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Part 3: Common Mind and the Mind of Christ

Part 3: Common Mind and the Mind of Christ

by Donald Schell

We’ve titled our new All Saints Company book of liturgical music and hymns, “One Heart and One Song,” a line from the 19th Century English hymn, “From glory to glory advancing we praise Thee, O God,” which in turn translates a prayer from the ancient Liturgy of St. James. One heart and one song. Human solidarity begins in our ancient ancestors’ ability to sing together. As recently as the American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Viet Name War Movement, and South Africa’s ‘Revolution in Four-part Harmony,” we’ve seen music bind people together to face injustice the threat of violence. And then strangely, we silenced our songs. And perhaps not so strangely, church assemblies got grayer and quieter and fewer visitors stayed to sing. What songs do people have in common? A verse of “Amazing Grace,” “Happy Birthday to You,” a verse and a half of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and maybe “Auld Lang Syne.”

I’ve promised fellow neuroscience geeks some building blocks for a natural theology of community, human formation and some startling new hints of what God is doing in our singing. First I want to suggest that the two crucial formational issues (human formation and Christian formation alike) are:

what binds us together? and

how can we, born in community, be inspired to individual creativity, courage, and compassion?

In theological terms we’re asking:

what makes solidarity reconciliation or

what undoes the bondage and the killing solidarity of scapegoating violence

In this our music-making matters ultimately, and traditional, pre-literate ways of sharing music may help us notice what makes us warring tribes and what draws us together in one heart and one song.

Before we learned to read text and music (those of us who do), people learned by mirroring. And yes, mirroring can cement mindless solidarity against an enemy or a scapegoated other, but mirroring is also essential to positive communication, communion, fellow feeling, and so to compassion. St. Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” because we become Christ by imitation.

Imitation is the core of creativity and the source of our finding freedom to act as we need to. As jazz musician Clark Terry says, “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate,” or as we used to say it in Music that Makes Community workshops, “Imitate, Repeat, Improvise.” Imitation births relationship to one another, and in the mind of Christ, the imitation that makes us not clones, but more uniquely ourselves, imitation can take us to that freedom we find in the Spirit of the Lord.

Either way – the ground of imitation is in our embodied sense of another person’s intention and presence, what Mario Iacaboni writes about in Mirroring People, the Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others, Iacoboni, an M.D. and a pioneer neurological researcher at UCLA lays out the emerging brain research that identifies specific neurons and kinds of neurological connection we share with some other primates, with whales and with dolphins and elephants. These nerve paths (and the particular kind of nerves, mirror neurons) allow us to feel or sense directly in our own bodies the affective state of our fellows (and some other mammals). In wonderful, page-turning scientific argument, Iacoboni describes experiments that make very good sense, and guides us through the logic of what they prove. Iacoboni and Frans de Waal (below) are lead researchers in the emerging science of empathy/compassion.

As a pastoral theologian, I’m grateful that both are also realistic about how mirroring can lead to competition and sometimes violence. But both see in our ability to take the role of the other, to feel the other’s experience, an inborn (I’d say God-given, but that’s not their argument) basis for the kind of communication that makes community possible.

In The Age of Empathy, Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Frans De Waal comes at connection and community formation of character as a primatologist, observing and experimenting behaviorally with our primate cousins. Like Iacoboni, English is de Waal’s second language and like Iacoboni, he writes elegant, clear English. The two books make an intriguing complementary pair. Iacoboni gives us a guided tour of the brain (ours and those other mammals). De Waal observes and describes behaviors (our own and other animals’) that our mirroring brains make possible. Like Charles Darwin (whom he quotes), de Waal argues that cooperation, collaboration and compassion contributed as much to our evolution as competition. Like Darwin and Iacoboni, he acknowledges the sometimes violent character of our primate cousins (and other mammals whose behavior is shaped by mirroring/imitation), but his work is a thorough corrective to earlier primatologists who argued that we were descended from purely, and unalterably violent primates.

In the previous essay, I mentioned Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, which marshals evidence from neurology and paleontology, from cross-cultural studies in language development in infants, and from archaeology to argue that human language and community evolved from our ancestors’ ability to make primordial melody and gesture, that is that music and movement, fundamental building blocks of ritual, were essential in the formation of primal human communities. Gesture and melody allowed our earliest human ancestors to collaborate for survival. Mithen argues that human language came from music, sentences came from melodies, and finally articulated words emerge from sentences. Mithen’s evidence also invites us to notice that rationality is rooted in feeling. Whether we want to see that feeling is the vessel for articulated meaning, or (with Parker Palmer) to invite and encourage ‘thinking with the mind in the heart,’ Mithen’s evolutionary evidence makes it clear that rationality and logic rest on melody and feeling for the energy of their meanings.

In the last essay, I suggested that in Cognition in the Wild Edwin Hutchins offers scientific observation and (so good natural theology) to support Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori calling individual salvation “a heresy of our time.” How can science address a question of heresy? The PB is pointing to a theological heresy that contradicts good sense anthropology and neurology.

Over the last three hundred fifty years, the Enlightenment discovery of human rights and the essentially ‘thinking’ self of Enlightenment philosophers like Pascal and Descartes, has become something else – the triumph of individualism or me-ism. Hutchins helps us begin to see how the self or ‘I,’ of my thoughts and personal purpose emerges from our communication. Self comes to be in community. Thinking is interactive and conversational. The community that’s working together is essential to thought. For serious individual thought, we carry on a conversation with internalized voices of others to help us think.

Hutchins observes groups outside of a laboratory context making complex decisions, using seagoing navigation as his wild, non-lab environment. He sees ‘self’’ as a kind of local center, free but also born to and inseparable from a wider human system.

We have lots of new brain research on the areas of the brain and connections among them that we’re engaged in when we’re making music, working together, feeling compassion or affection. Oliver Sacks, Musicphilia and other recent books on the neurology of music-making and listening observe that music-making changes a musician’s brain. It makes so many more neural connections between the parts of the brain that together shape what we call ‘music’ that a pathologist doing an autopsy will recognize visually the brain of a music-maker. Meanwhile, in a parallel discovery, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman in How God Changes your Brain, Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist tell us that praying to a judgmental, condemning God actually measurably decreases the richness of brain activity and makes us less creative, less flexible, and dumber while praying to a compassionate, forgiving God opens new neural pathways and makes us smarter, more creative, and more flexible in our thinking. How are these two observations connected? I’m hearing neurological and electro-encephalographic evidence that, on the way to compassion and one heart, whoever sings prays twice.

Two more remarkable books for anyone who has hung in to the end of this – David and Eric Clarke, editors, gathered the papers from the first International Conference on Music and Consciousness in 2006, in Music and Consciousness, Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, and Daniel Siegel gave this neuroscience beginner a belated but very welcome guided tour in his Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology that includes a working description of ‘mind’ that he developed to bring together a forty person interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, organizational theorists, contemplative practitioners, parenting researchers and religious teachers. Siegel offers us this, “A core aspect of the mind can be defined as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” “Embodied and Relational” jumped out at me right away.

And what Siegel rights about is the plasticity of the brain, the reshaping of how we remember and how we choose from seeing one another, being attuned to one another, making fresh choices.

Mind. Mine, yours, or ours? Of course it’s all three and “embodied and relational” points us to how WE have the “mind of Christ.”

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Kathy Staudt

Don – there is so much here that is rich that I will need to ponder even further in the more open time that summer (I hope) will bring in a few weeks — but I do respond to what you write here because I am a “hymn-hummer” — like my father and my sisters, too, I know a lot of hymns by heart – multiple verses, and they’re from the hymnal, and carriers of theologies — some better than others but I do live the words I sing, often, and I love the idea of teaching people “singing by heart.” As much as I absolutely love beautifully executed choral singing, somehow we’ve gotten the idea that singing is a ‘performance’ and something you have to be ‘good at’ and so people resent coming into a community where they “don’t know the songs.” And yet you learn by singing along. I love it that you are teaching us to do that again and want to learn more so will be dwelling with your stuff for awhile. I am in a parish where people sing (and often the “old hymns” which they, too grew up with – but in West Africa) . People sing. Even in the summer when the choir is off the congregation sings, and that, I find especially when I visit elsewhere, is a great blessing! But learning to sing “by heart,” simply and as part of who we are in community and making it beautiful together – Yes!

More soon I hope when I come up for air and have time to write something myself. Thanks so much for all of this and the love and thought that you bring to these important matters.

Baba Yaga

Donald & all, I’m sitting here looking at my notes on Donald’s articles and on the tender and thoughtful responses people have made to them – and I am longing for conversation. Sitting in the same room? Talking about something interesting together? There’s nothing like it… but, lacking propinquity, I am grateful for the hospitality of Episcopal Cafe.

Donald’s essays take me back to my earliest awareness of myself – a fierce, wheezy little girl determined to learn EVERY SONG IN THE WORLD. Wherever singing was, I had to be. Church was interesting because I got to memorize the hymnal. I bring these memories forward because, although we talk in a general way about how music-making creates culture, we can’t forget that individuals, and individual choices, are the engine of the process. People who love to sing, who love to invite others into singing, who are determined to learn every scrap of the repertoire – I appreciate it that Donald’s thinking names and affirms our value. Our current culture tends to identify and value different skill sets.

Donald, while you are grazing the high pastures of cognitive neuroscience, I hope you won’t neglect the rich lowland forests of ethnomusicology. Of the making of books there is no end, but you might enjoy The Ceremonial Animal: A New Portrait of Anthropology by Wendy James. The book is a generously cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural review of the rituals –including song and dance – that people use to construct and maintain social systems.

When do we get to buy One Heart and One Song?

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

Laura Johnson-Bickford

Donald, As ever, I am moved in a good blend of thinking and feeling by your piece. I find in it connections that I’m making these days, have been making since I started teaching, between individual growth mentally, socially, psychologically, spiritually and communally (if that’s a word) and our need for our stories, our literature. I’m working on forming a Committee, A Superpac of Mind (minds) and in my first day’s zeal about it, I called Laurie Glover. She heard me and understood. I was gathering in the names of everyone who needed to be included in this committee. She said, “it’s a cloud of witnesses.” Indeed. So the aconym for the movement (the Superpac, though no funds are yet invovled) is C.O.W. which is fitting. We’ll move slowly (as cows do, but with dignity). The goal is to concince policy makers for public school curriculum that we cannot abandon literature, and it feels as if there are counter-movements afoot to do just that, albiet slowly, and for justifiable reasons, perhaps, and in the name of valid causes, like literacy, say, which sounds do dull and flat and dry. You are claiming with your own cloud of witnesses how fundamental music has been and must be for our souls and our civilization. We are on the same (cow) path. I join your cause, and trust you’ll join mine. Perhaps a meeting this summer. The meetings will be fun and short and with refreshments, naturally. Thank you for your work here. I’m enjoying in in the best sense of enjoyment: like good music, good books. Yours, Laura

P.S. Tomorrow Art Bickford and I celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. About 27 years ago, you counseled us both out of a big horrible jam. We made it. Thank you.


Dear Donald — I’ll have to read your posts again (and probably again), but a couple of little experiences leap up. ‘Little’ in the sense of everyday, mundane, like the story Olivia tells of singing to her nephew and having the songs develop into ‘this is what we do.’

I remember discovering/reading that the Methodist Hymnal functions (or used to) the same way that your BCP does — that Methodists are people who have had an experience of God, and then gather to sing about it. And in the act of singing, it stays real and present — sort of like what the best of liturgy does. I do think that song is one of the few collective places we as a culture feel at home in metaphor. Watching an adolescent connect so strongly with pop music, as it puts words on an emotion that she/he explodes with but can’t express.

I worry some that our children’s generation doesn’t have the ‘old songs’ — the pub songs, folk songs, camp songs, work songs. The songs that share across generations.

I’m so struck by the idea — in one of the earlier pieces of your 3 parter here — of the music made before we realize that mother and baby are separate. When the gazer and the gazed-upon are still essentially one. I was surprised to find that feeling went both ways, that for a surprising time after giving birth to each of my children, it was unclear to me that the baby wasn’t still ‘part’ of my body, my soul. And the little songs, hums, rhythms that I made during those first days with each are ‘in my bones’ in ways that all the later songs don’t quite reach. I couldn’t ‘sing them’ now, but they’re in there. And I wonder if those songs are as much hard-wired as some of the ones that researchers have found indigenous to disconnected cultures all over the world.

The last impressionistic bit comes from the most recent Easter Vigil at St Gregory’s. We sang ‘Freedom Come’ together in the near dark of candle light. There was a line or two of the words and melody in the book, but just a hint. No ‘instructions’ to listen to the leaders or description of ‘how the song goes’ — we just started singing. Maybe 15% of the people there knew it well, maybe 2/3 had heard it. People picked up the call and response, including the word variations, the places where the melody changes. There was a wonderful sense of breathing together, of listening and responding together. Not of improvisation, or learning, or anything that heady — but just of our making community in that moment by singing together our experience of God.

I can’t find the words to describe that better, because I think they need to be sung…..

with love and gratitude


Vik Slen

Donald, I really appreciate this intellectual work as well as the practical promotion of music-from-the-heart that you are doing. I would love to write something lengthy about this but I can’t right now. I believe your appeal to human origins implies a belief in natural law, which I share, but I will make that case another time. Much of what you say about anthropology and neurology reminds me of Robert Bellah’s new magnum opus, RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION, which I heartily recommend. (He specifically contradicts Girard on the origin of violence, but I believe their views are easily reconcilable.)

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