I think it is critical — in beginning an essay criticizing ecumenicalism — that I begin by saying that I understand the attraction.
By “ecumenicalism,” I am referring to the impulse to seek commonality and to bridge religious divides. This is sometimes spoken of in terms of mere understanding; to “coexist,” as the all-too-popular bumper sticker implores of us. Other times, it is more explicitly intent on merging divergent traditions, of finding the common thread between — for example — Christianity and Buddhism. Sometimes, “ecumenicalism” refers merely to cooperation and unity between factions of Christianity, as it did at the now eponymous-sounding Ecumenical Councils. More and more frequently these days, it refers to cooperation between differing religions entirely. I have twice heard the term “Chrislam” used.
So far as I can tell, ecumenicalism is attractive for three primary reasons. First — and I think this is what drives the majority — is that it seems peaceful. In the aftermath of the 20th-century, it has become a more or less accepted belief that pacifism is a morally superior position. The basis for this position is never fully explored, and — as far as I can tell — collapses completely when it is questioned. But in the aftermath of the success of Ghandi and King in the 20th century, especially juxtaposed with the universal opprobrium leveled towards Hitler’s Third Reich, it makes a kind of cultural sense. Whether or not ecumenicalism actually is more peaceful is difficult to discern: most universal systems throughout history tended in the opposite direction, but ecumenicalism may very well be an exception. The jury is still out.
A second attraction to ecumenicalism is more philosophical. The reason is simple: opinions which are shared among many, rather than among few, are more likely to be true. They are, almost by definition, more “objective.” From this angle, ecumenicalism may appear to be an incisive move towards the truth. “What does every religion acknowledge? Let’s begin with this as our foundation…” It seems to cut away all the divisive baggage which happens to reduce unnecessary conflict, but more importantly, is likely to be false precisely because it is controversial.
Finally, there is a more spiritual logic to ecumenicalism, stemming from the desire to dissolve oneself into a greater whole. There is a euphoric sense of purpose and meaning to such an experience, one which every religion worth its salt both acknowledges and interprets within its own metaphysical view of existence. These are very powerful emotional experiences which often change individual values and life-decisions. Whoever can provide the most meaningful interpretation of these feelings gains much power. And no religious tradition — no matter how grand in descriptive scope — can compete with a spiritual framework which is universal by definition. All traditional religions are, by necessity, exclusive, and therefore limited in their power to convey meaning.
Ecumenicalism stands poised as the ultimate transcendence, and from this position, offers peace, truth, and grandness of meaning to our mere existence which no other religion can compete with.
From a marketing perspective, it’s pretty much all you could ask for.
I have already made my case at length against pacifism, and won’t bore you with the details here. I will address the philosophical and spiritual arguments for ecumenicalism — both of which ultimately fail. But first, I want to make a more positive argument, that ecumenicalism is not just wrong, but bad. And I think that an apt analogy to this spiritual phenomenon is the realm of music.
I was inspired to write this essay after listening to an analysis of Joe Hisaishi’s music. Hisaishi is well-known as the composer for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest film-maker in recent Japanese history. The analyst argued that Hisaishi’s music was interesting because it combined elements of Debussy’s impressionism and American Jazz with traditional Japanese music. Traditional Japanese music, as it turns out, is not just a divergence in stylistic preference from Western music, but is different in its very structure. Whereas Western music usually works in 7-note scales (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), Japanese Music — according to Fumio Koizumi — often worked in “tetrachords,” half-scales comprised of three notes. These tetrachords could be combined in a way which resembled Western pentatonic scales, but subtly differed in their sound. This subtle difference appears in Hisaishi’s music in a manner which makes it distinctly Japanese, despite its Western influence.
By contrast, the tendency in music generally — for an international audience — has followed the trajectory of pop music, which is notorious for its simplicity and repetitive nature. Even many fans will begrudgingly acknowledge the fact that most pop songs are comprised of the same notes, in more or less the same order. This point has been driven home by a number of more musically-literate critics than myself, but perhaps none more amusingly than by Bob Paravonian:
Perhaps ironic that modern pop music should be identifiable in terms of a piece of classical music. But Canon in D was no masterpiece of classical work, fading into obscurity until its revivification in the “diverse” modern era, specifically in the 1970s. In fact, it may be fair to consider Canon in D the first true pop song. In 2004, Alex Ross described the piece in the New Yorker:
“…always dying, ever-ending. It is an ageless diva on a non-stop farewell tour […] It is hard to name because it never really existed to begin with – not in the sense that it stemmed from a single time or place. It has no genealogy, no ethnicity.”
In terms of form, this is popular, and not classical, which relies more heavily upon the audience understanding pre-existing themes and motifs in order to delay resolution. Pop music, on the other hand, tends to find that musical resolution every three or four notes.
While this connection between music and religion was forming in my head, I was reminded of something that David Foster Wallace had written in his essay on television:
It’s undeniable that television is an example of “low” art, the sort of art that tries too hard to please. Because of the economics of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidized entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field tests in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible. TV is the epitome of low art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But TV is not low because it is vulgar or prurient or stupid. It is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.Wallace, E Unibas Pluram
Pop music is not simple and repetitive because its audience is incapable of appreciating higher, more complex forms of music. It is simple and repetitive for the same reason that David Foster Wallace argues that television is low and vulgar and prurient and stupid: the broader audience can only share what is basic. A more “diverse,” more “ecumenical” audience tends towards that more simplistic, 4-chord sound of pop music.
I am here putting “diverse” in quotation-marks because what is revealed in the musical taste achieved by combining diverse crowds is not only something homogenous, but something simplified. Something that is somewhat dumbed-down.
Any strong system (spiritual, musical, or otherwise) requires solid basics. But a system is not superior because it is basic. In fact, I think that in general the opposite holds: what is basic is inferior to what is more developed and mature. A piano piece played only on the right hand can usually convey a melody, but it will lack the fullness and completion added by the left. Mozart and Tchaikovsky are superior to Maroon 5 and Post Malone — I presume that most people will agree with this statement, even if they themselves prefer to listen to pop over classical, but I also don’t need public affirmation of democratic consensus: the former are, in every way, more refined, complex, and more beautiful than the latter. This doesn’t mean that Maroon 5 and Post Malone are “bad.” Within the domain of popular music, they are among the very best. But the very domain of popular music is itself inferior to what we are talking about in classical music.
It could be argued that “classical” is somewhat question-begging. It is, after all, just a genre — one among many. One could legitimately argue that “pop” isn’t even a genre per se, and that R&B, hip-hop, Rock, and Metal songs all get unfairly categorized as “popular” during their immediate radio-play duration, and then return to their more appropriate respective categories and sub-categories afterward. But this would be to miss the point. I am not trying to say that “pop is bad,” nor am I trying to argue that “classical is good,” or even that any genre is — in some objective sense — better than another. A high-quality song can become popular (I think that Bastille’s song Pompeii is actually quite good). The point is that when dealing with a broad audience, the diversity of taste tends to reward more basic music: the “lowest common denominator.”
Within Metal, there is high quality and low quality. So too in Rock, rap, R&B, reggae, jazz, blues, country, gospel, folk, and every other style of music. The genre sets the standard, and an individual piece of music succeeds or fails on the basis of that unique standard. Some music sets out on its own entirely, and there it succeeds or fails on the basis of its own internal consistency and integrity.
What is important to understand here is the way in which these standards are established. They don’t form overnight; indeed, it often takes decades, generations, even centuries, for genres of music to truly come into their own. We have, at present, a plethora of musical saplings, each the potential seed of a genre which could evolve into something mature and grand, but which most likely will not because there is no stable isolation within which it can become comfortable within its own constraints. Constraints are, after all, what define a musical genre. It is the constraints of the Japanese tetrachords which give Joe Hisaishi’s music a “Japanese” sound. But perhaps more importantly, the themes and motifs that are created and borrowed from the tradition of these constraints build into a tradition of “Japanese” sound that is not limited solely by mechanical or notational constraints. It is in this way that we hear a “good” Japanese song or a “bad” Japanese song. But the possibility of any meaningful “Japanese” sound at all is dependent upon a degree of isolation and development apart from the rest of the musical world.
To illustrate what I mean, let me depart from the east, and turn instead to perhaps the greatest Western musical achievement of the last two centuries. I refer to Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.”
The 15-hour opera is a fertile source of musical themes and motifs which have been borrowed, even beyond the most well-known “Ride of the Valkyries.” But Wagner could not have existed without a pre-existing mythic and musical tradition from which to draw upon. The complexity and tremendous build up of the “Ring Cycle” is only possible in a world in which people are already familiar with the building blocks with which he was working.
Consider the plot of the “Ring Cycle.” To those unfamiliar with Nordic and Germanic myth, it will likely seem bizarre, even unprofound. To those who are familiar with Nordic and Germanic myth, it may seem unoriginal. Essentially, Wagner simply combined the ancient tale Niebelungenlied with the cyclical story of the Germanic-pagan gods — much in the way that Homer combined the story of the Trojan war with the story of the Hellenic-pagan gods. But it is this pre-existing familiarity which allows for the development of more complex stories, more interwoven and deeper plots conveyed by longer, more profound, more mature, and more developed music.
It may now be wondered how this long musical digression might be re-attached to religion and spirituality. But by what means should I do this? With words? Words are, by all measures, inferior implements for describing spirit! Music can, in fact, approach something of a direct expression of spirit and character, in a way which words alone can do only indirectly.
Nevertheless, I will try to clarify in words the problem of ecumenicalism, as presented via analogy above: the recession in complexity and beauty that occurs in pursuit of satisfying a broader and more diverse base is not limited to music; it just happens to be particularly visible in the musical domain. But that dumbing-down and simplification applies just as much in the development of character — of “spirit” — as it does in the realm of music.
The almost passe criticism of popular music as I have described it here should now seem a bit more urgent, as a criticism not essentially of music at all, but of “pop” spirituality. By broadening the audience, music has broadened and become more shallow in its identity, becoming as vague and washy as the words of a politician. And we, its consumers, both consume and reproduce this new identity, this new spirit, this “pop” soul.
This necessarily follows from the logic of Ecumenicalism, which, in order to build bridges and unite diverse peoples with divergent beliefs, must not only reject what is divisive, but must also affirm what is universal.
Regarding the philosophical attraction of ecumenicalism, it is important to recognize that the fact that a belief is universal by no means guarantees its truth. There are two reasons for this.
First, what is understood by a belief may vary, not only based upon variance in the subtle implications of language, but also upon the subjective biases of the hearer. Consider, for example, the following belief: “the children of lake Wobegone are all above average.” This is, obviously, a mathematical impossibility, but it captures a very real positive self-bias that most people hold, relative to outside peoples. A related and actually true example: the vast majority of people believe they are better-than-average drivers. Since the belief is universal, is it therefore true?
Second, we are limited in our consensus-gathering to other humans. This does evade some of the subjective problems associated with individual human biases, but only pushes the problem down the road to collective human biases. We could, for instance, all share in the delusion that humans are “superior” to other mammals. For the record, I share this delusion; I think humans are pretty awesome. But I recognize that there’s a bias at work, and that at the existential level that religions often work, turning to ecumenicalism doesn’t actually evade the bias problem. I am not even sure that it even evades a part of the bias problem. From my own observations, the more ecumenical cultures seem to treat self-criticism as evidence of objectivity, which almost invariably turns into a very visible culture of preemptive and excessive self-criticism… which, in other words, creates an anti-self bias. From the perspective of truth, this is no better than a self bias, and from the perspective of respect and self-worth, is a whole lot more pathetic.
This tendency towards self-criticism seems also to be a feature of the ecumenical spirit, making the desire for self-annihilation something a whole lot more insidious and literal than the usual, more metaphorical meaning of losing one’s own experience of identity in the context of a greater whole.
Finally, what of this spiritual desire for self-annihilation? Isn’t ecumenical unitarianism the logical conclusion of this desire, or is there not something valuable which the ecumenical impulse at least captures?
Spirituality is fundamentally a matter of identity. To be “spiritual” means to be possessed by, or possessed of, a distinctive spirit, which is to say, a specific “character.” Someone who is easily moved, manipulated, herded, persuaded, threatened, or otherwise maneuvered one way and then the other possesses no spirit.
There are asterisks to this for the more technically-minded and eastern-oriented philosophers. If one is convinced of the value of adaptability, and is always adapting and shifting — is consistently adapting and shifting — then it can be said to be spiritual, perhaps in the manner of Bruce Lee, or “much-turning” Odysseus. But this is different than the passive inertia of a more common excuse for laziness disguised as character, like “dudeism.”
Ultimately, the spiritual desire to immerse oneself in a greater whole is dependent upon there being a greater whole to immerse oneself into. Here, the intuitive fallacy is that bigger equals better. But for there to be something worth losing oneself within requires that greater entity to exist… otherwise, you are simply destroying yourself. The drug addict losing himself in the high is losing himself in a pseudo-spiritual manner, but there is no greater “there” there. The spiritual profundity of his experience is a delusion.
By contrast, even the seemingly infinite flexibility of Bruce Lee and Odysseus ultimately had a fixed point of termination — boundaries which differentiated the greater entity to which their self-annihiliation aimed from the greater, undifferentiated universe. For Bruce Lee, this was mastery and excellence in the art of fighting. For Odysseus, it was his return home. Their adaptiveness was directed towards a particular end, and in both cases, their character was shaped by a long and stable history which preceeded their later, more wandering years. Ultimately, it was this stable basis which — like a musical theme returning to itself after a long interlude — allowed their life-story to have a cohesion and character; to have spirit. Without that developed spirit, they would have ditched martial arts and forgotten home. Perhaps they would have simply joined a bowling league, and listened to Babymetal or something.
As with classical music, a developed spirituality allows for longer periods of deferred gratification, larger build-ups for greater rewards. How long can you wait? How much can you endure?
Ernst Jünger once said “tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!” I think the value in this statement comes from understanding why we endure pain. We suffer for things that are worthwhile. We plan and plot our garden, dig the holes for the plants, spend weeks watering and fertilizing, digging and waiting, shifting rocks, watching plants die, planting again, waiting again, all because some part of our mind truly values having a garden. It’s a big commitment.
But at the end of the day, that’s what having “spirit” comes down to. It’s the only way to really measure it anyway. Is anything worthwhile to you? Is it worth suffering for, and how much?
Ecumenicalism, in its tacit condemnation of suffering as such, and its more explicit condemnation of division, breaks the grounds on which an authentic spirituality is possible. Its impulse to grand unity breaks the stable isolation necessary for the development of mature character and spirit, and replaces it with a recession to the more basic, more adolescent, stages of spiritual growth, forever pruning them back if they extend too far beyond the acceptable range of unity.
At its core, ecumenicalism is just the spirit of popularity… but that is perhaps giving it too much credit, because popularity is not a “spirit,” but a state of things. It is a religious impulse born of fear and an intolerance of pain, which may themselves be the product of a lack of spirituality and character. This in turn leads to a lack of vision, a lack of patience, an ability to appreciate even a moderate build-up for a moderate pay-off… let alone something as epic as a 15-hour opera.
The Bible says that there is no fear in love. I half agree with this (though, as a father, I can say that parental love can lead to all kinds of fears, and that rejecting these fears is akin to rejecting the love). But there is also no love without the latent possibility of hatred, and this applies to the spirit as well as music.
I have come to realize that this idea needs a clear and non-violent example for people to really understand what I am describing here, and there is no better and more pertinent example, I think, then Hayao Miyazaki’s reaction to AI animation:
I am utterly disgusted. If you really want to make creepy stuff, you can go ahead and do it. I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work at all. I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.
I feel like we are nearing the end of times. We humans are losing faith in ourselves.
If that isn’t hatred, I don’t know what is. And yet, there is no stronger expression of love for story-telling as an affirmation of humanity.
That is character and spirit which would have no place in an ecumenical order. Such intolerance!
Indeed, there is perhaps something truly ecumenical in the very nature of artificial intelligence, but that is something to explore on another day.
In either case, I think it is clear that the ecumenical impulse is bad. Beyond bad, actually — it is evil, in its degradation of all individual standards with no rooted standard of its own. It is not even properly “spiritual,” but is anti-spiritual in its caustic promiscuity.
All good things are the products of other things, but the development takes time and isolation; a moral imperative to break down barriers eliminates any such possibility of time. And the result we see from an ecumenical culture (one which has become more popular in the aftermath of King, Mandella, Gandhi, Vatican II, etc), is a tendency towards “pop,” not merely in music but in everything — from public education to politics, literature to language, and most of all, religion.