Rites of passage

At times of big individual change (such as birth, death, coming of age and marriage) human groups like to come together and affirm their social solidarity. As humans are such social animals, this is often a beneficial and psychologically necessary process. However, the way in which solidarity is usually cultivated in traditional groups is through appeal to metaphysical absolutes beyond experience: for example, at funerals, appeals to beliefs about the afterlife are common. Particularly in modern society, where an increasing number of people can think critically, and where there are a plurality of such absolute claims, this way of doing things constantly undermines its own object by producing conflict. The absolutes appealed to are exclusive, and shut out those who do not subscribe to them, whilst those who are beginning to think critically about them will probably have to repress their doubts about the absolute claims (producing inner conflict) in order to maintain social acceptance. How to do rites of passage well is thus a major problem for modern society, both for how groups organise rites of passage and how individuals participate in them. Funeral of St Martin of Tours Simone_MartiniThe traditionalists maintain their commitment to the absolutes (and either deny the problem or see it as ‘personal choice’); a few radicals have experimented with alternatives such as humanist ceremonies (which may or may not be free of negative absolutes); but probably the majority of more or less non-religious people participate in the traditional ceremonies with a greater or lesser sense of reserve, reluctance or alienation.

I have been engaging with this problem anew for myself recently, following the death and funeral of my father. My father was a Baptist minister, and deeply engaged in a church community, as are much of the rest of my family. Apart from attending rites of passage, however, I have had little or no direct involvement in that community since I was a teenager. My experience of church weddings and funerals throughout my life has been one of pretty constant alienation and conflict. I would have liked to participate in the community, but strongly resented the requirement of reciting, singing and listening to absolute claims I did not believe in as an effective qualification for acceptance. I was also involved in Buddhism for many years, and have had similar experiences of alienation in Buddhist rituals, including rites of passage such as the funerals of Buddhist friends. Often I stood or sat in respectful silence, but that would not stop my mental reactions to what was being said and the way this distracted from the social solidarity I would otherwise have been very happy to engage in.

Given this previous history, at first I was dreading my father’s funeral. The more the ritual mattered to me, the deeper the alienation seemed likely to be. However, I am very glad to report that, for the first time, I found this Christian funeral a very positive and moving occasion, that helped me say farewell to my father in an entirely fitting way. For the first time I found ways forward, and those ways are all about the application of the Middle Way. There are indeed ways of ‘working with’ traditionalist rites of passage which at least worked with the group of relatively liberal Baptists and Methodists I was with, though they may be more difficult (not impossible) to use with more conservative or fundamentalist religious groups. I wanted to share these, and put them in a general form, in the hope that they will be useful to others, but I will illustrate them using my own recent experience.

I am going to suggest three ways of applying the Middle Way when involved in a rite of passage in a religious or other group context where absolute beliefs are invoked: positive engagement in solidarity actions, archetypal interpretation and perspectival reflection.

Positive engagement in solidarity actions

The real point of rites of passage is solidarity, so one obvious way to respond is to do whatever you can to support that solidarity without compromising your integrity. If you’re alienated from the metaphysics, it might require all the more countervailing effort to convince both yourself and others that you’re positive about the solidarity bit. At my father’s funeral, I both played the piano and gave a tribute, and that made a tremendous difference to me. I was in touch with my feelings and was able to channel and communicate them positively, but neither action required me to say things I didn’t believe. Others also responded to this, and lots of people who knew me in childhood then came up to talk to me because of that participation, when they might well have just avoided me as an awkward customer otherwise. Of course, if you’re not so closely involved, or not sufficiently trusted by the organisers, it might be difficult to take such a central part in the ritual, but there may be other, smaller ways of expressing solidarity feelings, such as giving flowers or other gifts, or helping out in smaller ways with the organisation.

Archetypal interpretation

But what do you do about the hymns, prayers and sermons, or equivalent ritual speech or song in other religions? I think the content of these can be roughly put into three categories. One aspect is universal and easy to relate to: it is just celebration of solidarity or common wisdom. When I find passages like that in a prayer or hymn I’m happy to join in. When a religious leader shares common wisdom, for example talking about the need for awareness and response to one’s partner in a marriage, then I’m also happy to listen and agree. Another aspect is clear statements of metaphysical belief (such as creeds), which are the most difficult to deal with and I’ll come back to below. A third aspect in between, though, consists of a lot of religious language that could be interpreted absolutely, but can alternatively can much more helpfully interpreted in archetypal terms.

Archetypes are functions of our own psyches, expressing our deeper needs, drives and aspirations in ways that may not always be conscious and may challenge us. One of the beneficial aspects of religion is that it may put us in touch with bigger perspectives and more profound emotions through archetypes. These give us a sense of meaning and resources for our lives that is often confused with (but needs clearly separating from) absolute beliefs. If you can maintain a sense of archetypal interpretation of the religious language used in a rite of passage, my recent experience is that can be profoundly liberating. However, it’s taken me a long time to move from mere intellectual appreciation of archetypes to being able to connect with them in a context as loaded with other emotional associations as a church service.

For more on archetypes you might want to listen to some of my talks on the subject, or read the section on them in Middle Way Philosophy 3, but in the context of rites of passage the most likely archetype you’ll come across is the God Archetype (also called the Wise Old Man/ Old Woman). The God Archetype is a projection ahead of yourself as a completely integrated being, and its power comes from the temporary energy of integration as we connect even with the possibility of being so much ‘bigger’ than we are now. For example, this is the first verse of the hymn that opened my father’s funeral:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,

There is no shadow of turning with thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,

As Thou hast been Thou for ever wilt be.

I managed to relate to this positively by reflecting on the way that the capacity for integration, represented deep in my experience by God, was always there in the way the hymn was trying to convey. I could always return to more integrated states, however conflicted I might get at other times. I found that interpretation easier in that moment, also, because I was in touch with my physical experience, which could be a basis of connection with the bodily experience of the hymn writer (I expect that he was expressing his bodily experience as well as his metaphysical assumptions). On past such occasions, I have instead allowed myself to follow a critical intellectual response to the metaphysical claims about God’s eternal nature that one could also get out of this verse, which leads one instead rapidly down a road of conflict and alienation.

Perspectival reflection

Finally, though, there are also still very likely to be claims made during rites of passage that cannot either be positively accepted or interpreted archetypally by anyone trying to practise the Middle Way. For me, claims about the afterlife fall into this category. I have previously found them the most jarring, even offensive, thing I experienced at funerals. Sometimes I have thought “How dare these people disturb a helpful process of social solidarity by engaging in wishful thinking and metaphysical fantasy completely divorced from bodily experience?” But of course, these passages will happen. In most religious contexts, we’re most unlikely to be able to persuade the organisers to leave them out, and it’s probably not wise to even try, given how deeply rooted they are.

However, in my recent experience I think the way I managed to deal with such indigestible bits is to put them in perspective. Again, bodily awareness and positive participation really seem to help with this sense of perspective. These are just people engaging in fantasies, and though they are not harmless by any means, they are far less important than the positive value of the ritual as a whole. They are neither the whole of the people and their beliefs, nor are they the whole of the religious community, and it is possible to gently put them aside and just focus on what is positive.

Picture: Simone Martini – Funeral of St Martin of Tours

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

8 thoughts on “Rites of passage

  1. Hi Robert,

    I recognise and relate to many of the issues that you describe as having experienced when previously attending religious ceremonies.

    However, it is with these social gatherings and rituals that I feel most of the major religions still meet some specific human needs in more effective ways than more secular alternatives. I like Church weddings (my wife and I were married in a Church, despite not being Christian) for their history, location and ritual and have also gained much from attending Church funerals, for similar reasons. However, I do find myself being distracted by some of the religious language used. At a relatively recent funeral, the Vicar began to explain what we must do, and how we must behave in order to be blessed with exclusive entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven and I began to get annoyed. I then felt like I have been wrenched out of what had been, up until that point, a very reflective and valuable experience. Having looked around at the congregation I reminded myself that these words were probably bringing great comfort to many who were sat there listening (although, I also hazarded a guess that there were also those that felt much as I did).

    I am very pleased that you felt able to overcome many of your own personal misgivings when you attended your Fathers funeral, which does sound like it was a positive experience. While I am relatively content to ignore much of the dogmatic rhetoric at such events (by not singing hymns or by using prayers to reflect in my own way), I am not ready to reinterpret religious scripture – which I often find offensive – to suit my own needs; I am not sure that I ever will be. I have been trying to think of examples, outside of a religious context, where I think it would be a good idea to consciously reinterpret the words of another for ones own gain, rather than seeking other sources or creating new material from scratch. I think that most Biblical scripture has quite specific meaning and that this meaning holds great value for many people, in the same way that the words of Emmanuel Kant, Oswald Mosely or Bob Dylan can also have quite specific meanings (and value for different people). I am not sure I would agree that consciously reinterpreting any of the above three authors would be appropriate or necessary. I also wonder if this is even analogous with reinterpreting religious texts, which then leads me to ask: if not, why not?


  2. Hi Rich, I’m glad you can relate some of what I say to your own experience, but am a bit baffled by your account of archetypal interpretation. Archetypal interpretation isn’t ‘for one’s own ends’ (it’s not against them either, but this just misses the point) – it’s simply about finding an interpretation that relates to one’s experience, especially one’s deeper or wider experience. From what you say about your relationship to the history, location and ritual of churches, it sounds as though you may already experience that archetypal relationship with religious objects or environments. I would have thought that the reason they’re a bit different from Bob Dylan or Immanuel Kant, and even more different from Oswald Moseley, would be obvious from that experience. People generally have a far more profound symbolic relationship with, say, the figures of God or Jesus than with Bob Dylan. That’s not to say that Bob Dylan or the others can’t also be archetypal for some, and indeed can be worshipped. What matters is not what these figures are or are not in any outward sense, but what function they have for people, and the way that function is entrenched in many aspects of cultural life.

  3. Hi Robert,

    If what I have written is an account of Archetypal representation, then that is quite unintentional. I was only commenting on the mechanics of consciously altering the meaning of a piece of text (which may be one and the same thing!). I would argue that if one interprets an alternative meaning from a Biblical text in order to better relate to one’s own experience (and thus make the experience of a wedding or funeral more palatable), then that is – in some way – for one’s own ends, which doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing to do.

    I can only comment on my own experience but ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ means to me what I assume the author meant it to mean, in that it refers to faith in God, as an entity, and as my Holy Father. I have lots of issues with this statement, but feel no need to reinterpret it just because of this. If I was listening to a recital of one of Oswald Mosely’s more controversial speeches (I have family members who would subscribe to much of his views, so this is not beyond the realms of possibility) then I would disagree strongly with it; I would not, as a consequence feel the need to reinterpret it. Like the Biblical text, it already relates to my own experience, which is my experience of not agreeing.

    While I would agree that a greater number of people have a profound symbolic relationship with Jesus, I would suggest that a significant number of people have as much of a symbolic relationship with figures such as Dylan, Elvis or Kurt Cobain too, and that such meaning can be as influential and potent as any found in a religious context. I would also caution against dismissing the symbolic meaning that people can gain from more unpleasant figures, like Mosley. Such figures can have as much symbolic meaning for some as Ghandi does for others – the response to this is not to reinterpret Mosely’s (or Stalin’s, or Charles Manson’s) words, but to try to understand why another can relate so strongly to them and then challenge them with compassion and intelligence (I often fail in both these respects).

    As you know this is where we seem to differ most in our views, and experience, and as always I am not really seeking resolution but instead enjoying exploring these differences, soaking in any new insights as and when they occur. Apart from this predictable (on my part) line of questioning, I have related to everything in your blog. As you know, these are issues that I am likely to be dealing with in the, nearer than I would like, future and for this reason I am especially thankful for this post and your candid account of your Father funeral.


  4. Hi Rich, Probably the key point about interpreting text is that a text doesn’t have only one meaning, and the meaning does not reside in the text itself, but rather in the body of the person interpreting it. I’ve no doubt that the hymn author probably had metaphysical beliefs primarily in mind, but there were probably other meanings involved for him as well that made that metaphysical claim more important in experience. What matters for me when I’m singing a hymn in church is what it means for me – it doesn’t have an abstract significance beyond this. This isn’t necessarily a ‘re-interpretation’, because it isn’t that there’s a single absolute interpretation that I’m deviating from – it’s just an interpretation, which may be shared to a degree with others, or not. All of this follows from embodied meaning.

  5. Yes, I agree that any text will have different meanings to different people. Meaning can be derived from any aspect of a given text, from the style of writing and the medium on which it is written to the content of the text itself. I was careful to refer only to ‘conscious’ reinterpretation, by which I meant taking the specific content of a text which holds one meaning and seeking to find another, because the original meaning does not provoke a positive reaction. I am not implying that there is anything inherently wrong in doing this, I just don’t see any personal benefit to me and feel that for certain texts, which express ideas that I do not support, it may be more fruitful to understand why others value them, rather than attempting to find ways for me to relate to them more positively.

    However, as with Church buildings and other religious materials, I do find much meaning in many hymns and religious texts. It might be that I respond to the music, or even the message itself.

    ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’.

    This phrase has very little meaning for me within it’s content, although I respond very much to the style of writing, for instance. The next part: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’, has much more express meaning for me, and I relate positively to the content as well as the writing style, despite the metaphysical nature of the rest of the passage.

    Bob Marley is a good personal example. Many of his lyrics are deeply religious, yet his songs hold a lot of positive meaning for me, even though I do not subscribe to his spiritual beliefs. I love the music and the delivery of the words, all of which continue to generate new meaning for me as well as being saturated in memories and emotions from my past.


  6. Is there really a distinction between understanding why others value a text and finding ways to relate to it more positively yourself? Understanding of why others value something has an emotional component, and helps us relate their physical experience to our own. In the process we add a new element to the different strands of our own response to it. And is it not beneficial to enrich one’s understanding of a text in such a way?

    I think it also helps to distinguish the ‘ideas’ in a text (i.e. the meaning of the symbols in it) from the beliefs it may try to represent. It may be difficult to avoid an overwhelming association of the words of a text with certain beliefs (as I find particularly with claims about individuals entering the afterlife), but at the same time there may be other strands that we can acknowledge at the same time in our response to the text, shared overtones that put us better in touch with those who may hold quite different beliefs about it.

  7. Hi Robert,

    I would agree that understanding why others, and indeed oneself, find the meaning of a given text appealing and valuable is a way of positively engaging with it. Even if one finds the content of a text deeply repulsive, there is still value in engaging with it and with others who don’t feel as oneself does. It is also important to find stands of common ground, and in a church setting I often find this in ideas such as forgiveness, charity and compassion. If I believed that the majority of people in a church, including the Vicar, regarded God as a metaphor for a part of the human psyche, then I would probably find it easier to go along with. As it is, when most people in Church sing about a God who does not change they are referring to the jealous and violent God in the Bible. It is not the idea of God Himself that I find problematic, this would be like finding Darth Vader offensive, it is the fact that many people not only have unquestioning belief in Him but also promote Him the foremost moral Beacon available to human society (as an aside, I relate much more to the figure of Jesus than I do to God).

    My reservation here is with the act of altering ones previously understood meaning (in terms of content) of certain texts, so that it’s meaning no longer has negative connotations – by reinterpreting the idea of an absolute metaphysical God, into a more useful and integrative archetype, for instance. This is only personal to me, but when a text has very negative associations and connotations then I would rather engage with it on those terms, rather than alter my interpretation of it. I have been trying to think of an example where one may find oneself in a ritualistic situation that contains words that one finds offensive and that one is expected to recite. I could only think of a Football match and as I do not follow football this probably isn’t the best example, but I shall carry on nonetheless.

    If I was a Manchester United fan then I could very well be standing on the terraces singing and chanting. It is then possible the the crowd will then begin to chant something like:

    ‘Park, Park, wherever you may be,
    You eat dogs in your home country,
    Could be worse, could be Scouse,
    Eating rats in your council house.’

    This text will also have many meanings for different people, some will perceive it as a playful joke, others may hold genuinely xenophobic views which are reinforced by chanting these words. Nonetheless, I think there is much to dislike here and my response wouldn’t be to make any attempt to reinterpret it, but rather to not join in with the chant and to then engage with it on it’s own terms – which in itself can turn out to be a positive engagement. Nonetheless, I would still be possible to engage positively with, and find valuable meaning in the experience of a football match.

    It is clear then that at future funerals I will not be engaging with God in the same way that you have, and perhaps I will be worse off for it. However, I will definitely try to maintain ‘positive engagement in solidarity actions’ and keep my reflections in perspective. The last sentence of your posts will be especially useful for me when dealing with the ‘indigestible’ bits of these types of rituals (of which I clearly have many) and the people that subscribe to them:

    ‘They are neither the whole of the people and their beliefs, nor are they the whole of the religious community, and it is possible to gently put them aside and just focus on what is positive’.

    One final question here. Is reinterpreting the idea of God as a deity into a physic archetype different from reinterpreting Karma from a cosmic action (across multiple births) into the general cause and effect that we experience in our everyday lives, and if so why?


  8. I don’t think I would find much positive in that football chant, so it does illustrate your reservations well. However, I’d suggest that the difference is that the football chant does not have the same archetypal richness as hymns in church. You could still try to sympathise with it and find archetypes in it, but it would probably be less rewarding to do so.

    If your worry is about the possibility of repressing your previous negative reactions to statements of belief you don’t share, then I’d agree that this is inadvisable. The tricky task is to fully appreciate one’s critical perspective on metaphysical belief (whether that’s in church or on the football terraces) at the same time as being able to explore and appreciate the archetypal elements and the complexity of the people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code

Get a Gravatar