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Liturgy 1, Question 1

Describe the purpose and function of ritual. (minimum 300 words)

Disclaimer: A student of religious studies cannot fulfill this requirement in 300 words. But I've never backed down from a challenge:

Ritual itself is usually described in active terms. One does ritual. It may be an order in which things are done (what ADF usually calls "liturgy"), or it may be a written body of rites. Ritual is plural, indicating that more than one is done (the singular is actually "rite", generally speaking).

Strictly speaking, the "purpose of ritual" is impossible to discuss. Not only are there many religious reasons to hold a rite, but there are countless interpretations about why rituals are held. Perhaps one ritual is a commemoration of a great hero, much like Lughnassadh is a commemoration of Tailtiu. Perhaps it is a sort of propitiation, such as Aztec human sacrifice. Perhaps it is something as important as a rite of passage or something as minor as a secret Boy Scout handshake. In the end, the purpose of any ritual will depend on what the ritual is designed to accomplish. Usually, this is somehow related to a reconnection with the sacred.

The "function" of ritual, or why we do these weird things, is equally murky. We might do rituals in order to provide closure (as in a funeral) or to celebrate the continuation of our ancestral line (as in weddings and baptisms). A ritual's only function might be to provide familiarity and thus connect us with something that we cannot access in any other way, or it might serve to take us out of what is normal and force us to connect to new experiences.

In the end, I would define the purpose of ritual as an effort to reconnect humans to the "sacred", regardless of whether the sacred exists in any measurable way; and I would define the function of ritual as the act of creating those connections. I would then state that I cannot define "the sacred" without then reducing the definition of ritual into a number of different schools of thought.


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