e-mail us

Cover story

The roots of liturgy

NCR Staff

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals built altars and conducted funeral ceremonies. This protoreligious behavior shows that as soon as hominids began to behave like human beings they wondered and worried about the mysteries of existence -- and found some resolution in stories and rituals.

“How can we live in this bafflingly uncertain world and not be afraid?” Newberg and d’Aquili write. They theorize that religious story and ritual emerged as ways to deal with anxieties. We told stories that helped us make sense of things and then began to act out their parts. We tap the neurobiological mechanisms that give ritual its power by bringing story to life in ritualized behaviors. “No human society has yet been found,” said Joseph Campbell, “in which … mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies, interpreted by seers, poets, theologians or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song, and ecstatically experienced in life-empowering visions.”

Until recently anthropologists agreed that the urge to perform rituals was purely cultural. Research shows now that humans are probably driven to act out their myths by the biological operators of the brain, write Newberg and d’Aquili.

The brain has an inbuilt tendency to turn all thoughts into actions, they say. Vestigial contacts that exist between the highly advanced frontal lobes and the brain’s motor areas inhibit the brain’s inclination to act out all thoughts, yet this inhibition can be overridden, and often is. By mentally rehearsing actions like stalking or fighting, hominids honed those abilities and prospered accordingly.

It would be no surprise then if the brain compelled us to act out our religious stories. “The ideas these stories convey about fate, death and the nature of the human spirit … would certainly gain the mind’s attention,” write Newberg and d’Aquili. Combine the neurological functions and the meaningful context, and we have the source of a ritual’s power. “It allows the worshipper to enter a religious story metaphorically, confront the profound mysteries the story embraces, and then experience the resolution of those mysteries in a powerful, possibly life-changing way.”

Add to this the fact that dancing, singing or chanting can drive the cortexes into producing ineffable, intensely pleasurable feelings. In combination with other ritual activities -- for example, fasting, hyperventilation or inhalation of incense -- this multisensory stimulation can affect physiology in ways that lead to altered mental states. All this combines to powerfully reinforce the beneficial effects of liturgy and ritual.

Rituals allow participants to taste, if only for a moment, the transcendent spiritual unity that all religions promise, they say. Liturgy, like God, will be around for a long time to come.

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001