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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions

Bell, Catherine (1997)
New York: Oxford University Press

ISBN:0-19-511052-8 paperback
0-19-511051-X hardcover

Description: Hardcover, xvi + 351.

Contents: Preface, 8 chapters divided into 3 parts: 1. Theories: The History of Interpretation, 2. Rites: The Spectrum of Ritual Activities, 3. Contexts: The Fabric of Ritual Life, notes, references, index.

Excerpt(s): As indicated earlier, most theorists stress the communion-like nature of sacrifice, which is clearest when the rites involve first the sacralization and then the killing of a living animal or person. Consecration or sacralization can make the offering participate in the divinity of the god to whom it is to be given, even to the point, in some cases, that the offering may be thought to become the god itself. This form of consecration is seen in diverse practices, such as Christian doctrine of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacralized bread and wine; the offering and ingestion of the intoxicating sacred drink balche to feed the gods of the Lacandon Maya of Chiapas; the ritual consumption of peyote among some Native American tribes; and the Aztec sacrifice of prisoners of war to their sun god.

The peyote cult is a good example of a sacrificial ritual in which the symbolism of communion is very strong. The cult formally developed, particularly among Native Americans of the southern plains only about the turn of the century as an integral part of the Native American Church. Influenced by Christianity as well as pan-tribal religious beliefs and practices, the consumption of the sacred peyote button is thought to enable one to experience the closeness of the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit is said to have put his power into the sacred button so that when it is gathered by a shaman and eaten in the appropriate way that power can be absorbed by his people to help them. The hallucinatory effects that can be produced by the drug are considered quite secondary to the more powerful experience of the Great Spirit, who may reveal some truth or bestow some power. (pages 113-114)

The fourth type of ritual style, characterized by rites that focus on personal spirituality or the individual's spiritual potential, is usually associated with very recent forms of "privatized" spirituality. This is the style of religiosity that Bellah identifies with American individualism and the extreme of " Sheilaism." New Age religion and East-West hybrids like Transcendental Meditation-not unlike such predecessors as the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Theosophists, or Swedenborgians-demonstrate this ethos of personal attainment of spiritual empowerment. Yet many new evangelical forms of Christianity also appeal to aspects of this style of spirituality. As a ritual system, it is a worldview in which private rites may be more emphasized than public ones, although public ceremonies stress the assembly of like-minded individual seekers pooling their strength. Doctrine and ethical teachings are downplayed in favor of language that stresses highly personal processes of transformation, realization, and commitment. Unlike the Presbyterian ethos, people are not seen as part of a divine plan but as individual seekers looking for meaning in a universe where no particular institution has the authority to speak "truth" for others. Indeed, it is a worldview that does not tend to think in terms of an overarching divine being; divinity or sacrality is more likely to be understood as an elusive quality, the opposite of ideology, behavioral codes, and belief, yet something that provides a tangible sense of self-empowerment. In this context, people need to find their own truths and their own ways of realizing sacrality. ...

Yet in such communities, people may observe the conventional ritual requirements and social outreach but look for and talk about the need for a dimension of personal fulfillment. They are less likely to see their customary rituals as traditional expressions of theological truths; they are more likely to look to them as a means of providing some experience of personal spirituality. For some, the customary rituals can do this; for others they fail to deliver enough personal nourishment. The relative unimportance of theological dogma leaves such communities open to experimentation and highly ecumenical borrowing, primarily of ritual elements. In other words, there is likely to be little theological resistance to including meditation in a Jewish seder or Christian mass since all ritual is seen as tools for the spiritual cultivation of the person. (pages 189-190)

... In all of these activities, people are quite aware that they are constructing their worlds, the moral precepts they should live by, and even the devotional images in which they decide to believe. They plan their rites step by step, watch themselves perform them, and are quite likely to sit down afterward and analyze what worked and what did not, both in terms of the ritual dynamics themselves and in terms of the effects the ritual was expected to produce.

Upon closer scrutiny, this self-conscious invention of ritual is not just a modern phenomenon, although the degree to which people now feel free to eschew any claims for ritual antiquity may be relatively unprecedented. Men's fraternal organizations in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, offered elaborate rituals that were, in fact, their main attraction. Before most of these men's groups began to shrink dramatically in the mid-20th century, some actively solicited members to submit plans for rituals, awarding prizes of $50 to $100 for the "best and most perfect Ritual." The history of the environmental movement in America is also the history of self-conscious devising of ceremonies, such as Arbor Day rites, to express changing perspectives on nature. (page 225)

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