Religious idiom and social norms

The analysis so far has sought to provide a sense of the diverse ways in which different research participants juxtaposed bahel to their religious tradition and the implications for how they felt about socio-religious norms. My interlocutors could be located at any point of this spectrum and no neat categorisations could be proposed. The fact that someone considered the faith to be part of the local cultural heritage or identified it with a set of moral rules did not exclude the possibility that they also experienced the faith conscientiously or more spiritually. The spectrum was proposed to

Faith, culture and social norms 199 accommodate better the plurality and dynamic character of the attitudes that were observed during fieldwork.

How rural residents thought about their religious tradition had to do with who they were, their level of exposure to urban lifestyles and discourses of learned clergy and their personal spiritual state. However, undoubtedly more rural residents were found on the left side of the spectrum where bahdl was less likely to be criticised. This is not unrelated to the fact that historically the large majority of rural residents relied on rural clergy to learn about their faith, who could be overlapping with vernacular norms significantly, as discussed in Chapter 7. Generally speaking, rural residents who were likely to identify haymanot with bahdl were less likely to be preoccupied with the clergy’s limited training, while those who found faults with the vernacular religious tradition tended to pronounce also the clergy’s deficiencies. Whilst many rural residents recognised that clergy in the city of Aksum tended to have higher theological training than rural priests, few thought that the teachings of the rural clergy did not suffice.

Moreover, rural residents seemed to be generally unaware of the activities of the Mahabdra Qddusan or their teaching and prayer sessions in the city of Aksum, with exceptions including a school teacher at the village who resided in the city and occasionally participated in these sessions. The lack of Mahdbara Qddusan pronouncements of faith as spiritual experience and the rural clergy’s own limited invocations of the spiritual aims of the faith resulted in a situation where few rural residents spoke about spirituality. Still, many rural residents thought that haymanot in the countryside was more tangible than in the city of Aksum where the effects of secular thinking were more discernible, with one man commenting: “Still haymanot is strong here and people are simpler in their thinking. In the city, they are all business-oriented and care only to make money and maximise their profits.” ‘Simpler’ captured a popular belief that people in the countryside were less calculative and showed genuine faith in God. Such statements illustrated a widespread understanding in the villages that ‘modernity’ brought a deterioration of the faith, making it a more salient threat than was the problem of acculturation.

These rural attitudes are important to understand because they had implications for people’s adherence to or departure from established practices, including social norms that could be fostering gender asymmetries or pernicious situations within marriage. Despite the distinctions made between haymanot and bahdl by some rural interlocutors, these were not sufficiently potent to displace the more prevalent discourse that considered the religious tradition and social norms to overlap considerably. In the following section I take a closer look at how people spoke about alcohol consumption in the religious gatherings. While many interlocutors affirmed that this practice comprised part of their vernacular religious practice, some expressed more critical opinions that these had absorbed innovations and had become socio-cultural events without spiritualbenefit. Even clergy considered alcohol consumption on these occasions to have become a thoughtless habit, a practice that they were nonetheless unable to abandon. In the end, the religious gatherings were perpetuated according to convention by both laity and clergy. The example suggests that the dual understanding of bahal (one as equivalent to haymanot, another as its contradiction), has contributed to the perpetuation of the status quo, whilst enabling local people to criticise or de-legitimise certain social norms and practices.

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