Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Believe In Music

All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)

Many years ago, when I was a student in theater school, we had an instructor who taught us his theory of the “levels” of drama. The first level was that of ordinary, naturalistic activity. At this initial stage the action on the stage is indistinguishable from everyday life. Out of this level proceed the next two stages of increasingly heightened reality (I don’t remember all the specifics. Like I said, it was many years ago). Finally, in certain instances, the “fourth level” is reached. At this level, naturalistic action is not sufficient to convey the significance of what is being portrayed.

In a Shakespearean performance, for example, an actor may suddenly step out of the scene and address the audience with a powerful and poetic soliloquy. In a movie, it might be a montage sequence, the juxtaposition of various scenes and images usually held together by a pronounced soundtrack that communicates the unifying mood or theme. But, the medium par excellence of the fourth level is the musical. Whenever the action of a musical reaches a particularly heightened point, someone breaks into song.

Something like this happens in the passage from 2 Chronicles. Solomon and the Israelites have completed the building of the temple of God. Overcome with joy and gratitude and reverence, they break into song. A good friend of mine, who identifies himself as an unobservant Jew who is into God, explained to me once that, “The ancient Israelites used to break into song when they experienced God; it is the perfect expression for the indescribable encounter with the Divine.” But in this scene, things do not stay at the fourth level. The song the Israelites sing is not just the expression of religious feeling. It is an action that causes the Divine to manifest. The fourth level here gives way to the fifth, sixth, seventh and beyond.

It is not the appearance of God that causes the Israelites to burst forth in this great musical performance. It is the love of God, the giving of “praise and thanks to their Lord,” that causes God to manifest. Hundreds of trumpets, cymbals, harps, and lyres, along with countless voices, join in unison to sing thanks to God, at which point “the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.”

Too often, our religious discourse takes place on the lower levels of our human drama. We are far too hung up on the activities and carryings on of our fellow humans, that it seems we forget that religion should be more about eternal matters than temporal ones. We fight about what to believe, how to believe, whether to believe. I wonder where God goes when we start yelling at each other? I doubt at such times that he appears in a cloud of glory. My guess is he vanishes like a wisp of smoke.

Notice the detail of the story describing how, when God’s glory is present, the priests can’t do their job. “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.” God, it seems, is not as interested in our ritual observances as we are in performing them. It is not the forms of our worship and belief that are essential, but the quality of our singing, the fullness of our praise.

Music is one of the ways we sanctify the moments and events of our lives. Whether there be a wedding, or a funeral, or a birthday party, music is a signal that what is taking place is special, set apart from everyday life. Music and song can also be a way to elevate the everyday—it can transform a mundane moment into a joyous occasion. Think of the excitement that comes over a group of people when a favorite song comes on and a spontaneous dance party suddenly takes place.

Often, when I am stuck in a dark mood, the only thing that will shift it for me is to put on some music. What works for me is usually some bourbon-soaked torch song by Frank Sinatra. I’m not trying to make my feeling go away, but to raise it to a different level, to give it meaning, to find the holiness in heartbreak, so to speak, and the sacred in the sad. I believe that we are each building a “temple of the Lord” and that temple is our lives. And the more we can let each moment “sing”—whether it is a song of pain or a chorus of joy—the more we invite the Divine into our lives.

To this end, the Sufi poet, Rumi, offers this advice:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Can't Get No Satisfaction

“The aim of Jewish piety lies not in futile efforts toward the satisfaction of needs in which one chances to indulge and which cannot otherwise be fulfilled, but in the maintenance and fanning of the discontent with our aspirations and achievements, in the maintenance and fanning of a craving that knows no satisfaction.”

~Abraham Joshua Heschel (Man is Not Alone)

Religion is a strange thing. It has a tendency to take our common and accepted values and subvert them. It challenges our collective assumptions and finds our usual aspirations and desires wanting. Often, because of this tendency, people judge religion to be repressive and restrictive, a means of exercising oppressive control over the hearts and minds of its adherents, and desiring to do so over non-adherents. And it is true that there are elements within the religious world whose mode of expression is repression and condemnation. There are those who interpret the subversion of social norms in terms of a war against the prevailing culture.

At first glance, the quote above from Abraham Joshua Heschel might seem to belong to this category. Is it really true that all our efforts toward the satisfaction of our needs are futile? Is Heschel right when he states that we are able indulge our needs, but that ultimately they cannot be fulfilled? Is there anything inherently wrong in seeking the satisfactions of such things as position, wealth, sex or fame? Where do these things fit in the economy of the spirit?

A closer reading, however, finds that there is no condemnation of the “satisfaction of needs,” no denouncing of our “aspirations and achievements.” Heschel is not issuing a moral injunction against the pursuit of desire, he is suggesting that there is a deeper and greater value in discontent, in dissatisfaction, and in longing. It is not that seeking satisfaction is wrong, it’s just that it’s fleeting. He is reminding us that satisfaction as a goal in itself, as an end, is ephemeral and “futile.” This knowledge still exists in our common speech in phrases like, “Money can’t buy happiness,” “Fame is a vapor,” “All good things must come to an end,” and “Success is journey not a destination.” The Rolling Stones apparently knew this truth when they sang “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Who knew that song contained such spiritual truth?

It is no secret that our contemporary culture is geared toward the gratification of desire. Our whole economy is based on it. We are consumers who are constantly encouraged by advertisers and marketers to try new and different means to satisfy cravings we may not even know we have. There are so many things to do and to try and to buy that, to a large extent, we have lost the ability to just be. The ability to satisfy almost any need, almost instantaneously can seem like a great thing. However, there is evidence that one of the most important qualities we can develop as human beings is the ability to delay gratification and it seems likely that our prevailing situation has, to a large extent, eroded that ability for many of us.

The religious view, as articulated by Heschel, goes even further than this. He advocates, not just delayed gratification, but “the maintenance and fanning of discontent…, of a craving that knows no satisfaction.” I don’t believe that what is being promoted here is any kind of unhappiness or misery, as if the way to God was through some kind of suffering asceticism or mortification of the human will.

I think the relevant analogy here is the state of being in love. When we fall in love we are filled with a longing for the other. It can at times be painful, but it is a sweet pain and we would never wish it away. Even when we are with the one we love, we feel we can’t be close enough to our beloved or know enough about him or her. Joy and pain somehow intermingle, and our longing for the other can never quite be satisfied even when our beloved is near.

The religious masters of this experience are the Sufis. The Sufi shaykh Jami teaches that “The heart that is free of love-sickness isn’t a heart at all. The body deprived of the pangs of love is nothing but clay and water.” The poet, Rumi, puts it like this:

the longing you express
is the return message.
the grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.

A slightly more sober version of this idea might be image of the empty vessel of Taoism. A bowl that is full, like a desire that is satisfied, has lost its dynamic power. Nothing else can happen. But it is in its emptiness that the vessel is useful. It has the power to receive. And maybe that is the secret of the unsatisfied yearning. Though we are filled with longing, we are emptied of self, ready to receive something of the Divine.

I believe that we are changed by love. Our meeting is like that of the ocean and the shore. We come together for a time, sometimes with passionate intensity, sometimes soft and gentle. And just as the shore takes on a new shape when the tide recedes, some things washed away, some new object—a shell, or a lost treasure—left behind, so are we, in the ebb and flow of love, painfully and beautifully, made new. I believe that this is the kind of encounter that Heschel is inviting us to with God. To open ourselves by expanding our yearning and our need, to meet life with a transforming love, to be slowly changed into an image of the Divine.

And I believe God is a Stones fan and that he loves to sing these lines: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why Do We Believe In God?

"Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid." ~ Satoshi Kanazawa (Psychology Today)

Recently, I stumbled upon an article on the Psychology Today website, called Why Do We Believe In God. It is a year-old entry in a blog entitled The Scientific Fundamentalist and can be read by following these links: Part 1 and Part 2.

The author, Satoshi Kanazawa’s argument rests on Error Management Theory, which basically states that the human mind has evolved to make decisions, even when faced with uncertainty and too little information. Simply put, the human mind will choose between two possible errors by deciding on the one with the fewest negative consequences.

The example used is a man who strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman he has just met. Apparently, men are wired to interpret this kind of interaction in their favor. That is, even in the absence of any real evidence, men assume they are going to score. Why? Because, if they are right they get to have sex. If they are wrong, at worst they experience rejection. If, on the other hand, men assumed that they weren’t going to score, being right might mean they protect their egos, but being wrong means that they miss an opportunity for sex, and therefore for potentially passing on their genes. And we all know, of course, that the sole purpose of human life is to pass on our genes, as if the whole of existence were some kind of genetic thrift shop.

Error Management Theory says that given these two possible errors, human beings—in this case, men—will make the least costly error. In the example given, getting rejected is less costly than missing a chance for doing the horizontal gene swap. Kanazawa then goes on to apply this theory to the belief in God. He states that religious people tend to commit the “error” of attributing intention to certain forces of nature and interprets his observation this way:

The cost of a false-positive error is that you become paranoid. You are always looking around and behind your back for predators and enemies that don’t exist. The cost of a false-negative error is that you are dead, being killed by a predator or an enemy when you least expect them. Obviously, it’s better to be paranoid than dead, so evolution should have designed a mind that overinfers personal, animate, and intentional forces even when none exist.

The author takes the example of a bush on fire and suggests that you could understand this to be the cause of an impersonal force—lightning—or you could interpret this (erroneously, of course) as the cause of a personal force, that is, God. It is as if Kanazawa has never heard of the concept of metaphor, not to mention that he misreads the Old Testament story. The bush is not simply a bush on fire, the significant detail is that despite the fire, the bush did not burn up.

Finally, he offers his conclusion:

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.

So, belief in God (and, really, any kind of religious belief is implied in this article), serves no real purpose because it “is not adaptive.” Ultimately, it is a kind of outgrowth of paranoia, which is adaptive because it protects us from potential natural “predators and enemies.”

I really don’t know where to start with this stuff.

First of all, apparently, “scientific fundamentalists” tend to read religious statements in as literal a fashion as do religious fundamentalists. Given their preference for the concrete, they fail to see that the image of a burning bush refers to something that cannot be formulated in words and concepts. That something is given metaphorical dress, allowing some aspect of the experience to which it points to be communicated. And even if the story of Moses encountering an angel of the Lord in a fire in a bush were understood in a literal way, surely one has to consider all the details described in the encounter. You can’t just say it was a bush on fire and ignore the part of the report that explains that the unusual thing was that the bush was not consumed by the fire. Science would never (or should never) allow some facts to be admitted for consideration while other facts are willfully ignored. Unless of course, it is dealing with religious statements, it would seem.

Then there is Error Management Theory itself. I don’t really know much about this theory, so all I can really comment on is the use to which it is put by Kanazawa. He declares, “One of the great features of Error Management Theory is that it can explain a wide variety of phenomena. It is a truly general theory.” Kanazawa starts with the assumption that religious belief is an error and then uses this general theory to show why humans make this error. The problem is that you can do this with anything. You could, for instance, say that humans are prone to making the error that science accurately describes the nature of reality and then go ahead and use Error Management Theory to describe how we continue to believe in the scientific error. All you’ve done is what Kanazawa has done, which is find a way to explain your personal biases. This theory doesn’t prove that belief in God is an error, it has to start with that premise in order to have anything to say at all.

Let me be clear, I do not in any way believe that the scientific method is erroneous. Clearly, human beings have derived immeasurable benefit from the increase in knowledge about how the world works that science has given us. I think the use of science to explain things that are outside of its capacity to explain, such as religious belief and experience, is definitely erroneous. And, I think Kanazawa’s argument is not only erroneous, but totally useless.

Science and religion point to different aspects of experience and they do not have to have an antagonistic relationship. Science wants to understand the causal relations between things in the physical world. Religion seeks an encounter with the mystery of life. Science adds to our collective knowledge and gives us concepts and language to communicate that knowledge to each other. “Religion,” says Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “begins with the sense of the ineffable, with the awareness of a reality that discredits our wisdom, that shatters our concepts.”

I do not know why human beings, including myself, believe in God. All I can do here is to assent to another statement by Rabbi Heschel:

“To assert that the most sensitive minds of all ages were victims of an illusion; that religion, poetry, art, philosophy were the outcome of a self-deception is too sophisticated to be reasonable. Bringing discredit on the genius of man, such an assertion would, of course, disqualify our own minds for making any assertion.”