If any cultural phenomenon must be thought about it is religion, which is a name for the set of practices that have held human communities together throughout most of human time and space. Because religion and thinking about religion are inextricable yet not precisely identical, we distinguish between “etic” and “emic” ways of thinking, respectively external and internal to their object. Both are necessary modes of anthropological thought. The “etic” description of a religious rite is not objective if it fails to concern itself with the meaning of the objects and gestures it employs; to fail to treat them as representations is comparable to describing the sounds of language without considering their articulation and meaning. Conversely, the “emic” description of the same rite cannot confine itself to the private feelings and interpretations of its participants. All cultural practices define and sustain communities, and all human communities are essentially of the same nature. We should not shrink from applying to all social practices knowledge acquired either through ethnological study or through social experience of how human communities function–which does not imply imposing “our” way of life on others. As is increasingly the case, groups and societies once excluded from anthropological dialogue are having their own word to say; the etic / emic polarity is increasingly a difference of degree negotiated within different fractions of the “marketplace of ideas.”

What interests me here is a somewhat different distinction. On the one hand, we can reflect on religious practices from a generative standpoint as carrying out the fundamental cultural operation of deferring violence through representation. In this perspective, the heart of religion is ritual and we seek in it what Girard calls in Violence and the Sacred “the unity of all rites.” But it is also useful to classify the different aspects of the fuzzy set of religious practices and activities we empirically encounter in the real world. No doubt these practices all ultimately derive from the same source, but it is not without interest that they present themselves to common sense and its vocabulary as distinct, or at any rate as distinguishable.

In a recent colloquium for the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, which he directs, my colleague Scott Bartchy presented such an empirical view of religion, dividing its practices into six categories arranged in a circle:


Right Action
Rational Inquiry
Ritual Performance
Shamanic Meditation
Mystical Quest

My first reaction was impatience with this as with all pluralistic analyses of cultural phenomena. Generative thinking is minimalist: it derives the multiple from the singular. But there was something to be said for beginning from a set of categories empirically based on our sense of human differences. A way of thinking that respects the human as a whole cannot afford to dismiss our intuitive distinction between a set of ethical rules and a set of ritual practices, between a rabbi perusing the Talmud and a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. Yet I was sure these pragmatic categories could be better articulated within the categories of GA. The goal would be to see all these phenomenologically different activities as moments of a single process.

After giving the matter some thought, I found a way to articulate Scott’s categories in terms of the three types of utterances described in The Origin of Language: ostensive, imperative, declarative. Ritual and Shamanism may be associated with the ostensive (sacred presence), Mysticism and Devotion with the imperative (calling for/to sacred presence), and Rationalism and Right Action with the declarative (creating models of reality). This association reveals, as might be expected, a significant difference between those religious practices based on the elementary linguistic structures–the ostensive and the imperative–and those based on the declarative. Let us first subject these categories to a bit of originary analysis.

The Ostensive Modes: Ritual and Shamanism

With regard to the originary event, Scott’s circle is more than a metaphor. The circle of participants equidistant from the sacred center is the structure of the human scene of representation that is reproduced each time a crowd gathers around a street performer or the scene of an accident. Of the six categories, two concretely reproduce this structure: Ritual Performance and Shamanic Meditation. In Ritual, priests and officiants participate in a more or less scripted activity that reproduces, via a series of historical mediations, the originary scenic configuration. Ritual operates in a predictable manner; its generative effect is subordinated to the purpose of providing sacred reinforcement to an already-existing order. In Shamanism these priorities are reversed. If the priest, however privileged, belongs to the periphery of the circle, the shaman belongs to the center. This often sexually ambivalent figure reenacts the originary scene, recreating in himself the presence of the sacred being before a passive audience who may seek concrete benefits, such as healing, from the “medicine man”‘s action. As the mediator to the others of the force of mimetic desire concentrated in the center of the ritual circle, the shaman’s action is adapted to a particular crisis rather than, like ritual, serving to ward off future crises by lowering the general level of resentment.

Shamanism, like all cultural practices, is always already becoming ritualized; the second time one visits the shaman, one can predict a little better what might happen. Shamanistic talent lies in impressing one’s audience with ever-new manifestations of sacred power. This is the kind of cultural ability we associate more with artists than priests, although the most predictable weekly church services generally involve elements of both long-term institutional variance (e.g., a set of Bible readings that repeat only once a year) and one-time originality (e.g., the sermon). Religion is about events; the shaman concentrates in himself the event-nature of religion. But his originality can only exist within a community whose order is guaranteed by the founding event that others can reenact in ritual.

The Imperative Modes: Devotion and Mysticism

The mystic who flees the collective ritual scene demonstrates the scene’s persistence within the individual mind. Even in the absence of others, he remains on the periphery of the circle, for our representation of the center is itself a reminder of collective desire. To be engaged in the Mystical Quest is to seek to comprehend this originary structure from within the self’s internalization of it, to qualify one’s peripheral self as capable of evoking the sacred center. The paradoxical object of the mystic’s quest is knowledge of God, that is, an ineffable union with the sacred center in which the center is nonetheless “knowable,” as though we could “know” in imperative language and without being able to communicate it to others.

Devotion, in contrast, views the originary central presence as something that must be recalled by the communal imperative of the periphery. In distinction from ritual, Devotion does not employ a sacrificial placeholder for this presence, but seeks to invoke it through shared prayer and other activities that enact the periphery’s agreement as to the center’s sacredness.

The Declarative Modes: Rationalism and Ethics

As with mysticism, to engage in Rational Inquiry is to seek in one’s mind alone the mechanism of reason, but this time as a project fully communicable to others in declarative sentences. The rationalist understands that our minds are all formed by the same scene and are therefore bound to function in the same way. But we should not confuse the religious thinker with the metaphysician. Rational inquiry in the religious sphere begins from a revealed sacred text from whose ostensive origin it derives its declarative sentences and their logic. (The rationality of Lévi-Strauss’ pensée sauvage is not bound by such a text but, for that very reason, as soon as it becomes thought, e.g., classificatory thinking, it is no longer specifically religious.)

Right Action belongs with the declarative not simply as a mode of religious practice–the enactment of holy law–but insofar as Right Action is the mode of any behavior toward another at which the sacred center is implicitly present as a mediator. A declarative utterance expresses my renunciation of the center as an object of desire, my willingness to share it through representation with my fellows. Renunciation of the center is the most important cultural gesture of all; the whole edifice of cultural representation, religious and profane, exists only to promote it. If we could have continued to perform without human culture the “right actions” necessary to our survival, we would never have become human.

The four categories associated with the elementary linguistic structures all fall within the domain of what we normally consider as religious. Ritual, Shamanism, Mysticism, and Devotion are incomprehensible without reference to the sacred. Rational Inquiry and Right Action, in contrast, are not. They are associated with religion only when a connection has been made between ethical laws or logical arguments and a revealed text from which these laws or arguments derive. When revelation is no longer a living truth, religious reflection becomes metaphysics and God a construction like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” rather than an object of worship. The declarative in the religious context is never independent of the ostensive from which it originarily emerged.

If Scott’s categories correspond to the fundamental linguistic structures, why then are there six rather than three? In religion’s task of reconstituting the scene’s originary configuration, the point of departure may be either the sacred center or the profane periphery. The charismatic shaman differs from the unindividualized officiant of Ritual in that the first recreates the scene from the sacred center whereas the second stands in the center as the emissary of the periphery. All intermediate degrees of centralizing charisma are possible; a rabbi is not a priest, a high-church pastor is not an itinerant revivalist, Billy Graham is not David Koresh. Similarly, all degrees are possible between the prayer of Mysticism and that of Devotion, between the community that calls to God to reappear in its center and the individual who seeks the manifestation of this center for himself alone. Every participant in ritual can dream of becoming the sole focus of sacred revelation; every devotee can imagine himself in solitary communion with God.

The two declarative modes are harder to connect because they are less well defined in the original schema. But if “rational inquiry” means the decipherment of the sacred text and “right action” the attempt to follow the precepts of such a text, they once again present a polarity between the scholarly representative of the community who interprets God’s law and the individual who realizes this law in action.

Needless to say, these reflections cannot substitute for either the empirical study of religious practices or the elaboration of an originary theory of religion. The model they propose nonetheless suggests avenues for empirical research that would subject it to the ultimate test of falsification in the real world. If religious practices can indeed be associated with the elementary linguistic structures, it should be possible to find analogies in the evolution of these practices that would correspond to the movements discussed in The Origin of Language from the “inappropriate ostensive” to the imperative and from the failed imperative to the declarative. For example, as we move from ritual to devotion we organize our service around prayer that requests sacred presence rather than sacrificial manifestations of this presence; we observe this in Judaism in the passage from temple to synagogue, in Christianity at the time of the Reformation, in the birth of Buddhism in the context of Hinduism. Similarly, we should expect to find modes of transition from shamanism to mysticism and from mysticism and devotion to rationalism and law-based ethical practice; indeed, the latter transition is illustrated in the West by the whole process of “secularization” that culminates in the Enlightenment.