect for subsequent generations with more of everything to immerse us in a different world. But we all agree that it’s a world of make-believe.

Religious believers, and, I bet, a fair number of agnostics, would say that while the rituals and experiences may be similar between mundane and sacred liminal experiences, there is an added dimension – an ineffable something extra – that marks religious ritual that brings the individual not only into an ecstatic connection with the collective but into an ecstatic encounter with the divine. Other “meaningful” rituals – the ones that bond people to communities but not to the divine – can be very powerful, but for those who believe in a divine realm, there remains a temporal quality to those earthly tribal rituals. And while even the sport/concert/theater ritual can deliver a feeling of liminal ecstasy, it fails to connect the participant to a source of ultimate meaning. It’s empty, like the calories in a sugary snack.

In an earlier day, the circus was the epitome of this sort of empty liminality – the sights and sounds overwhelming, the ringmaster as priest, the experience of the impossible. And a movie about that circus, like The Greatest Showman is, offers the opportunity to experience that liminality in a new way, even after the demise of the real circus.

Here, see if you can see anything ritualistic in the trailer.

PS – A note on faith and science. I (and many others) don’t see a conflict here. If there is science that supports a theory like Haidt’s that liminality may have evolved as some sort of group selection, that wouldn’t undermine my faith in any way. I don’t look to science to explain the fundamental questions of why we are here and what we should live for – those existential questions are beyond the scope of science and fall within the scope of faith and philosophy. We can be created through forces of evolution by a divine Maker, right?

2 responses to “Liminality: Ritual in religion, circus and sport”

  1. […] already talked about the power of ritual to lead us to a transcendent reality. Just look throughout these lyrics at how strongly that […]

  2. […] this narrative, and that makes it hard for us to speak to the power of Baptism. I already talked at length about the transformative power of ritual, in which you transcend this mundane reality to experience […]

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