It is wearying to face current American culture every day. More than debating morals and policy, we are now virtually called to slay dragons—a heady business. But lately I also find myself weary at our way of meeting the challenge. The only way I can explain this feeling is that we are trying to do what is right, but our approach is partly wrong.
The most remarkable change in our public life in recent years is our near-unanimity today about general moral questions. Just a decade ago, things were quite different. Everyone now—Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative—pretty much laments the self-centered, self-indulgent character of our public life. But that very agreement has become part of the problem.
We all endorse a return to religion and a rediscovery of morality, two very useful things, and we cannot afford to yield an inch in this struggle. But you cannot get people to become more spiritual or moral by telling them it would be good for them or for the country. That reduces the question to a kind of utilitarianism. If people already value faith, they may believe, as St. Thomas says at the beginning of the Summa Contra Gentiles, that moral and religious wisdom is more useful (for happiness and salvation) than any other knowledge. But for people not already in the game, the real impulse to moral and spiritual reform has to come from elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the very search for fresh spiritual sources itself has become part of the problem. The vast growth of New Age and other nontraditional spiritualities may have many causes, but one of the main reasons must be that our churches and synagogues are failing at something essential. These are institutions with thousands of years of experience in confronting all sorts of cultures. They hardly lack resources, but somehow are muted.
I was particularly struck by this phenomenon as I was listening to National Public Radio the other day. Thomas Moore (author of Care of the Soul and various other popular books on recovering the soul in everyday life) was explaining a subject dear to my heart: how music can create spiritual space. Moore is an ex-monk (though he remains a Catholic), a psychotherapist, and an amateur musician. A one-man industry of soul-talk of a partly traditional, partly New Age bent, he aims at recovering the experience of soul that was familiar to our ancestors but seems distant to us. That so many people turn to him suggests he has touched a nerve.
Moore has put together a CD of classical musical selections that he believes can put us in touch with the soul. Some of these are quite lovely: Rachmaninov’s “Vespers—Ave Maria,” chants from several branches of Christianity, pieces by modern composers such as Part, Barber, Gorecki. To listen to these after a long working day reminds us that we live in a larger and better universe than we usually recognize. It is a useful first step toward bringing ourselves back to the deeper ground of our being.
Christians once had such musical experiences in church, where music was not merely an aesthetic experience or even primarily about sound. Good liturgical music also has a way of pointing us toward the profound silence of God. As Moore has put it in his most recent book the Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life: “Churches are temples to silence, wrapping themselves around relatively few cubic feet of quiet. I can never get used to people talking in churches, or applauding during rituals. To me, the very point of church and a liturgy is to invoke fruitful silence, and to disturb that special quiet is to fracture the ritual.”
Unfortunately, few people now try to guide us toward the powerful effects of great liturgies, the contemplation of nature, and other traditional spiritual practices can have on the soul. Moore is helpful, but as might be expected when one man is trying to recover lost wisdom almost alone, he can often drift off into the heterodox and downright silly. In his program notes, for example, he deftly compares great music to sunlight, but then invites us to relax with it and “get a musical tan.”
Nonetheless, we may have to do with these flawed guides for a while.
The great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson argued a generation ago that Christian culture would revive when we recognized it as a full and rich culture and study it as we once did the Greek and Roman classics. That of course is true. But most people are not intellectuals, and most intellectuals are not reliable guides to wisdom. We also need to restore experience of the sacred within orthodox settings, both to prevent the things of the spirit from being mishandled and to fortify ourselves to battle some very subtle and very cunning modern dragons.