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Through Rites, All Things Flourish

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The Power of the Ceremonial in Classical Confucianism and in Contemporary Rituals of Dissent


“The fate of our times is characterized, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” This, Max Weber’s 1919 characterization of modernity, presaged what many have come to see as a crisis of meaning in our contemporary world. Some have argued that our “secular age,” with its pluralistic, relativized, and dominantly scientific episteme, fails to supply the sense of meaning that was once ensured through the myths and rituals that bound communities together under the promise of harmonization with sacred, cosmic order. And whether one agrees or not with the characterization of modernity as a disenchanted space threatening moral disorientation and existential doubt, it is clear that formal religious rituals no longer play a definitive role in organizing society at large. Ceremony may seem like a relic of an enchanted past, or the plaything of those who keep up ancient traditions in modern contexts.

But perhaps we are not all that divorced from the power of ceremony and the enchantment of myth, after all. Perhaps “the ceremonial” continues to pervade contemporary life, insofar as modern social life continues to unfold around deeply symbolic, collectively-oriented performances that ensure a profound sense of connection between individuals as well as connection with the world. But how do we go about detecting the presence of “the ceremonial” in practices that are saturated with the rhetoric and values of secularity?


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