Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Neurobiology and Traditional Liturgy: Why Liturgical Innovation May Be Bucking the Evolutionary Process

Why is it that modern liturgies, which accurately express the beliefs of the participants, often seem to fail as ritual  while older forms, embodying what many participants would find to be out-moded ideas, remain powerful?  Two articles I read recently on the neurobiology of music may offer important clues to a biological basis for what Pope Benedict has identified as the tension between the hermeneutic of continuity and the hermeneutic of rupture.

Ian Cross, director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Music and Science, and Aniruddh D. Patel of the Neuroscience Institute, have both written extensively on music’s ability to create group experience.  Cross’s short piece, “Music and Social Being,” and Patel’s Templeton Foundation essay, “Music as a Transformative Technology of the Mind,” both argue that a regular pulse draws participants into a group experience and and allows participants to share an experience in ways that may actually impeded by ordinary discourse.    

Cross begins by positing that, while music does not seem to have the same innate biological basis as language, it does seem to have similarities across cultures that make it more than an evolutionary remnant, as is demonstrated in the nearly universal phenomenon of lullaby behavior between mother and infant.  If one broadens the standard Western definition to think of music as patterns of events occurring at regular temporal intervals, dance, the chanting of religious texts, and other activities that may not initially be defined by a given culture as music are more easily seen as part of the larger phenomenon.  Cross concludes that the key here may be what he calls entrainment, the shared experience of the regular pulse, “which involves the coordination in time of one participant's musical behaviours with those of another… and the organisation of the timing of actions and sounds around the abstracted pulse.”   A group of disparate individuals, in Cross’s thinking, are literally caught up in a beat and brought into a shared experience.  This is easy enough for anyone who has been to a concert to understand.  Patel goes so far as to argue that may be what makes music a key factor in adolescent identity formation.

While the pulse of the music draws a group together, Cross believes that it is powerful because of its light touch.  Language, he says, has coercive features, but shared musical experience allows those it engages to feel that they are part of a common experience while at the same time allowing individual interpretations of the exact meaning of that experience.  The power of music then lies not in an ability to make people think or believe exactly the same thing but to “modulate emotion and mood states,” drawing participants into something very like anthropologist Victor Turner’s liminal state, but, as music is an “unconsummated symbol,” it has a “floating intentionality.”  Cross believes this openness minimizes conflict by creating a shared sense of experience that is open-ended and communicative and contributes to both social and intellectual flexibility.  In this way, over the long course of evolution, he says that music has created space for group interaction and negotiation of the sort that Aristotle described as distributive justice and that Cross calls a tendency toward social justice.  Shared musical experiences then are a careful balancing of group experience and of individual integration of that experience.

Cross and Patel’s research seems to have two implications for liturgy:  the need for pulse and the need to preserve space for individual interpretation within the larger group context.

If we think about older liturgical forms, pulse is everywhere, from the cadence of plainsong and the language of the Missal to the choreography of the sacred ministers’ movements at the altar.  One might go on to argue that repetition of these forms from week to week creates its own larger rhythm.  We can quickly contrast this to some more contemporary settings where syncopated music in unusual chords, less rhythmic and stylized prose, an emphasis on teaching via sermons, and interruptions to explain and ascribe meanings to liturgical actions fail to draw the individual into a rhythmic pattern.  By extension, an emphasis on novelty and innovation from week to week fails to create an identity within the larger arc of the participants’ lives.  In contrast, the use of foreign and archaic language may actually add to the group experience by concentrating the participants’ focus on the larger pulse and flow, connecting disparate texts and embedding them more deeply in the participants’ minds than straightforward exposition in everyday language.

Newer forms, with a focus on teaching and relevance, while having the best of motives, may actually be fighting against the evolutionary process.  By breaking the flow of the beat to explain and by teaching, which limits the realm of acceptable individual interpretation, newer forms may create disconnects that undercut the power of the ritual action.  A congregation that does something new and different each week may provide a gratifying creative outlet for its liturgists, but may be much less successful in creating a moving experience for the participants in the pew.  Conversely, older forms may actually be more meaningful because the individual is not repeatedly pulled out of the ritual experience by being required to accept or reject rational content.

This is not to say that older is always better and that newer forms are always misguided.  Older rites can be performed abominably in ways that undercut their power—there is no need to recount the well-documented abuses of American Low Mass culture in the days before Vatican II.  In the same way, many newer rites consciously or otherwise maintain a sense of cadence and flow.  An excellent example here would be the prose rhythms of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and, I would argue, its placement of the exchange of the sign of peace so that it does not break the flow of the Eucharistic prayer.  To my mind, Cross and Patel’s research create the basis for an argument to omit the exchange of the peace entirely and to remove the sermon and other teaching functions from the liturgical action. A sermon at the end of Mass, as was the custom in many places in former times, might both allow the ritual to do its particular work of building community and encouraging prayer and also give the preacher a more receptive audience after an extended shared experience.

The idea of gradual change embodied in the concept of a hermeneutic of continuity may be appropriated here to look at how liturgical change happens in a way that is consonant with the ways in which human beings have evolved.  The idea that changes should come gradually and are incorporated because praxis says that they “work” has much to recommend it.  The idea of sweeping changes to update liturgical rites may seem to be a rational undertaking, but, in reality, may do violence to the subconscious power of the ritual.  One can easily argue that neo-pagan ritual with its emphasis on drumming, drama, and dancing has hit upon something far more powerful for communicating contemporary ideas about ecology and gender roles than a clearly-stated, didactic modern language liturgy ever will.  The neo-pagan circle creates a shared experience built around a core set of values while allowing the participant significant latitude for the ways in which he or she incorporates the experience.  Self-consciously modern worship, on the other hand, be it a progressive Eucharistic prayer written with the specificity of a position paper or a conservative evangelical sermon documented in a flurry of PowerPoint slides, may alienate otherwise sympathetic hearers because it denies them the ability to contextualize the ideas in ways that fit their own experience.  Both fail because they are not what my undergraduate philosophy advisor would have called “suitably vague.”  This does not mean that there can be no liturgical engagement with theological truth or moral imperatives, but it does suggest that the text must leave room for the participant to receive and incorporate the text aided by a good cadence to help it go down.

I have long joked that all of the great religions with staying power are based on chanting ancient texts in dead languages, be they the sutras, the psalms, or the English prose of Thomas Cranmer.  This very initial scratching of the surface seems to suggest that neuroscience may agree.  The findings are not so simple as saying that older is always better and that newer is always misguided, but they do suggest that older forms often embody the wisdom of experience.  In the sursum corda at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass the celebrant intones, “Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro” (“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God”) to which the people answer, “Dignum et iustum est” (“It is right and just” or “It is meet and right so to do”).  Perhaps after 50 years of stressing “iustum” in liturgy we are about to rediscover that losing sight of the power of “dignum” has equally unfortunate consequences.