Ritual, Remembrance, and Communities of Memory

This week Jews celebrate Passover and Christians will celebrate Easter. In both cases the celebration will be anchored in the memory of an event upon which each community grounds its identity — the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Christ.  And in both cases again, the celebration is not only anchored in the memory, it sustains the memory of the event in the present and for the future while also grounding the community’s identity in the founding memory.

The commemorative function of religious celebrations and rituals plays a critical role in Paul Connerton’s analysis in How Societies Remember.  Connerton’s thesis is simple and elegant:  whatever societies care to remember most, they entrust to embodied ritual and practice.  There are a variety of reasons for this which Connerton explores, but for brevity’s sake I’ll mention only one.  Remembrances carried by and enacted in the body  are more durable and less contingent than verbally articulated forms of remembrance precisely because they are less subject to verbal manipulation and critique.

Connerton begins by defining ritual as “rule-governed activity of a symbolic character which draws the attention of its participants to objects of thought and feeling which they hold to be of special significance.” He then elaborates this definition of ritual by proposing three things that rites or rituals are not.

  1. “Rites are not merely expressive … They are formalized acts and tend to be stylized, stereotyped and repetitive … They do discharge expressive feelings; but this is not their central point.”
  2. “Rites are not merely formal.  We commonly express our sense of their formalism by speaking of such acts as ‘merely’ ritual or as ’empty’ forms … But this is misleading. For rites are felt by those who observe them to be obligatory … and the interference with acts that are endowed with ritual value is always felt to be an intolerable injury inflicted by one person or group upon another … To make patriots insult their flag or to force pagans to receive baptism is to violate them.”
  3. Rites are not limited in their effect to the ritual occasion … [W]hatever is demonstrated in rites permeates also non-ritual behavior and mentality … Rites have the capacity to give value and meaning to the life of those who perform them.”

Each of these three elaborations by Connerton pose something of a challenge to conventional understandings of ritual and rites.  Contemporary culture, and large segments of the Christian community will take issue with the lack of expressivity and fail to recognize the formative power of ritual.  Connerton, however, is judicious in his formulations.  Rituals can be expressive, that is simply not their chief end which is, rather, remembrance.  Those who question the power of ritual should ask themselves if they would willing partake in the rituals of another religion not their own or salute the flag of a foreign country.  And finally, Connerton claims that rituals have the capacity to reorient the worshiper’s life, not that they will necessarily accomplish this.

Moving from what rituals are not to what they are, Connerton writes, “All rites are repetitive, and repetition automatically implies continuity with the past.”  In other words, by repeating you are automatically bringing into the present something that was done in the past.  But many rites not only imply continuity with the past, but explicitly claim such continuity and they “do so by ritually re-enacting a narrative of events held to have taken place at some past time … Nowhere is this explicit claim to be commemorating an earlier set of founding events in the form of a rite more abundantly expressed then in the great world religions …”

So for example Judaism:  “The core of Jewish identity is established by reference to a sequence of historical events.”  The social and cultic life of Israel is more or less geared toward remembrance.  And, according to Connerton,

“Nowhere is this theology of memory more pronounced than in Deuteronomy.  For the Deuteronomist the test of showing that the new generation of Israel remains linked to the tradition of Moses, that present Israel has not been severed from its redemptive history, is to be met by a form of life in which to remember is to make the past actual, to form a solidarity with the fathers.”

Christianity also “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to  its unique historical origin.”  Amid his discussion of the Christian liturgical calendar, Connerton fastens on the historical character of the Christian faith and the subsequent burden of remembering those events that is borne by Christian worship:

“The period of time evoked by the Gospels and recalled in the liturgy is not, as in archaic religions, a mythical time, and the events annually recapitulated in the sacred calendar are not to be thought of as events that occurred ‘in the beginning’, ‘in illo tempore‘.  The events took place in a datable history and at a clearly defined historical period, the period in which Pontius Pilate was a governor in Judea.  Those events and that period are commemorated annually in the Good Friday and Easter festivals.”

In support of Connerton’s thesis it should also be noted that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which historically has been the linchpin of Christian worship, is fundamentally an act of remembrance and re-enactment.  And while words are pronounced, and this is not insignificant, it is principally something that is done and not said.  What is more it is a robustly sensual act that incorporates vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, all in the service of engraving a memory on our bodies that it may then go with us and permeate our lives and shape our identity.

2 thoughts on “Ritual, Remembrance, and Communities of Memory

  1. “What is more it is a robustly sensual act that incorporates vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, all in the service of engraving a memory on our bodies that it may then go with us and permeate our lives and shape our identity.”

    Well said.

    But the memory ritual engraves is of the present of the ritual, the present of interpreted history, not the past of undifferentiated, non-teleological past events. That is, sincere participation in ritual is allowing oneself to be claimed by an identity and community.

    Resistance to any such claiming is I think part of the contemporary resistance to/fascination with ritual/anti-ritual.

    1. “Sincere participation in ritual is allowing oneself to be claimed by an identity and community.” Definitely, well put.

      Currently reading Carrie Noland’s Agency and Embodiment which offers an interesting reading of how embodiment constructs identity. She suggests the embodied nature of our habitus generates the possibility of agency. Interesting stuff, will likely post some more about it in coming weeks.

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