Religion: The Idea of Control and Unity

      There are several different and valuable opinions and thoughts about the importance of religion. Religion is treated like a standard academic class, but it is arguably much more complex, because it connects ideas and thoughts from several different subject areas. Religion covers a variety of ideas including the idea of linguistics and the transmission of tradition. There seems to be a major distinction between the tribal and universalistic ritual systems due to the transmission of ritual systems, but Victor Turner argues that the language of ritual depends on syntactical rules, and that there can be several similarities between two very different ritual ceremonies.

      Ritual, Tribal and Catholic by Victor Turner begins by describing the distinction between tribal and universalistic ritual systems. Turner states that tribal traditions are transmitted orally, and universal ritual systems are recorded on paper. He comments how writing facilitates communication, standardization and centralization, and how the specialists can alter it in order to make the text logically and theologically accurate. On the other hand, tribal ritual is a collective performance, which also can be altered due to the slight variation and the ways things are orally passed down from generation to generation. Although Turner states the difference between tribal and universalistic ritual systems, he argues that the language of ritual depends on syntactical rules—suggesting that there isn’t a big difference between the ways things are communicated from one generation to the next.

There are many formal differences between Ndembu religion and Mass, but there is a “golden mean” between tribal and abstract-general means of religious expression as Turner discusses. The Catholic Church is rich in the concept of symbols, daily mass, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and nonverbal ritual actions in written form. However, there are a variety of actual expressions, because in language, slight alterations within sentences can create several differences. Some of the differences between the Ndembu religion and Catholic Mass include: Chihamba, a traditional ceremony for the Ndembu religion, which takes place in the open and mass, which occurs in a building. Chihamba is organized by a group of senior leaders; Catholic Mass is lead by a priest. Chihamba is organized by initiated elders who rely on memory and the ceremonies may be altered on any occasion, whereas, Catholic Mass proceeds according to authorized written rubrics. Despite these differences, Catholic Mass and Ndembu religion are seen as the dramatic representation of sacrifices. For example, in Chihamba, the ceremony includes several symbols such as the sounds of a sacred rattle, liturgical instruments, and the shaking of a heaving blanket. The candidates themselves, who are human beings, are asked to perform a variety of dances. The candidates are arguably the most important symbols, because they are symbols of the deity. When the candidates return to the village, they eat a meal of beans together that is referred to as a “love feast” or as communion. The author believes that Chhamba and pre-Conciliar Mass are similar, because both are strong ceremonies that contain multiple symbols that can contain several different meanings (Turner, 517).

Victor Turner coherently explains how universal ritual and tribal ritual are different, yet similar. He also suggests that religion can be interpreted several different ways and that in order to do that, one must zoom in, zoom out, and, overall, attempt to view things from different perspectives. Although Victor Turner did not explicitly state this in his article, he attempted to compare and contrast two different rituals in order to illustrate how ritual provides a control mechanism for several different societies; ritual gives communities control in uncontrolled environments. Because of this idea scholarly articles are important; they spark original ideas and thoughts that readers most likely would not have formed on their own.

Religious models allow people to formulate their thoughts and opinions on what the author is trying to state, but all academic work is written with a bias. Therefore, authors are trying to convince the reader to believe in their thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and prevent the reader from formulating his or her own ideas. Categories are often complex and hard to follow, because authors can contradict themselves and try to connect too many ideas into one model or one essay. For example, Turner explains how different universal and tribal ritual are, but within the same few pages, he describes the similarities between the two. He also includes the idea of symbols, linguistics, and the differences between Catholic Mass and Chhamba in a few pages. He obviously is trying to state his point as clear and as effectively as possible, but often, the complexity and depth of essays such as Turners potentially confuses the reader more. Confusion and complexity can often be hard on people when they are experiencing ceremony in a different or even in a ritual system that they believe in.

Although Victor Turner’s model may not be the best model for the sweat lodge ceremony, it is still applicable to the sweat lodge ceremonies in the sense that the idea of religion brings order and structure into communities. Sweat lodges are examples of how this form of spiritual activity is linguistically and ritually different from Catholic Mass and that even the tribal ritual, Chhamba, yet it produces similar results for individuals and the community as a whole. Even as an outsider who knew little about the origin and way of ceremony, my body felt cleansed and light after the ceremony, and I felt even more united with my peers than when I attend church. Although everyone has different experiences within the sweat lodge, the ability to make it through the intense conditions through prayer during the ceremony creates a united and cohesive community. Also, similar to Catholic Mass and Chhamba, the presence of the hot rocks, the dark space, the moist air, and the singing and prayer are symbols of deity.

Since Turners thoughts and ideas mainly focus on the difference between Catholic mass and Chhamba, it is difficult to apply his theories to other specific ceremonies such as sweat lodges. Rather, Clifford Geertz’ essay, “Religion as a Cultural System” provides a better explanation. Geertz essay describes how religion is a system of symbols that describe the world’s social construction, explain moods and motivations of individuals, provide a conception of order, and influence people’s way of thinking. Symbols are complex systems that reinforce one another, and this is definitely apparent during the sweat lodges. The hot rocks, the humidity, the darkness, the drumming, the singing, and the round structure of the sweat lodge combine to form discomfort and an environment for strong prayer and spiritual cleansing. There is a noticeable difference in the energy in the sweat lodge without the presence of the drum. For example, Geertz states, “the symbolism of the sing focuses upon the problem of human suffering and attempts to cope with it by placing it in a meaningful action through which it can be expressed, being expressed understood and being understood, endured.” (Geertz, 105). Geertz further talks about how singing is an image of humans enduring suffering, and how suffering gives us meaning to our emotions. Then, the singing occurs due to discomfort. The symbols and the discomfort allow people to deeply pray and for the medicine man to reach out to the spirits in order to pray for him and others.

Geertz model is more applicable to the sweat lodges, because it talks about how discomfort allows us to connect with our body mind and soul, but similar to Turner he tries to say too much in one article. Another downfall of academic articles is the authors’ attempts to explain religion is that they are often generalized. Individuals within any given ceremony can have various reactions, physical and emotional experiences, and thoughts. The authors also fail to address how people may react differently based on their affiliation, how often they attend the ceremonies, and the purpose for why people choose to participate in the ceremonies. Have the authors experienced these ceremonies themselves? Finally, they fail to address the conflict of science and religion. Despite what many believe, science does not explain everything, and individual experiences provide strong evidence for this. Nonetheless, religion includes a broad topic of ideas, and it is impossible to investigate and to fully explain all of the conflicts, theories, and opinions that exist.

Finally, during the sweat lodges, I reached a level of discomfort, but nothing ever seemed over-bearing. Honestly, the hardest part about the sweat lodges for me was the anxiety that I had before entering the lodge and watching my peers have intense emotional experiences. I didn’t understand why they were having these experiences and I constantly was questioning myself: what am I doing wrong? What am I missing? I was disappointed when the second sweat lodge ended, because I had mentally prepared myself for it to be much worst than it actually was.

Out of all the sweat lodges, I had the most discomfort when I sat next to Mike Senior, because he started yelling words in my ear in a creepy and scratchy voice. I wasn’t able to focus on what he was saying to me, because at the time, I was expecting everything to be the same as the previous two sweats. My mind and body wasn’t ready for the unexpected, and when he asked, “Did you hear the spirits talking to me?” I replied, “No. What spirits?” The ceremony continued, and after the ceremony, I looked over at Mike Senior, and he looked sick and tired. He didn’t eat any of the food we made for dinner, and I was worried that somehow I messed up the ceremony. Eventually, I talked to him, and he told me that the Eagle Spirit was speaking to him. Ever since that moment, I have tried to make a connection or figure out whether or not the eagle spirit has an important connection with my life.

None of the symbols have made complete sense to me, and I have yet to see the full connection among them, but I understand how they are an important process of ceremony and why the presence of the symbols would make sense to others. I felt grounded and clear-minded after all of the sweat lodges, except for the one where I sat next to Mike Senior. “Seeing or feeling is believing” allowed me to further understand the importance of religion for individuals and for communities. As referred to in Jonathan Smith’s article, there is this “ritual magic” in the sense the ritual gives you control in uncontrolled environments. I definitely experienced this after the sweats, and somehow I want to build upon the idea of feeling grounded, light-minded, and in control in the midst of chaos.

There are differences between the Presbyterian Church that I attend back home and the sweat lodge, but as Turner discusses in “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic,” the intention of religion or ritual is to have beliefs in invisible being or powers in order to create this idea of communication codes and the transmission of messages (Turner, 504). Despite my inability to connect with the eagle spirit, I still felt a sense of “silent communication,” because I understood how natives or others put in a similar situation would be able to make spiritual connections, and how their individual experience could create unity among the community. The spiritual connections or the idea of higher powers would not exist without the presence of symbols or others around you, so regardless of how language is transmitted, the presence of symbols of universal and traditional ritual create unity.


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