by Donald Schell
My older daughter and I were exiting the Imperial War Museum in Manchester (U.K.) where she lives. It was bright outside from the late afternoon sun playing on the network of deepwater canals that surround the museum. By the water people in and around a half dozen or so pubs were singing, all of them, singing – team songs, or “She’ll be coming round the mountain,” or hymns. By the colors they were wearing we could see that fans of Manchester United (Man. U.) and fans of Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club were singing at one another from full pub gatherings, a scene and song of dueling solidarities, pub and club gatherings trying to out-sing one another across the echoing canals. And then sometimes unexpectedly one group’s song would good-naturedly answer another which the first group would receive with a gale of laughter. But the air was so charged with energy that I asked a fisherman quietly casting into the canal whether he thought there’d be trouble after the game. “No,” he said, “it’s two Catholic teams. Today all this competition friendly.” It would have been otherwise with Man. City of the other Glasgow team playing.
We’d spent the day with another kind of conflict, compelling historical displays portrayed the war that had devastated Europe. I wouldn’t imagine myself to be a fan of a war museum, but my father, my daughter’s grandfather, flew a B-17 bomber in World War II. Dad returned from the war with a new vocational goal, to become a physician. When I was old enough to ask him about the war, he’d only say, “I came back wanting to save lives if I could.” Dad was in medical school when I was born, and then a physician until he died, and from the brief words I just quoted, I learned that the father I knew would only talk around the edges of the war – his love of flying or his decision to become a physician. Partly he guessed that my childish curiosity was eager for war stories and heroism. He’d seen horror and loss. But I also wanted something else. I knew I’d come from him, been born from the desire that he and my mom had held while she was in California and he was a continent and an ocean away flying daily through anti-aircraft fire. I wanted to know more parts of him because I carry them and him within me.
How within me? Within me like a feeling before thought that moved me to leap out of our car and run up the hill to break up a fight – three kids had set upon a fourth. They’d pinned him to the ground were banging his head against the concrete. I left my wife and child in a risk-taking folly that may have saved that fourth kid’s life. Where did it come from – my dad – both the pilot and the physician – breathed life into me in that moment. Where does our conscience come from? What gives us courage to act ?
My daughter and my visit to the museum moved us closer to hearing and feeling something of the startling experience of my dad’s learned competence, feeling and imagining a bit of how a twenty-three year old officer would fly a heavy bomber and be responsible for his plane and crew or how that very young man might have felt seeing friends’ planes torn from formation next him with anti-aircraft guns and flak to fall from the sky. We wanted to glimpse something important about someone we loved, something that he was reluctant to describe.
Two pairs of eyes and ears and our conversation responding to the displays made them real for us in another way.
I got another glimpse into my dad from Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist,” a New Yorker article about bomber pilots and ICU physicians and nurses
The article tells how effective a simple checklist was in reducing infections in the Intensive Care Unit, but it begins with the horrifying and enlightening story of the expert test pilot crashing the first completed B-17 bomber prototype early in America’s preparations for World War II. At the time, the big B-17 with its 4 supercharged engines and all sorts of other advances was the most complicated airplane ever built. The post-mortem on the wreck revealed that the expert pilot had skipped a step in the start-up procedures, a switch that needed to be switched on – just wasn’t. Whenever you see a movie of pilot and co-pilot going through a start-up checklist, your finding the solution the B-17 engineers found to consistently engage knowledge and procedures too complicated for any one person to hold dependably in mind. “Fuel pressure?” “Check.” “Right flaps?” “Check.” And so on.
Writers like Atul Gawande in “Checklist” and The Checklist Manifesto or like Edwin Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild offer us both experience and scientific thinking we can use to support our Presiding Bishop’s warning against “the great Western heresy –“
—that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. . . That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.
Because beyond idolatry, the great Western heresy distorts the ultimate value God our creator really does place on every individual person. The heresy imagines a isolated individual freedom and agency that simply doesn’t exist. Human personhood is always born from community and grows and is nurtured in community. An ordinary human community or the miracle of the Body of Christ is no aggregation or sum total of separately existing people. When we’re talking about human nature (and so also about redeemed human nature), Nurture and Nature are inseparable, and, as Stephen Mithen argues compellingly in Singing Neanderthals, the communities that make humanity, that make collaboration, language and articulated thought even possible, begin with our capacity to read one another’ faces and bodies and come to common understanding in the simplest cultural and ritual building blocks – expressive melodic sound and gesture.
Solidarity and bonding together and even our hope in God’s work of reconciliation can go awry. Manchester United and Celtic pre-match singing won’t lead to a riot or war. Other pre-match singing might. But whether for good or ill, the bonding and collaborating that make us human begin in song and gesture – before we knew our mothers were different from ourselves, the gazer and the gazed on, the singer and the listener were one.
Human formation happens in nurturing community and so, of course, Christian formation does too. The rapidly emerging neuroscience of cognition and consciousness and new studies in anthropology and primatology have much to teach us about what we do together that brings us to common mind and to the possibilities of individual and personal discovery that come from our common mind.
In these first two parts of this series, I’ve sketched what may appear to be an air castle, some broad strokes to claim that we are together before we stand alone, that and pointing to research that singing and gesture birth language and the possibility of individual thoughts. In my final piece, I’ll tour some highlights of the scientific research that should inform our theology and practice of community and person going forward.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.