Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pange lingua


A month or two ago, I was describing here how my daughter can't grasp why I "cling to religion," specifically the Catholicism of my youth. I tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to let her understand that I don't cling, that I have put the theology firmly behind me, that I am as robust a practicing agnostic as she is herself.

But, yes, an aura of Catholicism clings to me, like a scent of incense or a smudge of chrism. And, frankly, I'm perfectly comfortable to have it there. Smoke and oil: why not? A sprinkle of water: asperges me.

The rituals of my youth had a purpose, not necessarily the conscious purpose of the celebrant and participants. The Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse calls rituals "the glue that holds social groups together." In my case, they were the glue that made me part of a universal church, ancient and hoary with certitude, the true religion.

Whitehouse describes two kinds of rituals: 1) "Doctrinal" rituals that bind together large groups that need not meet face-to-face; these rituals are easily taught to children, and can be as various as religious rites, Saint Patrick's Day parades, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag; and 2) "imagistic" rituals, often secret and traumatic, that forge tight, small, mutually-dependent communities, such as cults, military platoons, fraternities, sports teams, or terrorist cells.

If I can play with Whitehouse's "glue" metaphor: doctrinal rituals are paste, and imagistic rituals are epoxy.

The rituals I was brought up with were clearly of the former sort. They pasted me into a global, indeed eternal, collage. The paste was not adhesive enough to keep me attached to the doctrine, but the rituals themselves adhere. Show me an ex-Catholic anywhere on Earth of a certain age who can listen to the Tantum ergo, say, and not feel the tug of ritualization.


(Article on Whitehouse and colleagues in the 24 January Nature.)