Monday, July 2, 2012

A Conflict Of Interest

In New York a couple weeks ago I attended a high mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin. And I even enjoyed myself. A little.

Those who know me will find this the most improbable of statements.  Let me explain.

The rare visitor to my now-mostly-defunct music blog The Tone Bigot got a little exposé last year of the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin after our regular June trip to the City. Twice over two years I stumbled upon organ music pouring from the open doors of this cathedral as I walked by. The second time, last year, I went inside and encountered a most fascinating organ living there. I'll leave that post to explain those details, but I ended up attending a mass at that time in order to hear the organ. This year, out for another walk, we went past and again found ourselves only minutes from another chance to hear the organ.

The organ, for an organ buff, is worth the trip in itself. A large Aeolian-Skinner in a pretty generous acoustic, it's a sonic world to please any lover of the instrument. But the whole business leaves me a bit conflicted, and I feel like I need to vent about it.

The cathedral itself sits halfway down down the long block between 7th and 8th Aves on 46th St, wedged in, like everything else in NYC, tightly against its neighbors (no need for flying buttresses here!). Inside, it has the cavernous feeling of any big stone church, and the interior is quiet and dark despite the tourist-fed frenzy of Times Square not even a block to the West.

This has always been part of the chief paradox that kind of defines my intellectual life: I despise organized religion with about the same fervency as I love much of the music it has spawned. And I have long been a fan of cathedral architecture--the technical elements, the grandiose execution, the solemn aura, the cool, the quiet. I know there's nothing "supernatural" about any of it, but that doesn't keep these very human creations from being beautiful and alluring and fascinating--indeed, all we have in life are the myriad things that occur in nature, even in human nature. And so in my life of travels I very often go from church to church, trying to see the buildings and the pipe organs they contain, even as I think of the institutional church as something that has done much more to harm and slow our progress than assist it. I've lived with this paradox my whole adult life, and I've long since divorced in my mind the organ from any mythical or mystical connections. Even the buildings I've come to see as expressions of architectural art and not of the mystical faith that extracted payment--often brutally and from the very poor--for them.

All this is in my mind on the rare occasion that I actually attend a church service--the motivation for which will only ever be to hear the organ. (I remember my first visit to St. Sulpice in Paris, home to one of the greatest organs in history. I asked at the church office if there were any literature about the organ, and the official who spoke to me--obviously a fan of the instrument himself--was quick to caution me that the place was a CHURCH and they didn't want people thinking of it as a concert hall or anything--which is exactly what the cathedral of St. Ouen in Rouen has become, a fact which makes me very happy indeed. I wanted to yell: "Take away the organ and the building and you're left with nothing of value--on the contrary!" But I kept it all inside.)

If the Catholic Church has always seemed like the perfect condensation of everything that's wrong with organized religion, the Episcopalian Church feels like "Catholic light," like Catholicism with some of its ugly and malign elements stripped away. It's the music and the incense and the candles and the Latin for those who are drawn to these things, but much of the ugliness has been purged.

As I sat through last year's mass I remember feeling that the church seemed a comparatively happy and welcoming place, a place of quiet contemplation where one was surrounded by accepting and non-judgmental people. What's not to like in this? And these impressions were confirmed this year: the priest--the same as last year--is a jolly and very friendly fellow who clearly wants to embrace those who come to him and to be a force of good in his community. I know--I have always known--that this is true for many believers of many stripes. The community of St. Mary the Virgin gets extra points for having an official staff of about equal numbers of men and women, and for being overtly welcoming to LGBT people, both of these facts in direct contradiction to what the Catholic Church is trying to ram down people's throats.

I could not escape my impression as I sat through the service that these were not people doing active damage to much of anything. Quite the contrary. And yet. They still spent a lot of time in the actual service talking gobbledygook about Jebus and the "truth" of the Jebus story and all the rest of the mystical nonsense, and I can never get pasts the idea that they relentlessly connect the concept of goodness to the mystical hooey--all the suspensions of natural law and the insistence on unreality and the leaning on unprovable and almost certainly untrue details--things that, in fact, have nothing to do with human pro-social behavior. 

If religion is a meme (which it certainly is), why has it evolved in this pattern to have a huge lie at its center? Is the lie a means of tapping into our innate need for a hierarchical structure with an Alpha at the top? And why does that lie remain even as it is surrounded by attractive and functional things? (Care for the community; concern for the struggling; guidance for wayward people; a sense of acceptance.) Do the attractive and functional trappings help the lie survive? Can we not see when the lie drives us to do bad--to discriminate against people, to wage war, etc.?

But there was no war or discrimination to be seen on this day. Quite the contrary. 

I'm not trying to make an accommodationist statement. I still think that religion and science / reality are irreconcilable, and I'm still convinced that religion on the whole is a harmful and deleterious thing, an anchor against social progress and happiness. And I feel confident that the goodness I feel at this church service has nothing whatsoever to do with the gobbledygook at the core of the faith and everything to do with our pro-social instincts.  But that makes for a revelation in itself: having an organized outlet for our pro-social urges makes for a place of concentrated beauty and goodwill. (I'm also plenty aware that many churches--especially fundamentalist and charismatic ones--are not places of goodwill and beauty.)

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