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