Spirituality as Singing in a Choir
An Appreciation of the Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir Project
(scroll to bottom for second video)
Eric Whitacre and the Virtual Choir
"Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre has inspired millions by bringing together "virtual choirs," singers from many countries spliced together on video. Now, for the first time ever, he creates the experience in real time, as 32 singers from around the world Skype in to join an onstage choir (assembled from three local colleges) for an epic performance of Whitacre's "Cloudburst," based on a poem by Octavio Paz.
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Singing as Dreaming Aloud
Many years ago I had a friend who was an atheist and an active member of an Episcopal church. He loved the liturgy, the community, the music, and the service. He did not believe in a God separate from creation, but he believed in something sacred in the world of creation. "I find God in music and love," he said to me. "I believe in Goodness." I understood.
I thought of him as I watched the video above. My friend, now deceased, was a good and idealistic person. I thought of him in a special way about 9 minutes into the video, when people from all over the world join the choir with help from Skype. It seemed to me that, in their singing and finger snapping, they were dreaming aloud, hoping for something. Even praying aloud.
I imagined my friend snapping his fingers with them. He didn't believe in God, but he could still pray. Like I say, he didn't believe in God but he believed in Goodness. It seems to me that, in many ways, belief in God and belief in Goodness are very, very similar. Maybe even the same.
Some people might call my friend "secular." I think he was post-secular. He was a Naturalist who had made a covenant with mystery and community, with wonder and song.
Spirituality as Singing in a Choir
Some people may think religion is all about belief, but for many people in the world singing is more important. They may not know what they believe, but in the very act of singing with others they are taken out of themselves into something wider and larger, richer and deeper. And those of us who get to listen to them are taken into that something, too.
People have different names for this something. Whitehead called it the Harmony of Harmonies, imagining it as an inclusive love that pervades the universe but is more than the universe. This Harmony is felt when you sing with another and really give yourself to the singing. The harmony you feel -- voice with voice, body with body, sound with sound -- is inside you yet more than you. It is a kind of togetherness, a kind of holy communion.
Release from the Cramping Confines of the Ego
In the moment of togetherness, there is a kind of salvation or redemption. A release from what one great writer, Huston Smith, calls the cramping confines of the ego. The salvation is a like a flash of insight, except it takes the form of sound, not vision. Call it the sound of many hands clapping, or the sound of many fingers snapping.
What is felt in this sound is a truth. The truth is not a verbal truth. It is not a mere correspondence between a verbal saying and a visualizable state of affairs. It is a resonant truth: that is, a truth that is felt through sound and that rings true, like many bells ringing at once, a handbell choir.
If words are necessary, it is the truth of togetherness, of inter-being, of inter-connectedness, of holy communion, of harmony without sameness. This truth is the very opposite of the idea that things are externally related to one another: that is, the idea that their relations to one another are external to their essences and their identities. It is the truth of internal relatedness, the truth that things are "things" only because they are internally related to one another and emerge out of their relations. It is the truth of relationality.
As you hear the truth you also feel a hope. It is a hope that, someway and somehow, the world of conflict can be resolved into a wider harmony, a messianic sound, in which differences are preserved yet complementary not contradictory.
Whitehead speaks of this togetherness as a contrast of contrasts of contrasts of contrasts. It is a harmony, to be sure, but not a harmony of sameness. Each individual counts. All voices are included, no voice is smothered. The sound that is heard when singing in a choir is an inclusive sound, with no one left behind. Jesus called it the basileai tou theou. Martin Luther King called it beloved community. Buddhists call it the deep sangha. Muslims call it the gathering of surrendered hearts. Jews call it shalom. Whitehead called it peace. All are metaphors.
Some people wrongly imagine that only the pure or righteous are included in the gathering. But this is not true. At least this is not what we Whiteheadians believe when we speak of the Harmony of Harmonies. The gathering is much more spacious and gracious. All hands are included. And flowers and trees, cats and dogs, mountains and rivers, stars and planets. They, too, are clapping. Singing in a choir is just a way of joining them.
A Sense of Goodness
Plato tells us that we are always seeking truth, goodness, and beauty. The sound that is heard while singing in a choir is a kind of truthful beauty that reveals a goodness. The goodness is only half the story. We humans are not inherently good or evil, inherently cooperative or competetive. We contain within our lives capacities for cooperation and competition that are variously triggered relative to circumstances and decisions. But the truthful beauty that is felt in singing in a choir unlocks the good side, at least for a moment, reminding us of who we can be, and want to be. It is an eschatological goodness, a taste of heaven.
A Sense of Justice
We do not really know whether life continues after death. There may well be a continuing journey in which souls are given opportunities to grow wide and satisfied, until the journey is complete. But we do know that we long for approximations of heaven on earth, when the will of the good is realized on earth as it is in heaven.
These approximations ae finite and fallible, and they are worth every moment of their occurence. They involve fidelity to the bonds of relationship. In our time this fidelity includes, and must include, eco-fidelity. The hope of the heart is not for beloved community alone, it is for beloved community with ecology added. The hope is for the emergence in our world of communities which are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
We need practices to concretize the hope and energize us. Prayer and meditation are good practices. Random acts of kindness are good practices. Protesting against injustice is a good practice. Advocating for peace is a good practice, Taking a nap is a good practice. But for so many people, singing is a practice, too. It is an introduction to the art of love, fully voiced in communion with others. It is speaking truth in beauty, with no voice left behind.
I know...not all music is conducive to lovingkindness. Some leads to anger, to hatred, to combat. Some lyrics are atrociously hateful. Don't sing them.
It's All Contextual
The degree to which singing together actually leads to beloved community depends on many factors: the song, the context, the lyrics, the people singing, the people listening.
It helps of singers and listeners have loving hearts. The singers don't really need to have good voices. Any choir sounds "good" if you have ears to hear. If they sing soulfullyl, from the loving heart, the music sounds "good."
In any case in some songs, sung by soulful singers, we are indeed dreaming aloud, praying aloud, no matter who we are or what we believe. We are making contact with Goodness. I bet the people singing in the virtual choir from around the world understand. I know my friend does. My friend's name was Eric, just like the composer Eric Whitacre.
Eric, are you listening? I think I hear your fingers snapping.