In May 2019, over 25 alumni of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship came together to discuss topics they were working on in their own personal or professional fields. Those conversations generated several podcasts, and this one, focusing on “Can Liturgy Be Empirically Tested?,” features Gawain de Leeuw, Sara Gottlieb, Ruth Shaver and Zack Jackson.
Do prayers and rituals and liturgies “work”? How would we know? What happens in our bodies and in our brains when we join together in a communal liturgy, where people sing or dance or celebrate together? And what are the ways in which American rituals, like the Super Bowl or going to prom, can help us better understand our spiritual life?Read Transcript
Gawain de Leeuw: All right, so yes, I’m pleased to be here. I guess the conversation is about can, or whether or not liturgy and prayers be tested. So being an Episcopalian, we have something in our tradition called the Daily Office, and it comes out of the monastic orders, where two things we do every day that are part of the rule of being a good Anglican is to say the Daily Office. And The Daily Office includes various prayers, but also a psalm and a reading. And I’m part of a Benedictine Order, and my superior once said that one of the things that we should do, whenever we’re exploring a new way of praying, is to test it to see if it works. And a light kind of appeared in my mind, or it was clearly an epiphany of some sort, that we could actually – we had permission, as clergy or as anyone who prays, to try things out, and to figure out what works.
Now, this is different than trying to test out to see if God responds to you. That wasn’t exactly what he was saying. He was saying that maybe there are ways of praying that might work for individual people, and that it was our responsibility as priests to coach people through learning how to test things and try new ways of prayer out. And this could include, for example, how to say the Daily Office.
So we were taught to teach people how to pray in unison, to breathe in a certain way, to take a pause at the asterisks – that’s something that’s very traditional in the Anglican style of worship – to learn to synchronize with other people, how to bow, how to mirror each other’s activities, how to speak at a certain level so that you can hear the person next to you.
Now, it seems to me that these things also have biological consequences, right. And so one of the questions I have is “What does it mean when we are trying to develop practices?” – maybe personal practices, it could range from anything from journaling, to some kind of physical activity, to the Daily Office – and what does it mean to draw up liturgies where you are training people to pray as a body? And “What are the consequences for the human body when we do corporate worship?” And it seems to me that there might be some things that are measurable. And I don’t know what they look like, necessarily, I don’t know what we might be measuring for, but certainly, when you’re in a group of people and you’re bowing at the same time, or you’re saying a creed at the same speed, or you’re teaching people how to breathe a certain way during the liturgy, that you are trying to create a mental state which may have some consequences with how the body behaves. And granted, we all start at different points. I mean, some people who are athletes might be really good at breathing, or like an opera singer, they’re going to be able to master that in the very beginning. But for people who are stressed, and do not have the opportunity to pause in their life, maybe there are sorts of rituals or liturgies that clergy can develop and encourage that offer some space for, you know, personal health, and maybe some connection with whatever view of the transcendent they may have. So that’s how the question begins for me.
Ruth Shaver: It’s funny, because I have never been in a congregation that doesn’t, in some form or fashion, say the Lord’s Prayer the same way. I have been in churches where the clergy doesn’t say it at the same pace, and my observation is that there’s a lot of conflict in those churches. Because the clergy’s not in sync with the congregation. They haven’t developed that liturgical practice of being together with the people. And I think the same thing is true about singing in congregations. You know, a congregation that sings together well, whatever style of music it is, tends to not necessarily have less conflict, but to deal with the conflict better, because there’s more synchronicity among the people.
And as you were speaking, the light bulb went on in my head about the church that I’m serving right now. Because they sing really, really well, and they sing really well together. And they manage conflict better than they think they do in most ways.
Now, sometimes they do bury it.
Sara Gottlieb: Conflict with each other, or?
Ruth Shaver: Conflict with each other, conflict about how to run the church, you know, the changes that happen in a church. So this is really interesting to me, and it’s an observation that I’m gonna chew on for a while.
And as a singer, certainly any choral group I’ve ever been with, the very first thing we do is breathe together.
Zack Jackson: That’s exactly right.
Sara Gottlieb: So I have a question. To clarify, you’re asking that being if it can be empirically tested – you’re talking about benefits to the individual in the group, not in terms of the supernatural consequences of the prayer.
Gawain de Leeuw: Right, right. Right. I think that would be very hard to elucidate, I mean, hard to discern.
Sara Gottlieb: Totally different question. So as the resident psychologist, I have a lot of ideas. And there are probably a lot of psychologists out there that would be interested in doing studies on groups, but there’s also a lot of relevant literatures that I’m sure could shed light on this. So first is, I’d be curious what happens to people’s sympathetic nervous systems under different types of prayer circumstances, praying together and in unison, or really doing anything – is synchronicity the right word? synchronically? – just psychologically create creates an in-groupishness type of feeling, which has a lot of downstream consequences on cognition and behaviors. So like you said, an ability to manage conflict, prosocial behavior. We know that ritual is good for people and just creating in-group bonds, which has all sorts of different effects.
Also I just only think about this because right now my husband and I are taking a mindfulness-based stress-reduction class, which is – I don’t know if you know much about it, but I know mindfulness has become very “pop,” and is the term is thrown around all the time. But this is very much like basic meditation. Very pure mindfulness. Not so much just like, reflecting on your feelings all the time.
And I know so doing these breathing exercises and mindfulness, I know that has been shown to lower levels of IL-6, interleukin 6, which is a pro-inflammatory cytokine, so when people are doing breathing or probably chanting – you know in meditation people traditionally chant also, I think – I’m sure decreases pro-inflammatory effects on the body. Yeah, there are all sorts of physiological, peripheral physiological markers that would be so interesting to look into.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, well that’s the benefit of singing together. Without realizing, your breath all syncs together in a room, because you’re all singing the same stanzas at the same rhythm and all of that. I was actually just reading about how choirs, church choirs, as they’re singing, their heart rates tend to sync up as well. And part of that, I think, is probably because of the synchronized breathing, but I love that. I imagine the quality of the air every with every breath in, if everyone’s breathing at the same time, gets a little stale in a small church… (laughs)
Ruth Shaver: It depends on how confined the space is. (laughs)
Zack Jackson: Tall ceilings. (laughs)
Sara Gottlieb: I’d be curious to look at a large scale at the studies on different religions or different types of denominations, and the amount of singing or chanting or other types of prayer rituals, and just, like, big-data kind of stuff on peripheral physiology.
Gawain de Leeuw: Because the Episcopal Church is highly ritualized, we don’t have a whole lot of – our theology is not always coherent, there’s a wide range of views about social justice issues, [but] one thing we are really good at is ritual in liturgy. And that’s why for me this is particularly interesting, because we do have, within the service, places where there is supposed to be silence. And every church has the option to do it at specific moments. So I wonder whether or not, you know, Episcopal churches could provide kind of a baseline. Now, some churches have more singing, and maybe that makes a certain kind of difference. I don’t know.
Now, with the monastic tradition, one of the other questions I have is “What is the impact of creating a personal rule of life?” So one of my hobbies is weightlifting, right. So when people go to the bar, they’ll maybe stomp a couple times, and they’ll yell, and they’ll like, put their hands in a certain way, and they do the same thing every single time. And I know that in some athletic competitions, whether it’s swimmers or people who are golfers or the like, they also have personal liturgies and rituals. So one of the things I wonder about is “How do I encourage people in my parish to think about what personal rituals they can have so that they can restructure their minds for – I don’t know, greater flourishing, or health, for example?”
Ruth Shaver: That’s an interesting question. As you were speaking about the personal relationships, I remember in seminary we had a class on personal spirituality. And one of the things that we were asked to do was to practice different rituals for a period of time, in order to experience the different possible families of spirituality, not necessarily a particular practice, to figure out which one fit us best. So we were encouraged to experiment with that.
And it was really interesting, because my advisor kept saying “Oh, you’re such an intellectual, you need to do the Ignatian, that’s the one that’s going to work.” It doesn’t, because it is who I am, and I needed to do something very different. So for me, to go to that Jungian psychology, I guess would be the shadow side of things, to center myself differently than I operate on a daily basis. And so for me, when parishioners come and say “I’m really struggling with my spirituality,” or “I’m really trying to figure out some new ritual,” or something like that, you know I will invite them to think about when and how they pray, and to make a change, just one small change, and see how that feels, and then continue to experiment until something really clicks with them. And the funny thing about it is what wound up clicking for me was what I had wound up starting to do in college, because the only place [where] I knew for a fact I was going to be alone was in the shower. So I center myself while I’m doing my morning routine, whatever that may be for any given day. It’s dumb, but it works. And if I don’t get the opportunity to do that I feel like I’m not centered for the day. And you know, Zack was talking about people who poke themselves in their eyeballs to put in their contact lenses. Well, I’m praying when I put my contacts in. (laughs) Maybe that’s how I get around the poking-myself-in-the-eye thing.
Zack Jackson: Now, I am from a very different – well, I guess within the grand scheme of things it’s not very different – but to me it’s very different –faith tradition. I grew up in a very non-liturgical setting, in kind of a Pentecostal Baptist, very open, free worship sort of a situation, where you come to church, and you do your Bible study, and you have a lot of singing and a 45 minute sermon and you go home, right.
Sara Gottlieb: Can I ask a question? So, I don’t think I have ever been in a church. So can you translate for me, like, what do you mean by liturgical tradition versus–? So, is it just “heavily ritual-based,” is what that means? I’m Jewish. And I truly think I’ve never been to a church service, except for maybe one wedding, but I think it was an Armenian church, so–
Ruth Shaver: That would be highly liturgical.
Sara Gottlieb: Oh yeah, but also not much of it was in English.
Ruth Shaver: That would be a very ritualized kind of thing, that would be a high liturgical kind of practice.
Sara Gottlieb: But what would you say about Judaism? Would you consider Judaism highly liturgical? Because I think it is, but it’s super diverse, you know, super differentiated.
Zack Jackson: But in the act of worship, is it encouraged that you follow a tradition, follow a script, follow –
Sara Gottlieb: So some churches don’t? Oh, okay.
Zack Jackson: You know, we would have looked down on written prayers. We would have said that you were disconnecting your spirit from the spiritual by following someone else’s words. It’s like a Hallmark card of spirituality. You should be praying from within yourself.
Sara Gottlieb: Southern Baptist, I would assume, is more like that, right. That’s like, off the cuff. I’m going by stuff that I learned in the media here because –
Zack Jackson: No, absolutely. So Pentecostal are Holy Ghost people, right. So they believe in the indwelling of the Spirit of God that falls on a person, and then who knows what’s going to happen. So I would be leading worship and we’d be singing these songs – they sound like just songs you’d hear on the radio, I’m playing guitar for these songs, and they might last – I remember we did this one song, and the chorus was like four lines, and we did it for like a half hour. And the worship leader kept going, you know, “Keep it going!” And then we’d take his little musical interludes, and he’d pray some impromptu prayer and then we’d go right back into it. And that was just the way it was, just in the moment, you said, “All right, what’s the spirit doing right now, the spirit of improvisation, of” – it just felt more like a freestyle jam than a set ritual.
Sara Gottlieb: But it’s the freestyle jam of the church leader, correct, leading everyone else, or do they?
Zack Jackson: The various church leaders, yeah, and there would have been space for other people to stand up and, you know, move the thing in a different direction. And now, within that, there are still certain guidelines of what you can and can’t do. So I guess I suppose in some sense that the improvisation is still contained within this container – just like a jazz solo might be all over the place, but it’s still working within the scales.
So when I think about my own personal prayer life, I’m not very good at it. I’m not very good at the individual meditation, the repeated prayers, the mindfulness. I’m very bad at it, actually. And anytime I try, I fail miserably. The only time I can really get it going is in a sensory deprivation tank. Which is my favorite thing in the world.
Sara Gottlieb: You do it often?
Zack Jackson: I do it as often as I can. They’re not cheap. Eh, they cost about as much as a decent massage, so, you know, I might pay $70 for an hour of nothingness. But I have always connected more in corporate gatherings of worship and conversation and other people leading, as well. Like I feed off of other people’s spiritual energy, moreso than I can create it within myself. And I am fully open to that just being a character flaw and I’m just not there yet. Just, you know, one more box on the imposter syndrome checklist. (laughter) Well yeah, because I am a pastor, I should be good at this, and I’m sorry if any of my congregation is listening right now.
Gawain de Leeuw: So in fact, this is another question for me arose, because sometimes I think that the Book of Common Prayer means that Episcopalian is for introverts, because it allows individuals, basically, a template for individualized meditative prayer.
Now, I’m not an introvert, I’m an extrovert. I love corporate worship, and I love services which have very intense joyful music, myself. And what happened is that having a conversation with my superior, who is very introverted, him saying “try what works for you, and here is a way to go into it.” And so this means you don’t have to do everything in this particular style of worship, see what works, and if it doesn’t work, develop it in other ways.
So yeah, I wouldn’t worry. I think that for me, what I think is insightful is to recognize that people do need to be in bodies of other people. You need that, I think, to be a human being, and then you also need spaces of reflection, whatever that looks like. And the two kind of work hand-in-hand. And that’s why I think testing out both individually what works for individuals, but also maybe there are best practices. So [what] I’m fascinated with – was you’re going to this meditation course. Do they have a script, is it “Ok, you have to sit in a certain way,” or maybe not? Do you take one breath or two, or do you breathe for five seconds or 10, that sort of thing? I think that’s interesting, knowing that there’s probably going to be some diversity among what people can or cannot do. What have you done?
Sara Gottlieb: So in the class that we’re taking, which is from the school of Jon Kabat-Zinn, he’s at UMass Med School, and he created – he’s kind the father of mindfulness, and created the MBCT in mindfulness instruction curriculum. So it’s very much like “do what works for you.” If something hurts, don’t do it. So sitting in this way is going to be the more traditional Zen Buddhist tradition, but if it hurts your back, lie down. You know, so it’s very flexible. But I get the sense that people that do more traditional meditation and go to silent retreats for long periods of time, which our teacher does, is much more rigorous and rule-based.
Gawain de Leeuw: One question I have is, I remember reading some study that said sometimes some sorts of conversation actually do the same thing to the brain that mindfulness does. Does that sound familiar? I mean I don’t know, this is not simply an excuse for me to go out and get a beer with a friend and think that that’s kind of meditation, but I wonder, right.
Sara Gottlieb: Well, mindfulness does a lot of things for the brain. So what kind of–?
Gawain de Leeuw: Well, I guess, do you see an overlap between say, having a cup of coffee with a friend, and having some, you know, fairly important conversation of some sort, with aspects of mindfulness?
Sara Gottlieb: I don’t think so. So I think mindfulness can mean a lot of different things to different people. So, I mean, I definitely had misconceptions about it before taking this class – I think a very common conception of it is [that it’s] being relaxed, and at ease, and not having thoughts when in practice doing meditation, which a lot of mindfulness – a lot of the practice is doing meditation. Or, you know, body scans or breathing exercises – [are] actually using an incredible amount of cognitive control. So it’s not suppressing thoughts, it’s being cognizant and so sensorily aware that you notice all the sensations in your body, but also you notice when your mind drifts away, and pulling it back is really the essence of the practice. So having your mind wander is not in itself a bad thing, but being able to bring it back.
So what I’ve gained from mindfulness is that it’s truly about being observant of the senses and not interpretations. So, you know, paying attention to what you hear – I hear the whirring of an air conditioner or heater or vent, that’s what I would say right now that I’m hearing, if I were to close my eyes and just sort of pay attention to the silence. When I guess, like, the more mindfulness based interpretation of that would be “I hear the sound of air moving through space, and it sounds like ‘ssssss’,” without the interpretation of “It’s an air conditioner,” because that’s like putting a thought to it, a cognition to it. Yeah, that’s what I’ve learned that mindfulness is. So I’m not so sure about the social interactions, because social interactions – I mean, they certainly do put you at ease, and I think that a lot of the general public, and especially the popular press, that’s what they say that mindfulness is, is being at ease. But I can’t imagine that being in a social situation makes you very aware of your senses. I mean, there’s a lot of stimulus to focus on.
Gawain de Leeuw: Sure, sure.
Sara Gottlieb: So yeah, I’d be curious to see what the parallel they draw is. I do know that there’s been studies on Buddhist monks, who are very devout meditators, and for the first several thousand hours – I don’t remember how many it is – that they meditate, they are exerting a lot of cognitive control, so a lot of activation in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and higher-level cognition and cognitive control. But at a certain point, it becomes very automatic.
Gawain de Leeuw: Do you think it would be viable to get a scientist to go to an Episcopal worship session and put electrodes on everyone’s brains, and see what happens during a service? I think that would be really interesting.
Sara Gottlieb: Oh, sure. Yes. I mean, it might sound crazier to you than it actually is – like, lots of people do this.
Gawain de Leeuw: Oh OK, all right.
Ruth Shaver: That’s when you need one of those nets. You know, they need to develop a net that can read everybody without having to glue the electrodes to their heads.
Zack Jackson: What I’m interested in is getting brain scans during a concert, because I think some of the most transcendent spiritual experiences I’ve had have been at the punk and metal shows I used to go to as a teenager. And when I used to play in these, just the movement, the often violent movement of bodies, and the deafening noise, and the just – sensory overload, in a lot of ways, I think turned off a part of, or at least short circuited, a part of the brain that overthinks things and tries to make meaning of things, and instead it just goes right into the hard drive. And just experiencing this transcendence is the only word I can think of, that we are all one being in this little firehouse.
Gawain de Leeuw: Sports events and music events are highly liturgical, and they’re choreographed. So they are definitely supposed to evoke a sense of awe and the transcendent, I think, absolutely. I mean, I think more people would go to church if they knew if they knew that Bruce Springsteen was going to be performing, certainly. But if there was that sign – I mean he is, for example, a great worship leader to some extent.
Sara Gottlieb: Bruce Springsteen? Oh yeah, sure.
Gawain de Leeuw: And his concerts have music which could be theologically interpreted, for example. Not that you need that, right.
Zack Jackson: “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”
Sara Gottlieb: That’s also a lot of Deadheads, you know. So I mean, my brother was a Deadhead, and my parents were really frustrated with him – he’s a little older than me. They were very frustrated with him following the Grateful Dead around when he was in high school and you know, according to them, wasting summers away just through following the Dead around the country. So they sent him to Israel instead for a summer, and he didn’t come home for 11 years, and he’s now like, ultra-ultra-Orthodox. But apparently this is not all that uncommon with Deadheads.
Gawain de Leeuw: So yeah, I think that raises another aspect of the liturgy, right. So it does create an identity, which creates a certain sense of security, which probably has an impact on our bodies. And having security and feeling at peace is probably anti-inflammatory, I imagine.
Ruth Shaver: I was laughing when you were talking about sports creating that same kind of thing. You know, there was the famous study about Red Sox Nation being a religion unto itself. And a friend of mine who worked at The Harvard School of Public Health was joking, and he said, “You know, I’m sorely tempted to do this long range study to compare cardiac event rates in Red Sox Nation before 2004 and after 2004, to see if winning that World Series did anything to reduce stress in Red Sox Nation.”
Sara Gottlieb: Oh, I think it would do the opposite, I think it would increase stress.
Ruth Shaver: Well, he was half joking about that, because he said “You know, anecdotally, the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001, and then in 2002, they didn’t do so well. And anecdotally, there were more heart attack victims during the playoffs in 2002 than there had been in 2000.”
Zack Jackson: It’s more stressful to have a good team than a bad team, oh yeah.
Ruth Shaver: And I was looking at that and I was thinking, “Oh, there might be some validity to that.” Which then makes me wonder, bringing it back to communities of faith, if whatever the community of faith is, when there’s not good ritualism of some sort – however it’s defined in the church, whether it’s the free-flowing style within the container, whether it’s highly structured liturgy – when that liturgy isn’t working well and there’s conflict in the congregation, if the stress among leaders – not just clergy, but lay leadership, is also higher, you know, because that follow-on effect of things not working well.
Zack Jackson: Oh sure. Anxiety, within any system, it has a great ripple effect.
Gawain de Leeuw: Well, I believe that if you can’t effectively put a liturgy together for Sunday, then other parts of your community building are also not going to be as effective, because that’s where it begins. Not just the worship essential to the church, but just the practice of trying to put together a worship service, plus saying “Will you read it, or will you? Who is going to be a part of the choir?” Those mechanics of building a community that precede the actual event seem to be important as well. And I wonder whether or how that translates to other parts of our public life together. The rituals are everywhere, whether it’s in the legal system, or sports, or music. And recognizing that so much of our life together is putting or preparing for these shared events, what happens in a fully atomized [society], where we’re not even doing that work? I don’t know.
Ruth Shaver: I think we can look at Congress and see, right, because they used to have the rituals at the end of the business day. The party delineations dropped away, and they went out, and their families were friends, and they had social events together and they worked together on projects that brought them together. And that doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore, because we are so atomized, you know. And even within the parties they don’t work as well together, because there’s these splits within that. So maybe our political system is kind of that Petri dish of what’s happening, and you know, can we build that back in, can we make bipartisanship not a dirty word anymore? And maybe it’s our communities of faith where we can work together to do that. Although one of the studies I saw recently is that even communities of faith are becoming more like themselves, you know, people go to somebody of a community of faith that’s much more like them then they used to, and they will travel farther to go to one. But then they’re also moving into neighborhoods where people are more like them, because we’re segregating ourselves not just by race, but by political affiliation, and by economic wealth, and all of these other things that for a while there, we were diluting.
Zack Jackson: So I’m trying to think of what is America’s favorite liturgy. And the best thing I can think of is the Super Bowl. And if that is not quintessential American – in that you get together with people that you like and some people that you don’t, and you eat the worst food possible in excess, you drink a lot, you watch a game that is basically war games, in which two armies strategize against each other and brutalize each other
Sara Gottlieb: – and cause a lot of traumatic brain injury. (laughs)
Zack Jackson: Yes! And the game itself is designed to have these four-minute breaks in between things. That’s perfect for commercials. Like, soccer doesn’t have this, but football is designed for the commercial. And during the Super Bowl, that’s what it is. I mean, so many people don’t even watch the game, they come back – “Oooh, the commercial’s back on, they’re going to sell us something, and it’s going to be funny! I’m going to put my nachos down for a second and then come back together.”
And is there a more American liturgy than junk food and violence and consumerism wrapped in this package of patriotism and 300-foot flags? (laughter)
Ruth Shaver: Especially since 9/11.
Zack Jackson: Oh my gosh, right, that is just –
Ruth Shaver: I mean, I remember the Super Bowls in the 80’s and 90’s, when it was like “Yeah, whatever.” And you’re right, there was some element of that, but adding that necessity of blatant, militaristic patriotism has made it into this “If you don’t participate in this liturgy, you are not truly American.”
Sara Gottlieb: I’ve never thought about the Super Bowl as patriotic before. I guess because I’m from New England, so it’s just New England versus the world.
Ruth Shaver: Yeeeeeaaah. (high five)
Sara Gottlieb: Not that I care about football, but people I care about care about football.
Zack Jackson: I’m going to edit that high five out of this, as somebody from the Philadelphia area.
Gawain de Leeuw: Go Bills. (laughter) Less hard for me.
Ruth Shaver: Well, all I can say is the NFC East is the Patriots’ Achilles heel, so when I get my Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl, I’m not going to lose the game, so you know, whichever way.
Zack Jackson: (laughs) Patriots-Cowboys. I think I’m gonna hit the stop button right now.
I think we’ve gone off to the devil’s side. Bring us back to the Lord, please.
Gawain de Leeuw: So I do think it’s a very interesting question of “What our public liturgies?” And “Can our religious liturgies at least complicate what our part of their public liturgies are?” Which, I think, as you seem to insinuate, they represent some parts of the way our world works that conceal a lot of harm, and I think make it hard to see what a different world might look like.
Now, I believe that there are some very useful reasons to have, I guess, football in the world. OK, football is better than actual war, so I’m very happy that it’s there, and not actually people from Boston coming down to New York with, you know, pitchforks and axes. (Laughter) So that’s better, like, football is a lot better. But I think there is a consumerism that you mention, and there is a ritual of consumerism, that I think needs to be balanced with other liturgies that give us space outside of those sorts of rivalries that are unnecessary, and also make people incredibly unhappy, and probably cause a lot of sorrow and unnecessary pain. So that’s one of the questions I have.
Zack Jackson: Out where we are, one of the big liturgies is the county fairs.
Sara Gottlieb: Wait, where are you? Pennsylvania?
Zack Jackson: Southern. Reading. So like, the only fair, where you’ve been going for your entire life and, you know, “I’m going to get that shoofly pie that I’ve gotten, and we’re going to hear that string band – The Mummers in Philadelphia – on New Year’s Day.” That is liturgical for the area, they need that in order to move on to the next thing. It’s not all just capitalism, but capitalism is one of our main American gods. And rugged individualism, or at least the myth of rugged individualism, which is why we can’t get rid of our guns. But that’s another conversation.
Ruth Shaver: Well, and you know I’m sitting here thinking about this and wondering, you know, with the spate of funerals that we’ve had in America lately, John McCain and some of the other bigger figures, you know, John McCain and George H.W. Bush (and you know, at some point soon, Jimmy Carter, will have something similar although maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll live for another 4 or 5 years) – just the controversies around those funerals, which would never have been controversial even 3 or 4 years ago, because of the way that they were treated by a few political leaders with big mouths. What used to be a national ritual of mourning was sort of besmirched and transformed into something ugly, and has remained ugly, in the case of John McCain’s funeral. And whatever you might believe or think about his particular politics, honoring this man who spent time in a prison camp for the ideals of American society, and then having that ruined, you know. Where has our discourse gone for those kinds of public rituals that would, you know – I mean, even Richard Nixon got a dignified funeral, you know, and he was still honored for what he did contribute, and Watergate was minimized, appropriately so for the most part. So where do we go from here with the next big public ritual on that scale? And who is it going to be? You know, I think about England in the Royal funerals and weddings and that kind of thing. And now you know when Queen Elizabeth dies, that’s going to be a moment in the history of the United Kingdom.
Zack Jackson: If.
Ruth Shaver: That’s true, she might be a Time Lord.
Zack Jackson: She’s never died yet, so the odds are in her favor.
Ruth Shaver: I think she’s waiting for Charles to abdicate, or to die. But that will, I think, still unite the United Kingdom, despite all that’s going on in their politics, in a way that these funerals for us haven’t. And I don’t know if that’s, you know, because elected officials are different now from royalty, or – I’m not sure what broke in that.
Gawain de Leeuw: Well, certainly the monarch represents a certain kind of symbol uniting power that we don’t have in the United States. And I think that does attest to some of the positive parts of having places where ritual is just imbued in the entire society and recognized as being important.
And I think it’s unfortunate that it’s not that clear to Americans, because there’s a real anti-institutional sentiment that goes back very much to our founding roots, right. But I think, to your point about what’s happening in our current context, having an executive who has no understanding of the liturgical constraints of his office or the ritual constraints of his office is really causing damage to all these other institutions, which themselves operate through ritualized relationships, which which ask “Who do you talk to? Who do you consult with? Who responds?” And those are things that we actually experience in a service for the prayers of the people or through call and response. Those things he doesn’t understand, he’s only operated in a kind of corporate environment where he’s the only person he needs to answer to.
Zack Jackson: But he didn’t invent any of this. The “united” in the United States of America is a wonderful myth. We have never been united. And even when we put on the pomp and circumstance and we all pretend to be united, we’re not. You know, you turn off the TV and we’re still very divided. I think all that he’s done is he’s taken the dirty stuff under the carpet and has brought it up to the top, and now we have to face it.
And now I wonder if those liturgies that, you know, you look back on so fondly, about when presidents acted presidential, even when you hated them, were those not empty rituals? Did they actually change anything? Were we better for them, or do they need to be torn down and rebuilt in a way?
Sara Gottlieb: I thought I had something but I don’t. I mean, I don’t know that those rituals did anything, but I do think that – I mean, some of them are so silly, like pardoning a turkey. Like, who cares? I mean, I do care because I don’t eat meat, but like, it’s one turkey.
But yeah, I think it’s just a larger issue of signaling that any type of ritual isn’t important has negative consequences. So I don’t think it’s not necessarily that having them was good, it’s that signaling that “I don’t care about ritual, I don’t care about belonging, to a sense of belonging to a group, because groups do have rituals,” that’s just not important I mean it’s just you know promoting – it’s making this sense of individualism just so present that I think has lasting effects. Even if it was always there before especially for young impressionable growing minds it’s very damaging
Zack Jackson: What is our coming-of-age ritual in the United States? We have religious ones, right. We have bar and bat mitzvahs, we have confirmation. But secular?
Sara Gottlieb: Prom.
Gawain de Leeuw: And getting a driver’s license.
Zack Jackson: It’s driver’s license and prom, right. I guess prom is a corporate event, but driver’s license is like “Now you’re free to explore the wild blue yonder, you are off on your own now.” It’s not a sense of belonging as “one of us,” it’s a sense of sending them out to be their own person.
Ruth Shaver: And let me just point out that getting a driver’s license is a point of privilege, too, because not everybody in America who reaches the age of 16 or 18 has access to the training to get a driver’s license, or to a vehicle to drive once they have a driver’s license.
Zack Jackson: Sure. And more people that live in the city, they’re just are never going to drive.
Ruth Shaver: Exactly. I mean, I know people who never learned to drive who are in their 50’s and 60’s because they’ve always had access to public transit, which is its own form of privilege. But I think, you know, there is this sense in which no ritual is empty when it helps us to feel part of the whole.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, it certainly serves a function, even if the function is not the consequence of the ritual, it’s the consequence of the ritual on the people.
Zack Jackson: See, and this my anti-ritual Baptist prejudice coming through again, my gut – and this is not, like, me thinking through the issue. My gut is if the ritual isn’t changing the heart, then tear it down, because it’s making you think that we are further along than we are. It’s making you think that you’re more spiritual than you are, or more advanced or progressive than you are. And it’s not actually changing anything. So tear that down, fix the heart and then rebuild. But that’s just – like I said, I haven’t thought that through, that’s where my gut is.
Sara Gottlieb: I don’t think illusions are – I mean, things can be illusions, but have positive psychological benefits. So I don’t believe in God, but I don’t not believe in the value of religion, because I know it does really great things. I mean, it can also do some really not great things. But for individual psychological health for a lot of people, it is very palliative. So I believe I believe in its effects.
Zack Jackson: Yeah but ritual can also hide it, it can mask the decay underneath. But I totally get what you’re saying, and I think I’m more on your side than my own now.
Ruth Shaver: See, the ritual has had some effect.
Zack Jackson: But I’m a I’m a Gemini, you know they say about is.
Ruth Shaver: So am I. (laughs)
Gawain de Leeuw: So I think that’s true. Ritual can conceal and it also can expose. It’s also a contrived way for individuals to see the world. So I see the world liturgically in this particular way. The Anglican tradition, we write prayers, we call them collects, and they are meant to be able to be said when you are feeling the absence of God, ok. So if because I don’t go through the world every day completely aware of the enchanting things God is doing. I’m just doing the laundry, you know. But by having this prayer, even if I have not having this experience, it’s a reminder that there is still being and essence in the world that that can carry me through. And because the formation of those words – it uses active verbs, it’s concise, it’s brief – those are forming me to pray in a certain way. It could be good or could be bad, but I appreciate that there is a forming power of that particular style of prayer that, to me, has given me some power. And I think that to me is where liturgy and prayer is very important, in that it gives individuals that sense of power and agency in the world.
And that is where I find testing important. Does it give me more power to be in the world?
Zack Jackson: And to rewrite your subconscious.
Gawain de Leeuw: Sure, absolutely.
Zack Jackson: And that’s that at its best. I’m there with you 100 percent. That’s because that we have all these preconceived prejudices that we absorbed without realizing it, so if we can have the power of that little neocortex, prefrontal cortex – whatever the thinking part is, I’m not the scientist.
Sara Gottlieb: It all thinks.
Zack Jackson: Yeah, well I mean the newer part of the brain.
Sara Gottlieb: The non-lizard brain.
Zack Jackson: To be able to influence the lizard brain, that’s a million times more powerful than the “we’re so special” human part. It’s, you know, hacking yourself.
Gawain de Leeuw: That’s right, the self-hack.
Ruth Shaver: And I think, too, I think about the way that I write prayers of confession for our liturgy. And I write a different one every week, and occasionally incorporate words from other people, but for Easter season I change it from a prayer of confession to a prayer of joy for the Resurrection, to orient people toward that new life experience, that kind of thing. But I still use similar language in terms of how we go about expressing our understanding of what it means to be loved by God for other people in the actions that we take in the world. And part of it is I keep hoping that by having people say, every week, at least once during the worship service, that we know that You will love every single person who You have created, you know, that by doing that, it will work on that subconscious level, but also be an intellectual challenge to people, to say “Who is it that I don’t treat with love and respect in my life, and how do I, in this coming week, do something differently so that my behavior changes?”
You know, one of my congregants said to me not long ago, you know, “I used to come to church and leave feeling like I’d had a good uplifting service. Now I get out of worship and I realize I have work to do.” I was like, “Yes, you do, that’s the whole point!” He’s like, “I’m not sure I like that.” I said “Tough,’ cause I’m not gonna stop.” He said “oh.”
And I said “Yes, that’s my job.”
My job is to help you do the work that builds what we would consider the realm of Christ, the Tikkun Olam, the – whatever you want to call it that is that world where truly all people are created equal, and all people are sitting under their own fig tree with enough, to bring back the Biblical language. So you know, part of that is that ritualistic piece of it, to just make that a part of living, breathing faith, so that it becomes more natural and easier to do, and so that when you’re stuck in that moment of trying to figure out what you do, there’s something besides the lizard brain speaking to. You may still go to lizard brain…
Zack Jackson: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lizard, if there are any lizards listening today.
Ruth Shaver: If you’re an iguana –
Zack Jackson: I don’t want to alienate any of our listeners right now –
Ruth Shaver: Komodo dragons. (laughs)
Zack Jackson: All of you lizard people in the government.
Gawain de Leeuw: Ah, we’re going down the Alex Jones route, are we? All right, this is that kind of podcast?
Zack Jackson: That’s ‘cause it’s almost lunch.
Gawain de Leeuw: So I think you’re right about one of our roles. I sometimes think of Jesus Christ as an Ecclesiastes Jew, meaning he’s someone who appreciates that there are all these different seasons to the human experience. So there will be times where you need to worship in a way that is steady and quiet, and there are going to be times where you need to be out in the streets, and there are going to be times in your life where you’re just trying to build connections and set a table in the wilderness. And for individuals, and even in a congregation, you’ll have a couple individuals who will be the ones who are called to be out in the street, and then there will be others who are just simply called to set the table for the people who are out in the streets. And then there are going to be the others who, after everyone’s march, are cleaning up after them. And you know, all the confetti and all the, you know, there’s still a mess that needs to be done. And there’s still going to be others who are just praying for everyone. And each one of those will require different sorts of spaces, I think, which is why, hopefully, they’ll test things themselves.
Ruth Shaver: So for everything there is a season, right. Turn, turn, turn… gotta get the music in there somewhere.
Sara Gottlieb: I’m tone deaf, so…
Zack Jackson: There’s a season for that.
Gawain de Leeuw: So Sara, do you think there is an opportunity for congregations to be tested? Not that we want to compare ourselves to Lutherans or anything, but I would be interested to know what that would look like, to have an experiment with the congregation interested in it.
Sara Gottlieb: So if I was thinking about this in terms of a scientific publication, this is the way I would see it going. It would start off with this idea that different forms of prayer have different, perhaps, physiological effects, cognitive effects, behavioral effects. Studies 1A, 1B, or whatever would be tightly controlled laboratory things, like we have three people come in singing in unison versus not, while checking their skin conductance, heart rate, or something. Or praying hunched versus, you know, more like a submissive, reverential way, versus arms open, a broad body posture kind of thing. Like, what are these effects? And I would say that maybe then it would go into –
I mean, I can’t see a psychologist or cognitive scientist going into a church and hooking everybody up to a peripheral?
Zack Jackson: That would be very expensive.
Sara Gottlieb: And so usually the way that the studies go is that goes tightly controlled, and then it goes into external validity. So “Is there someplace in the world that can demonstrate this phenomenon that we have found in the lab?” And it would be something like “We found that this certain body posture, shoulders wide, outstretched (I’m just making this up), leads to decreased skin conductance, who knows – [and] this other denomination has more tightly hunched body posture. We found that the denomination with the more expansive body posture is more pro-social, so this demonstrates its effect.” Which is not at all like – that could be due to all sorts of other things, differences in the two denominations. It’s just demonstrating the phenomenon in some larger context. So that’s how it would go if it was done academically for a peer-reviewed journal publication. But I’m sure there are people out there that would actually want to study individual congregants and things in a less academic way, more, “How can we improve liturgy?” kind of way.
Zack Jackson: Andrew Newberg has written a lot about that, the researcher in Philadelphia. Ever since reading his books I’ve really wanted to get hooked up and figure out what my brain is doing. I find this so fascinating.
Sara Gottlieb: The stuff I was talking about was not brain, but yeah.
Zack Jackson: The sort of work that he’s done is, you know, putting people in fMRI scanners and having nuns meditating versus monks meditating and finding that the visual centers of the brain are more active for the nuns than for the monks because Christians tend to focus on images of Christ, whereas monks tend to not.
Ruth Shaver: You’re talking about Buddhist monks, right?
Zack Jackson: Yes, Buddhist monks, sorry.
Ruth Shaver: Because you know there are Christian monks too.
Zack Jackson: I’ve met a few, yes.
Ruth Shaver: I was gonna say…
Sara Gottlieb: But the nuns and monks could have just told you that without putting on brain scanners, right, so you know, that’s the anti-neuro in me.
I mean, it’s a lot of funding for showing that something happens in the brain even when we know that – I mean if two people have different behaviors, we know that there are differences in their brain.
Zack Jackson: Um, well, yes, I mean technically… you don’t have to spend a million dollars…
Sara Gottlieb: But with the visual cortex thing, like, that thing is cool. That is neat to show.
Ruth Shaver: Well, and wasn’t one of the criteria for at least some of that study the fact that their practices outwardly were somewhat similar?
Sara Gottlieb: I’ve actually never heard of this exact study, so –
Ruth Shaver: So, we’re reading about it, and I think one of the reasons that they chose the two groups that they did – it was a very specific order of nuns and monks from a particular Buddhist practice – was because the outward appearance of their practice was very similar.
Sara Gottlieb: It’s interesting – so, tangentially related, but our teacher in the mindfulness class, who is a meditator herself – I mean, has been for probably 30 years – she said there is a way you can tell that people are mind-wandering. At least at these very long silent retreats, people hold their hands like this – so, for the listeners, kind of like cupped, one palm over the other, palms facing up, with their kind of fingernails and their thumbs touching – keeping their thumbs raised. And when people mind-wander, their thumbs just sort of gravitate back down to where their hands are.
Zack Jackson: Can I tell you that this is how my hands were before you starting saying that?
Sara Gottlieb: That’s interesting.
Zack Jackson: Which means nothing to anyone… (laughs)
Ruth Shaver: Well, this is going to be an interesting podcast to listen to when it all comes together, wide-ranging and really interesting questions to think about.
Gawain de Leeuw: Well sure, and we didn’t actually talk about “Does God answer prayers?”
Sara Gottlieb: I thought that’s what the topic was going to be, empirically testing in terms of–
Gawain de Leeuw: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s a question that is easy to answer, because we’re not actually defining what God is, right. And so if you have a naturalistic conception of God, for example, then you can still use physicality to assess whether or not things are happening, right. But if you only have a supernatural conception of how God acts, then that data is going to be wild, how do you–
Sara Gottlieb: Also time scales – all the researchers will be dead. (laughter)
Ruth Shaver: And I live by my great grandmother’s motto. I heard my great-grandmother use one swear word in her entire life. And it was in answer to my question “Does God answer prayers?” And she said “Absolutely. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is not now, sometimes the answer is maybe, sometimes the answer is no, and sometimes the answer is HELL NO!”
Zack Jackson: But that’s Dawkins’ big argument, the jug of milk argument – take a test, pray to God and see what if it’s one of those, “yes,” “no” or “later,” and then pray to a jug of milk the next week, and see if the answer is also “yes,” “no” or “later,” because that’s literally all of the possibilities.
Ruth Shaver: Exactly, you know. But again, that’s the difference between living a life of faith and living a life using testable, empirical things, which is conveniently kind of what my topic is a little bit. I didn’t expect to go there, but it went there!