This post belongs to our occasional “Scholarly Inquiry” series which facilitates conversations with important scholars in Mormon history and studies. Today we reprise our focus on religious practice and ritual from a few months ago and hear from Dan Belnap, professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Belnap, who has a particular interest in ritual in both ancient and contemporary contexts, is the editor of a book entitled By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice, and published by the Religious Studies Center at BYU and Deseret Book last year. (And it features, one must add, a stellar chapter from our very own J. Stapley on the development of Mormon ritual!) We appreciate Professor Belnap’s responses and invite your thoughtful engagement. Also, stay tuned for Part 2.
As I gather from your introduction, part of the way you framed By Our Rites of Worship was to push back against negative connotations associated with the term, if not the concept, of “ritual” in Mormon discourse. Could you say a bit more about why you believe Mormons should get comfortable with the notion of “ritual”?
The easy answer to this question is simply because ritual plays a fundamental, essential role in our understanding of salvation. The challenge, I think, is that the general membership retains a Protestant unease with ritual, religious ritual in particular. This unease goes back for centuries manifesting itself in European thinking in two ways: 1) the wild, bacchantic frenzy supposedly exhibited by the indigenous cultures European expansion encountered (such as those described in the Golden Bough), and 2) the supposedly formal, decadent, and spiritless brainwashing ritual of Catholicism and Christian orthodoxy. I think it is important that the Christianity that Joseph Smith’s is familiar with is not one that was especially tolerant of the formalism of the “high” rituals of Catholic, Orthodoxy, or even Lutheranism. Instead, it was the Christianity of Methodism, Baptist, and Presbyterianism, traditions in which ritual did not, and still does not, play any particular role in salvation. This does not mean that these traditions don’t have ritual. They do, but the “high” ritual, i.e., formalized, ecclesiastical ritual, is replaced by “low” ritual (ritual behavior that is not centered necessarily on the religious hierarchy or ecclesiastical structure, but that is private, or communally spontaneous). This is the ritual environment in which we can set Joseph prior to the First Vision and the environment of the early Saints. Even today, I think we would find many members who are, on the whole, more comfortable with comparing the general tenor of the church to Protestantism, particularly American Protestantism, than they are orthodox tradition, no matter the similarities with the latter. In fact, LDS worship incorporates both “high” and “low” ritual behavior, all of which we understand as beneficial to our spiritual welfare. Thus, there seems to be a disconnect among LDS concerning our perception of ritual. On the one hand, stemming from our European past, ritual is avoided, with the term “ordinance” substituted for this type of action and in which the potency of the term is rendered harmless by a simple definition in which we stress the symbolic nature of the act, suggesting that the act itself is merely a mechanism for the transmission of an idea. Carried to its full extent, this approach ultimately renders the ritual act as useless, for if it is merely symbolizes a spiritual principle, then theoretically if one thought through the symbolism, then performance of the act is no longer necessary. Yet, on the other hand, we firmly believe that the performances of these acts are absolutely essential for salvation and exaltation, meaning that even if we don’t understand them, they must still be performed. This, in turn taps into our fear of merely keeping the “letter” of the law and suggests that one’s moral and ethical nature is not necessary. In any case, I think I’ve rambled on enough about these questions. And I’m not sure that I completely answered them, but there you go. Hopefully, it does suggest that the ritual study in the LDS environment is one that can be rewarding and enlightening.
Study of ritual and other religious practice has become increasingly important to the field of American religious history over the past few decades, as it has long been in other fields of study. This kind of scholarship is still, however, catching on with scholars of Mormonism. Why do you think practitioners of Mormon Studies should adopt this approach? How can a paradigm oriented toward practice and ritual benefit our scholarship?
I don’t know if I would say that Mormon Studies “should” incorporate ritual studies, but I do think it would be beneficial to have a greater appreciation or awareness of ritual theory. With that said, I do think there is a growing awareness as evidenced by work done by Kathleen Flake, Jonathan Stapely, Alonzo Gaskill, Devery Scott Anderson and others. I think part of the “catching up” feeling regarding LDS scholarship and ritual is that LDS ritual study through most of the 20th century hearkens back to the studies of High Nibley, who, in turn, was highly influenced by the myth-and-ritual approach. Only recently do I think that, at least in terms of ritual study, have LDS scholars begun to emerge from his approach and methodology. I think there is a second challenge to LDS ritual scholarship and that is the ongoing perception of the church as a cult. Our outsider status to mainstream Christianity leaves us somewhat sensitive to the differences of both our doctrine and practice. Couple this with the general Western antipathy to ritual and the sacred nature of our ritual practice and it is not surprising that more hasn’t been done in the field. In many ways, Nibley’s work can be seen as a reaction to the accusation of the church as a cult by suggesting ritual continuity between early Christianity and the rites established in the Restoration.
Yet in recent years, I’ve seen a growing Christian interest in ritual, both in the academic sphere and in pastoral outreach. It seems there is an increasing recognition of the power and value of ritual in worship. Moreover, as the church continues to become a global institution it is encountering individuals from religious systems that are much more comfortable with a prominent role for ritual in their religious experience. Thus, I get a sense that the historical approbation concerning ritual is fading, as more and more scholars and laypersons alike are recognizing the value of ritual. And it is this discussion in which I believe the Latter-day Saint is uniquely positioned to be of influence. With our belief in an embodied salvation, the understanding that full salvation will be experienced with a perfect wholeness between a spirit form and a physical form, coupled with our belief that eternal life is, ultimately, social experience, I believe that our ritual performances allow for a greater understanding of place and meaning.