Mindless Manipulation or Symbolic Significance?: Music and Ritual

Ritual is often used as a derogatory term to describe religion. To the casual observer, it may suggest a performance of actions with no “real” meaning behind them. This was and continues to be a consistent Protestant critique against Catholicism. The latter tradition (having been around much longer) has a breadth of rituals encompassing all aspects of the liturgy (the church gathering), and the average attendee of Mass likely does not know what they all are supposed to mean. Yet he or she participates in them in some form nonetheless. This critique is made in a broader form of religion in general as mindless repetition. In a certain sense it is true that religion is ritualistic, but in that regard it is not much different than other aspects of life.

One of the consistent morals on this blog is a self-reflexivity regarding the way we interact with and participate in religion and culture. Embracing doubt and questioning the structure of our beliefs and actions help us become aware of the amount of hypocrisy and self-deception we practice in our daily lives. However, we all ritualize our own lives to a certain extent, because it makes the mundane easier, and sometimes more efficient. A simple example is your morning routine. You probably don’t get up in the morning and think, “What am I going to do first today?” You likely engage in a morning routine that deviates fairly little from day to day. Why? Because it makes the performance of those tasks existentially easier, and you can focus your mental energies elsewhere. It’s not as if eating breakfast and putting your clothes on are extremely difficult tasks, but if you have to ponder all your available options for each of these tasks everyday, you will lose time and become more frustrated than if you follow a fairly regular ritual performance each day.

“Yes,” you might say, “but my morning rituals aren’t supposed to have any deep meaning behind them. They just help me get things done.” With religious ritual on the other hand, actions are often imbued with a sense of divine significance, and when performed thoughtlessly, there is only a symbolic shell. Yet this is often noted of our daily routine as well. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes that we should create “sacred spaces in our hearts” in order to give meaning to what otherwise are mechanical actions. A host of different actions can be sacralized through concentrating on them, thinking about doing them while we are doing them and doing them in a specific. regular way. Action, in other words, can help create intention as well.

The accusation that ritual is meaningless action, then, is usually made by someone who is familiar neither with the symbolic action itself nor the meaning behind it and presumes an essential connection between the action and its purported meaning. It seems to make no sense that one would dance in a particular pattern in a ceremony in order to propitiate the divine. Why that way? Why not another way? We could usually ask the same of our own routines as well. Why always the right shoe on before the left? The reason is that both the rituals performed and the apparent meanings behind them are not fixed. They are excessive in meaning, because actions can symbolize different meanings, and meanings can be symbolized by different actions. In other words, the notion that ritual is mindless is an accusation with a long-standing history and  substitutes for a lack of understanding. However, it is true that our rituals can “lose” meaning, because the connection between symbol and ritual must be perpetuated to maintain it.

What is interesting about music as a ritual is that, in a religious setting, it can be used as a symbol pointing toward a divine truth, but it is also often an end in itself. Listening to and participating in music can be a pleasurable experience, one practiced for its own sake. Because the dividing line between these two possibilities, means and end, is not visible or fixed, there is slippage between the two, and this slippage can be used to reaffirm both of them.

Thus, if I particularly enjoy a certain song sung in a religious context, if I have an emotional reaction to it, I am likely (and encouraged) to attribute that to some sort of interaction with the divine. It grows in power as a symbol, and the lines between self, signifier (symbol), and signified get blurred. I deemphasize the particularities of my context that contribute to such a reaction in favor of a divine communication. This narrowing of focus in turn excludes other possibilities and I might begin to think of a particular song of or group of rituals as a privileged means of divine communication. The warming sensation I might feel, accompanied by feelings of compassion, is attributed to a form of divine communication facilitated through song. This is indeed an affirmation of meaning, but it is also in meaninglessness, because it is demeaning to all other meanings; in other words, it limits the excess of meaning within the symbol. “No,” you might say, “it is not because the song is well-crafted or that I just like the instrumentation. I like this music because the divine communicates through it.” Yet there are obviously many other factors that contribute to that singular conclusion.

When used as part of ritual activity, music, as a multivalent form of communication, can serve as a powerful creation of and affirmation of belief. Yet it is not exhausted in a singular meaning and depends for its religious success on the attribution of its power to a commonly agreed-upon source. I’ll talk more specifically about the uses of music in my religious background in the future. For now, any thoughts? What’s the relationship between music and ritual?

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