Why Ritual is Relevant

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

If the crisis of Western Culture could be reduced to a bumper sticker, it might be this one: “Nietzsche Was Right.”

In 1882, Nietzsche put some stunning words in the mouth of a character: God is dead, we have killed him, and the implications are staggering. Let me quote from the passage:

“Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”

The prophetic madman then realizes he has come too early: that the understanding of what’s happening has not dawned on mankind. But it will. It will.

A crisis was coming to the Western psyche, and Nietzsche was its most famous prophet. But he wasn’t the only one. Carl Jung saw it coming as well: in his masterpiece “Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Philip Rieff describes the entire Jungian project as pre-emptive effort to head off a collective crisis of the spirit by giving the Western world a new kind of religion, one based on inner symbols that we could all put in the center of our psychological lives. To the extent that it is true it remains an ongoing project: it hasn’t saved us yet.

The awareness that yes, in fact, we are in crisis began to hit us after the destruction of two world wars and the creation of a whole new kind of identity, one no longer based … as all identity had been in the past … on fixed points in an eternal firmament. A global economy in the world of Freud and Einstein meant everything was relative: your race, your ethnicity, your profession, your religion, even the ground you stand on. Once these had been skin that was impossible to shed, but now they were clothes someone could take on and off, in a universe where not even matter and time were constant.

We no longer anchored ourselves to enduring truths, whether universal or personal. Instead, we had become what Rieff called “psychological man,” whose only organizing principle was the pursuit of happiness.

Sounds good, right? So why was this a crisis?

Because it turns out that human beings are not suited for a universe without a center. Much in the way that new studies have shown that giving people too much choice tends to make them unhappy, giving human beings an infinite number of ways to pursue our own happiness — a thing we don’t even really understand — is terrifying and troubling. This is the essence of what Sartre meant when he wrote that “man is condemned to be free.”

Given the freedom and power to do nothing but pursue our own satisfaction, we entered what W. H. Auden and Rollo May called “The Age of Anxiety.” Our limitless freedom makes us deathly afraid — and more afraid of death. We are desperately looking for guidance on what to do and who to be. Especially because — and we’ve all noticed this — when we pursue nothing but happiness, we tend to go off the rails. Pursuit of happiness without a corresponding sublimation to responsibility turns us into monsters (tragic or comic).

But where do we turn for guidance? God is dead. The universe is relative.

“I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problem of the individual’s search for myths,” May wrote in 1991. “The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place.”

This is what made Nietzsche truly prophetic: he didn’t just say “God is dead.” He said that to be worthy of this death, we ourselves would have to become Gods. We have to step up to the plate, and re-create the center of the universe—both personally (for each and every individual one of us) and societally.

I know. Right?

Seeking a Low-Carb Religion Substitute

Generally speaking, we’ve not only refused to step up to the challenge, we’ve pretended the challenge has an easy work-around.

It’s no accident that a major revival in fundamentalist religion occurred alongside the mass realization that the modern world would not — could not — offer us a fixed point by which to measure our lives. Many people are trying to not just to believe in God (which is reasonable on its own terms) but insist that He take the responsibility of living authentically off our shoulders again. “Do what the scripture says and don’t worry about the rest” isn’t just believing in God, it’s trying to disbelieve in modernity.

Others are trying to go back without using the term “God,” but by anointing another deity. As Rieff and Jacques Barzun have both noted, “art” has come to replace “religion” in form and function among many secular societies. As James Davison Hunter wrote in an introduction to Rieff’s thought: “In the material culture, art once addressed to sacred order is liberated from theological reference and now addresses only itself. Accordingly, in the structure of social authority, the artist replaces the prophet, the therapist replaces the priest, and so it goes.”

We also have technology as a prophetic cult. Computers, we’re told, will become so advanced — so smart — that they’ll be able to tell us what to do and who to be, and even if we don’t understand it, it will all work out because they’ll have so far evolved beyond us. No need to take responsibility for your own destiny anymore! And if that doesn’t work, Big Data will give us all the answers we need and we’ll never have to make a human choice again because given sufficient data all our questions will be answered and our existential responsibilities be lifted.

Sound familiar?

Do I actually need to say — to spell out — that all these attempts to avoid the problem of personal agency by re-creating the God of our fathers in the form of art and data will fail? You cannot go back to a system where something tells us what to do and we obey “just because it’s so much more advanced that it must be right.”

There is no way to avoid the challenge Nietzsche prophesied. We have to grow into worthy moral centers in our own right. We have to deal with our freedom and our limits head on and sublimate ourselves to meanings of our own choosing. Even harder: It can’t be something we put on and take off like a costume when it suits us. Otherwise it will be a fashion accessory, not a meaningful way of life.

That’s incredibly difficult. And, looking around at our culture, it’s easy to see that we’re not ready yet.

To live in such a world we must build societies that help people find ways to move forward, through the abyss and to a better kind of sublimation and a meaningful life that does not depend on the universe having a center.

And it seems very likely, at this point, that any such successful process will not begin with intellectualism — with a blueprint or a theory. It will begin, instead, with a community, and with the rituals that sustain community.

Unity Unbound by Belief

A common cause, a common activity, a common ritual — a thing we do — may be a more effective bond for community than a thing we think or believe. Indeed, if we want to preserve our individual consciences, our freedom to question, to search, to invent — if we refuse to accept a required orthodoxy handed down to us from on high — then beliefs cannot be the glue that holds our society together. Only a common activity, rooted in common struggle, could do that. Even if God is dead — especially if God is dead — we may still need sacraments. Not fixed points in an eternal firmament, but moments of immanent and transcendence that as Larry Harvey suggested, give us experiences of spirit and soul — subjective realities however you define them.

The time may have come to define our communities not by what we believe but by what we do — activities that anyone can engage in, and define for themselves, so long as they lend their hands and their talents to the effort.

Can any ritual achieve this? Or only a “radical ritual?” What distinguishes the two? How do we build them? How do communities take them and give them life? What convinces individuals to take them on voluntarily — for it must be voluntarily — and respond to them both personally and in community in a way that creates lasting personal health and communal connections?

This year, both in this series of articles and in the creative endeavors of 70,000 Burners, we hope to find out.

Photo of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony taken by a U.S. Army photographer. 

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

15 Comments on “Why Ritual is Relevant

  • Floating Duck says:

    Interesting read. I wonder if this crisis of center is part of the force behind the continuing growth of witchcraft, especially considering the focus on orthopraxy (at least in regards to ritual) over any particular dogma or beliefs.

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  • Lisa Porter says:

    Maybe..Radical Ritual: what we commit to doing together with a conscious awareness of the communal act and where the transformation of the community is of greater signifigance than that of the individual? Sounds like the essence of theatre to me.

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  • Ty says:

    Nicely done Caveat. As a Sculptor I easily identify with the ritual of “action related to a group” as a centering, satisfying reason to exist. Throw in exploration, beauty, grace, style, color, and hope……….I’m happy. Really, really happy. Satisfaction appears to be a rare commodity in living on this planet. I am so lucky to have found this tribe.

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  • Abbak says:

    One of the things I’ve found most meaningful, and one of the reasons I’ve attended for the last 7 years, is the practical magic that has been created by the non-denominational ritualized environment of Burning Man – the rituals of entry into the city to exodus, the rituals and practices around the 10 principles (no money, gifting, etc.), the non-denominational/post-denominational sacred space of the Temple. All of these, and others, evolved out of the community of experience, not dictated by an ecclesial authority. It is a post-modern pilgrimage – and for many of us, when we find it, we discover we want it/need it even though we didn’t know it beforehand.

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  • Foobar says:

    China’s been doing alright without monotheistic religion for a few thousand years, I think the Occident will manage just fine…

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    • Sparks says:

      I wonder if the hints in the artwork for this year’s theme are indicating this point exactly. China and other Eastern, “collectivist” cultures center around “community activity” rather than a shared belief. We dont care if you’re a buddhist or atheist as long as you care for your elders, help with making dumplings, and occasionally take risks with karaoke. In this year of Brexit, Trump, continued EU struggles, the heroin epidemic, the limitations of a philosphy of Western individualism are becoming apparent. And where better to test these limits than at that thing in the desert for white people.

      Your comment helped me realize what all this Eastern-themed artwork was getting at, so thank you.

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  • Tools says:

    “Much in the way that new studies have shown that giving people too much choice tends to make them unhappy”
    This statement does not seem intuitively right to me. And it it seems to be the corilation that you use to determine that “human beings are not suited for a universe without a center”.
    I haven’t read the studies, and I’d be happy to go over them if you’ll send me the info on the ones you have reviewed.
    I, however, would argue differently. I would argue that choice isn’t what makes people unhappy, but the flood of information that may or may not help them get to what they want.
    For example, if you walked into one of the gas stations with made to order food (sheetz or wawa out here) and were presented with all the hundreds of possible combinations of food items you could order, you’d probably be frustrated with all the options on the menu much as I would. But I as you some questions about what it is you want, sweet or salty? Hot or cold? Spicy or mild? And then highlight the menu options that you might like, narrowing down to 10 items, your frustration is abated. You might argue that, I’ve narrowed your choices, but I haven’t, I’ve simply made it easier for you to find what it is you wanted.
    Bringing it to my point of view. It’s not that Human beings need a center, but it does make our ability to socialize a lot easier, and that makes us happy.

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    • Vanessa Moore says:

      I find comfort in rituals. I enjoy the communion & foot washing ritual that I participate in at church. Afterwards I feel blessed & uplifted. I feel that the only center I need is a place to start. I have difficulty​ meeting people in my community. Preconceived notions, stereotypes, & other barriers prevent my socialising. I feel Burning Man is the perfect place for me because it is all inclusive. No one is judging me for any reason (I hope). I can hardly wait to go with my best, basically only, friend. I will be my first time.

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  • Monkey Fist says:

    All your writing from the beginning to the end of the “Seeking a Low-Carb Subtitute” part just are words I didn’t found to explain my feelings about it. Thanks a lot for that ! The others thought are fuel for my never-ending thinking, as I expected from the title. Thanks for that as well !

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  • Mystry says:

    Ritual. An art wholly lost in our modern society. An ancient ritual was an act so profound and meaningful, it was celebrated and benchmarked by the entire community. A boys’ first hunted goat, which would feed his family, evoked a ritual of celebration, a tattoo or a woven blanket was a reward. A girls’ first period, celebrated for her ability to give life, a moon so bright you could plant seeds by it, giving food. Death, marriage, circumcision. These were at one time accompanied by sacred rituals of vast importance. Those scared rituals of life demarcation and notoriety are no longer part of our society. It is such a lost art to even name a ritual in our life, one that we honor over and over with humble scaredness. If it bothers you that your BM annual party could be associated with a concept so foreign, then Try very hard to imagine your life now with at least one life celebration of such deep meaning that it defines your remaining years. Then you may find ritual in the simple, the scared and sublime.

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    • Caution Girl says:

      I don’t know where you’re living, but where I am ritual is doing just fine. A lost art it is not. Death, marriage, circumcision, the first football game of the season, the clinking of glasses on New Year’s Eve: these rituals are celebrated by bazillions of modern Americans.

      And many of us are doing fine with our own rituals, too. Whether that’s Burning Man, Drowning Rat, a nameless moment with goddesses atop a hill the day after Vernal Equinox… rituals abound. Though I would like to have more community celebrating Imbolc with me, it’s OK to have it just be me myself and I, and my family doing a little Imbolc prayer & candle over supper.

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  • Timeless says:

    Liberty, with its propensity to center, it’s holier than thou appeal, with pomp and ritual at every turn, is true American ritual … religion at its finest and worst.

    Every Burner worships freedom but without Liberty BRC would have been swept from the desert ages ago. If freedom is the potion, then Liberty its vessel. A point of focus, a flame of promise and warning come to us from a golden age, the time before — pre-cataclysmic seaman for civilization, let alone communities, without which comes unjust, unbearable limits imposed on our spirit and the ‘ol Kundalini never unwinds.

    Just ask Hammurabi; the god/king even acted as judge, especially to keep Sumerian leaders from abusing Sumerian led — Liberty’s most important point of balance. Want to gather ’round something lasting Burners? Gather ’round Liberty, now especially.

    Currently I’m chronicling my own drive to inspire with art a gathering ’round the ancient cause of Liberty — America’s lost worthy religion. Wanna help? Click my name to see that work in-progress. And say something!

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    My colleague Caveat says, “The time may have come to define our communities not by what we believe but by what we do — activities that anyone can engage in, and define for themselves, so long as they lend their hands and their talents to the effort.” As an organizer, I have found that ritual actions pullulate and spread though a society whenever people simultaneously work and play together. He goes on to ask, ”Can any ritual achieve this? Or only a radical ritual? What distinguishes the two?” I would say that when people labor together to create a gift they feel is greater than themselves, while simultaneously enjoying the creative and collaborative freedom of play, all of their self-consciousness inhibitions tend to fall away. The many rituals that have spontaneously emerged at our event — that often speak so eloquently of both spirit and soul — are the result of conjoining these two forms of immediate experience.

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  • zen_gineer says:

    This is true that many are looking for the fixed point in which to orient their lives, and many are fighting over what that fixed point should be, but that’s not innately human. It’s alien, it doesn’t belong on this planet, and the planet is rejecting it like a bad cold. It’s a trait of a culture inherited from a monarchical, system of government, and system of religion. It’s a deep seeded trait given to us by a few thief’s, or fools, that managed to bully, and mold a culture into an arrow, and put themselves at the head of it. Because it seems obvious that like every other animal on this earth, humans fit more harmoniously into their environments, their world view matching that of the world around them. Of course if you can manage to create a world view in which its people believe their is only one right, and only one who is the most right, who on the outside of that idea, can possibly compete with the people completely enslaved by it?

    What we need to do if we want to save ourselves from destruction, is recognize that every creature that has mass and energy, is an agent of God. IS GOD. And we all exist at the grace of each other. Thank you God. For reading this message. *points finger at YOU*

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