Office Hours: Nichole Phillips on The Rite Stuff

By Paige Parvin 96G

Image of PhillipsFrom acts as seemingly humdrum as shaking hands in greeting to elaborate rites such as funerals, we engage in ritual daily—often without recognizing it. Nichole Phillips, assistant professor of religion and human difference in Emory’s Candler School of Theology, would like us to pay a bit more attention to the role that ritual plays in our lives. She teaches her course in Ritual Theories from the perspective of a social scientist, exploring the transformative power of ritualistic behaviors. As a Humanistic Inquiry Program (HIP) Fellow, a position supported through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to strengthen the humanities and expand interdisciplinary inquiry, Phillips says, “I’m both a social scientist of religion and a practical theologian.”

Six Reasons for Ritual in Your Life

Image of hands joining under a flowering tree1. Ritual Speaks Volumes. When we meet someone and automatically extend a hand, we are engaging in a fundamental form of human communication. “Everyday habits that we take for granted are ritualistic behaviors,” Phillips says. “They are expressions of our need to communicate with one another. Even simple expressions like hello and goodbye, please and thank you—these convey something about our culture and values.”

2. Ritual—Where Nature and Nurture Meet Up. Humans have hardly cornered the market when it comes to ritual behavior; animals demonstrate it regularly and instinctively. Papa birds build nests, while mama birds snap up bugs for cheeping babies. Human families exhibit not-so-wildly similar behaviors, like when they rouse sleepy kids and ready them for school (“rise and shine!”), wave as the yellow bus departs, and ask about homework each evening. “Parents will do things in a particular order every day,” Phillips says. “That is the influence of genetics as well as ritualistic group processes that are borne of our environment.”

3. Ritual Creates Connection. We all know we’ve “gotta eat.” But we also know the difference between grabbing a solitary lunch at a drive-through and sitting down around a table with others. Phillips refers to ritualistic, communal dining as “breaking bread, rather than just eating.” That can include business lunches and book club grazing in addition to family dinners—any time a meal revolves around shared values or a common interest. “Human beings don’t thrive if not in relationship to one another,” she says. “Food is one of the primary ways the notion of hospitality, the need for connection, gets expressed.”

4. Ritual Is Divine. It’s likely that ritual originated from a human need to create order in a world of uncertainty—in other words, to nurture faith in forces unknown. From Sunday morning worship, to Wednesday night yoga, to Friday evening Sabbath, to the daily call to prayer, ritual can put us in touch with the spiritual realm, whether through devout religious faith or a secular, conscious practice meant to transcend worldly cares for a time. Churches in particular, says Phillips, can bridge the boundaries among people by serving as “unique institutions of general understanding, built on social cohesion that reflects the insights of a certain group.”

5. Ritual Marks Milestones. How many times have you blown out the candles on a birthday cake? Or—less happily—mourned a friend or family member at a funeral? Some rites of passage, such as your college commencement, happen only once; others come around every year—faster and faster, it might seem. But rites of passage are key to our understanding of the march of time. And there are many such “commemorative” rituals that unite us with others across cultural divides, such as Memorial Day observance, Phillips points out. “Commemorative rites are opportunities to be relational, to reaffirm how we see and interpret the world.”

6. Ritual Is Healthy. A morning workout routine is a ritualistic behavior that can both keep us fit and give us the time and space to set goals for the upcoming day. “Exercise is a patterned, repetitive behavior that can relieve stress,” Phillips says. “There is a concentrated focus on self and the body, beyond the mind.” Of course, less healthy behaviors can become rituals as well. But that’s the beauty of ritual—we have the power to make it our own.

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