Essay: Opening the Paradox of Conversations

“Opening the Paradox of Conversations”

Thank you for welcoming me at the Philips Theological Seminary today to lecture on the subject of Conversations. My presentation today is titled “Opening the Paradox of Conversations.” This class couldn’t have been more appropriate at this time—a time of growing political anxieties, virtual realities, and spiritual decay. I don’t mean to paint a crisis out of our times, because we are not living in an impossible crisis. You are an optimistic group of people. Yet, I do want to point you to these fragile states of awareness—to urge you—in your role as seekers of truth and conveyors of purpose, to examine the role of conversation for hope. And today, I would like to focus on hope. But first let me tell you how we will approach our time together.

I’ve been tasked today with exploring metaphors that would help us understand the idea of conversation. Conversation or the experiment of “living together” is a matter of great complexity. I’ve set myself a lofty goal—to use music as a metaphor to understand the dynamics, tensions, and resolutions of such an experiment. This essay is also a result of my observations of contemporary life. Some of the issues (musical and beyond) will resonate with you in particular ways. I invite you to challenge my own thinking as well. Overall, my goal is to encourage you to pursue relevant connections to your field of work and ask you to offer plausible applications. For our purposes, and in addition to music, we will visit the fields of, education, theology, politics, and philosophy. Let’s make this a multidisciplinary exploration! 

Let’s talk about conversations. What is a good conversation and where does this idea come from? By definition conversations are dialogues. I also think they are more than that--they can be pinnacles of purpose. In the mid-fourteenth century, the etymological definition of the word conversation denoted the act of living with or “having dealings with others.” The Latin roots of the word imply “being with” (com-) and “often” (-versare).

My art form including both the performative and appreciative aspects of it has everything to do with conversation. A conversation with the art form, the art work (or composition in this case), and the performer/interpreter are all part of the equation. In speaking of the art form we take into account its place in history—we realize that Mozart couldn’t have been possible without Bach and Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without Guthrie. You get the idea. The art work itself is a matter of great complexity because it couples the continuum of history together with the contemporary intentions or vision of its creator. Intention is where the creative process begins, but ironically creativity is not all free since some of it is still constrained by the evolution of the art form. Let me illustrate further.

The history of music is divided in periods like the renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, etc. Changes or innovations came very slowly and gradually throughout time. We did not ever have major shifts of thought from one year to another. Yes, there were pivotal events but these were happening as a result of the bubble being more than ready to burst. (You might have heard about the famous riot following the first performance of the "Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky. This was certainly one of those pivotal moments in the history of music; and yet it was met by skepticism and disdain.) The performer is a messenger, one who has to take the history, the artwork, and give it to us in real time and space. The performer is also constrained by her technical vocabulary or skill. The greatest musicians have worked on their technical abilities so much that this is not an issue, but for the majority of us, it is a work in progress. You might be beginning to draw the parallel with your own discipline. Who are you? Are you the performer, the historian, or the purveyor of new ideas? Each role is of significant importance. And each role requires a specialized skill.

These three roles all converge in the artistic elements of music. Let’s take the conductor of an orchestra for example, she will need to have a knowledge of the time period where the work lives to discern any particular historical performance practices or intent regarding context (or at least to inform the orchestra of what the work represents). She will also need to study the actual work of art and look at the score for the notes and the rhythms. Finally she will have to form an interpretation of the work. This is where the creative process becomes manifest again. And this is also where we learn that the creative process is not exclusive to the composition process but can also be found in the process of interpretation. That is a conversation in itself, a very meaningful one. And the test of a true masterwork a well, since it invites us to a continuous exploration of meaning. 

Musicians in the orchestra don’t have the entire score or layers of instrumentation available to them while they play. They only see their own part. Now, I want to show you an orchestra score. There are more than 16 parts stacked on top of each other here. How do you begin to listen to all of this at once! This where the conductor or moderator of the musical experience comes in to try to make sense of all of these parts and make sure that they are in sync and in tune. I promise you that conductors do a lot more than wave their hands. But here is the challenge—they can also get in the way! And more often than not, they do because they might want to micro-manage the experience or worst of all bring all the attention to themselves. The traditional practice itself makes it very difficult to separate the conductor from the ensemble and to make it a more democratic experience for all. This begs the question, do we need conductors? The answer for now is yes. There have been some experiments with smaller chamber orchestras like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that are conductor-less but even then, individuals or groups of musicians will still take the helm. Influencing is a natural human response.

Next time you are in your classroom notice who the influencer is and why? Is it because they are officially in charge of the class like I am now? Or is it because they are prepared to share ideas or because they are just too irresistible? Does gender play a role? You can formulate your questions and criteria. In this political cycle there has been a whole lot of influencing going on. The surrogates on television, rally-goers, church-goers, your grandmother, you name it. You will always listen to some more than others because your moral or political affiliations are already in tune, and you might dismiss others because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Now, let me pose to you the idea that good conversations are supposed to be uncomfortable. Is that an ironic statement?

This class is a bit uncomfortable for me. I have never taught to a group of theologians and certainly nothing I have done has prepared me for this experience. I still accepted this opportunity with the hopes that it would be an experience where I could learn from others and hopefully grow in my own thinking abilities. So I am taking this time to stretch my abilities and make my brain hurt a little bit.

The work of a good conversationalist is not to impose a point of view but in the words of the modern French philosopher Michel Foucalt, to analyze his own thinking and to continually examine evidence and assumptions so that he can then shake up routine ways of working and thinking. This is a very tedious process but when it is done right you can truly make a difference. The early Methodist church thinkers, specifically John Wesley expressed the idea of thinking and letting think at the same time. Do you notice there is an implicit tension in this argument? The formation of political, social, or spiritual will is a matter of self-determination. It cannot be imposed, although we might want to think we can. This was the belief of the Spanish Catholic church when they conquered Mexico and tried to bury all native expressions of the Divine. Granted, the people later experienced a revival focused on syncretic practices that honor the local history and theology of the colonizing church. I think this example falls well into your study of practical and systematic theology, which was explained so eloquently to me by your professor Dr. McGarrah Sharp.

Speaking of will, the perpetual debate of nature vs. nurture comes into play here. In my own experience as a teacher, I can tell you that you can nurture all you can and want, but in the end the decision to act accordingly rests solely on the student and according to his will. So, let us not be discouraged when the outcomes don’t materialize exactly as we envisioned them. As theologians and practitioners of faith you have the Holy Spirit on your side; and that conversation with the Divine is of particular importance.

There are some established techniques which connect the individual to the Spirit. I know that meditating on Scripture is one of them. Reading the verses slowly, pausing between in each word, and letting the ebb and flow of each cadence surround you with its presence. I remember that as part of my education growing up in a Christian school we were asked to memorize verses, sometimes complete passages with up to ten or twenty verses! To this day, I remember many of these passages and they live deep within my soul.

As I share  this, I am also drawing parallels with the experience of music and the kinds of conversations performers or interpreters might have with the scores. When you practice a passage of music of great technical difficulty you begin with deciphering the inner workings of the notes—the shapes of the notes, their duration, and the physical effort required to actually make them come alive. Practicing on the keyboard for example, you might start very slowly and consciously playing each note in sequence with the right fingering to minimize mistakes. Doing this slow, consistent, and deep practice activates a part of the brain that triggers the secretion of myelin, a protein that helps develop muscle memory so that the passage then becomes automatic and flawless in performance.

Once the technical hurdles are solved the interpreter can invoke the powers of creativity and make her interpretation transcend the notes or the score. This is why music performance is such an enigma to many. It is easy to believe that many great performers are somehow touched by the muses to exert power over their listeners, but this is not at all how it goes. There are layers upon layers of preparation, meditation, and practice over time to achieve any kind of meaningful conversation the score itself or with an audience in the room. For the artist, instant gratification is not part of this experience.

I am told that as young Pastors you will be entering in a territory that will be quite challenging with multiple and opposing views are being discussed regarding the future of the church. Passionate arguments are being made for one issue or the other. I won’t go into them today, but you know exactly what I am speaking of. There are deep divides and tensions stemming from issues like marriage and inclusion for example. Again, to echo Foucalt, if one arrives at the table with the intention of moulding the will of the other, that same conversation will falter! Abrahm Lincoln said the same of our own country, if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.

Some modern thinkers have referred to orchestras not just as groups of individuals making music but as examples of social life. One such thinker is Jose Antonio Abreu who said that orchestras are groups of people that decide to come together to agree with themselves. First and foremost, they agree with the goals of music. That is melody, harmony, and rhythm. They might not agree with the repertoire all the time or with the conductor but they agree that to make good music they must focus on these elements. So already, there is a point of convergence in the experience. Can you think of ways in which you can find points of intersection among your adversaries? In the orchestra, each musician depends on each other and their fate as performers are bound up in each other. So they must let the score guide that process (remember the music with all the parts written in it). If the score is guiding force, where do we leave the conductor and the aspirations of the musicians themselves? This is still an interesting conundrum which brings me to the forces of truth.

I recently read a piece by a young theologian named Michael Stark on the Huffington Post, he was exploring the why of our tense political climate and he drew the work of Father Thomas Merton, a 20th Century monk. He said that:

“The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.” When we enter into these extreme bias says Stark, our “ability to listen and learn from those with whom we disagree disintegrates. As a result, we fight and convince ourselves that those with whom we disagree are full of ignorance, and hold views that we might deem unfairly as dangerous.”

Now, let me give you an example of this by way of Amy Schumer, the very well-known comedian. It was recently reported in the NY Times that during she singled out a Donald Trump supporter and invited her to the stage to justify her support before her 8,000 plus audience. She referred to the political candidate as an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster.” I am not here to defend or support any candidate and whoever you vote for is your decision alone based on your own will which is also sacrosanct. What I do want to point out is the process and modus-operandi of this conversation. Do you think this was the best way for Ms. Schumer to show support to her cause? Does this episode help mend the fractures of our Union? This election cycle is very interesting because in part, it is about influencing the supremacy of impassioned truths. Our human capacities do not and can never reach the absolute. Yet we try and try and we become more and more frustrated with the outcomes. I want you to be attuned to these challenges. I am also trying to be more attentive to this phenomenon.

Assumptions fuel the rise of polarized societies. These come in different shapes and forms. Some are well meaning—when a person in a wheelchair gets overwhelmed with helping hands to the point that they also want to press the elevator button for him. Others which might be rooted in racial stereotypes can occur—when a Black man (who was to become US President, but no one knew about it yet) is mistakenly handed keys to a car at the valet section of a prominent social club; or when a White high school student gets treated unfairly because someone assumes that affirmative action somehow doesn’t apply to him. When we assume right or wrong we enter into a realm of misunderstanding.

A few days ago, I spoke to a group of executives here in Tulsa and I made a blunder of painting progressives as people that celebrate diversity and are invested in building strong communities as a result. Someone came up to me at the end and asked, “What about conservatives? We also believe that we can achieve the same objectives,” he said.  After this conversation, it was clear to me that as citizens there is more than can brings us together rather than divide us. Yet, these common denominators are not often found in strictly binary approaches to political ideology. It is worth taking a look at the Pew Research study on "political typology." You’ll find that many of your views can co-exist with that of a person from a rival political party. It is an eye (and mind) opening experience. 

Obviously achieving meaningful conversations is a real challenge. How can we move towards places of encounter or resolution? I can draw lessons from the orchestra as metaphors for this. Did you know that the etymological meaning of the word orchestra as expressed by the Greeks is the “dancing place”? Let’s start there with examining the beat and how musicians can either react or respond to the beat in music. You might already be aware that part of the function of a conductor is to keep a steady beat by way of the baton, which by the way, could also be seen as a symbol of influence. Let me show you how this works. I brought the baton with me today. I begin by drawing up a pattern that musicians in the orchestra can read. These patterns are generally very consistent among conductors, with some slight aesthetic variation to show your personality. Four pulses per measure looks like this. And this is how 6 pulses per measure look like. Conductors aren’t the only people that use symbols of influence like the baton. Pastors use stoles and robes. I’ve seen some wear their doctoral robes with three bands to signify their attained academic degrees. (From a layman’s perspective, I think this is unnecessary).

Let’s go back to the idea of reacting vs. responding. I want you to try to react to my pulse by clapping each time you see each beat in my 4/4 pattern. Ready? Now I would like for you to try to respond to my pulse. In order to do this you will have to anticipate the next pulse in such a way that you can meet me at the inflection point. Do you notice the difference? Which exercise yielded the best ensemble?

I think it is obvious that the second try was the best. Rather than reacting to the pulse you engaged in a conversation with me. You read my gestures in such a way that could predict the right timing of each clapping sound. Now let’s make this exercise a bit more sophisticated by adding nuance. This time I will give you a melody in 4/4, “Joyful, joyful we adore Thee.” Your job will be to read my gesture in such a way that can anticipate where I am going with cadences and dynamics of the melody line. Let’s try.

I want you to be aware that I am aware that this might an exercise of manipulation. This is where the role of a conductor becomes challenging. But to dissipate any conflict of interest, one can always refer to the score and try to follow it as faithfully as possible. Now, saying that the conductor plays a manipulative role is a rather cynical approach. Each conductor loves the music so much that she is willing to take these risks.

Something that was very interesting today is that I did not instruct you to listen to each other as you clapped beats or sang the melody, but you did it anyways. You took the risk of succeeding (and failing) together and you emoted a sentiment of trust at the same time. And this is something very important that we can learn from the orchestra because ultimately the roots of good conversations in the orchestra or elsewhere stem from trust.

The paradox of conversations lies in the idea that successful experiments, especially those that can move us forward into the realm of understanding, come with varying degrees of uncertainty and fear. This fear is natural because we protect what is most dear to us. And to a great degree our own truths are our most guarded and relished patrimony. And to cherish the act of living with others and for others, we must also go to great lengths to protect the truths of all.

Jose Luis Hernandez - October 2016

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