05 July 2017

Religion, Science & All That Jazz

Posted by at 10:23 PM Read our previous post

Though there was reportedly not a cloud in sight, rumor has it that a thunderclap rang out in New York City at the moment of Charlie Parker's death. A few days later (three?) the words "Bird Lives" appeared graffiti'd on a wall on 52nd St., and then on another nearby wall, and on another, and another, and so on. His music and fame spread through word-of-mouth over the ensuing decades and he now (and hereafter) holds a legendary place in North American art and folklore. There’s a certain mythological adulation that has been bestowed on a handful of eminent jazz musicians since Charlie Parker.
Miles Davis. Billie Holiday. Thelonious Monk was dubbed the “high priest” of bop. There’s even a Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco. Some people take jazz music pretty seriously.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of postmodern jazz mythologizing involves Charles Mingus. After being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, he and his wife Sue traveled down to Mexico in search of natural holistic healing methods that might restore his health, to no avail. In January of 1979, at the age of only 56, Mingus died at the little beachfront house that the couple was renting.
The mythic bit: On the day that he died, fifty-six grey whales are said to have beached themselves nearby. This story spread quickly among jazz aficionados, who were titillated by its mystical connotations. Fans love this kind of stuff.

Now, there's obviously some storytelling going on here. Some questions pop up: Did the whales beach themselves on the exact day Mingus died? Were there really fifty-six whales? How close to the house that the Minguses rented did the whales beach themselves?
In short: Did this really happen?
This was 1979, mind you, long before Google, so, short of finding some yellowing remnant of whatever small town newspaper this story might have appeared in on the day or the week in question (if at all), we really have no way to verify this as being factually accurate.
Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. (The best person to ask about this would probably be Sue Mingus, I suppose, but then she had other, weightier things on her mind than whales on that day, I’m sure.)
But the story is such a beautifully poetic tribute that, even if it’s not historically accurate, it has become a part of the literary legacy of a great artist. Stories don't have to be “true” in a factual sense for them to serve as useful metaphors for us to meditate on and incorporate into our lives. This is something that scholars like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (and many liberal theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong etc.) have been telling us for a long time now. Stories like these can serve as tributes, as tools for contemplation, edification, inspiration, insight, admiration, and all manner of intellectual and/or emotional stimulation, even if they didn’t really actually happen. Poetry and myth serve their purpose, and this is exactly it. Stories are a vital part of our humanity.

Idolatry is another matter, however, and this is where an important distinction needs to be pointed out, particularly as it pertains to the question of whether religion and science really are “non-overlapping magisteria” (as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once famously framed the problem). Before we can tackle that particular question, though, we must first address a prior one, namely:

What does it mean to be religious?

The Latin root of the word “religion” is “religare,” which means “to bind.” This connotes a sense of commitment or a sense of obligation. But does religion involve a commitment to a moral/ethical code of conduct? Or does it involve a commitment to uphold and defend the veracity of improbable historical claims? This is a crucial distinction, one that will necessarily have some effect on how we approach the question of overlap between these two magisteria—science and religion. No matter how deep someone’s devotion to jazz music may be, I can't imagine a jazz aficionado saying anything like:
"Yeah, I know Charles Mingus was a visionary who made tremendous contributions to the music of his time, but what's really important is that fifty-six whales beached themselves on his front yard the day he died. That's obviously the proof of his true worth."

No. Such an utterance would be met with either amusement or mild scorn, in fact. It would be a truly weird thing to say. Apocryphal stories may be nice adornments to someone’s legacy, but that’s not what digging Mingus or Bird or Miles is about. Such an utterance would be idol-worship and such idol-worship would unnecessarily detract from the actual genius of the artistic expressions of these artists, which does not need to be vouchsafed by any magical or supernatural support. The art stands all on its own. To those who are tuned in to music as a spiritual medium (and I think most modern people fit into this category to some degree) it’s always about the music. Always. That’s where the value lies. In a jazz context, this kind of idol-worship feels obviously grossly anomalous, and so we can easily understand why it would be awkward and naïve to say such a thing, yet when it comes to religious analogues to this scenario, we sometimes tend to be reluctant to see a similar awkwardness there:
“Oh, it’s not the same at all. It’s just music and art, after all. Religion is way more important than that, way more dignified, way more nuanced, way more influential.”

But is it, though?

At this juncture, I’d like to ask the reader to mentally recall, if you will, the most intimate or the most intense musical experiences of your life (thus far, at least) for a moment. How trivial did these feel to you at the time? My guess is that they matter very much to you. In fact, I would argue that the opposite of such trivialization is actually more likely the case. The truth is that some works of art can actually resonate so strongly with our psyches that we are sometimes tempted to imbue them with a sense of mystery and meaning that transcends our ordinary mundane experience. The arts—and music in particular—though not the only conduit to the realm of the “spiritual,” can take us there quicker than just about anything else. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. We all have. The effect that music has on human beings is undeniable. It is instantly discernible, and similarly experienced. It seems to be a constant of sorts in our species. For some reason, when the human mind encounters the sublime in music, it searches for patterns and connections that suggest “transcendence,” and it very often finds them. A sense that some of the aesthetic stimulation that we experience is in some way a kind of personalized and portentous communication between an ultimate "ground of being" (Deity A) and a "being" (Human B) is strengthened by these semi-rare moments of perceived synchronicity (as Jung called the phenomenon) in our lives. This sensation makes music a uniquely “spiritual” experience for most people. Indeed, it’s no mere coincidence that every great religion has a correspondingly rich musical tradition tethered to its history, one that evolves in parallel with it. (In fact, one does not even have to be religious at all to be familiar with this numinous, emotional link between music and human psyches. Even the completely irreligious can be brought to tears by a great musical experience. )

But even when they think they perceive a supernatural source for some of the music they hear, people will usually stop short of idolatry, though. The missing element in this context, the thing that distinguishes a jazz freak from a religious acolyte, is the intrinsic soteriological component that supports most of the world’s major religions, of course, which is thankfully missing from the act of enjoying music. Because of this, very few will be tempted to actually venerate someone like Mingus or Parker like they are willing to venerate the Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed. We will, quite rightly, question the sanity (or the sobriety) of someone who would literally take the fifty-six whales as a supernatural verification of Mingus’ greatness. No one thinks Charlie Parker is any kind of prophet or savior, except perhaps as a poetic metaphor.

The major world religious traditions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, as I understand them, all pride themselves on the role that compassion and charity and humility play as guiding principles of the self-identification of their respective adherents. I see this as analogous to the value that the “music” in my jazz examples has. Yet, if I were to ask a Christian1 what it means to be Christian (and I have asked this question fairly often), the answer is almost invariably the same: “A Christian is one who believes in Jesus Christ.” Press them to elaborate on what exactly this belief entails and they will more often than not proceed to explain that the primary requisite to being a Christian is a belief in the miracles of Jesus—his resurrection above all—as proof of his divinity, taken as literal, factual, historical occurrences. Jesus may have taught about compassion and about the importance of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and believers celebrate these teachings, the parables, the sermons—simple love songs at heart—as ways of pointing out the ultimate beauty of a selfless life of virtue, altruism, and sacrifice, as I suspect that any religion worth its salt would, but that’s not the crucial gauge of their faith. Followers of Jesus are happy to subscribe to his exhortations to love, to be sure, but these teachings are not in themselves what denote people as Christian. Rather, it is the acceptance of Jesus’ divinity that establishes one’s status as a Christian. This is where the rubber meets the road. The worship of Jesus is the metric. To stretch the musical metaphor a bit further, where Jesus preached harmonic consonance and dissonance, people have tended to venerate his fingers playing the music instead of the music itself, and this is tantamount to upholding the fifty-six whales in the Mingus story or the thunder in the Parker story as the valuable thing to consider in that previous context, awkward though we already acknowledged this would be in any other context.

Remarkably, it has been quite normative for adherents of the various religions to engage in this very type of cultic veneration or projection. The Buddhist who questions the historical accuracy of the Buddha’s having been born with the ability to make eloquent proclamations, even at the very moment of his birth, risks angering his more reverent companions. The Muslim who expresses any doubts that Mohammed really (not just figuratively) flew on a winged horse one night risks being ostracized, reviled, or worse. The Christian who admits that she does not believe that Jesus literally walked on water or rose from the dead will very likely be denied the right to be called a Christian thereafter by her fellow religionists.

Once a religion bases its identity on acceptance of the literal veracity of the events it purports to trace its roots to in this way, it becomes vulnerable to this kind of exclusivity and idol-worship.

“There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger (PBUH).” “The Qur’an is the true and final revelation of Allah.”
Every Muslim must believe these things, literally, to be considered Muslim.

“No one comes to the Father but through the Son.” “On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead.”
Every Christian must believe these things, literally, to be considered Christian.

For some reason, this creedal adherence to the factualness of the foundational myths, with all their accompanying miraculous accretions (i.e. the thunder and the whales in the equation) seems to be the standard used to identify and typify the true acolyte, rather than a focus on ethics or compassion or altruism (i.e. the music). In fact, it seems to me that a devotional fixation with historicity of this kind is roughly the equivalent of a rote approach to music, which is the exact opposite of what makes jazz music beautiful and valuable. As you can probably already infer from my commentary so far, I think that the formal contrast between these two prospective functions of religion—I’ll label them “virtue” and “dogma” for brevity’s sake—is problematic for any discussion on the dialogue between science and religion.

The answer to the question of whether religion and science really are non- overlapping magisteria is both yes and no, depending on which of these functions of religion one is contemplating at the moment. The reason for this is that while science ostensibly has little-to-nothing to say about the “virtue” function of religion—since the time of Hume, it has generally been thought that an “is” cannot philosophically elicit an “ought”2—science does admittedly have something to say about some of the claims of a tangible, empirical, or historical nature that comprise the “dogma” function of religion. Claims of winged horses, claims of eloquent newborn orators, claims of post-mortem resurrections , these are all subject to scientific and logical speculation, investigation and assessment.

Science is defined by E. O. Wilson3 as “the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding.” It depends on an epistemological authority that is derived from and based on this emphasis on evidence and methodology as the ultimate arbiters of knowledge. But nothing is written in stone when it comes to science. Too many people see science as an authority and overlook its all-important pliability. All of the knowledge acquired through the use of the scientific method is necessarily provisional. It must be adapted and amended when new evidence requires it. For example, when archeological research determines that there is no physical or otherwise external evidence of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan4 described in the biblical book of Joshua, we are faced with having to either accept that this was very likely a mythical fiction intended to affirm and buttress an emergent sense of Israelite nationalism, or else to obstinately defend the veracity of the story solely because the Bible says that it happened. The epistemological authority that is the basis of our scientific paradigm (and simple intellectual honesty) demands that we reconsider the nature and function of the story, it is the responsible thing to do, yet religiosity often tends to make people reluctant to do this. People very often prefer to cling to their habitual reverence rather than accept the possibility that the Bible may contain things that are not factually true, rationalizing their obstinacy behind an appeal to “faith,” which they feel is immune to such scrutiny.

Inasmuch as one’s religiosity consists of a commitment to subjective and/or abstract or metaphysical concerns regarding wellbeing, social harmony, ethical conduct, etc. (i.e. the “virtue” function), Gould can be said to have been somewhat correct in his assertion that there is no overlap between science and religion. Any dialogue between them is merely incidental, limited by a mutual concession that they are independent areas of expertise. But inasmuch as one’s religiosity entails a commitment to defending the historical accuracy of one’s chosen or inherited traditional stories, particularly those that contradict what we know about the natural order of the world or otherwise violate logic, reason, or the laws of physics, the overlap between these subjects is inescapably obvious, and we must admit that Gould’s view on the matter may have been somewhat myopic, or maybe even a bit Pollyannaish, especially in light of the fact that this “dogma” function of religion is the more dominant of the two as regards religious self-identity. In this case the dialogue between science and religion is not merely incidental. For those for whom truth matters, this overlap between science and religion is very important and cannot be simply glossed over as some sort of inviolable tabú. For them, truth is more important than cultural habit or loyalty to one’s ethnic group. For them, in the name of intellectual honesty and rigor, the overlap must be explored and dealt with openly.

Of course, devotional fixations die hard, and they are often correlated with people’s familial and ethnic or national identity or relationships, making them all the more difficult to let go of. This inevitably means that those who cling to these superfluous fixations will consider such prescribed explorations of the overlap between religion and science, and the necessary correctives that are needed, to be antagonistic or offensive. I understand the apprehension, but I think it is ultimately unwarranted. This is most unfortunate, because, given the drastic importance that people tend to place in their religious convictions, as long as they feel that such explorations puts their “eternal” souls at stake, this state of affairs is not likely to change any time soon. Not only is it not necessarily antagonistic, it is incumbent on us to be audacious enough to engage in this kind of honest exploration and follow wherever evidence may lead, corrosive though it may be to religion’s dogmatic function in the end.

Perhaps it is a bit Pollyannaish on my own part to hope that people will finally focus on Jesus’ teachings (or Buddha’s, or Mohammed’s, or Bahaullah’s, or whichever flavor of faith they prefer) in the same way that they focus on Charlie Parker’s music instead of on his deification. I remain hopeful.

Nevermind the beached whales, I say.
Let the music do the talking.

1 — I grew up in a Latin American country. Christianity is thus the religion that I’m most familiar with, and so I focus mostly on this tradition throughout this essay.
2 — Though Sam Harris, in his The Moral Landscape (2010) argues that science does have something to say about such subjective things as morals and ethics, challenging this old Humean dictum.
3 — In his Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). There have been various other definitions of science advanced, but I rather like the economy and scope of this one, and it suits my purpose here.
4 — See the work of Thomas L. Thomson and William Dever and Israel Finklestein (and others) on the subject of what has come to be known as Old Testament minimalism.

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