Melting: Uniting Ethics and Metaphysics through Embodied Ritual

Why is it good to be good? This question lies beneath all ethics – all attempts to define the good. No matter what the true path is, why should I follow it? In order to make any real claims on people, a set of ethics must be grounded in a metaphysic. A nature of reality must be constructed or discovered that necessitates people to adhere to an ethical system.

This is the vital role religion plays in human society, the reason it is omnipresent.  A religion dictates to its adherents a set of rules or ideals, an ethic, and then grounds this ethic by metaphysically necessitating it. In the familiar Christian tradition, the need to follow the teachings of Jesus is mandated by the metaphysical backdrop that hellfire awaits those who don’t.

The role of religion as a joiner for ethics and metaphysics recapitulates Geertz’s definition of religion as a set of symbols that, in his words, confront and mutually confirm ideas about the way the world is and ones feelings about the “character and quality of life.”  Religion for Geertz unites the “models for” with the “models of”, or in other words, the way things are and the way they are in turn expected and created to be.  His “models of” are metaphysical ideas about the way the world is experienced. “Models for” are then the ethical constructs naturally brought about by the experienced metaphysic and in turn reaffirming how the world is experienced.  Geertz does not apply linear or chronological structure to his self-supporting cycle. He does not claim that the metaphysical experience forms the basis for the ethical creation or that the ethical creation is what informs the experience, rather that this distinction is irrelevant. The significance of religion is in its linking of these two constructions through the creation of a world of symbols. These “concrete symbols… point in either direction. They both express the worlds climate and shape it” (95).

Geertz goes on to say that ritual is where this circle is joined: “in a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turn out to be the same world” (112).  This is the moment when the ethic joins the metaphysic and is grounded in ultimate reality.  Ultimately, the efficacy of a religion can be measured by the degree to which its ethic comes to be metaphysically necessitated in ritual.  These rituals must then be understood phenomenologically or as they exist in their particularity, rather then generally. Each religion or set of symbols is the product of a certain metaphysical experience followed or preceded by an ethical introjection and the rituals born of this marriage are thus uniquely shaped.

The Lakota ritual of the sweat lodge fits Geertz’s model, uniting their ethical system with metaphysical reality.  The lodge is a low round, domed structure – a basic willow frame covered by blankets and tarps.  Practitioners enter this structure seeing it as a womb from which they will be reborn. This expectation is a “model for”, it is a construction of experience, an ethic. Through the experience of the ritual, this ethic is transformed into a metaphysical necessity.  The unique power of the sweat lodge is that the ritual is physically embodied.  Whereas Segal has stated that ritual is primarily a mental activity, the sweat lodge makes distinct use of physical experience to frame the mental aspect.

I came to the sweat lodge with the perspective of a young, white, male, raised in mainstream American culture. I grew up in a Catholic culture, but was never a believer; the ritual never had any power to substantiate its ethic to me.  Prior to visiting the Pine Ridge reservation I had not studied Lakota religious ethics at any length and as such, experienced their rituals at face value with only my own biases. I felt like an outsider in the lead up to the ritual and was intending to enter the space of ritual without a spirit of appropriation.  I hoped to allow myself to participate in the ritual as a means to understanding it, rather than being converted by it.

The inside of the sweat lodge is dark and very hot. After the door has been closed for the first time, the spiritual leader continually throws water on red-hot rocks in the center heating the lodge with steam.  In between each of the rounds the leader and other elders in the group would offer teachings along the lines of: “when it gets hot, you must pray” and “love is the most important thing we have”. These teachings formed the heart of what I have been calling the ethic or the “model for” aspect of the religion – that which is being created as a response to the world and to shape the world. However, unlike my experience in Catholic mass, the form of the ritual made these teachings in some way real.

At one point, a Lakota man spoke up saying that he felt he had lost his spirit and that darkness was around every corner, awaiting him at all times. He asked for support overcoming this personal trial.  Although I didn’t see it at the time, this man was espousing an ethic and a belief in its metaphysical backing. He was declaring that the lodge experience was one of rebirth and that he personally believed in and hoped for this outcome. In the moment of this confession I was profoundly affected and identified with the sensation of loss of spirit. As the door closed and the extreme heat enveloped me once more I found myself unable to think or fear. A vision came over my eyes at that point and it was if I was looking out from horseback but frozen in place. I felt a compulsion to expunge my negativity and I saw a black ball come out of my chest. I then realized that having goodness is more important than lacking darkness and at that moment a ball of light appeared in front of me. It seemed to hold in it all the goodness of my soul and the light came into my mouth and I consumed it. The vision faded but I felt then like the heat could not harm me and I felt whole as I left the lodge and continued to feel that way. I continue to feel reborn on the level of my true existence.  In the heat of the sweat, the carefully constructed border between my own metaphysical sense and a foreign ethic melted away until the two became merged.  The ethic became metaphysically real for me through ritual.  The world as the sweat created it to be became the world as I saw it; the “model for” became a “model of”.

Unaddressed, by Geertz is the question of origin.  His self-perpetuating cycle of religion explains the maintenance of a faith. My experience serves as an example of how someone can be brought into the wheel through ritual and come to see with the eyes of the ethic. When though, is the revelation or the manipulation? Geertz describes castles in the air but omits how they got there.  In attempting to refute reductionist views on religion, he neglects the critical question of functionality. A synthetic ethic, metaphysically substantiated by ritual such that the world comes to be as it was imagined can still exist to meet Durkheim’s social need or Freud’s sexual need or Jung’s spiritual need.  Even if a revelatory “model of” is the source of religion, who is to say that it is not merely the reflection of an unconscious personal or collective need. While Geertz paints a compelling portrait of the maintenance of unique, phenomenological cosmologies, he fails to demonstrate the irreducibility of religion itself and fails to step out of the shadow of the reductionists.

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