This question, What does religion sound like?, inspired the creation of a remarkable collaborative project on Religious Sounds between Amy Derogatis of Michigan State University and Isaac Weiner at The Ohio State University. Yesterday, I had the privilege of making welcoming remarks at the opening of the Sounds of Religion exhibition at the MSU Museum.
In thinking about what I would say, I returned to my own experience of religious sounds. Here are my welcoming remarks:
When I think of religious sounds, the first thing that comes to mind is silence …
*Pause – Breathe – Allow the silence enter the room and focus us.*
Growing up in Philadelphia where I attended a Quaker school gave me a deep respect for what comes to presence when we quiet ourselves and listen.
The second thing that comes to mind when I think of religious sounds is the resonant timbre of my stepfather’s voice. As Amy knows, my stepfather was Ted Loder, the longtime minister at the First United Methodist Church in Germantown. Ted preached the art of listening, which, if I am not mistaken, is at the heart of the religious sounds project.
O Holy One,
I hear and say so many words,
Yet yours is the word I need.
and help me listen;
And, if what I hear is silence
let it quiet me,
let it disturb me,
let it touch my need,
let it break my pride,
let it shrink my certainties,
let it enlarge my wonder.
As I have followed this project over the years, I have come to appreciate the power of listening to shrink our certainties and enlarge our wonder. By focusing on sound, Isaac and Amy have expanded the discipline of Religious Studies, moving us from words and ideas to the world of sound and the transformative power of listening.
This research embodies many of the core values the College of Arts & Letters is trying to advance. It is a robust collaboration between two major public research universities, rooted in a trusting relationship between Isaac and Amy. That relationship has also allowed the team to work across appointment types within each university to draw in staff members, academic specialists, IT experts, and of course many students and community partners. The project invites us to bring our whole selves into the research, moving us beyond a purely intellectual approach and into our bodies where sound and silence reveal the deepest truths of religious experience. In so doing, the research team uncovers how people physically enact religious practices not only in formal worship spaces but also in everyday life.
And finally, let me also say here what is difficult to hear; that this project unfolded during a very painful period in the history of MSU as the Nassar sexual abuse case demonstrated what can happen when we fail to listen. In the wake of these institutional failures, this project gained depth and integrity because Amy and Isaac and all those involved in the project redoubled their effort to listen with intentionality and humility and care.
I would like to thank Dr. Amy DeRogatis and Dr. Isaac Weiner for their incredible research on display here today. I would also like to thank the co-curators Vicki Brennan, Ely Lyonblum, Alison Furlong, and Lauren Pond for all their tireless efforts in making this exhibition so beautiful.