More advice for those who want to change the world
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St. Peter Antiphonary c.1160
A deep-seated desire in many thoughtful people is to try to change, and improve, how their fellow humans behave: to try to make them a bit kinder, or more moral, or interested in nature, or responsive to the needs of children, or concerned with culture and justice. And the most popular way in which this desire for change has been directed in the modern age is through books. People have wanted to bring about change by giving their compatriots stuff to read.
This has produced some beautiful literature, but arguably, it has almost never changed things very much, because of a fundamental misunderstanding about how human beings are wired and what in truth actually alters their behaviour. If you want to have an impact and affect society in the long term, writing things down and giving them to other people to read in the way we do in the contemporary world is fated to be horribly ineffective for reasons that only one group of people seem properly to grasp: the religious.
From a completely secular starting point, it can be worth studying religions to learn how to alter behaviour.
It’s tempting to believe that people don’t do the right thing because they don’t have the right ideas. But in truth, we already have so many nice ideas at the back of our minds; the problem is, we don’t act on them, and we don’t do so because, at key moments, we lack reminders, motivation and encouragement.
Too often, social reformers have implicitly believed that if you just tell people what is right once, all will be well. However, it seems we need to be told things hundreds of times over long periods before they have any chance whatsoever of affecting how we actually behave. Religions are therefore rightly obsessed with repetition. Three or five or ten times a day, they’ll tell us more or less the same thing, because they know that what seemed really convincing at nine in the morning will have entirely gone by evening. Religions have calendars that split time up into tiny segments, each of which has some divine truth tagged to it.
Sometimes we see a film that makes us want to change ourselves and the world. We leave the theatre vowing to reconsider our entire existence in light of the values shown on screen. And yet by the following evening, after a day of meetings and aggravations, our cinematic experience is well on its way towards obliteration, just like so much else which once impressed us but which we soon enough came to discard: the night sky we saw on the motorway, the line of poetry a friend told us about, the sweet feelings we had after hanging out with a child…
There is arguably as much wisdom to be found in the novels of Tolstoy as in the Bible – but the big difference is you’re only meant to read Tolstoy once in your life, if that, whereas a committed Christian or Jew might go back to the Bible every day.
Portrait of William Wordsworth, Benjamin Robert, 1842
A ritual is a repeated, communal event connected up with private individual evolution and enlightenment. The secular world is deeply suspicious about, and inept with, rituals. It thinks of them as ‘fake’ and too bossy.
But religions have rituals for everything. All the key moments of life are ‘ritualised’: that is, they are put onto a public footing and given an outward shape.
Take the feeling of relief, gratitude and pleasure that it’s finally springtime. Lots of secular writers have written about this, Wordsworth for one. But the problem with Wordsworth is that – once university is past – we all forget to read him.
There’s no such danger of forgetting spring exists if you’re a committed Jew, however, because you have a ritual in its honour in your diary. This month sees the celebration of the ritual of Birkat Ilanot, which involves the faithful being asked to come out of their houses and go into the fields to say prayers from the Talmud at the foot of blossoming trees.
It’s only one of religion’s many beautiful and useful rituals. We need rituals to foster and protect emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without structure and active reminders, we will be too distracted and undisciplined to make time for.
The modern world has lots of interest in beautiful things: there are elegant boutiques, celebrated designers, fashionable artists, famous singers and lauded buildings… And simultaneously, there’s a high respect for important ideas and concepts.
But what’s lacking is any particular drive to try to unite these two elements: to unite beauty with truth, that is, to try to make the most important concepts and ideas attractive and seductive (and therefore far more effective) through the medium of art.
This is what religions have, for their part, excelled at doing. They’ve realised that if you put down an important idea on paper in somewhat pedestrian prose, it won’t have any lasting or mass impact. They’ve therefore, over their history, engaged the most skilled artists to wrap their ideas in the coating of beauty. They have asked Bach and Mozart to put the ideas to music, they have asked Titian and Botticelli to give the ideas a visual form, they’ve asked the best fashion designers to make nice looking clothes and they’ve asked the best architects to design the most impressive and moving buildings to give the ideas heft and permanence.
Sainte Chapelle, Paris
This is rarely done now. In the modern world, the people who make music are not particularly in touch with the people who have ideas. Therefore many songs, even the great ones, are rather banal at the level of theme, however catchy and inspiring they are in their melodies. Similarly, fashion is seen as an exciting but rather frivolous activity disconnected from anything as grand as changing the world. Serious people rarely think that what they’re wearing may have a grave impact on how what they’re saying is received – something that would deeply surprise a Catholic bishop getting his stunning robes ready for a service. And architects are now rarely invited to put up buildings just in order to glorify and beautify an idea – as the builders of Chartres Cathedral did.
The world isn’t being changed as effectively as it should be because many of us are forgetting to study the tips that can usefully be drawn from religion. We should use the history of religion to inform us about the role of repetition, ritual and beauty in the name of changing how things are.