Language Games and Interfaith

I had a striking experience with acupuncture yesterday.  Not only did the tranquility of my treatment relax my stiff muscles, it helped me with concentration, alertness, and mood–it put a spring in my step.  It accomplished all this as I lay on a table with a few needles in me, listening to meditative music with ocean waves.  My body healed itself.  Or as the Chinese doctor said, acupuncture restored the flow of ch’i in me.  The philosophy behind this treatment was to still my mind first, then my muscles would relax.

This got me to thinking.  Lying on the cot, stilling my mind and muscles, listening to quiet music made me think about life outside the doctor’s office.  The stillness, the absence of stimulation, all quieting my mind, relaxing my muscles.  Then there is the hectic pace, the over stimulation of our society, the noise.  If it is therapeutic to be in a still, quiet environment, is it still possible to live an ordinary life in society?  I saw that I would need to adjust my lifestyle, of course, and not let stress and stressors into my mind.  I thought about the tranquil Chinese music they played when I practiced T’ai Ch’i at another Chinese studio.  It would be as hard for me to listen to Chinese music, if I weren’t doing T’ai Ch’i due to its simplicity and meditative quality.  T’ai Ch’i, the acupuncture office, Chinese music are all products of a culture that values quietness, I think.

I thought about interfaith relations.  I am deeply committed to interfaith ideals and multicultural societies.  But what if being deeply immersed in a culture that values stillness and quiet is incompatible with other cultures that are more boisterous, aggressive, and confrontational?  I ask, can one be open to intercultural ideals while being committed, oneself, to a deep tradition and culture?  This is what Lyotard calls, “the heterogeneity of language games.”  What if music is more than aesthetic?  What if music embodies a cultural philosophy and ethics, like the Chinese music I heard at the T’ai Ch’i studio?  I like classical music, jazz, blues, and rock.  But these are aesthetic judgments.  These forms do not embody a western ethics or culture.  Beethoven composed in Vienna, but his music has world appeal.  But the Chinese music I heard reflects the ethics of stillness, meditative quiet, and tranquility of Chinese culture, I think.  It is akin to Palestrina’s choral music, which one could say does embody a Christian ethics.

Is it possible to live within the norms of a deeply held culture, and also hold multicultural ideals?  That would be quite a feat.  I once heard a Christian minister speak art an interfaith gathering.  She was so sensitive to interfaith values, and so anxious not to offend anyone, that she didn’t even pronounce the name, “Jesus.”  That is interfaith at its worst.  That is multiculturalism eroding one’s own norms and values.  Interfaith means different faiths living in mutual respect.  But can I live with the tranquil Chinese music and all that it represents, and also enjoy Z.Z. Top?  Or does one preclude the other?  One thing I do know, life is richer for me living in the multicultural city in which I live.  Without multiculturalism, a white man like myself wouldn’t have been able to experience Chinese healing.


T S Eliot and the Absolute

In The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, one theme is the interplay between self and other.  The narrator appears to be overpowered by the social forces with which he interacts.  He is “fixed in a formulated phrase,” “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by others.  His constant refrain–“Do I dare,” “How should I presume?”

But there is more than spinelessness at work here.  The narrator is on the verge of asking, “An overwhelming question.”  Some think that he is going to propose marriage.  But Eliot and the narrator are possessed of greater depth than nervousness about proposing.  The overwhelming question is, in fact, religious.  The fear is of bring up deep matters in a superficial environment.  How should I presume?  The narrator has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.”  The narrator is about to break the complacency of a tea party,

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

I recently wrote about being true to oneself regardless of social pressures to conform.  But I must confess that there are environments in which a person can’t be oneself, especially when one is particularly spiritual.  When one is in a superficial environment, one can’t really talk on a depth level.  It would not be received.  One would be ridiculed, ignored–as in Eliot’s poem–even be met with anger.  Try being a divinity student in a bar.  The social disjunct, the ridicule, the inappropriate context all make it nearly impossible to be spiritual in a secular environment, a secular world.  How should I presume?

Eliot himself was Prufrock.  He kept his Christianity to himself until his reputation was firmly established.  Then he converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity publicly and wrote Four Quartets.  At that point his literary career became a bit suspect.  And much of his later work, like The Cocktail Party, is bland to the point of being insufferable.

But I am a fan of Eliot.  And as a Swedenborgian, I know what it is like to have a deep spirituality that one can’t speak of in most public venues.  I have expanded my social network to include an interfaith organization, an interdenominational Christian organization.  And in these environments I can be openly Swedenborgian and be well-received.  But in the blues club, in 12-step organizations, in casual environments I seem to need to keep it all inside.  It isn’t a matter of fear.  It is more a matter of good taste.  I would not abandon my Swedenborgianism, it’s just something others don’t care to hear about, and I respect the others with whom I socialize.  In Jacob’s dream, the angels ascended and descended the ladder–they didn’t stay always at the top.