Beyond Superstition

by on Sunday, 04 February 2007 Comments
Belief in spirits or similar supernatural beings is a universal phenomenon. It provides a society with a set of stories and explanatory mechanisms through which individual and collective fears, traumas and expectations are channeled. It is expressed through ritual activities that are supposed to monitor the interaction between the human and the supernatural world, to repel or at least limit the nefarious activities of spirits and, sometimes, to take benefit from the help they can provide. The interaction between human and spirits often takes the form of a trade-off. Humans provide the spirits with goods that will make their afterlife happier or less painful while the spirits restrain form using their evil powers or even offer some kind of protection. Of course, the nature of the trade-off depends on the class of spirits that human are dealing with, and such negotiating process is always hazardous, as spirits in general prove to be rather capricious and unreliable beings. This accounts for the importance given to the skills of the go-between, i.e. the man or woman (shaman, sorcerer, priest…) who works as intermediary between the human and the supernatural world. Performing a ritual is not enough. The ritual is to be performed skillfully by someone on whose wisdom, vision and experience one can rely.

Social sciences (especially anthropology and sociology of religion) provide us with a rich array of accounts and analyses on the forms that these rituals and beliefs take throughout ages and culture. However, I would like now to go beyond the objectivist attitude of the social scientist and share a few thoughts and impressions that my observation of Yi religion has arisen in me. First and foremost, I have been struck from the start by the fact that belief in spirits had to do with the struggle for life in a very difficult natural environment. Issues of life and death are surrounding the Nuosu (Sichuan Yi) family all the time. Illness, hunger, cold are still the basic facts to be dealt with. In this perspective, the belief in spirits and the rituals that come along are a way to give an account of the duress of life and to find some practical and existential response to the pain that comes from the death of one’s child, the affliction of a physical handicap, the hardships that arise from the life in mountains.

Second observation: the rituals express the solidarity that links together a family or a neighborhood. The efficiency of a ritual comes primarily from its collective character, the grouping of relatives of friends around the body of the sick person. I found very moving the discreet gestures of solidarity and tenderness that are given to the sick while the ritual is performed. Ritual is about compassion and comfort. As I pointed out already, the spirits represent the dark side of solitude, selfishness, lack of proper social behavior. From a theological perspective, I see in a ritual of exorcism an expression of the alliance that binds together a community. Such alliance is not only social, it is also religious in nature. Conversely, a religious alliance has a social component from the very start. The Bible teaches us that justice and pity within the community are the tenets of a proper alliance between a community and God Himself. Expelling the spirits while expressing compassion and comfort is to renew a social and family alliance that prepares the binding together of this given community and the God who dwells among us.

As I said already, it is very striking that the form taken by the expulsion of evil and the restoration of the physical and social body is a sacrificial meal. Sharing together the food that has been offered in sacrifice is the best answer that can be given to the forces of solitude and disruption. The sharing of such meals during rituals has helped me to understand better the anthropological roots of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It has helped me to see this sacrament a process of healing and reconciliation because it has been prepared and is still prefigured by the way cultures and societies have dealt with violence, illness and death throughout the ages: they have made the sharing of meals the norm of human existence, they have made the taking of meals, where everyone receives what he/she is entitled to, the real means to restore personal and social health. Eating and drinking together in an orderly fashion is to seal an alliance, to seal the promise that justice and solidarity will ultimately be stronger than solitude, violence, illness and death.

Summing up, the belief in spirits and the way people deal with them through rituals often express deep intuitions on the ills that threaten the social body. They also express profound intuitions on the fact that solidarity, self-sacrifice and communal sharing are prerequisites for preserving or restoring human existence and dignity. When the beliefs and rituals proper to a culture express the way human relationships are meant to be if we want to ensure healing and reconciliation, then God is dwelling among us.

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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