Religious and Cultural Aspects of Bathing
The Anthropos Research Group invited Bulgarian professor Maria Schnitter to present a paper at the Anthropos Forum of March, 16. The paper was entitled: “Body Hygiene of the Southern Slaws: Religious and Cultural Aspects”. Schnitter offered an historical overview of bathing practices in the region we now know as Bulgaria. She showed how during the Roman Empire, but also in the first centuries after the invasion of the region by Bulgarian tribes, public - and in many ways ritual - bathing was an important and extensive part of every-day life. This changed when the region was christianized. In light of the Christian emphasis on the need for spiritual purity and for sacrificing the body, regular bathing came to be viewed as an indulgent pagan enterprise (though occasional bathing remained acceptable where the needs of the body demanded it). Schnitter discussed some examples of this cultural shift. Perhaps most relevant for theologians is the example of baptism as a purifying ritual that brought about a (more or less) lasting spiritual purity and thus replaced the need for regular purificatory baths (which thus came to be seen as a sign of spiritual impurity). The rejection of ritual bathing was reinforced during the Osman Empire, which brought to Bulgaria the Islamic concern with purificatory washing in both ritual contexts and in daily life. The rejection of bathing now became an identity marker by which Bulgarian Christians distinguished themselves from their invadors. Schnitter discussed how the practice of bathing thus became a means of confronting difficult questions regarding identity of cultural communities, and the boundaries between them. She showed, for instance, how practices of bathing changed according to the way people in different contexts (for example: rural versus urban context) dealt with these new questions. What we now consider to be a daily habit with little more than practical meaning - to wash yourself, to bath - has been, from an historical point of view, a litmus test for one’s position towards the body and towards concepts such as ‘purity’, as well as a marker of one’s identity. Schnitter’s presentation, although at first sight not evidently of theological relevance, clearly showed the value of daily habits for theological anthropology.
How to Deal With Ambiguity
In the afternoon, Prof. Adam Seligman, who also participated at the Anthropos Forum with prof. Schnitter, gave a lecture on ‘Ritual, Experience and the Limits of Notation’. The lecture served as the discussion starter for a doctoral seminar, organized by Anthropos, in collaboration with the Centre for Metaphysics and Philosophy of Culture (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven). In his paper, Prof. Seligman addressed three different ways of dealing with the ambiguities of life and living together: notation, ritual and shared experience. Notation refers to the attempt to disambiguate by way of defining categories and rules. It has been a vitally important project in the period beginning with the Enlightenment and is continuing in many ways today. There are, however, important limits to notation, which solidifies and refines boundaries and tends towards abstraction, away from experience. Ritual and shared experience are presented as important alternatives that allow us to live with ambiguity and that sidestep the problem of shared meaning either through the creation of a subjunctive space, a shared ‘could be’, or by bracketing the need for shared meaning. Seligman emphasized the latter two ways of dealing with differences to answer the question ‘how to live with people who differ from us in fundamental ways?’ After a response by Prof. Paul Courtois, a lively discussion ensued, in which both philosophers and theologians engaged the thought-provoking paper offered by Seligman.