Guest Post: John Soboslai, Assistant Professor of Religion, Montclair State University
In my first post I outlined the goals and hopes that brought an interdisciplinary group of scholars and media creators together in June of 2022. Seeking to lay the foundation for a series of immersive, interactive, virtual reality experiences of religious rituals around the U.S., we convened to work out the question of how such a task might be accomplished.
One of the first issues that arose dealt with the question of selection. Which rituals should we record? How should we choose? Should we address rituals that students are familiar with or focus on those likely to be lesser known? What would our choices say about the ritual, itself, and its associated religion? How could we deal with the issue of representation since we could never hope to capture every variant and nuance of practice? This post outlines some of our discussion and the conclusions we reached.
What’s a Ritual?
Interestingly, there is no universal definition, or even understanding, of ritual. Hindu pujas, Jewish Shabbat services, special greetings, and cultural codes that guide manners are all forms of ritualization. Given this incredibly wide range, ritual theorists often focus on function over substance. For example, ritual is often described as a means of drawing attention to, and asserting a privileged difference between, some activities when compared to others. (The web series Religion for Breakfast does a great job explaining these issues.)
The benefit of such a perspective is its openness; no religion provides a standard against which all others are measured. In theory, this gives all religious practices equal status. The drawback of this perspective, however, is that it gets us no closer to determining what to record and explain. Looking at how religions encourage practitioners to “pay attention” means nearly everything done beneath the banner of religion could be included! And, the clear implication for our group is that our filming selections will almost certainly play a role in how viewers come to define ritual — religious ritual, in this instance — both by establishing the subject and by choosing appropriate comparisons.
What’s a Religion?
Even the notion of “religious ritual” is somewhat problematic. For example, some members of the Baha’i faith and Druze communities regard the complex ceremonial rites embraced by other traditions as unnecessary. Despite that, outsiders tend to describe the practices of both groups as religious.
Moreover, many human pursuits — from sporting events to cinema to education — incorporate strategies for capturing our attention while also establishing contrasts between those activities and others. Few people would claim, however, that these activities are explicitly religious. These types of issues — while fascinating to ponder — also helped us realize that our filming choices will undoubtedly impact how viewers define not just “ritual” but also “religion.”
What About Intrafaith Differences?
We also need to think about the varieties of practice within religions. Religious labels like “Muslim” or “Christian” are umbrella labels, disguising multiplicity behind the illusion of uniformity. There is not a singular “Islam” but numerous “Islams,” not a single Christianity but myriad “Christianities.” In other words, Muslim and Christian ways of behaving and believing each share a set of family resemblances, but they are not identical across the faith spectrum.
Sectarian labels like “Sunni” or “Shi’a” and “Catholic” or “Protestant” help to illustrate some differences, but even those categories include almost-infinite nuances across various schools, interpretative viewpoints, and even ethnic contexts. On the one hand, we don’t want to choose a single ritual form and present it as representative of the whole. On the other hand, trying to capture every variety would be impossible. Such an approach also risks giving equal footing to religious organizations that promote hate, white supremacy, or social discord. None of us wanted that.
What About Familiarity?
Viewer knowledge base was another point of discussion. One possibility is starting with ritual practices that are familiar, or even recognizable, to students. Beginning with more familiar and widely practiced religious forms could potentially bring about more immediately-relevant intercultural understanding. However, a lack of representation remains an issue with this approach.
Alternatively, we could start with more unfamiliar rites, which would help highlight the diversity of religious forms. That was, in part, the idea behind the short-lived CNN series Believer hosted by Reza Aslan. Offering viewers access to esoteric practices promised to demonstrate the variety of religious practices. Unfortunately, the sensational nature of the chosen rituals exoticized as much as it explained. The show also focused on practices that intentionally broke social norms or appeared as ecstatic disruptions of life. In this sense, Believer is a sort of cautionary tale, reinforcing the idea that the selection of ritual practices, itself, communicates something about both ritual and religion more broadly.
So Where Are We Now?
Ultimately, we realized there was no satisfying way to predetermine what rituals should be included. Any decision made at the beginning of such a project necessitates making uncomfortable determinations in a top-down fashion. The solution, then, was working from the bottom up.
Rather than starting with a pre-determined list of rituals and then finding examples to record, we decided first to connect with communities interested in participating in the project. Allowing interest to govern inclusion helps avoid potential claims related to religious representation. This approach also ensures that recorded rituals will be anchored in particular communities and that the selection and sequence of filming will be determined by their participation. We still hope to construct a VR landscape of religious practices, similar to Harvard’s Pluralism Project headed by Dr. Diane Eck, but this will happen over time. In this way, we can keep religious understanding locally bounded, while displaying diversity and nuance through the expanded pool of experiences.
Furthermore, it’s important for us to establish partnerships with religious communities. This is partly about the impositions inherent in filming rites, but it’s also about the shape of the experiences themselves. What should we focus on? How can we best position equipment to capture the most and interfere the least? And, most importantly, how can we help users understand the meanings and symbolisms behind the practices? Ideally, we want to balance insider knowledge with outsider analysis.
In the end, beginning with community connections made the most sense — especially since we couldn’t responsibly decide, from the start, which rituals to record. We need partners in understanding, not subjects to study, and engaging with communities shouldn’t be a byproduct of academic research. Instead, such partnerships should be a priority that determines the shape of the project from inception to completion.