Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

In Christopher Alexander’s model of the design process (Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964), the success of a design is the absence of “misfit” between an object’s form and its context. He says,

In practice, it will never be as natural to speak of good fit as the simultaneous satisfaction of a number of requirements, as it will be to call it the simultaneous nonoccurrence of the same number of corresponding misfits. (P. 24)

The failure of an attempted sacred experience often results in the subjective experience of cringe. Cringe means that, for the cringing party, there is a misfit between the ritual and the context of his own self. He is embarrassed on behalf of the ritual leader, who has tried and failed to induce a sacred experience because of some failure of charisma, ritual, architectural context, or some interaction between these and other variables. Cringe is enhanced when it is shared – when it’s obvious to all that the evocation of sacred experience has failed, as opposed to one lone non-experiencer.

In Susan Sontag’s famous essay Notes on Camp, coincidentally also published in 1964, she defined the essence of camp as failed seriousness: seriousness is sincerely attempted (i.e., seriousness is the success criterion for the design), and the attempt fails. Camp is enjoyable as its own aesthetic, but it cannot produce emotions like gravitas. Cringe, in the sense of embarrassment on behalf of another, is also its own aesthetic, but it cannot produce the emotion of sacredness.

At its most general, cringe is the experience of witnessing failed emotional manipulation: a theater production’s failure to induce suspension of disbelief, a joke followed by silence, a grandiose boast that fails to impress. In the specific sense here, it is the attempt and failure to induce a sacred experience. But the sacred experience, unlike, say, mirth or admiration, is a rare emotion. Many people never experience it, and most who do experience it only rarely. Those who would learn to induce sacred experience must accept that cringe and embarrassment are part of the learning process.

Religious Experiment

While I mostly sit around theorizing, a lot of people are actively involved in getting people together to try out new and adapted rituals. Frequently, these are described as “cringey.” It is not at all my intention to criticize religious experimenters: religious experimentation is great, and we should expect most early experiments to fail, for the reasons suggested above. Creating sacred experiences is a complex and difficult problem; even very old, established religions can allow their rituals to veer in cringey directions.

The Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh, for example, wrote a guide to Catholic rite (Elements of Rite, 1982) in which he criticized many of the cringiest aspects of post-Vatican II liturgy: dance performances in church, wall-to-wall carpeting, rambling homilies that get “too relevant.” Kavanagh focuses on common failures of the induction of sacred experience, and we can often recognize them as cringe-inducing, although he does not use that word.

Cringiness is not a static property of a particular text or ritual form. Things that once had gravitas can become cringe-inducing with the passage of time. Cringe indicates a misfit between form and context; it is a property of the whole system. This is also true of sacred experience.

Cringe and Success

This is not to suggest that all failure to evoke sacred experience result in cringe. In fact, mere boredom may be a more common failure mode, and probably results in the absence of a brave (but failed) attempt to evoke sacred experience. A strong cringe reaction may be a good sign, compared to mere boredom: at least the attempt to evoke the sacred experience was recognizable in the case of cringe.

Because humans are involved, there is even a self-reflexive backwards effect. It is widely accepted that weird and outlandish beliefs function better as tribal signifiers than plausible beliefs, because weird beliefs function as a stronger signal of loyalty to the group. Similarly, cringey ritual (or at least ritual that appears cringey to outsiders, even if it succeeds in evoking sacred experience for in-group members) might be more successful in some cases than ritual that looks serious and normal. I am told that some very successful religious congregations get away with electric guitar rock praise songs and low-rent infrastructure. Rather than turn our noses up, it would be interesting to know why these liturgical methods and aesthetic limitations are often surmountable, producing sacred experience in some contexts but not others. The design of the ritual (and ritual space), and the charisma of the ritual leader, are important elements; but the energy and performance of the congregation are just as important. (Presumably, there are “tough crowds” for sacred as well a humorous experience.)

The energy, experiences, and beliefs that ritual participants bring to the encounter form a part of the context, and by performing rituals, the participants adapt both ritual and context. It need not be degrading or sacrilegious to optimize ritual. Ideally, optimizing ritual is part of what religious participants do as they practice. Kavanagh says (in On Liturgical Theology, 1984, p. 88):

The act [of religious ritual] both changes and outstrips the assembly in which it occurs. The assembly adjusts to that change, becoming different from what it was before the act happened. This adjustment means that subsequent acts of liturgy can never touch the assembly in exactly the same way as the previous act did. And it is i the constant adjustment to such change that an assembly increments its own awareness of its distinctive nature, that it shakes out and tests its own public and private norms of life and faith, that it works out its sustained response to the phenomenon of its own existence….

I think there’s a benefit to having clear (if subjective) criteria for success, and to thinking analytically about the design of experiences. Haley Thurston (in “How We Frame the Value of Experimental Art Badly”)  argues that experimental art should actually gather information (as a scientific experiment would) by having goals and success criteria. She says:

When a work is labeled “experimental” it ought not to produce either disdain or admiration: it should only make us demand some rigor in the experiment. I think the reason we get so much bad experimental art is because no one understands how to make a good artistic experiment. We act like because something is “experimental” that somehow absolves it from having any standards at all. Bullshit. Just because a scientific experiment is an “experiment” doesn’t mean that scientists can do whatever they want. We apply rules to them so that the answers the experiment provides are answers we can use. Optimize experimental art for a certain result, rigorously. Know you’re experimenting. Avoid pretense. Then you’ll be able to say whether or in which realms you’ve failed or succeeded. You can use that information to make better art. Shitting on a canvas and calling it experimental so it will mean something gives us some nice information about people, but no useful information about art.

Rituals are successful if they produce sacred experience. With this in mind, we can analyze existing ritual, successful and failed, to generate hypotheses about what factors produce sacred experience, cringe, or boredom. Designed rituals, not essays, are the form that hypotheses in this space must eventually take, if they are to affect the world. Those who experiment are brave, for the road to sacred experience is paved with cringe.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Comments

  1. What is your religious background Ms. Perry, if I might ask?

  2. As a designer of atheist spiritual rituals aiming very specifically for intense “sacred” (I prefer “mystical”) experience, I can say this rings very true. I do believe rituals are basically an art form, one that is freeing itself from religious traditions centuries after music did.

  3. Once again awed / appreciative of a new tool & lexicon you have provided here. The success / cringe / boredom response seems to connect to (my) reality very plausibly and seems highly extensible. I may use this framework later to help describe / explain “coming on to someone” which also devolves into cringe if it fails. Thank you thank you thank you.

  4. Muchas gracias, as always I love your post.

    especially: metaphysically problematic

  5. Kyle Hipke says:

    I suspect the degree to which something is “cringy” rather than sacred has to do with what participants think about each other’s feelings about something.

    In advertising (such as the Corona commercial “find your beach” or the US Army commercials), often the goal is not just to convince the viewer that the advertised thing has some quality or perception. It’s to convince the viewer that OTHERS see the thing as having this quality or perception.

    I think of sacredness and cringe in the same way. A ritual works if it can convince participants that everyone else who participates (even if that is just viewing it) sees it as sacred. Violation of the rules/guidelines of the ritual (you need to sing well), result in cringe – you’ve stepped over the boundary of what we all collectively know, together, as being sacred.

    • Kyle Hipke says:

      “You need to sing well” referring to some sort of singing ritual, like the singing of the national anthem.

  6. Michael P. Walsh, MM says:

    “When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm,” you write, “I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity.” I am reminded of Joseph Soloveitchik, who argues, in “The Lonely Man of Faith”, that modern man can no longer claim to be traditional, but only orthodox. That is, he must choose. I have long been leery of the temptation of aestheticism or perfectionism in liturgy. This is seldom a danger since modern liturgy is so often an aesthetic ordeal. But it is the faith that matters. I have been present at liturgies that were badly done with atrocious music but nevertheless was in no doubt at all as to their sacredness. I cannot share your enthusiasm for James’ focus on subjective experience, especially of an emotional kind as criterion for liturgical success. It is the truth that matters, not my feelings. Rites should be performed correctly out of respect for the truth they embody and not for the subjective effects they may or may not produce. At the heart of liturgical kitsch is a whimsical egalitarianism in service to a subjective opinion that bespeaks a contempt for tradition and doubt about the truth it serves.

  7. I believe the crux here is to have had the subjective experience of truth within oneself. You can have faith without this subjective experience; that to me is like a Fundamentalist who takes the metaphors of religious literature as truth. This is the distinct hurdle which must be surpassed in order to obtain the mystical knowledge embedded within all the religions. Once you have the subjective experience of truth within yourself, you see the metaphor for what it is: a roadmap to connect to God within you. This is by necessity a solitary endeavor, even though it can be practiced with others through ritual. Cringe happens only when you’ve never felt the truth within, which, if really felt, makes every act a ritual, and every act holy if it is done with awareness of God.

  8. Joe Fallica says:

    Sarah!
    Be it “cringe” liturgy, tradition, belonging, self, or a thousand other “words”, your sacred experience, my sacred experience and everyone else’s’ is, should be and must be intensely personal.

    Is there any more enthralling sensation than a stroll in a morning wood?
    Can any one any where, at any time ever build a Grander Cathedral or Mosque, or Temple, or Monetary or do anything better than over looking a valley, beyond the mountain to the other side of the waters to see yourself in any thing, one or place you see or imagine?

    None of any place or time has any more extraordinary emotional recognition than personal power and personal frailty of one’s self?

    “The greatest danger to lemmings is their leader’s headlong dash towards the cliff.”

    It makes no difference if the leader is a Priest of their God’s Church, or Priest of Business, or Vicar of Community, or Minister of Knowledge, they are all priests who require each parishioner relinquish self-identity in favor of the “leaders” vision of truth.

    The only course of actions is to choose if, and when, and which cliff you will run towards, or not.

    It is that refusal relinquish creating the “Cringe” effect when one’s efforts fails to deliver the hoped for understanding in one’s self AND acceptance by others.

    You want religion to work for you, work to create your own, for yourself only and for no one else.

    When you can clear your “Self”, your “Id”, your “Ego”, your “Karma”, your “What Ever” and honestly meet your Existence

  9. Joe Fallica says:

    – – EDIT – –
    Sarah!
    Be it “cringe” liturgy, tradition, belonging, self, or a thousand other “words”, your sacred experience, my sacred experience and everyone else’s’ is, should be and must be intensely personal.
    Is there any more enthralling sensation than a stroll in a morning wood?
    Can any one any where, at any time ever build a Grander Cathedral or Mosque, or Temple, or Monetary or do anything better than over looking a valley, beyond the mountain to the other side of the waters to see yourself in any thing, one or place you see or imagine?
    None of any place or time has any more extraordinary emotional recognition than personal power and personal frailty of one’s self?
    “The greatest danger to lemmings is their leader’s headlong dash towards the cliff.”
    It makes no difference if the leader is a Priest of their God’s Church, or Priest of Business, or Vicar of Community, or Minister of Knowledge, they are all priests who require each parishioner relinquish self-identity in favor of the “leaders” vision of truth.
    The only course of actions is to choose if, and when, and which cliff you will run towards, or not.
    It is that refusal relinquish creating the “Cringe” effect when one’s efforts fails to deliver the hoped for understanding in one’s self AND acceptance by others.
    You want religion to work for you, work to create your own, for yourself only and for no one else.
    When you can clear your “Self”, your “Id”, your “Ego”, your “Karma”, your “What Ever” and honestly meet your Existence and combine it with your “Essence”, you’ll have a religion which will explain the truth about ”Llife” AND “Death” and everything in between.
    “I’m not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time”
    Your religion will explain “Time”, “Place”, “Past, “Future” are all subordinate to “Present”
    Your religion realizes your “Present” is all which is necessary.
    Your religion realizes your everything, anything, you do has no “consequences” you seek as a “Result” or “Goal” or “Destiny” or “Form” or “Conclusion” or “Understanding” or “Wisdom” or “Wealth” or “Charity” or “Responsibility” or “Rights” or, or, …or, ……or.
    Your religion has only one limit – You can’t preclude anyone else from doing the same thing for themselves.
    See… my religion has no cringe effect because I don’t practice it for anything more than being, for the time being.

  10. Hmm what do you call cringing when somebody is about to experience pain due to a more basic kind of failure that you can anticipate but they cannot, and having nothing to do with failure to evoke sacred experiences in particular?

    Like somebody walking into a pillar because their head is turned talking to somebody and you can see they’re about to do so but they cannot?

    I think this is the base case of cringe experience and you’ve perhaps narrowed it too much. This is the one I relied on in characterizing the cringe experiences induced by Michael Scott in The Office. He caused cringe sometimes because he was failing as a ritual leader, but other times, it was because he was failing in a more basic way, due to some kind of simple childlike ignorance or inability to anticipate some basic consequence.

    Cartman often has such moments on South Park too.

    So perhaps a broader definition of cringe is simply empathetic anticipation of failure due to gaps in competence, foresight, or knowledge of any sort. Not just gaps having to do to with ritual success in evoking disbelief suspensions. You cringe when a sermon fails to inspire. You cringe when a magician fumbles a trick. You cringe when a speaker makes an embarrassing factual error in his talk but nobody interrupts to stop what is now a trainwreck of bad analysis.

    The connection to Sontag on camp is apt though, because cringe can always be turned around with sufficient sadism into an enjoyable kind of humor.

    Aside: a beautifully described example of your religious cringe effect is in Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, pp 206-207 which I just read. I’ll send you screenshots

    • Joe Fallica says:

      Yes, the traditional definition of Cringe based on the event(s) involving others and your expectation of/with/to them, their actions, their beliefs, their expectations or their perspectives (Even if they are right, (usually right for themselves) . My cringe is when I disappoint myself. When I fail to reach the experience of which humans are capable of being. Even then the cringe is not failure but my renewal to improve on me. Life is a very individual experience and watering it down through the lens of others is a treason to self.

    • I don’t know if you’re noticed, but cringe is one of the latest weapon words being used in young online discourse, sometimes even just by labelling something “cringe”, with almost no other elements.

      So it’s worth a re-evaluation. Why would people try to emphasise the simple act as labelling something as cringy, rather than trying to prove or emphasise that it is?

      The simple answer is that cringe, when applied to human symbolic actions, is an attitude that absorbs itself in human frailty. You could say focusing on execution over intention, though it’s as much about an intense awareness of dramatic irony. We see transparently the self-serving nature of someone’s intentions, just as we might see the clumsy use of melody in their music.

      Cringe is human weakness revealed, but not intentionally, by someone openly exposing themselves. It’s all the ways they reveal themselves as lacking more complex circuits of self-referential, or believing they have found solutions to them while obviously failing.

      Cringe is the feeling of a desire to disassociate, to cut off our capacity to identify with what we are witnessing, because of the “abjection” in a Kristeva sense, displayed by someone’s mix of inexpertise, obliviousness to it, and the obvious stock such a process is playing in their presentation of public identity.

      So why does labelling something as cringe work? Because cringing is a behaviour dominated by two impulses, the desire to disengage, and a full horrified car crash impulse to take on the full uncomfortable depth of what is going on. In other words it is a feedback loop of emotionally filtered perception emphasising those elements that cause us to recognise a gap between someone’s ideal version of themselves, and the obviously flawed version that they present.

      Not to mention that not knowing why someone else thinks something is cringy can itself be cringy.

      And so labelling something as cringe makes you go, is it cringe? Why? How is it cringe? And so you get it.

      To give an example, this is a song, you could have just heard, and passed over, but if you come into it focusing on cringyness, it’s quite a different experience.

      The reason that cringe is such a powerful word at the moment is the drive towards both authenticity and connection in online social media stuff, authenticity means vulnerability, revealing human weakness and attempting connection via indirect media means it’s natural to fail.

      On the other hand, it also provides a lab for practising an exit from the cringe loop, if the fundamental core experience is abjection tied to socially self-conscious identification, then being able to trigger and then put aside the emotion of cringe, to take seriously for a moment what is obviously lacking in particular ways, is to be able to observe the structure and experience of “authentic meaning”, in the sense of the core that the person must be putting at risk in order for it to be cringy in the first place. Those things within a particular production that are an inherent part of identify formation or valuable experience.

      In other words, there’s some particular stuff Steve Carell is doing very well in order to make this a character at which we can cringe, and particular social norms of ideals the writers are having fun with making fragile. Of course, you’ve already done that work. But still, it’s the same process.

      Oh and also, occasionally, being able to turn off your cringe impulse at will gives you more social space to operate in.

  11. Hi Sarah,

    I had an interesting couple of interactions back in the 1970s when 2 friends in the same week described exactly the same religious experience (white light, being relieved of a deep heavy burden, emotional ‘soaring’) but one started trying to sell me on the Guru Mahara-ji and the other on Evangelical Christianity. I decide you need to be careful. Folks will try and convert you at a very vulnerable point: right after you’ve been saved:)

    ‘Religious experience’ and ritual are not the same thing, right? Ritual is as much about trapping and defusing ecstatic experience into ‘proper’ social channels as it is about creating it. Ecstasy is almost by definition transgressive to a greater or lesser extent and needs to be brought back into the fold by religion.

    Some religious practice is aimed more directly at ecstatic experience. Compare a classical Latin Mass to an evangelical preacher. The latter seeks to create a deep existential tension (I am a sinner, damned, broken in body, headed to hell, abject and weak) and then resolving it (pow, I am saved by the grace of Jesus, healed, raised up). The former is clearly ritual. Is the latter?

    (My theory: ecstatic experience ranging from full blown mystical experience down to mild psychedelic intoxication is a genuine psychodynamic need. But that would be another topic.)

  12. John Q Public says:

    I am quite certain that in 100 years there will no longer be any people like those commenting here nor will anyone be thinking along these lines.

  13. The previous article you linked to appears to no longer exist.

  14. Counterpoint/possible clarification/caution on the “experimentation is good” claim: experimentation is good insofar as the actual objective is to evoke the sacred, however a great many modern liturgical innovations are predicated far more on a desire to replicate the appeal of mass-market pop entertainment.

    “some very successful religious congregations get away with electric guitar rock praise songs:” I mean, yah, I enjoy Whitesnake as much as the next guy, but I don’t think ever led (and to their credit, never claimed to lead) anyone to the Mysterium Tremendum.

    “Art ennobles, entertainment enslaves.” – Knatbot20k; a worthwhile distinction to keep in mind.

  15. I haven’t read the book, just google book skimming here, but it strikes me that the Kavanaugh quote might be intended to have a slightly different meaning, especially given that it’s a repetition of an earlier phrase generally applied to language in social systems.

    Specifically, he could be talking either about feedback into the content and form of the religious ritual, or the sense of a recursive process operating on those who perform it. The latter seems to me to be closer to his intended reading, talking about how social structures are changed repeatedly in different ways by the same or similar liturgical structures, operated recursively and essentially indefinitely.

    You could interpret that for example as saying that once a ritual is done once, it is in some sense expended, and must be tweaked in order to have the same effect, whereas my impression is that he is making precisely the opposite claim, that the changeability of human culture means that the repeated activity can still keep having a variety of productive effects.

    Of course, he’s not talking simply about mechanical effects directly flowing algorithmically from the structure of the ritual there, given what he believes, and I could guess as someone interested in “liturgy” ie. particularly regimented and year-encompassing patterns, he would probably not be emphasising formal experimentation. But that does not necessarily undermine your argument, there will be sources out there that precisely argue this, it’s just that this particular person’s focus seems to be less on optimising religious ritual, but in optimising real communities using the first and second order effects of such events. Which to me is also interesting; we’re familiar with people claiming the benefits of daily meditation for example as an “exercise”, less so someone promoting the benefits of a weekly routine of collective worship as exercises in transcendent community identity recreation.

  16. I taught a spin class this morning. The endorphins. The beat of the music. The cyclical coordinated rhythm. Pentecostalism without Pentecostals. We ended with an all-out sprint to Springsteen’s Candy’s Room. I felt closer to …. nah.

    Cringe-worthy.

  17. “Rituals are successful if they produce sacred experience.”

    If someone performs a ritual to change the weather, and has a sacred experience, but the weather doesn’t change is that a success? Is it a sacred experience if one experiences a god rebuking them for their presumption in performing the ritual, and gives them a foretaste of the tortures awaiting them if they continue?