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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web


Madge Karecki

Anthropologists have been studying human rituals for decades. Interest in the human capacity as ritual beings is now being researched by biogeneticists, ritual theorists and other social scientists. Missiology, which has always functioned within an interdisciplinary context, could benefit from a dialogue with the findings of these researchers. An openness to ritual in the life of humans is rooted in the limbic system of the brain. Humans are inherently ritual beings. Missiologists need to discover the implications this research has for fostering a sense of mission in Christians.


Missiology has long operated within an interdisciplinary framework. Among missiologists there has been an appreciation for the contribution of social scientists and the insights they provide into human cultures and their rituals. Whole new fields of study of ritual have opened up in the past few decades that complement the findings of anthropologists and sociologists. A new interest in ritual has been demonstrated in fields as widely divergent as ritual theorists and biogeneticists. In this article I argue that we cannot afford, as missiologists, to ignore their findings. Ritual cannot be relegated to the study of what are called primitive cultures, religious sects or even the AICs. We need to be engaged in a process in which we analyse ritual in mainline churches, and develop thick descriptions, to use Geertz's phrase, with a view to discovering from them how ritual can form and transform people for mission. Beyond this there are emerging rituals related to the feminist theology, ecology and reconstructive theology that deserve our attention and study. Making friends with ritual, myth and symbol can open up the doors of our understanding to the importance of ritual in human life and its relationship to religious experience and Christian mission.


Biogeneticists have found that human ritual is "both inescapably enculturated and biogenetically controlled" (Mitchell 1993:43). We become human by learning the" ritual repertoire" (Fingarette 1972:1-17) of the human community into which we have been born. Ritual is part of culture as well as of our genetic make-up as humans. The research done by neuroanatomist Paul MacLean (in Mitchell 1993:40-41) has opened up whole new vistas of under standing of the inherent capacity for ritual in humans. MacLean shows how the brain consists of three strata which developed in an evolutionary manner. Understanding how the brain functions in each of these strata unlocks new levels of appreciation for the marvellous complexity and flexibility of the human species.

The first of these strata is the reptilian. It has changed little in the course of evolution. This stratum regulates functions such as metabolism, respiration and digestion in higher animals and humans. The second of the strata is the palaeomammalian. It governs functions such as eating, fighting, self-defense, hormonal secretions and procreation. This stratum is sometimes called the limbic system by other researchers and social scientists. We will come back to it because this stratum is connected with human rituals. The final stratum is the neomammalian. It is present in the brains of advanced mammals. The brain is expanded by a thin layer of convoluted cortical tissue that covers the other two strata. This stratum is characterised by the emergence of neocortical structures that function to refine and extend motor/sensory skills, and enhanced memory capacity. It also has the capacity to reorganise older structures into more complex ones, and higher cognitive functions such as abstract thinking and reasoning. The three strata are interconnected and they work together to form the human brain.

Roger Sperry (1985), another scientist who has done work on the hemispheres of the brain, maintains that consciousness is a property that belongs to the brain's circuitry system and brain chemistry working together. The more sophisticated and higher faculties of the brain's frontal lobes are intimately linked to the more archaic segments of the brain, especially the limbic system (Mitchell 1993:42).

What does this have to do with ritual? Nathan Mitchell, reflecting on the work of Sperry and others, has summarised the findings of the biogeneticists:

It seems, then, that ritual has a biogenetic basis in the brain's earlier evolutionary strata (especially the limbic system), while meaning has a neocortical, learned (hence, enculturated) basis. If this is so, then it is at least possbile that within the ritual process itself genetic and cultural information are "mixed" in order to produce the specialized sort of symbolizing activity characteristic of human beings. In short, "culture" (with its complex systems of language, meaning and symbols) modifies the expression of archaic genetic programs, while these latter also influence – and even control – the range of meaning and action possible in human religious and ritual systerms (Mitchell 1993:42-43).

What this means is that humans have a ritual programme implanted in the reptilian stratum of the brain that can be modified by the higher strata of the brain. To say it more plainly, culture adapts, modifies and changes the genetic map within the brain in the domain of ritual.

Edith Turner's (1986) research has carried forward the initial insights of her husband, Victor Turner, who before his death began to forge linkages between his earlier work on the ritual process and new insights about the inherent capacity of humans to develop and engage in ritual. What Edith Turner has shown is how the ergotropic (heightened, stimulated) left hemi sphere capacities reach a climax and have a spill-over effect into the right hemisphere and the trophotropic (calming, soothing, diminished activity) system, bringing both to a consciousness of wholeness and unity (Turner, E 1986:219).

Biogeneticists, studying human embryos, are beginning to amass evidence which shows that when a human is born he/she enters the world prepared for symbolic social interaction which takes place in ritual (Trevarthen 1980:52-56). Further, biogenetic research points to the fact that the more primitive strata of the brain are a reservoir of archetypal symbols that are genetically transmitted and can influence human feelings, thoughts and actions. Mitchell once again summarises the findings of the geneticists:

The archetypes (biologically rooted, inborn patterns and responses that shape feeling, thought and action) then connect with the imagery and ideas supplied by the brain's "higher (neocortical) centers" and gleaned from the ego's experience of stimuli coming from both natural and cultural environments. This connection results in the emergence of symbols linked with historical/cultural events and figures (e.g., the ritual symbols of Christian eucharist) (Mitchell 1993:47).

The significance of these findings is borne out by the interdisciplinary work of Eugene d'Aquili, Charles Laughlin, Jr., and John McManus (1990:11-12). They have developed what is called biogenetic structuralism. Though rooted in evolutionary biology, their approach does not attempt to limit human life to the biological; on the contrary, these researchers are trying to provide the most comprehensive account of how consciousness is linked to physical, personal, spiritual, communal, genetic and cultural realities.

They also acknowledge that they must be sensitive to what they call "transpersonal" data. By this they mean data that surface from human experiences which are classified as spiritual, mystical, religious or transcendent and take place in the context of meditation, contemplation, prayer and ritual. A burgeoning new field is that of transpersonal anthropology which studies the relationship between consciousness and culture (Mitchell 1993:51).

These new insights into the world of ritual do not negate what cultural anthropologists have discovered; rather they strengthen the argument in favour of the value of ritual for understanding humans in their relationship to one another and to God. Since humans function as whole persons this research shows that we are ritual beings by our very nature. Ritual can therefore be an important context in which people can experience God.


The research of cultural anthropologists like Victor Turner (1969, 1985) and Mary Douglas (1982) and of ritual theorists like Ronald Grimes (1990, 1992), Catherine Bell (1988) and Tom Driver (1991) all acknowledge the significant role of ritual in human life. The research of these social scientists is en hanced, not diminished, by the findings of biogeneticists and therefore is validated from yet another source.

Victor Turner (1969) amplified the work and the initial insight of Arnold van Gennep (1960) about the ritual process and the importance of the liminal phase for shaping identity and building group solidarity and cohesion. Though not without his critics, V. Turner, through his study of the Ndembu people of Zambia, demonstrated how social bonds (what he called communitas) arise out a spontaneous sense of unity and how in all well-constructed rituals there are three phases: separation, liminality and reaggregation. It is usually during the liminal phase of the ritual process that people experience communitas when they are in what V. Turner called a "betwixt and between" state, in which persons experience themselves and reality from a new point of view. Commenting on V. Turner's work, Grimes (1990a:144) felt that Turner's latest research on play done right before his death, helped to rehabilitate ritual by showing that it is "a cultural 'agent,' energetic, subversive, creative and socially critical." It is not simply the encoded behaviour and ceremonies of people belonging to ancient or primitive cultures, but is rooted in the limbic system of the brain. Erik Erikson asserted that:

The stages of an individual's psychological maturation ...constitute a ritual pattern that slowly initiates a person into a culture's meanings, norms, values, customs and sanctions and is seen as critical for understanding ritual's human roots (in Mitchell 1993:5).

Aidan Kavanagh affirmed Erikson's insight that becoming human is a sociocultural process in which a person becomes fully socialised and other- centred and "who is limpid, kind, and filled with candour, because he/she has lived not just his/her own brief life but that enormous span of years and experience embraced by his/her culture" (Kavanagh 1973:160). Ritual, whether cultural or religious, is an effective means in the formation and growth of persons. They become who they are meant to be in all their uniqueness while experiencing a sense of belonging to their cultural and/or religious community.

Robert Bellah (1986:227) emphasises the importance of an individual having a sense of membership in what he calls "a community of memory." In such a community one learns the importance of history and tradition. In such a community the individual is not obliterated, but instead finds fulfilment. This confirms a person in his/her identity and builds self-confidence. In ritual this comes about because there is a deliberate archaism in ritual, symbol and gesture (Mitchell 1993:15) which gives ritual its authority in the community to build the collective identity.

Perhaps Kavanagh's definition of ritual is the most helpful in understanding how it functions and how it does its work. He wrote:

The patterns of ritual repetitive behavior correspond to and, therefore, may be said to carry, the inchoate and largely incommunicable human experience of reality – for the most part in a nonverbal and always in a parabolic and nondiscursive manner (Kavanagh 1973:158).

Ritual becomes a means of communication in a public gathering through the use of symbolic patterns and gestures of behaviour. In an essay published posthumously, V. Turner (1983:221-245) revealed his fascination with the notion of play as a "dialectical dancing partner" with ritual.

Play, like ritual, has its roots in the limbic system of the brain (Turner, V 1983:236) and threatens the compulsion of the left hemisphere to maintain "good order" (Mitchell 1993:64). Play is that element of ritual that is concerned with the realm of possibility. It is that which confers on ritual that "not yet" quality in which believers can "act out" their hopes. We play at being the people of God and in that play we have the possibility to become what we are meant to be.1 Play also is the foundation of the creative dimension of ritual, where form and pattern are respected, but options are creatively taken in order to enhance the community's memory of what is being celebrated or commemorated.


Ritual is further enriched through the use of symbols. Grimes (1992:36) insisted that "ritual symbols focalize attention and evoke memory; they do not leave us with religious ideas or politcal statements that constitute their meaning." Their meaning is ever unfolding. Symbols are inherently multivalent. Their evocative quality is what enables various people to find different meanings in the same symbol. They act as magnets that awaken and revive memory. In the context of Christian worship, it is this capacity to remember that draws us back to our most basic identity as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

Dan Sperber, in his research on the use of symbols, has concluded that:

Each new evocation brings about a different reconstruction of old representations, weaves new links among them, integrates into the field of symbolism new information brought to it by daily life: the same rituals are enacted, but with new actors; the same myths are told, but in a changing universe, and to individuals whose social position, whose relationships with others, and whose experience have changed (Sperber 1975:145).

Symbols can provide participants in a ritual with vision and meaning for their lives, if rituals are done well. Catherine Bell (1992:8) noted that ritual exists only when performed, enacted, in deeds and words. It is then that rituals are efficacious, not simply as texts on a printed page or descriptions made by trained observers. Rituals do their work as they are celebrated and their effects are experienced through participation. For this reason Bell (1989:34) prefers to speak of ritualisation, meaning a way of acting or a way of doing certain activities through symbolic gestures that differentiate them from more conventional ones. For example, though baptism is a cleansing, it is a ritual form of that activity and is different from ordinary washing of the body because it takes place at specific times, in a special location, usually a church, and because it has a public character. It is a symbolic gesture that takes us beyond "just washing" because it evokes meaning by reaching down into the memory of the community.

Myth is another essential element of ritual. V. Turner defined myth in this way:

Myth treats of origins but derives from transitions.... Myths relate how one state of affairs became another; how an unpeopled world became populated; how chaos became cosmos; how immortals became mortal; how the seasons came to replace climate without seasons ... and so on. Myths are liminal phenomena: they are frequently told at a time or in a site that is 'betwixt and between' (Turner, V 1968-1979:576).

Myth also is a performance and not simply texts divorced from ritual action. Ritual is the context in which a myth is related, handed down to successive generations. The meaning of the myth is mediated by the ritual context and through voice inflection, singing, dancing, movement, light/darkness, colour, and fragrance (Mitchell 1993:99). The performance of myth is not only a cultural story which validates the current social structure, but is a neurological performance involving both hemispheres of the brain. V. Turner explained that:

Myth is thus the whole brain, recent and archaic, playing or performing itself to itself, using the costumes, props and masks of particular cultures, the products of social experience in specific habitats, but revealing the contour of its own topography...It is fully charged with the interplay of language, imagery, and music across that bridge from the left and right halves of the upper brain, as it is with cognitive structures or charters validating extant social structures (Turner, V 1985:287-288).

Myth functions within the community of memory as a way of reminding the members of its deepest identity, through the act of embracing its whole evolu tionary history. As the myth unfolds, the corporate identity of the community becomes more integrated through the constructive character of remembering (Sperber 1975:145).


Ritual is often equated with routine. People sometimes feel that ritual signifies empty conformity (Barnes 1990:127). Mary Douglas (1982:1-18) made an alarming observation about ritual when she wrote that "One of the gravest problems of our day is the lack of commitment to common symbols.... But more mysterious is a wide-spread, explicit rejection of rituals as such."

Richard Sennett (1977:259) calls this trend articulated by Douglas an "ideology of intimacy." He is of the conviction that today things are valued in terms of personal feelings of closeness and instant familiarity. This attitude is sustained by the conviction that "social relationships of all kinds are real, believable, and authentic the closer they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person" (Sennett 1977:259). In this kind of climate the formal and communal nature of ritual is not appreciated or valued.

A second threat to ritual is rooted in individualism and its accompanying subjectification of reality. Everything is evaluated in terms of individual preferences. This leads to the privatisation of religious experience and ritual is robbed of its role in social and cultural transformation. Further, the public dimension is estranged from the private dimension of life. This obviously has implications for the moral fibre of a society or culture because the community exercises no significant authority over the individual. Interpersonal sharing then replaces communal ritual.


The research of biogeneticists and social scientists confirms the innate capacity of humans for ritual. Human beings are born ritual makers. The rituals they create are those into which they have been initiated through their cultural and religious communities. This kind of research enriches not only a sacramental model of mission, but all models of mission because ritual is not an optional extra for humanity, but an integral aspect of the human species.

Missiologists are challenged to reflect on how they might utilise these insights to develop theologies of mission that value ritual as a means for sustaining initial conversion and deepening the baptismal call to mission in Christians. They would do well to reflect on the role of ritual in engendering a deeper and more pervasive sense of mission within the members of the faith community. Further, they might create tools that would help local congre gations to evaluate their ritual life and the very structure of their celebrations so that members could more easily experience the transforming power of ritual, symbol and myth in their communal celebrations.

Religious experience in the context of mission ad gentes and how it is challenged to grow in the context of religious ritual would be yet another area for exploration. A study might be made of how the texts used in worship and music help to inspire people with a sense of mission as they participate in ritual celebrations of faith. These are but a few possibilities of area of study and research that missiologists might take up and which would yield new insights for how we theologise about mission.

In this article my aim was to acquaint readers with just some of the exciting research that is being done in the area of ritual studies. It opens up new possibilities for understanding the complex miracle of human beings: how their identity is formed and deepened, and how they express and celebrate their faith in God in and through ritual.


BARNES, Andrew. 1990. Religious Reform and the War Against Ritual. Journal of Ritual Studies 4(1):127-133.

BELL, Catherine. 1988. Ritualization of Texts and Textualization of Ritual in the Codification of the Taoist Liturgy. History of Religions 27(4):366-392.

BELL, Catherine. 1989. Ritual, Change and Changing Rituals. Worship 63(1):31-41.

BELL, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

BELLAH, Robert, MADSEN, R., SULLIVAN, W.M., SWIDLER, A. & TIPTON, S.M. 1986. Habits of the Heart. New York: Perennial Library.

D'AQUILI, Eugene, LAUGHLIN, Charles, & MCMANUS, John. 1990. Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness. Boston: Shambala.

DOUGLAS, Mary. 1982. Explorations in Cosmology. 2nd edition; New York: Pantheon Books.

DRIVER, Tom. 1991. The Magic of Ritual. New York: Harper Collins.

FINGARETTE, Herbert. 1972. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

GRIMES, Ronald. 1990a. Victor Turner's Definition, Theory and Sense of Ritual, in Victor Turner and the Construction of Social Criticism: Between Literature and Anthropology, edited by K. Ashley. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press:141-146.

GRIMES, Ronald. 1990b. Emerging Ritual, in Proceedings of the North American Academy of Liturgy, Valparaiso, IN: NAAL, 15-31.

GRIMES, Ronald. 1992. Reinventing Ritual. Soundings 75(1):21-41.

KAVANAGH, Aidan. 1973. The role of Ritual in Personal Development, in The Roots of Ritual, edited by A. Kavanagh, Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans: 145-160.

MITCHELL, Nathan. 1993. Revisiting the Roots of Ritual. Liturgy Digest 1(1):4-36.

SENNETT, Richard. 1977. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf Books.

SPERBER, Dan. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism, trans. A. L. Morton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SPERRY, Roger. 1985. Nobel Prize Conversations. Dallas: Saybrook Press.

TREVARTHEN, Colwyn. 1980. Neurological Development and the Growth of Psychological Functions, in Developmental Pschology and Society, edited by J. Sants. London: Macmillan Publishers.

TURNER, Edith. 1986. Encounter with Neurobiology: The Response of Ritual Studies. Zygon 21(2):219-232.

TURNER, Victor. 1968-1979. Myth and Symbol, in The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by D. Sills. New York: Macmillan Publishers:576-582.

TURNER, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and anti-Structure. New York: Aldine Publishing Company.

TURNER, Victor. 1983. Body, Brain and Culture. Zygon 18(2):221-245.

TURNER, Victor. 1985. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience (edited by E. Turner). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

VAN GENNEP, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage, trans. by M. Vizedom & G. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1 This idea is reminiscent of Mark Searle's oft quoted idea that worship is a dress rehearsal for the kingdom. By this he meant that now we begin to live as kingdom-people in the context of worship because in it we are called to remember who we are before God.

This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you have any comments, please write them in our guestbook, or join one of our discussion forums.

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