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Myth and Ritual

Dr. David A. Stosur, Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI)

Shared with Permission1

In 2016, Dr. David Stosur participated in a Teaching Interfaith Understanding faculty development seminar, run in partnership between the Council of Independent Colleges and Interfaith Youth Core, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. For information on future seminars, and to access more resources created by seminar alumni, visit

Course Description

This course is an exploration of myth and ritual as key elements within a religious heritage.  It investigates how sacred stories and rites of various traditions function narratively and symbolically as expressions of and frameworks for human being, thinking and acting in relation to communities’ understandings of the divine.  The course highlights the role of story, symbol and rite in addressing interfaith conflict and social division and in providing a compassionate and reconciling worldview.

Interfaith Studies

The certificate/minor in Interfaith Studies explores the Franciscan value of showing compassion by developing deeper understanding and analysis of the unique contribution that global and local faith traditions and spiritualities have made to society, especially through music, literature and film, history and theology.  Focusing on both dialogue and conflict this interdisciplinary certificate examines historical and contemporary interfaith issues and includes experiential learning opportunities. The Interfaith Studies Certificate prepares students to engage with others in respectful, compassionate discourse regarding faith, religion, and spirituality in the 21st century.

Liberal Arts CORE, Interfaith Studies, and Religious Studies Program Outcomes:
Outcomes that especially pertain to this course are listed in bold.  The course objectives for Myth & Ritual are aligned with the outcomes as indicated in the numbered correspondences following each objective.  

CORE Curriculum Student Learning Outcomes
Students will acquire knowledge of:

  • Aesthetic Values: Critical reflection on art, culture, and nature.
  • Physical & Natural World: The natural order, including earth and its systems.   
  • Human Societies: Values and histories underlying cultures, societies, their traditions, and the relationships between them.
  • Cultural Awareness: Cross-cultural knowledge to interact effectively with people from diverse communities.
  • Spiritual Understanding: Reflection on the relationship between personal and communal faith and life choices that support justice, reconciliation and peace.

Students will cultivate the following intellectual and practical skills:

  • Effective communication: oral, reading, and writing.
  • Quantitative and technological literacy.
  • Critical and reflective thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.

Students will demonstrate personal and social responsibility for:

  • Franciscan heritage and values [showing compassion emphasis].
  • Moral and ethical reasoning.
  • Local and global community engagement.

Interfaith Studies Certificate/Minor Student Learning Outcome

The student engages with others in respectful, compassionate discourse regarding faith, religion, and spirituality, knowledgeable about their own worldview and seeking understanding of the worldviews of others.

Undergraduate Religious Studies Program Outcomes
Upon completion of the Religious Studies Major, students will, in oral and written formats, be able to:

  • Demonstrate familiarity with various religious traditions by articulating a foundational knowledge of the Christian tradition and an introductory knowledge of a tradition other than the student’s own.
  • Begin to apply various critical lenses of awareness (e.g., historical, cultural, contemporary, ethical, spiritual, scientific, secular) in religious/theological thinking and ritualizing.
  • Relate and apply religious understanding and Franciscan values to contemporary issues and problems of human concern.
  • Understand religious diversity as a dimension of a globalized society.

Course Objectives

Through active engagement with all requirements for this course, students can expect development in the following areas.  (Without claiming to be comprehensive, indications of the alignment between the course objectives and the Core, undergraduate program, and Interfaith Studies outcomes in bold above are listed after each area.)


  • Identify the heritage of myth and ritual in a variety of religious traditions.
  • Recognize some basic theories regarding the origins of myth and ritual and of contemporary narrative and performative theories that pertain to texts and rites considered sacred to religious communities.
  • Consider the thought of selected men and women with diverse perspectives who have reflected critically, theologically, ethically and spiritually on religious texts and ritual practices in the contemporary global, ecumenical, and interfaith context.


  • Analyze and interpret critically religious symbols and ritual expressions.
  • Generate anthropological and religious/spiritual questions, connections, and insights, especially with a view to engaging in interfaith dialogue.
  • Communicate cultural, religious and spiritual learning clearly and concisely in oral and written form.
  • Assess one’s own development in content areas covered.


  • Appreciate the centrality of narrative (myth) and ritual expression in human life: the necessity of narrative context for human meaning-making and understanding, and the pervasive influence of ritual in creating social bonds and in the communal expression of value.
  • Respect the diversity of sacred stories and rites and recognize their (ambiguous) role in the promotion of human beings showing compassion for other human beings.

Course Requirements

Students should check the online syllabus on a regular basis during the course of the semester for possible adaptations or additional recommended readings.

Required Texts:

  • Endo, Shusaku. Deep River. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1994.
  • Driver, Tom F.  Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2006.
  • Leonard, Scott A., and Michael McClure.  Myth and Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
  • Palmer, Martin, and Jay Ramsay, with Man-Ho Kwok.  The Kuan Yin Chronicles: The Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion.  Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2009.

Students should acquire for personal use throughout the semester the required readings above, which are available through the Cardinal Stitch University Bookstore.  Other required and recommended readings and video clips are listed in the course schedule below, a number of them taken or adapted from Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and Dominican University’s Introduction to Interfaith Leadership Course.  Reserve materials will be made available through the University’s online learning management system, Canvas.  

Class Participation:
Students will have read the assigned materials, and will come to class prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What new information (facts, concepts, and methods) did you learn from the material?
  • What are the social, cultural, and religious themes/issues emphasized?
  • Do you find yourself in agreement or disagreement with any of the author's arguments?  Why?
  • From what point of view does the reading/author operate?  Is it different from or similar to your own? What are its positive and negative aspects? Does your own faith tradition and/or personal spirituality (religious or secular) find resonance or dissonance with the reading?
  • What aspects of the reading were unclear or required further explanation?  To what resources did you turn for clarification?
  • What implications does the reading have for helping to understand interfaith conflict or dialogue, and (how) does it relate to the Franciscan value of showing compassion?

The class time will be spent with material presented by the instructor and in dialogue over these questions and others that emerge throughout the course of reading and discussing the material.  Since significant class time will be dedicated to discussion of the readings, it is essential that the assigned material be read before each class.

Our Canvas Site:
This course will make use of Cardinal Stritch University’s online learning management system, Canvas.  The course assignment schedule includes chapters from the course texts and other selected readings for which specific online discussion forums will be designated (see Course Schedule and Reading Assignments.)  Some of these (as indicated) are taken or adapted from the IFYC Introduction to Interfaith Leadership Course, developed in partnership with Dominican University.

The numbered Canvas assignments are also required reading for the following in-class meeting.  Comments on Canvas assignments are ongoing, but initial comments should be posted by midnight on the assigned date.  Students may also raise questions or offer comments on any of the readings in the open forum online discussion, or follow up there on the previous class discussion.  Students are expected to participate in the online discussions for the numbered Canvas assignments (minimum one thoughtfully expressed original post for each numbered assignment and one additional critically reflective posts in response to another student’s comment). Quality and number of posts will both count, but quality (including sustained reasoning—usually more than a couple of lines, but typically no more than one or two paragraphs) is worth more than quantity (sheer number or length of posts).  Full sentences and correct grammar and spelling are expected. Excessively lengthy posts should be studiously avoided.

Written Assignments:
All written assignments are to be submitted electronically using Canvas.  Page number expectations do not include cover page, endnotes, or bibliography/works cited pages. The Book Analysis Paper and Final Examination paper should follow the format provided in the Religious Studies Department Style Sheet (cover page, paginated, double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-pt font, etc.).

1) Book Analysis Paper (5-7 pages double-spaced). The student will read Shusaku Endo’s Deep River.  In the paper, the student will identify and reflect on Endo’s use of religious myth or ritual in relationship to a chosen character’s (or characters’) socio-cultural context and personal situation.  The first part of the paper (~2-3 pages) must describe how this relationship develops throughout the narrative. The remainder of the paper (~3-4 pages) will consider the positive and negative effects of the religious myth and/or ritual on the character(s) and on their ability to show or be shown compassion (identifying the form this takes, e.g., forgiveness, sympathy, friendship, care).

2) Ritual Field Experiences/Account of Observations. Each student will visit and observe two local worship/prayer services conducted by a religious group other than their own (if a student identifies with a particular denomination, this means a denomination other than her/his own, e.g., a Roman Catholic student should not visit another Catholic parish, but could visit another Christian denomination).  At least one of these must be to a religious group other than a Christian one. The webpages provided on Meredith McGuire’s Religion: The Social Context website, “Observing Local Religious Groups” and Nancy T. Ammerman’s “Observing Congregations” should be read for valuable information on respectful visitor-observer protocol and suggestions on aspects of the experience to observe.  In consultation with the instructor, the student will design a set of at least four questions/points of observation to which he/she would like to pay attention in both services, to be approved by the instructor at least one week in advance of these visits. At least one question should be designed around interfaith/interreligious dialogue, i.e., should involve observing and/or interviewing at the site with a view to discerning how the tradition observed deals with a question or issue with which the student her/himself is grappling out of the context of her/his own religious/spiritual (or non-religious), theological or philosophical tradition.

Students should prepare a 5- to 7-page summary paper, including critical reflection on the student’s observations and comparison/contrast of the two services, that answer the prepared questions. Students will need to have these papers completed before the designated class discussion (see course calendar) and be prepared briefly to present their observations as part of that discussion.

3) Final Take-Home Examination (6 pages double-spaced, plus footnotes/endnotes and bibliography where appropriate).  On the basis of the principles and examples presented through course readings, instruction and discussion, students will provide the following in three clearly indicated sections of the paper:

     1) a written assessment of their individual definitions of myth and ritual written on the first day of class.  This critique will include:
          a. what aspects of the original definitions should be maintained,
          b. what ought to be expanded upon,
          c. what should be jettisoned or changed, and
          d. explanations as to why the student has made these judgments.  

     2) new/revised definitions of myth and ritual, and

     3) an extended reflection (at least three paragraphs) on how your understanding of interfaith concerns has evolved during the course and how a better understanding of myth and ritual can contribute to compassionate action and interfaith dialogue.

Course Instructional Methods

The methods utilized to help involve the students in the learning process include: lectures to provide material supplementary to the readings; a seminar-style of class discussion and participation (see class procedure and presentations, above); individual dialogue with the instructor by appointment; written assignments, film-viewing, and out-of-class experiences that help students to integrate the course material, and a final exam paper that provides a basis for self-assessment of learning.  

Assignment Weighting and Assessment Criteria

The student's performance will be assessed on the basis of critical attentiveness to and integration of assigned readings and material presented in class and online, and on the quality of the student's written and oral expression.  Evidence of these criteria is to be given by the student as appropriate to the various course requirements:

  • Reading assignments/class participation (20% of final grade: 10% in class, 10% online discussions)
  • Ritual observation assignment (30% of final grade)
  • Book analysis paper (20% of final grade)
  • Final exam (written or oral) (30% of final grade)

Course Calendar

Class meets twice per week for 17 weeks

Week 1:

Tuesday: The Basics – Symbol, Myth, Ritual/Introduction to Interfaith Understanding

Class Topics:

Suggested Interfaith Readings:

Canvas Entry #1:
Having viewed the IFYC videos, 1.1 Defining Interfaith Leadership; 1.2 What Is Interfaith? and 3.3 The Power of Storytelling in class, watch also Eboo Patel’s 5-minute overview of the IFYC course (1.3), and discuss the following:

  • What are some of the experiences or aspects of your background that shape your relationship with your religious and/or non-religious identity?
  • This lesson presented four important leaders as interfaith leaders. Think back to your previous understanding of King, Day, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama and how you may have been taught about them in school up to this point. How is this representation of any one of them different from your previous understanding? What might you conclude about the place of religion in education (or the larger world) today?


Required Reading

  • Leonard and McClure, Myth and Knowing, 1-28 (Ch. 1-Purposes and Definitions)
  • Harvard University Pluralism Project, “From Diversity to Pluralism

Suggested Interfaith Readings:

Week 2:


Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, xi-11 (Preface and Ch.1 - Introduction)
  • Palmer and Ramsay, The Kuan Yin Chronicles, xi-xxiv (Introduction)
  • Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, “Ritualizing Our Stories,” Ch. 2 in Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 20-35

Canvas Entry #2:
Having now read at least the introductions from each of our main textbooks (Liberating Rites, Myth and Knowing, The Kuan Yin Chronicles), comment briefly on each in terms of what it can contribute to our study of myth and ritual.  Which text do you look most forward to reading, and why?

Thursday: Ritual Pathways    

Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 12-31 (Ch. 2 - Ritualizing: The Animals Do It and So Do We)

Week 3:


Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 32-51 (Ch. 3 - Modern Warfare: The Loss of Ritual Pathways)

Canvas Entry #3:
View the 10-minute video, 2.2 Models of Religious Diversity. Identify one thing you have learned about myth and/or ritual from our readings thus far and comment on how this may be important for understanding human life, religious diversity, and interfaith attitudes.


  • Required Reading: Driver, Liberating Rites, 52-75 (Ch. 4 - Priest and Shaman)

Week 4:


Required Reading:

  • Kathleen Hughes, “Reconciliation: Cultural and Christian Perspectives,” in Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda, ed. Robert J. Kennedy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987), 114-128.
  • Victor Turner, “Liminality and communitas” [orig.1969] in FRS, 74-84
  • Rivers of Faith”, Harvard University Pluralism Project
  • Suggested Interfaith Reading: “Let’s revive the Golden Rule”, TEDtalk by Karen Armstrong

Thursday: Modalities of Ritual Performance

Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 79-106 (Ch. 5 - Ritual, Theater, and Sacrifice)
  • Anderson and Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, 97-122 (Ch. 6, “Encountering Death”)

Canvas Entry #4:
Comment on how the rites/perspectives discussed in the readings for September 19 & 21 exhibit ritual ways of showing compassion.  Include in your observation how the ritual portrays connections/relationships between the individual and the community.

Week 5:


Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 107-127 (Ch. 6 - Confessional and Ethical Performance Modes)
  • Romano Guardini, “An open letter” [orig. 1964] in FRS, 3-8
  • Catherine Bell, “Ritual, change, and changing rituals” [orig. 1989] in FRS, 167-176

Thursday: Discussion of Deep River

Required Reading:  

  • Endo, Deep River in its entirety

Week 6:

Tuesday: Ritual’s Social Gifts

Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 131-165 (Ch. 7 - Order & Ch. 8 Community)

Due Today:
Deep River Analysis Paper

Thursday: Babette’s Feast

Class will begin viewing Babette’s Feast

Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites, 166-191 (Ch. 9 - Transformation)

Due today:

  • Last day to submit ritual observation questions to instructor for pre-approval.

Week 7:


Class finishes viewing Babette’s Feast and discusses the film

Required Reading:

  • Driver, Liberating Rites,194-222 (Ch. 10 - Christian Sacraments as the Performance of Freedom)

Canvas Entry #5:
What connection(s) between ritual and compassion do you see in Babette’s Feast?

Thursday: Creation Myths    

Required Reading:

Recommended Reading:

  • Mary Douglas, “Natural Symbols” [orig. 1970] in Foundations in Ritual Studies, Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 57-71
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth” [orig. 1958] in The Continental Philosophy Reader, ed. Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater (London: Routledge, 1996), 307-325

Suggested Interfaith Reading:

Week 8:


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 63-79 (Greek, Native American, Sumerian [Iraq])


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 79-99 (Hindu, Hebrew, Maya)

Week 9:

Tuesday: The Female Divine    

Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 102-121


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 121-144 (Hawaiian, Brulé Sioux, Sumerian)

Week 10:


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 144-161 (Vietnamese, Hindu)

Thursday: The Female Divine (Con’t) + The Male Divine

Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 161-181 (Roman, Gnostic/Coptic [Egypt])
  • Myth and Knowing, 185-208 (Introduction to “Male Divine”)

Week 11:


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 208-243 (Hindu, Sumerian, Yoruba [Nigeria], Norse, Aztec)

Canvas Entry #6:
Comment on the fact that myths often depict divinities and places in terms of gender (male/father, female/mother).  How does this type of classical gender depiction influence religious understanding today? Do you view this influence as largely beneficial to human society, detrimental, or mixed?

Thursday: Kuan Yin – Chinese Goddess of Compassion

Required Reading:

  • Kuan Yin Chronicles, 1-69 (History and Origins)

Week 12:


Required Reading:

  • Kuan Yin Chronicles, 71-148 (Myths and Legends; Introductions to Poems)

Extra Credit Opportunity:  
The 2017 Brother Booker Ashe Urban Ministry Program, “Welcoming the Stranger: Perspectives on Immigration in Our City” – 6:30-8:30 pm.  Students will receive extra credit for attending and offering a 1- to 2-page reflection on the relevance of myth/ritual/interfaith understanding to the questions/issues raised.


Required Reading:

  • Kuan Yin Chronicles, 149-182 (The Quatrains)

Canvas Entry #7:
Why is Kuan Yin known as the Goddess of Compassion?  Choose a quatrain that you believe supports this designation and explain your reasons for this choice.

Week 13:

Tuesday: Trickster Myths/Interfaith Dialogue

Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 247-283 (Ga [Ghana], Yoruba, Wasco, Modern Iroquois, Lipan Apache, Blackfoot, Norse)
  • IFYC resource on developing an ethic or theology of interfaith cooperation
  • The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue by Catherine Cornille; “Hospitality Toward Difference” pp.197-210 (entire chapter recommended)

Suggested Interfaith Readings:

Thursday: Professor Away

Canvas “Class”:

Week 14:

Tuesday: Thanksgiving Break, No Class

Thursday: Ritual Observations Discussion

Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 283-318 (Oceania, Greek, Malaysian, Haida [Pacific Northwest North America])

Due Today:

  • Bring draft of ritual observations to class

Week 15:

Tuesday: Sacred Places

Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 320-353 (Zuni [Modern & Traditional, Arizona], Northern Cheyenne et al.[Wyoming], Heyemeyohsts Storm [Wyoming], Japanese)

Due Today:

  • Ritual observations assignment  


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 353-370 (Yao [China], Buddhist [Japan], Jewish [Italy])

Week 16:


Required Reading:

  • Myth and Knowing, 370-392 (Post-Buddhism Bon [Tibet], Norland [Northern Norway], Vietnamese, Aboriginal Australia)


Due Today:

  • If final taken as Oral Exam, must be scheduled by this date (no class meeting)

Week 17:


Due Today:

  • If final taken as Oral Exam, must be completed by this date (no class meeting)


Due Today:

  • Class meets to discuss Take-Home/Oral Exam
  • Written Final Exam due tonight


1In consultation with the author, this syllabus has been edited for length, removing details particular to the author’s context such as office hours and location, absence policies, honor codes, and other instructor-specific (or institution-specific) details.