On Faith, Art, and Revolution

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Dear readers, you know that here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests.
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The following long-form question comes from Jenn Lindsay, a wonderful theologian, musician, and friend. You can find her theological writing here and the rest of her incredible output here.
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What she says, below, about “interfaith” religion, is equally true of religion in general. If you’re having trouble glossing “interfaith investment/dialogue,” you can simply read it as “religious practice.” For “interfaithers,” read “believers.”
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I have observed two broad categories of interfaith investment. Those who do dialogue because it is relational and meaningful. And those who do dialogue because they believe it can change the world.
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The first position is the more honest and coherent position, shared fundamentally by all who practice interfaith. The second is complicated by wildly different ideas about what can be changed, how to change it, how to measure change, what would be the indicators of success. Some participants are critically realistic and think hard about evaluation and detectable impact. Others are more vague, or offer their own narrative of personal transformation and education as proof of impact and efficacy. Yet others speak in dramatic, poetic, abstract, sweeping terms about revolution, harmony, peace and love–but balk at requests for specific curricula, measured impact, or definable goals.
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My conclusion is that interfaithing needs all of these approaches; the variety brings a rich ecology to the institution….even those who rhetorically invoke the poetry of transformation and revolution, are still performing acts of meaningful relationality, and in the act of declaring the coming revolution they are articulating their identities and values and finding others who share them, with whom they can enjoy solidarity.  The very articulation of these ideals, and the ways in which these ideals are the collective representation of the entire interfaith society, play a crucial….role for all interfaithers….[as the] energizing momentum of hope and possibility.
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If you make the mistake of taking their discourse too literally, and you take the referents of their self-description as world changers too seriously, you will easily be able to establish the incoherence, or lack of correspondence, between their self-articulation and their performance. It would be tempting to conclude that they are hypocrites, fraudulent, self-righteous, or deluded. I’ll say chiefly that [revolutionary] claims….are incompatible with [a] traditional yardstick of impact and productivity. [But] they sure do sound stupid and flaky a lot of the time. I’m really struggling [to explain that] they’re not hypocrites or frauds. (italics mine)
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Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
-Hebrews 11:1
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We set out to change the world, and ended up just changing ourselves.
-Curt Wild, Velvet Goldmine
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One hundred and ninety-two years ago, Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony. At a few points in my own life, listening to that music, I have asked myself what it accomplished. The intervening centuries have not been admirable; on the whole, despite all the promise of modern science and industry, I think we are worse off now than we were in 1824. It is not very consoling to think that Beethoven’s music has brought many people some brief, abstract happiness.
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By the same token, it is just ridiculous to speculate that the course of history would have been darker without Beethoven. Sure, it is possible that the Ninth Symphony inspired someone to be kinder, once, somewhere, but who really knows? The mathematician Linus Pauling was a big proponent of Vitamin C as a cancer cure. He took thousands of times the recommended daily allowance. When Pauling was dying — of cancer — he wistfully said that perhaps Vitamin C had kept the cancer at bay for a while. When we try to discover the positive effects of art, or religion, we sound that same desperate note.
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What Beethoven’s music has done, certainly, is bring people together. The work of realizing the Ninth Symphony has engaged singers, orchestras, conductors, audiences, critics, producers, and businesses. It has been the substance of conversations, friendships, and feverish work, and it has been the soundtrack for countless personal revelations. Beethoven’s symphony has been part of our great collective effort to make and understand music, and has a performative and critical history of its own, one that has gradually accumulated while its melodies have been busy not changing the world.
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Ironically, you can read up on all these specifics, but if you haven’t heard the Ninth Symphony, your effort will be totally in vain. The passion Beethoven generates will seem to come out of nowhere, because his music exceeds its historical footprint. The Ninth Symphony is something artificial, at odds with whatever world preserves and performs it. There has never been a joy like its final movement, except in the particular spaces between those notes. There has never been solidarity like that of its choral sections, or foreboding so clear-eyed and brave as the symphony’s very beginning. Beethoven’s work protests against the world; it is a horizon, and continually recedes. Everyone who performs it, or claims to love it, is a hypocrite and a fraud.
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William James is an invaluable philosopher, but there is a treacherous dimension to The Varieties of Religious Experience. When James writes that religion relieves depression, or cures alcoholism, or inspires altruism, he is more convincing than correct. James himself admits that an individual’s temperament decides the tone of his religious observance, and not the other way around. Faith can only do so much. Even in cases of radical transformation, religious faith is probably only a catalyst, or (as his brother put it) the mold into which a molten personality is poured.
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In other words, religious belief is not a “lever long enough to move the world.” Its influence is blurred, variable, and frequently nil; it has a faint gravity, like the moon dragging the tides. Yet the strength of religious faith lies in its ability to exceed all the facts of life and precedents of history. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,” is a religious declaration. Faith is inherently revolutionary. If this seems like cold comfort, since the revolution is always deferred, it is worth remembering how miraculous it is that movements of the spirit should have any influence, at all, on anything “real.”
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The idealism of the religious spirit is inseparable from its practical significance as a basis for community and mutual understanding. This is why the Unitarian Church has flourished: its members believe that interfaith conversations are a legitimate means of arriving at greater, more universal religious truths. Wholly “practical” approaches to religion, meanwhile, have no practical benefits. Who can hear about “Pascal’s wager” without shuddering at Pascal’s naked fear of death — and, what is worse, his fear of being wrong? Who can stand those phony interfaith conversations between ideologically entrenched religious leaders, with their reciprocal shows of smug tolerance?
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The self-consciously “cultural” practice of religion is, therefore, a hopeless enterprise. It has no inner tension, nothing beyond its questionable immediate “benefits.” Ideologically morbid, it brings about a community, to be sure — but one with prejudicial, arbitrary borders, and no staying power. It is like showing up at the community center, on Sunday, because Beethoven was performed there the night before. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. The best music is both. The great accomplishment of the Ninth Symphony is the fact that the audience, and the orchestra, and the composer, were all able to hear it.
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Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt
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