Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue – Book ReviewLast modified: December 8, 2015
Marianne Moyaert and Joris Geldhof, eds. Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
review by Emma O’Donnell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Sweden
In recent years, interreligious dialogue has become well-integrated into scholarly discourse. Yet, interreligious dialogue often fails to address the ritual, experiential aspects of religion, for as a verbal discourse it has an inherent preference for the verbal, cognitive aspects of religion. The publication of Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations takes the impulse that motivates interreligious dialogue into another territory, addressing the implications of ritual participation across the boundaries of religious belonging, arguing that “ritual potentially has the power to transform the participant in the ritual, to mold her identity, not so much by altering the mind, but through rewriting the body.”[i] It offers a serious, scholarly investigation into multiple forms of ritual participation, variously known as interreligious ritual participation, inter-riting, cross-ritual participation, and multiple religious participation, or MRP. These terms refer to a wide range of forms of interreligious sharing and encounter through ritual participation, including institutionally organized multi-religious prayer services, intentional multiple religious belonging and practice, and the kinds of ritual sharing that happen when a guest visits the home of a family with a religious tradition other than his or her own. In contexts such as these, “the (r)evolution from monologue to dialogue seems to be continued in the realm of rituality.”[ii] Ritual sharing occurs in many diverse contexts, and yet is not often enough given the careful scholarly consideration it warrants. The essays collected in this volume do just this, offering a serious, theoretical exploration of the phenomenon of ritual sharing. A number of the essays contribute important work in developing theoretical frameworks for reflecting on the phenomenon of interreligious ritual sharing, while others provide first-hand accounts of ritual sharing, enriched by sound scholarly reflection on their experiences.
One of the most notable strengths of this volume is the extent to which it raises critical issues and questions regarding the potential risks and failures of interreligious ritual sharing. In a time when pluralism is the new norm, and pluralistic practice is often considered to be the most “inclusive” approach, this volume is valuable for the challenges it raises to this trend. The critical contributions in this vein begin with the first essay, “On Doing What Others Do: Intentions and Intuitions in Multiple Religious Practice,” by Mark S. Heim. Heim presents a theoretical framework for discourse on ritual sharing, exploring the three elements of intention, intuition, and intellectual accounts in the contexts of multiple religious practice. His examination of the concept of intention in determining what makes ritual sharing acceptable is particularly insightful. He notes that in some cases the intentions a person brings to a ritual can “separate the practitioner from those aspirations typically associated with the act,” and concludes that the focus on intention can also lead to a “heavily individualistic bias,” which sees multiple religious practice “almost entirely as the product of personal choice, and that sees the purpose and benefits of religion through the lens of the individual alone.”[iii] This individualistic bias is raised again by a number of other contributors, who point to the problematic aspects of individualism in interreligious ritual sharing.
The critical line is continued by Andre van der Braak, in “The Practice of Zazen as Ritual Performance,” which discusses the discrepancy between the Japanese Buddhist perspective on the meaning of zazen meditation, in which “the Buddha’s enlightenment is enacted within the practitioner,” and the Western understanding of the practice as a method for developing mental skills, supposedly unencumbered by ritual or superstition.[iv] Van der Braak argues that “there is no precise Asian Buddhist analog to the Western distinction between ritual and meditation, and that this very distinction needs to be deconstructed.”[v] Citing the work of Robert Sharf on the Western understanding of zazen mediation, van der Braak writes, “such a view of meditation makes it appear to be the very antithesis of ritual, which is often seen as precisely instilling those very same prevailing social norms and attitudes by means of outward scripted and stylized activity.”[vi]
This connects to another problematic issue within many instances of interreligious ritual sharing; namely, that when participating in the ritual of a religious tradition other than one’s own, one often brings concepts of the significance and meaning of ritual, as well as notions of the definition of ritual, that simply do not fit in the new context. In this situation, the “visiting” ritual participant then becomes guilty of imposing concepts of ritual and religion from another context into a ritual in which they might not only be out of place, but also risk misrepresentation or offense. This is often done with only the best of intentions, however, which makes the need to carefully consider and explore interreligious ritual sharing all the more pressing.
Another virtue of this volume is that it gives equal treatment to a wide range of views on the phenomenon of interreligious ritual sharing. Many of the chapters present contradictory views, and although the scholars called upon to contribute to this volume do not directly challenge other contributors, in their arguments the challenges are implicit. This is invaluable for an edited volume, for it allows the issues to be given fair treatment, approached and argued from multiple standpoints. It also keeps the reader from becoming too easily convinced that any one view may be the last word. We see this throughout the volume, and one such example can be found in two particularly persuasive essays: Walter Van Herk and Richard Kearney each contribute essays which are strong enough individually to persuade the reader, yet each argue in quite different directions.
In “Enlightened Presuppositions of (Spiritually Motivated) Cross-Ritual Participation,” Van Herck continues the discussion of the problems of individualism. He identifies an individualist approach at work in some contexts, in which “cross-ritual participation [is used] to signal one’s advancements on the road to complete spiritual detachment.” This approach can carry “an intellectualist presupposition that sees the ritual actions as nothing more than the expression of thoughts and feelings,” and in situations such as this, “ritual is distorted and reduced to an instrument of communication signaling spiritual progress.”[vii] In drawing attention to underlying individualistic and self-promoting motivations, Van Herck makes a persuasive argument for the pitfalls of ritual sharing.
A quite contrary argument is made by Kearney in “Toward an Open Eucharist,” in which he argues for an open Eucharist in the Catholic Church, welcoming non-Catholics to participation in the Eucharist. He categorizes potential levels of openness in the Eucharist into concentric circles, and the outermost circle, which he terms a “Carnal Eucharist,” suggests an intensely radical revision of the concept of sacramental ritual. In this envisioned level, “the sacred becomes embodied in everyday forms of touch and taste. Incarnation goes all the way down, from head to foot, from agape to eros… Even the simplest carnal acts of ‘sensing’ may serve as sacraments of communion.”[viii] While van Herck warned of the ways that cross-participation can be manipulated as a vehicle for individual spiritual progress and self-expression, Kearney sees the benefit in opening the Eucharist to cross-participation, and in recognizing the potential for all experience—even individualistically-motivated actions—to be sacramental. The balanced presentation of contradictory arguments such as these and others in this volume only strengthens it, for it keeps it scholarly in the truest sense, always critical and alert to new directions.
In addition to the theoretical essays, a number of personal narratives are shared in this volume, and one of the most powerful of these is an account of a tragedy which interreligious rituals failed to address well. In “Mourning the Loss of My Daughter: The Failure of Interfaith Bereavement Rituals,” Anya Topolski takes a personal risk in sharing with the reader an intimate account of an unimaginable loss. The searing pain that she expresses, and the vulnerability that she offers in writing so openly about such an unimaginable tragedy—a vulnerability that requires an immense amount of strength and courage to risk—is deeply moving. It adds a great deal to this volume, for the intimate personal experience that she shares reminds readers that the topic of these essays is indeed inescapably relational and emotional. Sharing rituals across religious boundaries is interpersonal, and risks offense, alienation, and more. Topolski’s essay also reminds us that interreligious rituals sometimes fail, and in her case, the complications of an interreligious funeral caused her “additional pain when we were both drowning in grief.”[ix] Her brave and heartbreaking account shows that there is indeed a great deal of work to be done in navigating interreligious rituals.
[i] Marianne Moyaert, “Introduction: Exploring the Phenomenon of Interreligious Ritual Participation, in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 7.
[ii] Moyaert, 1.
[iii] Mark S. Heim, “On Doing What Others Do: Intentions and Intuitions in Multiple Religious Practice,” in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 24.
[iv] Andre van der Braak, “The Practice of Zazen as Ritual Performance,” in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 157.
[v] van der Braak, 157.
[vi] van der Braak, 162
[vii] Walter Van Herck, “Enlightened Presuppositions of (Spiritually Motivated) Cross-Ritual Participation,” in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 52.
[viii] Richard Kearney, “Toward an Open Eucharist,” in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 155.
[ix] Anya Topolski, “Mourning the Loss of My Daughter: The Failure of Interfaith Bereavement Rituals,” ,” in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 204.