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Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity by Roy A. Rappaport

1999; 535 pp. $19.95. Cambridge University Press, 40 West 20 th Street, New York. NY 10011. 800/872.7423, www.cup.org

Roy Rappaport writes in a time of urgency, when we must ask not only how religion fits in but what might replace or sustain its ancient contribution to meaning and social integration. In 1968 Rappaport published a groundbreaking ethnography of the Maring people of the New Guinea highlands, detailing the connections among their economy and its environmental impact, their endemic warfare, and their cycle of beliefs and ritual, which regulated the other two. Rappaport's curiosity then carried him into years of reading about ritual and religion, at the same time that he became increasing engaged in environmental issues. This new book is what is meant when we speak of the culmination of a life's work. Rappaport delayed its completion for years while researching and rewriting passages again and again, until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and finished it before his death in 1997.

Anthropologists have argued that humankind and technology coevolved?the advantages of tool use, say, selecting for better and more opposable thumbs, nimbler hands, and greater intelligence, which in turn created better tools. The same argument has been made for the reciprocal development of language and intelligence. We suffer, however, the weaknesses of our strengths and the vices of our virtues. Human intelligence and technology have given us the tools to destroy the environment on which we depend, while language, which allows us to analyze the problem, does not seem to allow the creation of a consensus to address it.

Rappaport proposes that ritual and language have similarly coevolved, with ritual providing, from the very beginning, a necessary corrective for language-created problems that may otherwise be lethal. Language permits lies and permits any statement to be contradicted or opposed by alternatives suggested by experience or self-interest or speculation. However, by participating in ritual, in which invariable words and actions recur, men and women assume wider commitments which are forged at deeper levels of the psyche. Rappaport calls these invariable words and actions Ultimate Sacred Postulates. This does not necessarily mean that the participants believe the postulates. Indeed, they are ideally untestable and without immediate consequences: "In God We Trust." "Hear Oh Israel, the Lord Our God the Lord is One." But these postulates that cannot be questioned hold a key position in the governing hierarchies of ideas that Rappaport calls Logoi (the plural of Logos), and they have consequences for social life. The simplest example of ritual implementation of them would be the use of oaths to create metatruths that are more reliable than simple reports. The sanctity of the Ultimate Sacred Postulates underlies the authority of convention and of leaders, teachers, and priesthoods. It is what makes action possible as part of a larger social or ecological whole.

Rappaport is not proposing the construction of a new religion; rather, he is describing the kind of ecology of ideas and actions that might include and sustain religion as an integral part of life. He points out that traditional religions can be interpreted in benign ways and that secular rituals (such as rock concerts or environmental clean-ups) also exhibit many of the unifying properties of shared participation. What is needed is not new theology (though some tune-ups might be helpful) but new forms of practice and social engagement. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but that may do more harm than good, creating new polarities; what we need to do instead is to march or dance or sing, as in the great civil rights demonstrations of the sixties that forged new convictions and new unity.

The book draws on a great body of anthropological writing and on multiple scriptural traditions to explore the nature of the Logoi as they frame basic understandings of time and causality, space and human motivation. Side by side with examples from Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, Rappaport sets examples of tribal Australians, of the Sioux and the Navaho, and above all of the Maring, dancing together and slaughtering pigs to create alliances sanctified by the spirits of the ancestors. All of these are used to illuminate philosophical concepts and ideas that have been drawn from cybernetics and communications theory (lots of Martin Buber and Charles Sanders Peirce and Gregory Bateson), explaining the universality of ritual and its necessary role in the evolution of humanity.

This is a fat book, and a difficult one, occasionally defensive and constipated in its argument. But it is an essential one in the developing conversation about how human beings can deeply know their involvement in the biosphere and in each other and how they can act together to preserve it.

 

ISBN: 0521296900

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