In the book The Sacred Quest, the authors Lawrence Cunningham and John Kelsay discuss the religious notion of ritual. They define ritual as being “a ceremonial act or a repeated stylized gesture used for specific occasions” (76). In the context of religion, rituals are a necessity in order to shape beliefs and values. Rituals can take hold in many different forms, which are elaborated upon by the authors. One specific form of rituals includes “rites of passage”. These are rituals that are intertwined with transitional moments in a person’s life (79). Rites of passage are necessary for a follower of a religion to move from stage to stages of their life. They are very important rituals because they mark milestone moments in a person’s life in their church. Despite how secular a family may be, rites of passage are moment of life still highly associated with religion.
Typically the first rite of passage in one’s life, birth rituals mark a person’s entry into their faith. This ritual is performed at a young age and celebrates the new followers’ initiation. In Judaism, the male child becomes a member of the Jewish people upon circumcision, as this is seen through the bible to be a covenant between God and the Jews (80). Baptism is the birth ritual associated to Christianity, through which a child officially becomes a member of the church. Many people see this as the ceremony which differentiates Christians from non-Christians. Finally, Cunningham and Kelsay describe a Hindu ritual feeding, which initiates a male into the religion.
The next type of rites of passage described is rituals of initiation. These rituals typically signify the growth of a child to an adult. Often these rituals take place during the adolescence. Adulthood in Judaism is signified through the celebration of bar or bat mitzvah. In Christianity, the onset of adulthood is denoted with the sacrament of confirmation. One last example of initiation is marriage. Even though the actual marriage ceremony is often modern and contemporary, the rite of marriage is an old religious tradition (81). Marriage is a ritual contained in nearly all religious.
The last type of rites of passage described is rituals of mourning and death. These rituals mark the end of one’s life and are performed in the moments of death and after death. Rituals of mourning and death are performed even in the most secularized cultures. The process of mourning is ritualized in various ways in different religions. Taoists, for example, perform elaborate ceremonies signifying the soul’s journey into the underworld and its rescue and delivery into heaven (81). This ceremony can take months of planning and preparation. On the contrary, Muslims and Orthodox Jews perform very simple and quiet ceremonies and typically bury the deceased within a day of their death. Burial ceremonies often symbolize the connection between humankind and the natural world. Hindus in India may cremate the deceased and scatter their ashes in the Ganges river to symbolize the never-ending cycle of life and death. Christians bury the dead in the ground, as the bible says humanity was created from the “dust of the earth” (81). Other rituals of death are designed to aid the dead in their crossing to the afterworld. This is shown by Egyptians and Native Americans who bury the dead with gifts, and by Catholics who pray for those who have passed away.
In my opinion, Cunningham and Kelsay show more similarities than differences between the different religions with respect to rites of passage. For example, they discuss how all birth rituals serve the same basic purpose; to formally introduce a child into the religion. Though the actual ceremonies are different for the varying religions, the purpose they serve is exactly the same. Likewise, rituals of initiation also serve the same purpose throughout religions. They all serve as ceremonies to celebrate the transition for a child into adulthood. Again, the ceremonies are not the same for all religions, but Cunningham and Kelsay do not really go into detail about the ceremonies and exploit the differences. They point similarities the religions share in the rituals.
However, when discussing rituals of mourning and death, Cunningham and Kelsay make more evident the differences in ritual between different religions. They describe how some religions use burial rites to help the deceased in their journey through the afterworld, such as Native Americans and the ancient Egyptians who bury the dead with trinkets. On the contrary, Roman Catholics instead pray for the dead to achieve this same goal. The authors also describe the actual ceremonies. Taoist culture, which includes an elaborate ceremony, is compared the monotonous ceremonies of the Jewish and Muslims. The ceremonies serve the same purpose of letting go of the dead, but they are gone about in completely different manners. The comparisons in this section make the purpose of rituals of mourning and death seem much different in the various religions. Birth rituals and rituals of initiation for the most part serve the same purpose throughout all religions, while rituals of mourning and death seem to have more differentiating purposes and ceremonies in religions.