Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity

By Adam B. Seligman; Robert P. Weller | Go to book overview

3
Ritual and the Rhythms
of Ambiguity

WE UNDERSTAND “RITUAL” as a series of formal, iterated acts or performances that are, in Roy Rappaport’s terms, “not entirely encoded by the performer.”1 That is, they are imbued by meanings and shaped by conventions external to the performer. We consider such ritual acts crucial to the existence of the relational self, that is to say, of a self who can accommodate ambiguity. This is the result, we will argue, of ritual’s ability to both recognize and cross boundaries, and of its rhythmic relationship to time.

Rituals create a subjunctive space, a shared “could be” that constructs individuals in relation to others. This is as true of religious ritual as it is of the rules of civility and etiquette. Ritual, in its formal, iterated, and enacted moments, presents a unique human resource for dealing with ambiguity and the multivocal nature of all relationships—with beings human and divine. Ritual defines and binds entities, times, and spaces. By creating such borders, it also links entities, times, and spaces to what lies beyond their immediate field. As we will argue in this chapter, it presents a coherent and embracing way to live in a plural and hence also deeply ambiguous universe, one where order can never really be known, but still must be acted upon.

When we say that people share a symbol system, or a set of values, or a common idea of the sacred, we in essence assert that they share the potential space of what “could be,” a subjunctive world.2 Much ritual action provides this shared sense of empathy—sometimes even in terms of a shared “what if.” When Jews congregate around the Passover Seder table and are enjoined to fulfill the commandment to feel “as if you yourselves have been liberated from Egypt,” they create that shared space where the communality of the “could be” becomes the basis of the ongoing collective experience. The Shi’ite enactment of the defeat of Imam Hussein at

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Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • List of Figures ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction 3
  • 1 - The Importance of Being Ambiguous 13
  • Interlude- Ambiguity, Order, and Deity 37
  • 2 - Notation and Its Limits 53
  • Interlude- The Israelite Red Heifer and the Edge of Power in China 79
  • 3 - Ritual and the Rhythms of Ambiguity 93
  • Interlude- Crossing the Boundary of Empathy 121
  • 4 - Shared Experience 147
  • Interlude- Experience and Multiplicity 181
  • Conclusion 199
  • Notes 207
  • References 223
  • Index 233
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