Help for Unbelievers

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“But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” [Mark 9:22b-23]

 “ ‘If you can’?”—

 The NIV translation is best here, because it brings out the nested entendres of Jesus come-back to the hapless father. “If you can?” “If you can?” “If you can!” And so on. The variety of possible meanings in this retort are tightly woven threads in a tapestry of meaning. Only on the lips of Jesus is their beauty revealed, as he mirrors the interlocutor’s phrase, and sends it back into the ears of all in this sharp retort. Is he chastising the father’s lack of belief? Is he pleading and encouraging the panicked man to have faith? Is he emphasizing his personal power, for the sake of the witnesses? Is he drawing a connection between faith and answered prayers? Is he admonishing his disciples and all within earshot to give up the hopeless argument that has embroiled them in a dispute with the scribes? Is he teaching by Socratic Method the meaning of belief? Perhaps he is doing all these things, and much more also, as he transforms the father’s plea into a speech-act which creates the possibility of revelation.

 Then immediately, before Jesus can shed any further light on the meaning of his retort, the father blurts out, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”[1] The father demonstrates his understanding of this encounter. He feels ashamed as well as frustrated that he has not had enough faith to heal his son. He stands condemned before the rabbi Jesus as one who has not enough righteousness in his life, in his home, to escape the torment of his beloved son by demons. “Help!” he screams.

 I am this father. So are you. In belief we come before the god-man Jesus to bring our petitions. In unbelief, we find condemnation in our failings. If only my unbelief, my lack of faith, were less severe! Then perhaps I would have enough faith to get it right, to have the power to heal my own family, or to trust at least that God would answer my prayers.

 And Jesus transforms my plea. He absorbs it and sends it back into my own ears, as my eyes see him heal this boy. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus demonstrates that he himself is the man who believes. Jesus is the one who has the power to help, because Jesus is the one who believes. The question no longer centers on whether or not the boy’s father, or you or I, have enough faith. It’s decisively not a question of whether this father believes strongly enough to balance out his unbelief. It’s not a matter of getting faith and doubt in proper proportion. No, but rather the question is whether we know Jesus as the one who has faith for our sake.  He does. And all things are possible to him, because he is the one man whose faith is perfectly embodied in right relationship with God the Father. We have enough faith therefore, not by our force of will to believe ever more strongly, but by our encounter with the one who believes in proper proportion, and that proportion is to be wholly, personally and perfectly one with the Father. Amen.

[1] Here the NIV is not so good, for it inserts the verb “overcome” in the father’s request: “Help me overcome my unbelief!”

Musically Speaking of Ethics

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 What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter

[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.

Academically Adrift without a Rudder

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“Civilization is doomed unless the hearts and minds of man can be changed, and unless we can bring about a moral, intellectual and spiritual reformation.”


 – Robert Maynard Hutchins, Journal of Higher Education (1947)


    “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” This tit-for-tat describes the facile, unwritten social contracts that often develop between professors and college students. Does this tired compromise signal a stalemate in the struggle of college students and their teachers to eke out space for the demands on their time outside the classroom? If so, it is a sad surrender in the battle to foster academic and personal growth in higher education. George Kuh calls this campus stalemate a disengagement compact—a tacit agreement wherein professors say, “I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”[1] Like a prickly weed, this compact takes root wherever it can, and infiltrates our institutions, crowding out the covenant of learning that inspires the goals of our colleges and universities to nurture the personal and intellectual growth of the ascendant generation.

 In their new book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa tell the story of how the  disengagement compact is eroding the mission critical capacities of our colleges and universities to get their job done:

 [T]he future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively. Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.[2]

 Academically Adrift serves as the latest signal flare to be launched over the drifting boats of academia, calling attention to the distress in institutions of higher education and calling for help to get them back on course.

 How did we manage to lose our way, and why do we allow so many students and courses to run adrift? There are many explanations, to be sure: economic pressures upon students and schools, overworked faculty, overhyped expectations that college should be a rite of passage for everyone in our highly competitive society, and the trend toward extended adolescence in our culture. I would like to set those issues aside for a moment in order to pay attention here to one specific fundamental factor which might deliver the deepest blow of all: the drift away from moral education as the raison d’être for a university.

 As Arum and Roksa note rightly, there has been a poignant shift in organizational missions away from “the responsibility of providing academic and moral guidance to young adults in their charge.”[3] To chart a course of personal growth in the absence of moral guidance is like sailing a boat without a rudder; there isn’t much you can do but to drift along wherever the tide and the wind carry you, hoping idly that all turns out for the best. But hope is not a strategy.

 George Marsden warns that this drift away from the mandate of morality in higher education has placed our institutions “in the midst of a moral crisis.”[4] This crisis results from the loss of consensus in our society that there exists some shared commitment to a greater moral reality that transcends tolerance of diverse ideas as end-all-and-be-all of moral virtues. We might as well say that the greatest value in the design of a boat is that it be rudderless, because after all, it matters little which way the boat goes, so long as it does not tack into any prevailing winds of cultural pressure. With tolerance alone as our guiding star, and relativism as our chart, we seem to have slipped quietly and subtly into the habit of launching students adrift on rudderless boats, hoping that no one will notice so long as the passengers on deck are having fun, and the faculty can be spared enough time in their cabins below decks to pay attention to their own pursuits.

 Here we see how the seeds of the disengagement compact have taken root and sprouted in the fallow soil of moral crisis. There is a vicious cycle at work here.  When an institution of higher learning loses its ability to steer a course of moral direction and nurture the ethical growth of its students, disengagement will emerge as the winning strategy. Since there is no longer any consensus to provide a unifying direction of moral development to be shared among faculty and students, individual preference becomes the default choice of moral virtues. Relativism trumps calling as the notion that ascribes ultimate dignity to persons and institutions called according to a higher purpose.  

 In the absence of a higher purpose (or teleological end or eschatological consummation, take your pick), the winning strategy is to merely give the students, parents and employers what they want. That’s common sense. This explains why students emphasize “social learning” (i.e., “fun”) as a priority, over and above studying (i.e., “work”).[5] So long as the job market is ready to accept the product, and the students are having fun, the institution can stay afloat and no one is the worse off. This pragmatic strategy of appeasement avoids the issue of moral direction and reinforces the vicious cycle which generates the disengagement compact between faculty and students.

 If permitted to go on long enough, this vicious cycle erodes the inherent capacity of the institution to nurture the moral development and integrity of students in a manner that would prepare them to take responsibility for the ethical dilemmas that await them. Moral education is no longer seen to provide a defining purpose worthy for its own sake, and ethics courses are viewed as add-ons to vocational degrees. In deference to the prevailing winds of relativism, rudders are seen to be unnecessary on the ship of higher education. Like religion and altruism, moral education is taken to be an evolutionary spandrel, which is no longer central to survival of the individual or to the social purpose of institutions of higher education. Let a thousand rudderless dinghies launch therefore, because no one cares where the ship was going anyway.

 This is why I teach ethics in a school that believes in the spiritual reality of faith, calling and the moral significance of personal integrity. Certainly, we face the same financial challenges and cultural pressures as every other university, yet we have a reason and a hope that transcends those pressures and gives us a rudder by which to steer.



[1] George Kuh, “What We Are Learning About Student Engagement,” Change 35 (2003): 28.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.

[3] Academically Adrift, 13. Arum and Roksa cite the analysis of historian Julie Reuben to make this case; The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423-24.

[5] “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience.” This is the well documented conclusion of several studies; Academically Adrift, 59.