201 Toolkit: Roy Rappaport

Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity is the silver hammer in my theory and method toolkit. The year I took Religion 201 it was the last book on the syllabus, the final addition to our already extensive set of theoretical lenses. However, having only a week to read through almost the entire book (the last handful of chapters were not assigned, and I only read them later on my second pass through the book), and given the complexity of Rappaport's many arguments as well as the sheer density of his writing (which is excellent and eloquent), much of it simply went over my head. It wasn't until I was re-reading the 201 syllabus a year later in preparation for my junior qualifying examination that I revisited Rappaport and had a chance to not only read the entire work, but go over it much more carefully.

Among the many useful points to be drawn from Rappaport's magnum opus is what he calls the hierarchical dimension of liturgical orders, that is, of rituals. (His own definition of ritual will wait until another day.) His breakdown and explication of the four elements of ritual (which may be found in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 263-276) may be extracted and applied to examine an idea system more broadly.

Rappaport's hierarchy is topped by ultimate sacred postulates, the most fundamental conceptual elements in religion. They are vague in content, generally not subject to empirical disproof, and therefore enduring. Rappaport argues that because ultimate sacred postulates are (at least apparently) unchanging, they acquire sanctity — that is, the quality of being discursively unquestionable — which they can lend to other concepts.

In other words, because ultimate sacred postulates are immune to falsification and seem eternally true to those who postulate them, they cannot be argued against (short of being outright rejected, of course). Moreover, they can imbue other ideas with this quality of unquestionableness. Rappaport's favorite example of an ultimate sacred postulate is the Shema, an originally Jewish declaration which is now shared by many branches of the Abrahamic tree. The Shema is the statement "The Lord our God the Lord is One." Even if one does not believe this to be true, there is hardly any way to disprove the postulation itself. Taking a step back, moreover, it is difficult to say what exactly this postulate postulates: what it means to say that God is One is (in this case, notoriously) unclear. Nevertheless, for those who do so postulate, the truth of this statement is indisputable and certain.

Below the apex of ultimate sacred postulates, Rappaport describes cosmological axioms, ideas about how the world (or perhaps better, the cosmos) is structured and how it functions. In Abrahamic terms these axioms include the dualism between good and evil and their corresponding cosmological locations, Heaven and Hell. Buddhism borrows much cosmology from earlier Indian traditions, describing the world centered around Mount Sumeru, an axis mundi which in turn leads up to the realms of the gods. In early China the dualism of yin 陰 and yang 陽 are clear examples, as is the system of five elemental phases (wuxing 五行) by which the world is temporally and spatially classified. These in turn may have their origins (or at least find a similar counterpart) in the cosmologically ordered world of the Shang 商 dynasty (the earliest pre-imperial Chinese kingdom for which textual historical evidence is available), which was inhabited by a host of directional and seasonal spirits. Systematic representations of the way the world is organized and in which it operates all fall into the category of cosmological axioms.

Such axioms in turn are followed by third-order rules of conduct, which are simply specifications for how to behave in light of the prevailing cosmological conditions. Because the one God is good and can forgive and absolve the blemishes of sin, for instance, He should be worshipped and prayed to. Or, since rebirth in the never-ending cycle of samsara is conditioned by karma, one should practice meditation and accumulate good karma in order to secure a better rebirth in one's next life; or (if one follows the Buddha), one should practice meditation in order to cut off all karmic outflows and attain to extinction in this very life, thereby escaping the endless suffering of death and rebirth. Or again, in early imperial China, a new dynasty should adopt the colors and musical tones appropriate to the elemental phase to which it corresponds in the cycle of conquering or the cycle of production. One way or another, rules of conduct prescribe what do to given the cosmological axioms which prevail in the world.

Finally, on the fourth level lie what Rappaport calls imported "understandings of the external world in the form of formal indices of prevailing conditions." (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 266) These importations constitute the bridge between the outward influence of the understandings enunciated in ritual and religion, which move outward, describing the cosmological state of the world and prescribing how to act accordingly, and the practical conditions of life, which move inward, describing the psychological and physical condition of ritual participants or religious adherents, as well as other material and social conditions in their society.

This fourth level is best understood via illustrative example. In the modern Catholic church, for instance, the traditional Latin mass, perceived to be unpopular or too inaccessible to modern congregations, was replaced with a vernacular liturgy. In the history of Buddhism, in response to some schools of practice which insisted upon monastic abandonment of household life and intense meditative undertaking, other schools arose which promoted simpler practices to gain access to blessings and enlightenment, practices such as recitation of short prayers, spells, mantras, or even just the names of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. This kind of praxis did not necessarily require monastic commitment, and thus was available to the laity. Or again, for an ancient Chinese example, in the Analects Confucius notes that while ritual prescriptions specify that a linen sacrificial cap is to be worn, the common practice was to wear a cap of silk, and since this was economical, it was permissible to do so.

In all these examples, something changes in response to the pressure of on-the-ground conditions. The pressure of those conditions is the essence of the fourth level of Rappaport's hierarchy.

In passing, it's worth noting that such changes as described above all preserve the adaptive elasticity of the overall system. For instance, when linen was too expensive, the use of silk allowed for the higher-level rule of conduct (that a special kind of sacrificial cap should be worn) to be preserved. Similarly, the advent of Buddhist recitation practices allowed for the rule of conduct 'pursue enlightenment' to be preserved among laypeople who could not or would not become monks in order to do so. As Rappaport reminds us, such adaptive changes always serve to preserve some more integral part of the whole system unchanged.

To review: ultimate sacred postulates; cosmological axioms; rules of conduct; indications of on-the-ground conditions. This will be on the quiz.

We'll try out an application of Rappaport's lens in the next post. In the meantime, please feel free to comment with any questions or ideas.


  1. The Shema reminds me of a book I once saw in a convenience store in East Thetford, VT. The title was something like "How we know God Exists" or maybe "Proof that God Exists!" and the opening line of the first chapter was "We know that God exists because the Bible tells us so."

    I thought it was pretty funny at the time... should have bought the book!

  2. Interestingly, Rappaport also discusses the issue of the effect of the actual invariance of texts on religion, which depends on the apparent invariance of ultimate sacred postulates. In a nutshell, when religious ideas become textually recorded, their longevity and stability vastly increase, but that stability can become a potentially harmful rigidity. (Harmful, that is, to the religious tradition as a system of information and as an organism.) With the advent of such textual preservation and codification, elements of the idea system become potentially difficult to change in the face of on-the-ground pressures (Rappaport's fourth tier).

    Rules of conduct (Rappaport's third level) make perhaps the best example. Certain prescriptions belonging to times long past which have survived into the present may no longer suit the conditions to which they once responded. For instance, biblical dietary restrictions received sanctity on account of their association with biblical cosmology and, ultimately, the ultimate sacred postulates contained within the Bible. At some point those rules had adaptive value — perhaps proscribing the consumption of potentially dangerous foods, or other purposes — but nowadays there is relatively less use for such rules (at least as far as the safety of eating pork goes). However, since those archaic prescriptions are preserved textually, it's potentially difficult to ignore them. The book says so, and it has always said so.

    The extremely orthodox — or rather, the fundamentalist — will insist on abiding by such rules of conduct despite fourth-level pressure to change or ignore them. According to Rappaport, this can be maladaptive because opposition to such pressure can potentially threaten the integrity of the idea system. Adaptive systems allow or facilitate the alteration of subsystems in order to preserve higher-order elements of the whole system unchanged. If the invariance of a relatively low-order subsystem is insisted upon, the resulting rigidity threatens the higher-order elements, and indeed, the entire system. More concretely speaking, such rigidity can engender schism, as indeed has occurred, for example, in Judaism over the issue of dietary restrictions.

    Anyhow, Diane, you definitely raise a good example of the discursive unquestionableness of ultimate sacred postulates which Rappaport calls sanctity, one all the more interesting because it highlights the phenomenon of the sanctity of textual invariance.