Faith, Fear, and Ritual in the Euphoric Pursuit of Freedom. by Taha Firdous Shah

A lady making duʿā (prayers) after performing ṣalāt at the shrine of Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (Photo by Yawar Nazir)

This week’s readings extend to an ethnographic exploration to comment on the conventionalities of rituals and the moral order. Borrowing the words of Clifford Geertz, where he defines ‘man’ as an ‘animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’, the readings revolve around finding a greater meaning to the rituals in different religious communities, both in individual and collective dimensions (Geertz, 1977:5; Seeman, 2015:743).

In her thought-provoking essay titled “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of ṣalāt”, Saba Mahmood offers a profound engagement with the discourse surrounding the diverse interpretations of the Muslim act of prayer (ṣalāt) within the context of the contemporary Women’s Piety Movement in Cairo, Egypt. Mahmood’s analysis departs from the idea that common gestures and behaviors are necessarily aligned with shared objectives. She investigates the interplay between specific structures of self and authority concerning differential relationships, particularly rituals. Her aim is to demonstrate the intricate and diverse connections between these concepts, contingent upon the discursive and practical circumstances of authority and varying conceptions of personhood.

Within the context of ṣalāt, Mahmood learned women utilize self-expression as a technique to comprehend the body as a developing ‘means for realizing the pious self’ (828). The act of praying five times a day, according to her interlocutors, is an act of ‘pedagogy’. This continuous performance of an ‘act’ to gain closeness makes me think back to our discussion from Tanya Luhrmann’s work on making God real by gaining closeness to Him through practice and performance. The argument that we worship to believe appears analogous to these women’s inclination to view prayer as a method for cultivating closeness to God.

From Mona Hilmi’s interpretation of prayer to create humans capable of “enlightened criticism” to Hajja Samia’s prescription of fear as a necessary condition of piety to reach God, it is evident that ritual behaviours are motivated by the personal desire to find meaning in worship. I agree with Mahmood that the body and its behaviors are the theaters where ideological scripts are enacted, and ‘different’ readings can be assigned (839). What interested me more in the reading was to look at how fear comes to be constituted as a motive or modality for pious conduct. It struck me why invoking fear is essential to acting with virtue. Why do our daily activities of not lying or doing any wrongdoing stem from this ‘fear’ of God’s wrath, and can we think of it positively, as Hajja Samia believes?

Mahmood’s engagement with thinking about induced weeping was interesting. While we mainly resort to crying on our prayer mats to seek forgiveness or ease our sufferings, we see that the women in the mosque were mandated to think of this act as a sense of being overwhelmed with God’s greatness and enacted with the action of pleasing Him. To some theologians, the former act is idolatrous (shirk) (843). With the process of acquiring different resources to cultivate ethical and moral abilities, I invite all of us to think, just as Mahmood prompts us: How can we reimagine freedom when we can no longer assume a clear separation between a person’s genuine desires and societal norms? How do we think, in the cases Mahmood mentions, that freedom is contextual rather than universal to practices?

In a similar vein, Don Seeman’s piece on “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against Culture” explores the manifestation of another form of ritualistic agency.  He analyzes the materials as mediums of cultural symbol, which inform the moral experience around which different Ethiopian groups negotiate over the limits of ‘culture’ and the elusive moral freedom. In the examined context, the consumption of buna functions as a sociocultural mechanism to facilitate familial harmony and promote women’s solidarity. However, showing resistance to such a culture acts as freedom of defiance from certain cultural elements that seem intolerant to some.

Seeman asserts that buna avoidance creates a “culture of no culture” to highlight how cultural discourse can be claimed, altered, and disputed in different religious, social, and institutional contexts (743). His advice is that buna practice and avoidance must be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting embodied experience of gender and sexuality (743–44). As Mahmood argues for diversity in the language of understanding cultures, Seeman emphasizes accepting differences in the meanings of freedom vis-à-vis rituals. With this, I invite all of us to think about how we determine the extent of freedom within the context of habitus, cultural background, and customary actions, particularly when these are intertwined with rituals.

Blog post on Robert Orsi’s History and Presence (2016). By Evgeniia Muzychenko

Robert Orsi’s History and Presence (2016) is an ambitious project to rethink history in relation to the human experience of divine ‘real presence.’ Drawing upon human experiences of God present in the Eucharist, the apparitions of the Virgin, or the worshipping of saints, Orsi claims that human-divine encounters (what he calls ‘abundant events’) are crucial for understanding modern religious history ‘at all levels.’ (73) Orsi’s ‘logic’ of how ritual works is one of Asad’s when he criticizes Geertz’s Protestantism-based view of culture as highly symbolic. For Orsi, the ritual affects and directs human interaction with the world; moreover, the presence of saints makes one “more efficacious in their actions upon the world.” (67) Orsi is not at ease with the modern understanding of religion that treats divine presence as merely symbolic, and his book tries to debunk that image, drawing upon the lived devotional practices of Catholics. 

Orsi is audacious in his attempt to theorize the experiences of Catholics in history by drawing upon the data he had gained talking to contemporary Catholics. Listening to the Catholics’ accounts of their encounters with the supernatural, Orsi translates those contemporary experiences into the historical past – going as far as the events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (17). Orsi is well-versed in Catholic doctrine and his assessments of human experiences are affected by how Catholicism as a system of beliefs interprets those experiences.

Drawing on multiple instances of human experiences of divine ‘real presence’, Orsi makes an important point: history narrates human experiences. The ‘real presence’ that the Catholics encounter in their relationship with the divine is one such experience that must be taken into account when we construct narratives of religious history. However, Orsi writes about Catholics and from a Catholic perspective, which creates a very specific way frame of understanding human experience, human understanding of the divine, and the relationship of the divine with the mundane. It is obvious that Orsi is not trying to make totalizing claims of what constitutes the divine-human relationship; he is aware of his commitment to talk about Catholics, which is evident even in his distinguishing between the terms ‘real,’ ‘present,’ and ‘real presence.’ Orsi intentionally uses the term ‘real presence’ to talk specifically about the experiences of Catholics and within the framework of what Catholicism considers as really present (8). Orsi makes more universal claims about including the accounts of lived devotional experiences in historical writing, especially the ‘modern’ one that denies divine presence. I gained from Orsi’s narrative that he does not account for the dynamism of history and religion. I had an impression that he assumes that the devotional experiences of Catholics are the same or at least similar in all historical epochs (though, he hints at the dynamic nature of religious experience when talking about Vatican II and his mother on pp. 210-11). The book left me wondering whether it is feasible to do an ethnography of the past (Orsi is not the only author who attempted to do that).

Based on this reflection, I invite you to think with me about the following questions: 

  1. How do ‘theological considerations’ (i.e., making sense of human relationship with the divine) inform the construction of historical narratives? 
  2. When an ethnographer tries to describe the believer’s experience of the divine (based on the believer’s account), how does the use of such words as ‘real’ and ‘present’ limit our narrative? 
  3. How does an ethnographer separate their religious beliefs/commitments from their work? 
  4. How applicable is the ethnographic data gained from the contemporary interlocutors for constructing the experiences of historical actors?

What if I don’t want Gods and spirits to be real anymore? by Laura Montoya.

The first thing that struck me from T.M. Luhrmann’s work in How God Becomes Real was the psychology-anthropology approach. She develops concepts and categories of analysis focused on how our individual decisions determine if Gods and spirits are real so one develops a relationship with the invisible other. While this claim regarding the individual qualities of her work might seem obvious when contrasted with the work of Geertz, Carteaux, and Bourdieu, whose thesis take a broader, almost abstract cultural and collective approach, Luhrmann’s endeavor stands out for its unintended emphasis on the concept of agency: the unpredictability and multiple shifts of individual behavior. Her focus on intentions, predispositions like absorption, desires, choosing what to believe – as a cognitive process – and what experiences one engages, expects, feels, or becomes attentive to -Faith Frames, Paracosms, training in specific skills or practices like praying- prove how individuals establish a relationship with an invisible other and it’s not solely a matter of culture or external influences. Gods and Spirits become not only real but play a significant role in people’s lives due to individual decisions. 

Two reflections resulted from my encounter with her emphasis on individual agency: First, Luhrmann’s work led me to reflect on the importance of studying psychological processes in order to shed light on the recent changes in the religious landscape. For instance, it can contribute to conversations about religious markets and economies, where people choose religious goods based on their functionality. How is it related to defining “how” people experience God? Also might be helpful to explore how psychological studies in general and Luhrmann’s categories on how people experience God, help explain the decline of the institutional church in the West and the growing participation in other faith traditions around the globe. What has been the change in “how” people experience God? Finally, it can guide us to understand more in-depth why people nowadays are more likely to explore or combine spiritual experiences that differ from their family’s or communities’ traditions, which introduces us to my second reflection.

While reading Luhrmann’s work I couldn’t help to recall constantly how my culture, family, and several historical developments helped me embrace the faith frame of Pentecostalism, accept its paracosm with great commitment, train in the skills required to make Jesus, Jehová and the Holy Spirit real and therefore engage in a real relationship with them. Prayers, the word of God in scripture, authoritative relationships, congregational supernatural experiences, and my own level of absorption led me to experience God as real. However, for diverse reasons, I stepped out of such a frame of reality. In that sense, despite all the documented good effects of experiencing God as real, I resonate with Luhrmann’s claims on how certain individual commitments to such a real God are not always beneficial at the individual and social levels. I see some harmful effects on myself, as well as in the lives of women around me in the communities I intend to study for this program. We opted for an intentional abandonment of the “as-if” proposed by the Pentecostal church, so we are trying to create different alternative faith frames. However, we are learning that the experience of the Christian-Pentecostal God as real still has evident consequences in our lives on the psychological, emotional, and social levels. 

Based on such reflections, I wonder what the process of abandoning a faith frame entails and how to expand on the analysis of the pros vs. cons of faith frames. Why would people renounce or change faith frames? Is it related to expectations, functionality, or trauma? How would a process of deconstructing a faith frame look like? Is a faith frame always functional and necessary to interact with the “mundane frame” in certain cultures or circumstances? What happens when a person “breaks up” with God and the relationship is no longer real? How does it relate to current studies on religious trauma? How does it affect broader cultural-social dynamics?

Finally, and on a different stand, Luhrmann’s work highlights the significance of the “real-making” process in the context of faith for individuals in our fieldwork areas. She brings attention to the tendency of some ethnographers to reproduce science imperialism by ignoring or dismissing individuals’ religious practices as irrelevant or unreal. I agree with Luhrmann when she argues that people’s relationship with God and spirits is real and significant. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the realness of their faith while designing human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions for communities. How can we acknowledge and respect other people’s experiences of faith and interact with them to make human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions appropriate and holistic for communities without considering the realness of their faith? How do we approach and interact with other people’s experiences of faith daily?