Monday, September 22, 2008

Cultural Ecumenism

In the epilogue of Highbrow/Lowbrow, Levine wrote:

"Culture remains a dynamic process, a constant interchange between the past and the present.  Nevertheless, as significant as these recent developments have been, it would be premature to announce the arrival of the Age of Cultural Ecumenism."

The use of the term "Cultural Ecumenism" intrigues me greatly.  This is because of my personal interest in "ecumenism" in the more usual sense of the word-- namely, in the religious context.  Moreover, Levine brought up not only this religiously-charged word, but earlier in the book, he also had described the advocates of the "high arts" as though they felt the same divine calling to serve as that of religious missionaries.  The uncanny parallels between the fervor of the arts advocates and the religiously devout fascinate me greatly, since I happen to care greatly about both.

I have had a few years of experience in an ecumenical religious community which fosters "goodwill and understanding among students of different Christian traditions".  This group aims to promote Christian unity by providing a space to recognize and deepen the common beliefs held between all Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, while respecting the integrity of the drastic differences between these groups.  For example, a Catholic would be welcomed into the group as a fellow Christian, and would hopefully be encouraged to become a better Catholic-Christian through the experience--as opposed a Christian of a less well-defined sort.  In order to achieve this, this group discusses about and tries hard to practice the courtesy of "ecumenical sensitivity" for the sake of the common goal of unity.  That is, in view of that goal, while members are highly encouraged to grow deeper into their respective traditions on their own, each is expected, during the common gatherings, to refrain from performing or discussing personal religious rituals and/or beliefs in manners which may be perceived as questionable through the lenses of other Christian sects, so as to avoid unwanted (though not unimportant) tensions. To practice this sensitivity effectively, members must be seek to somewhat understand--though not necessarily master--the basics of both the traditions of others, and that of one's own through many different outsiders' points of view.  This is not to say that nurturing the uniqueness of one's own tradition is not important; rather, members are asked to practice that in their own churches, and to use this particular community as a venue to share and contribute to the commonly held values, now enhanced by the rich influences of different "flavors" of faith.

I venture to digress this much from the discussion of music, because I think this model of religious ecumenism seems very analogous to the spirit toward cultural understanding the arts which Levine may be advocating.  We live in a pluralistic global society today in terms of our diverse musical activities-- just like the varied conditions of our world's religious landscape.  While we certainly do not agree that all musical knowledge is of equal value, it is sophomoric to arbitrarily dismiss some musical traditions as worthless altogether and elevate others as the "only way" to musical nirvana.  Certainly, there are values of "good" and "bad" within the context of each musical tradition which are important to learn and master for its professed practitioners.  But in order to contribute to an edifying commonly shared musical experience, participants must be musically or culturally ecumenical sensitivity:  to gracefully cooperate with others from different musical backgrounds, knowledge, and tastes, by a willingness and openness to examine different musical practices via channels other than one's own.

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