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Part II, Rites: The Spectrum of Ritual Activities, opens by exploring those activities that most people consider to be good examples of ritual: birth and death ceremonies, healing and exchange rites, sacrifices and enthronements, and so on. In each case, the analysis attempts to uncover the particular logic and symbolic structures of these familiar genres of ritual practice. However, by shifting attention to various activities that are not ritual but are readily thought to have ”ritual‑like” qualities‑such as etiquette, meditation, and certain sports or theatrical performances it is possible to uncover some of the fundamental ways of acting that are intrinsic to ritualizing in European and American culture. These examples suggest that larger questions concerning the nature of ritual action may be very dependent upon the context in which certain qualities of action are elaborated or muted.

Part III, Contexts: The Fabric of Ritual Life, explores the broader relationships between ritual activities and social life, specifically addressing why some groups have more ritual than others, how rituals change, and the place of ritual in so‑called traditional and modern settings. The vitality of much traditional ritual, experiments in new forms of ritualization, the influence of anthropological writings, and the development of a new paradigm for self‑conscious ritualization‑all indicate the variety of factors that influence both how we view ritual and how we do it. In this section, the instabilities of theory and data uncovered in parts I and II are recast in the context of the very emergence of ”ritual” as a category for depicting a putatively universal phenomenon. Critiques of the function and operation of such universal categories necessitate a more systematic awareness of the way in which concepts like ”ritual” construct a position of generally scholarly and objective analysis in contrast to the activities identified as data and as irredeemably locked within their cultural particularity.

These three frameworks contribute a number of perspectives to an overall analysis of the phenomenon of ritual. Let me highlight this analysis as succinctly as possible. Today we think of ”ritual” as a complex sociocultural medium variously constructed of tradition, exigency, and self‑expression; it is understood to play a wide variety of roles and to communicate a rich density of overdetermined messages and attitudes. For the most part, ritual is the medium chosen to invoke those ordered relationships that are thought to obtain between human beings in the here‑and‑now and nonimmediate sources of power, authority, and value. Definitions of these relationships in terms of ritual`s vocabulary of gesture and word, in contrast to theological speculation or doctrinal formulation, suggest that the fundamental efficacy of ritual activity lies in its ability to have people embody assumptions about their place in a larger order of things.

Despite the consensus surrounding this perspective on ritual, the emergence of the concept of ”ritual” as a category for human action is not the result of any single or necessary progress in human development. Nor can the concept imply that all so-called ritual practices can be reduced to a uniform, archetypal, or universal set of acts, attitudes, structures, or functions. The definition, incidence, and significance of so‑called ritual practices are matters of particular social situations and organizations of cultural knowledge. These have varied greatly even in European and American history. Critics of what we call ritual are found among the Old Testament prophets, Greek philosophers, Protestant reformers, and many secular participants in the current scene. Promoters of what we mean by ritual are just as varied. While r7thcentury Quakers espoused a particularly radical antiritualism, the late‑zoth‑century African‑American writer and founder of the festival of Kwanzaa, Maulana Kar11a, sees ritual as a primary means for self transformation and cultural revolution.

Ultimately, this book will argue that talk about ritual may reveal more about the speakers than about the bespoken. In this vein, analysis of the emergence of the concept of ritual and its various applications make clear the way in which the concept has mediated a series of relationships between ”us” and some ”other”‑be they papist idolators, primitive magicians, or the ancient wise ones who have resisted the forces of modernity. The concluding arguments of part III attempt to demonstrate how the emergence and subsequent understandings of the category of ritual have been fundamental to the modernist enterprise of establishing objective, universal knowledge that, as the flip side of its explanative power, nostalgically rues the loss of enchantment. Overall, the organization of the book attempts to introduce the general but serious reader to the basics as well as the complexities of this area of discussion about religion. As part of that project, it includes familiar figures and ideas, and some of both that are not so familiar. I hope that the mix will stimulate fresh inquiry on the practices of religion.
The ancient Chinese sage Xunzi (pronounced Shyun`‑dz), quoted in the epigraph, offers three pieces of practical advice for anyone attempting to talk about ritual.  In effect, he warns against the temptation to reduce this complex phenomenon to simplistic formulas or strict categories. He also suggests that elaborate theories constructed by means of labyrinthine methodological considerations will only lead one away from reality. Finally, he reminds us that we will never understand ritual if we are apt to look down on what other people do and view their actions from a position of intellectual or observational superiority. While recognizing the self‑serving significance of this argument for a major proponent of Confucian teachings, this is still valuable advice that I have tried to take very seriously.

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