Friday, July 15, 2011

Embodying interreligious prayer

In the current issue of Liturgy, a great deal of our discussion of Interfaith Worship has focused upon the texts to be used. The selection of texts, the selection of persons to read those texts, and the difficulty attendant upon inviting interfaith congregations to proclaim certain texts in unison have occupied much of our attention. However, the non-verbal aspects of interfaith worship have also received some consideration.

In "A Roman Catholic Perspective on Interreligious Worship," J. Frank Henderson includes the non-verbal elements of worship such as space, posture, gensture, movement, signs, symbols and clothing" in his checklist of things which must be considered in the planning of occasions of interreligious prayer, and Susan Henry-Crowe's fine article "Emory University's Cannon Chapel as Multireligious Space," gives us a very deep look into the issue of worship space in a religiously pluralistic community.

In 2006, Dr. David A. Hogue invited readers of Liturgy to consider some exciting recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience and their applicability to our efforts to understand the effect that worship experiences have upon participants. In his article "Sensing the Other in Worship: Mirror Neurons and the Empathizing Brain." Among the new discoveries in brain science that Hogue discusses are these:
  • that the human brain is designed not only to monitor the body of which it is a part, but also to attempt to empathize with other human beings and to communicate that empathy to them in non-verbal ways
  • that the neurological ability to engage in this exchange of empathy continues to grow throughout the human lifespan, as we encounter more and more human beings each with their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives
  • that specialized neurons in the motor cortex of the brain called "mirror neurons" participate in this exchange of empathy by causing us to imitate the movements, actions, postures and gestures of others on a muscular level below the threshold of conscious perception
These scientific discoveries have applicability to all aspects of human behavior, and in his concluding paragraphs, Hogue applies them to the human behavior called "Christian worship."
First, if there was ever any doubt, the brain sciences constantly remind us that we are profoundly embodied creatures, moving about in an often-confusing world, avoiding threats to our very survival and seeking meaning and fulfillment in both likely and unlikely places. Carefully reading recent studies of the brain, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to consider ourselves as spiritual souls that temporarily inhabit material bodies, as some religious traditions believe. Even if we believe that this world is not our ultimate home, our present physical and social world shape our souls (who we most profoundly are) from the very beginnings of life. Soul and body require each other and shape each other in unavoidable ways. Hebraic understandings of the inviolable unity of mind/soul and body therefore reemerge with an unmistakable clarity in our scientific age.
Building on this conviction, we cannot help but question many of our liturgical practices, particularly those that rely almost exclusively on abstract doctrinal concepts or on spoken and written language. Worship is a physical event, welcoming our entire selves into the incarnate word of the gospel. Liturgical leadership requires pastoral sensitivity to the profound ways in which culture, class, and gender both enrich and constrain possibilities for vital worship. We do not all worship in the same way. But in Christian worship, emotional engagement in worship reflects God's incarnation, at once blessing and transforming our created brains and bodies.
"Sensing the Other in Worship: Mirror Neurons and the Empathizing Brain," Liturgy,21:3, (2006) pp. 31-39.
The implications of this research for the practice of interreligious prayer are equally profound. We may take as much care as we like to help members of religiously diverse congregations understand that they are not expected to participate in prayers from others' traditions either verbally or mentally. However, neuroscience assures us that all present will participate physically whether they want to or not. When a Christian assumes the orans posture before leading an interreligious congregation in prayer, everyone present will imperceptibly assume that posture as well. If the person sitting next to you is shuckling, you will be shuckling as well. In the presence of Muslims praying salat non-Muslims will, all unawares, be performing the physical rhythms of standing right, takbeeratul-ihram (raising the hands to the sides of the head), ruku (bowing and placing the hands on ones knees), l’tidal (standing), sajdah (prostration), sitting, sadjah, and sitting.

When we pray together, we move together, and our brains do this in order that we might empathize with our fellows and come to understand just a little better how it is that they think and feel. Though our conscious minds might wish to perform some complex calculous to determine which parts of our neighbors' prayers we can, with integrity, participate in, on a much deeper level our brains and bodies simply pitch right in and pray.

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