Using Rhythm to Move Beyond Text in the Study of Christian Spirituality

A preview of my proposed paper for this year’s AAR Christian Spirituality unit:

Several recent pieces of research attempt to move beyond text as the default form of spirituality and religion in academic philosophy and theology. A particular recurring strategy in this endeavor is the analysis of non-discursive artistic expressions of spirituality. Examples include Kimerer Lamothe’s books Between Writing and Dancing and Why We Dance on why dance is vital for spirituality and why philosophy and theology struggle to take this non-discursive form seriously, and Jason C. Bivins’s recent Spirits Rejoice! on what jazz, as a non-discursive form, reveals about American religion. My interest lies in the form behind these forms. Is there something that aesthetic forms like music, dance, and visual art have in common that make them particularly suited to a more-than-textual expression of spirituality? If so, what does this form reveal about the nature of spirituality?

I argue that rhythm is this common form, supporting all forms through which spirituality is expressed, including artistic forms like those mentioned above as well as religious forms such as liturgies and rituals. Rhythm’s pervasiveness is due to its centrality to embodiment, and it is therefore indispensable for understanding what it means for a religion to be lived and embodied.

The life of the body is its rhythms – heartbeat, breath, patterns of neuron pulses – and as such the body encounters the world through these rhythms. This is one of the implicit insights of the field of phenomenology. Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that “in the sensible a certain rhythm of existence is put forward” and our sensing of that rhythm is based in the corporeal resonance of the body with that rhythm (Phenomenology of Perception, 213). In sensing, one enters into this rhythm of existence; one’s body becomes this rhythm (211-12). According to Merleau-Ponty, this synchronization is a necessary requirement for perception. In order to perceive the color blue, for example, the body must resonate with the particular vibration that presents itself as the color blue. The capacity to perceive anything requires that a rhythm be taken up by the perceiver in order for it to come into contact with all other rhythms of the perceiver (215).

Building on Merleau-Ponty in his ecological phenomenology, David Abram points out that all encounters between self and world are encounters between temporal beings that shift and change in time, though often at radically different speeds (The Spell of the Sensuous, 51) such that an “improvised duet” between the rhythms of the body and of its environment is always already ongoing whether or not we are aware of it at any given moment (53). As such, “perception, in this sense, is an attunement or synchronization between my own rhythms and the rhythms of the things themselves…” (54). Abram argues that the development of written language has isolated the meaning of language from its participation in this dance of rhythms, turning language into a map-able structure of codes and formal rules (79). While textual language attempts to describe and categorize the world according to such codes and rules, the language of oral cultures is an extension of the rhythms of the living bodies of the world through prayer, story, and song. These linguistic expressions are understood as particular incarnations of a much more extensive bodily repertoire of rhythmic expressions (89).

If we extend Abram’s claims to the study of spirituality, restricting the study of spirituality to a study of text privileges those dimensions of spirituality that are amenable to structure and formalization and bypasses its rhythmic dimensions. If, however, language is one expression of bodily rhythms among others, then the attempt to think spirituality beyond text is not an attempt to think spirituality beyond language, but to approach spirituality other than according to an impulse to map and structure spirituality. The study of spirituality is instead an attempt to become familiar with the diversity of its rhythms from the inside, as they unfold in time.

This paper is an attempt to present such an intra-rhythmic approach to spirituality by considering a cross-section of the rhythms in and through which Christian spirituality has been expressed, including Medieval religious dances, the Greek Orthodox “Jesus Prayer,” and sermons by Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than focusing on the textual dimensions of these practices, I will instead unearth the bodily rhythms involved. This is an attempt to discern, from the bottom-up, the particular rhythms that are embodied in Christian spirituality.

Focusing on the rhythms of spirituality re-directs how we think about the nature of spirituality as such. Based on Merleau-Ponty’s and Abram’s phenomenological observations about the role of rhythm in bodily expression and the human encounter with the world, this paper argues that the bodily forms in which spirituality is expressed are particular amplifications and organizations of everyday bodily rhythms. Just as encounters with the physical world involve synchronization with the rhythms of one’s immediate environment, spirituality is an attempt to synchronize bodily rhythms with the spirit through alternative organizations of space-time. This spirit is identified differently in various religions or non-religions, but in Christianity it is the Spirit of God that “vibrates over the face of the deep.” Christian spirituality, then, when viewed from the perspective of rhythm, is re-defined as the attempt to synchronize one’s life with the vibrations of this Holy Spirit.

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