“I Keep Dancing”
On Harmony and Hybridity
“Harmony is this combination of width and narrowness.”
Process and Reality (111)
One of the most gifted theologians of the twenty-first century is Paul Knitter, who is both Christian and Buddhist. He has written a book called Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian, and his book is a living example of East-West poetics. Another excellent book is written by Jan Willis. It is called Dreaming Me: On Being Black, Baptist, and Buddhist. Knitter and Willis are prominent examples of a kind of cross-cultural hybridity recommended in this website.
Hybridity is akin to making fresh, multi-grained bread out of ingredients that come from different regions; or, to shift to an East Asian image, making dumplings of different vegetables and spices. All cooks understand it. It is the activity of blending different cultural and religious influences into one’s life in fresh ways. At its best it emerges in historical situations where people can talk with one another and learn from one another in respectful ways.
Whitehead's philosophy offers a cosmology which helps make sense of this constructive, dialogue-sensitive hybridity. For Whitehead any and every moment of human experience is an activity of blending diverse experiences. He calls this concrescence. The word refers to the activity of a subject of experience – Paul Knitter or Jan Willis, for example – becoming concrete in the act of blending different influences. His suggestion is that something like this is occurring within the depths of every actuality, even subatomic events. The energy-events within the depths of atoms, while not human-like, are hybrid-like, insofar as they are momentary blendings of diverse influences. Hybridity goes all the way down.
It is important to note, though, that not all hybridity is healthy. In human life, there are many forms of hybridity: conscious, unconscious, conflicted, harmonious, voluntary, imposed, tradition-specific, and cross-cultural. Knitter and Willis exemplify what we might call conscious, harmonious, voluntary hybridity of the cross-cultural type. They actively seek to weave together insights and practices from Christianity and Buddhism in respectful ways; and the blending is harmonious. They are happy or, to use Whitehead’s word, relatively “satisfied” in what they are doing.
But there are many people in the world today who feel that certain cultural influences are being imposed on them, and they do not want to be hybrid. Imposed hybridity is always unhealthy. Consider the many people around the world who resent one or another aspect of western modernity, such as modernity’s emphasis on excessive individualism, and its assumption that all paths of “modernization” must follow a western model. They want to blend influences from within their inherited traditions; and they resist and resent the imposition of dominating cultural influences from afar.
Or consider the many people around the world who are in minority traditions (culturally, religiously, and sexually) and who fear being swallowed by a dominant tradition. They may want to explore the traditions with which they identify, which would be tradition-specific hybridity, but they are not interested in losing themselves in an overly broad identity that is vague and vacuous.
Whitehead provides a healthy guideline for distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy hybridity, and it lies in his definition of harmony as a combination of width and narrowness.
Width and Narrowness
Let us recall that in Whitehead’s philosophy harmony plays a key role. Even God – even the Adventure of the Universe as One – is an ongoing movement into harmony. Not a final harmony in which everything becomes stable, but an ongoing harmony in which there is perpetual novelty. We humans are made in the image of God, not because we are better than other creatures, but because we, too, seek harmony. The harmony we seek, and sometimes embody, is neither bland nor static. It is always moving and always in motion, like music and perhaps especially like jazz. And amid its movement it continually seeks to balance two qualities: width and narrowness.
Width is a name for the range of influences we seek to integrate into our lives in the process of encountering the world. In general the more influences a person can integrate, the better it is. But the value of width is lost if, in Whitehead’s words, there is “a lack of differentiation among the component objectifications.” (Process and Reality, 112).
Imagine someone in a minority tradition within a nation who feels compelled to assimilate within the larger whole. Those who insist that she be assimilated in the larger whole may feel that they are offering an opportunity for harmony. From their perspective, she can become a part of a large and happy family: a grand nation, a glorious community of true believers, a larger whole. But she is asked to do this at the expense of the particular minority tradition in which she finds value and a sense of identity. She needs narrowness, not width, if she is to enjoy depth. “Some narrow concentration on a limited set of effects is essential for depth.” (Process and Reality, 111).
Or consider someone who is exceedingly preoccupied with himself as an individual, and quite self-confident in his demeanor, but lacks a sense of width and openness to others. Perhaps he is part of a group of people – a fraternity of soldiers, or executives, or officials – and feels a sense of harmony with his brothers. But his harmony is too narrow, and lacks the width of being open to multiple influences, including those who are different from him and his group. He needs width, not narrowness.
The quest for harmony in life is an ongoing process of seeking width and narrowness, openness and specificity, and at every moment people are seeking satisfactory blending. Sometimes the seeking is highly intellectual. For example, the seeking of truth is grounded in a need for harmony – a need for rapport with the wider world, with the way things truly are. The seeking of goodness is also grounded in a need for harmony – a need to dwell in community with others and be enriched by their lives. Everywhere we look we seek people looking for harmony, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in healthy ways.
What’s the secret to combining width and narrowness, inclusion with specificity, reaching out with closing in? Maybe jazz offers a clue. Go to a jazz bar on a Saturday night. Watch the musicians listen and respond to one another, without being sure exactly what they will hear, yet trusting in the availability of fresh possibilities. They are each individuals capable of self-assertion and yet they are composed of their relations with one another. They exemplify a remarkable combination of width and narrowness.
What’s the secret? Maybe it is finding the balance between width and narrowness, and then remembering that even this balance needs to be reinvented at every moment, because we live in a creative universe. Maybe this is the secret. Maybe it lies in hearing the call of each moment, sometimes to greater width and sometimes to greater depth, in harmony with the music of the spheres.
This may sound very ethereal and abstract, but it is really very concrete. Every Asian American in the United States today seeks to find a balance between the Asian side of her life and the American side of her life. And so it is with African Americans and Hispanic Americans and Iranian Americans and any other hybrid American we can imagine. With our multi-cultural nation, all Americans are hybrids in their minds even if not obviously hybrid in their bodies. I remember hearing a student on a college campus ask a Korean friend what it is like to be Korean and American? "How do you maintain your sense of balance," the student was asked. The Korean friend answered quickly and naturally: “I keep dancing.”
"And who is the dancer amid this dancing?" asked the student. "Is the dancer Korean or American?" The Korean friend responded in a very Buddhist and Whiteheadian way. "She is the dancing."