"This is really neat!" wrote Michael Wallacavage, as he sent around a link to this fascinating clip of Eric Whitacre's virtual choirs. Watch it, and I think you'll agree.
The singing starts at 6:27 and then again at 12:12 on the timeline. But don't skip what comes before! Whitacre's introduction is very interesting and engaging. He not only talks about the project itself, how it came about and so on, but also explains how he got interested in classical music. As a youth, his dream was to be a pop star. (He wanted to be the fifth member of Depeche Mode. Remember them?). But when he got to college he joined a choir instead. Not for love of music, mind you, but because it included a free trip to Mexico and the soprano section was full of "hot girls."
But then, Boom!, during the very first day of practice, as the choir launched into the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem, he had a profound and life changing experience:
My entire life I had seen in black and white and suddenly everything was in shocking technicolor. The most transformative experience I've ever had. In that single moment, hearing dissonance and harmony, and people singing, people together, the shared vision, and I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself.
Wow. I love it. What a powerful testimony to the influence of great music on the human soul.
Whitacre's experience contains, in a concentrated and intensified form, elements that are found in any deep encounter with value and beauty. I'll try to draw out a few of them, and hope you'll add your own reflections in the comment section.
Whitacre's experience opened his eyes to the depth, richness, and significance of reality. It wasn't merely a different perspective, it was a deeper one. What previously seemed humdrum and ordinary is now revealed for what it really is. All of a sudden, everything has color and meaning, including (though Whitacre does not say so explicitly) his own life and what he decides to do with it.
This doesn't mean that everything is honky dory. All of reality is revealed in technicolor. Not just the things that are noble and lovely, but also those that are ugly and painful. And yet, if the experience went deep enough, I suspect it also inspired a certain confidence that light is stronger than darkness, and that it has the final word.
It's worth underlining that the experience of a single thing of beauty, in this case Mozart's Kyrie, does not just affect one's perception of that one thing, but spills over onto everything else as well. In that way the experience of beauty is truly eye and soul opening. It improves our general ability to see and respond to value.
Whitacre's experience is also transformative. It does not just change his perspective, it changes him. That is why he is now a classical composer and conductor instead of a pop star. The change in his career is a reflection of a deep change in his person.
And note the manner in which beauty works these changes: not through force, or by leaving him with no other option, but by affecting his heart, and inclining it in a new direction. Whitacre is not compelled to give up his previous dreams, he wants to do so. The change, though sudden and drastic, is entirely free and organic.
This gentle, natural way in which values exert their influence is one reason they are so important in education. Exposing children to high values is a way of forming and enobling them that goes deeper and is more congenial than other methods of education involving discipline and rules. (Not that the latter can be eliminated altogether!)
Another fact about Whiteacre's experience is that it was totally unplanned and unexpected. Unlikely even. This also is a general feature of experiencing beauty. We can open ourselves to such an experience, and long for it, but we cannot simply decide to have it. If we are going to be swept up into something higher than ourselves, something (or someone) higher will have to do the sweeping.
This powerlessness on our part seems like a bummer. But really it is part of the blessing of beauty. Too much control is stifling and oppressive. Letting go is liberating. Or at least, it can be liberating. Everything depends on whether one is lifted up by something higher or dragged down to something lower than oneself. The former is liberating, the latter enslaving. (As an example of the latter, there's a song I sometimes hear during spinning classes at the YMCA, that challenges the listener to "disconnect from all intellect," "lose this inhibition," "break away from tradition," "get stupid," and so on.)
One last conspicuous feature of Whitacre's experience is that of a deeply felt communion with other people. "People singing," he describes, "people together, the shared vision… I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself."
This unifying power is something that all genuine goods have in common, and it is related to the soul-opening power I mentioned above. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains this very well:
The human person has an "outer" and an "inner" side. When he is closed off, he touches the other only with his "outer side" and also touches the other from the outside. Something completely new happens as soon as man opens himself, lets his inner side appear and lets it touch the other person. Every experience of being deeply moved by value means such a breakthrough of the inner side, a self-opening of the person towards all others … [T]he crust of indifference, of egoism, and of pride, which forms on the outside of the person and closes him off from the other, melts under the influence of being moved by the world of values, [and] a union with all other persons constitutes itself simultaneously. The breakthrough of the depth of the person who is taken by the embracing rays of the realm of values … is simultaneously a falling away of the separating barriers between persons.
This brings up the next point about doctrines. Doctrines are rules written by human beings. God does not write rules. God can inspire rules and humans can do their best in translating God’s revelation of The Rule into rules but God does not write rules, God is the Rule.
This reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s quote from, A Prayer Journal:
“No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons (p74).”
Through Grace if a person is fortunate enough, the person may experience flashes of God or insights into God, which can remain anchored in the psyche as reference points for reframing the person’s reality.
The term “false gods” is a misnomer for misunderstandings under the One True God. All persons of all religions share the same God and all religions may be operating under misunderstandings unique to the religion. For Catholics, Jesus Christ was the One True God, and having the teachings of Christ at Catholicism’s disposal is a great advantage to encountering the One True God, but this doesn’t mean persons who practice Catholicism are not operating under misunderstandings of the One True God.
This is due to: 1) the inherent problems of translating the teachings of Jesus Christ into a religion and 2) the nature of each person’s unique spiritual potential. There are no such things as “false gods”. There is only God and misunderstandings.
The One True God reins over persons under such misunderstandings the same as He does persons who see Him clearly, persons all of who are subject to God’s Divine Providence.
More specifically and to frame it for the Catholic, these misunderstandings are unresolved aspects of the person stemming from the person’s connection with original sin and either made more convoluted by the free choices of the person or relinquished by freely choosing to surrender to God one’s unresolved aspects stemming from original sin, thereby removing the obstruction to God to the extent possible for the person and thus increasing the person’s awareness of God.
These kinds of misunderstandings are the obstructions to seeing and experiencing true spiritual power. As a Catholic, you could say we all have these misunderstandings to a certain degree so that even the “god” that Catholics refer to falls short of the Real Thing and thus even Catholics may worship “false gods” and have misunderstandings.
Persons don’t have “false gods” they have misunderstandings, those of which persons with other “false gods” or misunderstandings call “false gods”.
The term “false god” is oxymoronic and the notion of a “false god” is an empty one. There is no objective metaphysical reality in existence besides the One True God. God is complex and has many mysterious qualities and attributes that persons have attributed separate, distinct and objective metaphysical realities apart from God to, but any of these that can truly be attributed to God are derivative of the One True God and are merely references to the One True God’s spiritual powers by degree and kind.
Anything else that cannot truly be attributed to God that someone may call a metaphysical reality is a misunderstanding attributed to the limited awareness of the person. Examples of misunderstandings attributed to the limited awareness of persons are demons and/or ghosts; these are not objective metaphysical realities. They are real in the sense that they can be dangerous and destructive to persons who experience them and to others who find themselves in their path, but they are merely misunderstandings and have no bearing against the spiritual powers of God.
"That last word, esteem, does not apply, as far as I can tell, to the Islamic conception of God's relationship to human beings. That explains why it is not included with Judaim and Christianity as a religious soil in which genuine personalism can develop and thrive."
Here is my reply:
Esteem is actually an emotional quality almost identical to respect. To take it one notch deeper and still be considered esteem would be an emotional quality of reverence. Reverence is the emotion one feels when they have reached the state of being of God's Love.
An expression of loving acceptance and inner peace is actually the centerpiece of the Islamic faith. If Islamic persons are faithful and observant to the One True God then they may experience God's love and therefore reverence for and from God and therefore esteem from God.
Islamic persons who are faithful and observant to the One True God know that God loves them and therefore know that they are esteemed by God.
If you would stop with committing fallacies, you would encounter the truth of what I am saying, which is that it is not only ungrounded but offensive to state as you do in your essay that all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.
You have essentially agreed that the written statement in your essay is false by making the statement:
"None of this is to suggest that a non-believer can't have an individual experience of God's love that might lead him to conclude that human life is infinitely precious."
but then you add another straw man:
"But such an experience is not enough to sustain a demanding philosophical enterprise."
which has nothing to do with my contention.
If you agree with me on this particular contention, then why do you keep adding straw men and pretend to have proved a point?
adding your interpretations of the written statement described in different terms than what is written in your essay such as that it is an “observation or insight”, or “a summing up of what see and experience”, or as what Newman called, “a convergence of probabilities”?
Why all of these red herrings. Why are you trying to lead me away from my point of contention?
In addition, you introduce straw men such as “only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to grasp, appreciate and develop a personalist approach to human life.”
“I observe that the philosophical enterprise of personalism depends on 1) a [conceptual] framework present in the Judeo/Christian tradition and not present in others, and 2) a lived personal relation with the Divine Person who is the ground of our being as persons…”.
These are straw men that you have set up as representing the actual written claim in your essay that I dispute and you distort my argument in doing so, then you say my disagreements with the straw men you have set up are “no more than an ungrounded assertion that the claim is false.”
It is written in your essay that, “Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons.”
This sentence states that all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons. The meaning of this is derived directly from the words used in stating it, that is: all persons of other faiths do not have the spiritual resources to acknowledge the unconditional worth in all human persons. This is the meaning I dispute.
Why have you intentionally tried to divert my attention away from this written statement that I believe is untrue by using red herrings in the form of:
"Can you point to non-Judeo Christian traditions that acknowledge both conceptually and in practice the unconditional worth of all human persons as individuals?"
"Maybe it would help if I add that statement in manifesto isn't meant to be taken as a syllogism. It isn't strict conclusion from indubitable premises. It's more like an insight or an observation into the way things are. To challenge it then, I would be good if you could provide counter-examples."
Peter, as I said, the claim is not a strict logical conclusion from indubitable premises, but more like what Newman called "a convergence of probabilities"—a summing up of what I see and experience.
If I observe that the philosophical enterprise of personalism depends on 1) a conceptural framework present in the Judeo/Christian tradition and not present in others, and 2) a lived personal relation with the Divine Person who is the ground of our being as persons, then it is not bigotry to make the claim I make in our essay.
If you want to dispute the claim, why don't you try providing evidence that other traditions do, in fact, have a conceptural framework and a mode of religious existence that supports the essential claims of personalism.
So far your disagreement is no more than an ungrounded assertion that the claim is false.