Coincidence in Ritual
November 13, 2012
Indigenous Religious Traditions
In his book chapter, The Bare Facts of Ritual, Jonathan Smith discusses the human impulse to assign value to occurrences that are actually coincidences. (53) Coincidence is the existence of two or more occurrences that appear to be connected, but which are in fact random or accidental. In the religious realm coincidences are interpreted as an indication of the interconnectedness of the world, which points to the existence of a greater being that has instilled order in the universe. As Smith points out, the assumption of meaning in religion, and in particular religious ritual, has been criticized for being a fabrication of significance based on coincidence. (54) However, based on my visit to Pine Ridge reservation I argue that though an occurrence may or may not be coincidental the meaning that we draw from it is grounded in human experience and is thus valuable in itself.
People turn to religion to find meaning and direction in life. Upon entering into ceremony, participants often have the preconceived notion that something extraordinarily meaningful will happen to them. This expectation for spiritual enlightenment may cause participants in ceremony to fabricate significance where in reality no significance exists. Smith acknowledges the “eagerness with which ritual takes advantage of an accident and, by projecting on it both significance and regularity, annihilates its original character as accident.” (54) Here, Smith admits that though coincidence is accidental the meaning that we assign to coincidence is not.
Meaning comes from human interpretation of coincidences evoked by ritual. Ritual should not be considered as an entity that holds intrinsic value, but instead as a tool for opening people up and helping them fully experience their innermost concerns, urges, and values. The value of ritual truly lies in the uncovering of the subconscious, which allows people to become more connected to themselves and to a higher being. Smith argues that temples, or other sacred spaces where rituals occur serve as a “focusing lens, marking and revealing significance.” (54) Based on my experience, rituals seem to serve a similar role as temples in that they prompt participants to look at life from a different perspective. Things that were hidden become apparent. Things that were doubted become accepted. Things that were coincidence become meaningful. Ritual is a means of focusing on, or channeling, the things that an individual holds to be the most significant.
The interpretation of coincidence in ritual is powerful because it helps people realize things about themselves that were previously hidden. For example, during the Yuwipi ceremony I felt an occasional tap on my leg. The first tap came after I had posed a question to the spirits in my mind. I understood the tap as the spirits saying yes to my question. I then continued to pose questions and receive answers through leg taps. When the lights came on I looked to the place where I had been tapped and saw that the woman sitting next to me had her foot there. The tapping may have been nothing more than the woman twitching her foot. Or perhaps the spirits were acting through her to answer my questions. Regardless of whether the tapping was coincidental or divinely inspired, it was meaningful to me. The tapping pulled questions out of me that speak volumes about who I am, what I desire, and what I have to offer. The leg tapping made me feel like my questions were being answered which prompted me to ask more questions, which in turn gave me a deeper awareness of myself. The very fact that I was asking the spirits a certain question made me realize that I was worried about things that I hadn’t previously acknowledged. The meaning and value in the foot tapping lies not in the action itself but instead in the revelation that it prompted.
Some may be eager to reject ritual because they think meaning can be manufactured out of anything. Smith worries that “if everything signifies, the result will be either insanity or banality.” (56) This concept suggests that if humans label everything as meaningful, and there is no meaning inherent in ritual, then religion loses much of its power. However, my experience in the Yuwipi ceremony suggests that there is in fact value in meaning assigned by humans. Though it may have been a coincidence, having my leg tapped was still the most significant part of the ceremony for me. There can indeed be power in coincidence.
In an analysis of religious ritual it is important to consider both personal experience and academic sources. Personal experience offers an intimacy that cannot be obtained through scholarly research. Without experiencing the Yuwipi for myself, I would not have understood the emotional aspect of the ceremony. My experience in the Yuwipi gave me the example that has been central to my analysis of coincidence in ritual. Though personal experience is valuable, it provides just one view of ceremony and fails to portray a broader understanding of ritual. It is easy for people to become so caught up in personal experience that they fail to realize that their experience is not the only one. A researcher who focuses primarily on personal experience runs the risk of becoming heavily biased and unreliable.
Academic sources hold value in that they provide a wide array of perspectives from a variety of experts. There is an abundance of literature on any given topic that simply cannot be discovered first hand by any one person. It is necessary to learn from others by studying the work of previous academics. Like an exclusively personal approach, a solely academic approach to research would result in a shallow understanding of a topic. A singular focus on scholarly sources may cause a researcher to be detached from their topic of study. Without personal experience concepts can become distant and inapplicable.
With a topic like coincidence in ritual it is necessary to implement both a scholarly approach and an experiential approach. Smith’s piece made me aware of the complexity of coincidence in ritual. I was then able to look to my experience with a potential coincidence and consider it in the context of Smith’s argument. Smith’s article focused me on an aspect of ceremony that I would not have otherwise considered and my experience in the Yuwipi gave me the context that allowed me to understand Smith’s argument in a more intimate way. Personal experience and academic research should go hand in hand in the study of religious ceremony.
Through an analysis of coincidence in ceremony from an academic as well as a personal perspective it can be concluded that meaning is extracted from ritual in the interpretation of coincidences. Though the issue of distinguishing coincidences from divinely influenced occurrences remains unanswered, the significance of these occurrences remains powerful. The individual establishes the meaning of personal experiences in ceremony. Maybe this phenomenon is devaluing religion by creating a situation where everything is significant, and thus nothing is significant. But if everyone has a personalized understanding of meaning and value in their own lives maybe it does not matter if significance is derived from coincidence or inspired by a greater being.
Smith, Jonathan Z. “The Bare Facts of Ritual.” Imagining Religion. Ed. Jacob Neusner, William S. Green, and Calvin Goldscheider. Chicago: University of Chicago, n.d. 53-65. Print.