Recently, I've spent a fair amount of time exploring this website, dedicated to phenomenology. Yesterday I stumbled across an essay with the intriguing title "The Experience of Singing Together in Christian Worship." One aspect of the "singing together" experience that is explored in the essay is the potential for the act of singing to bring together the members of a worship community. This vignette captures it well:
"When I enter the chruch, I see that most people in the pews are sitting and talking to their friends, probably getting caught up on the news of each other's lives. It is an interesting sight and sound; a sort of gian living room with people relating plitely to each other, their voices creating a gentle rumble. At 11:00, the worship leader announces, 'Let's stand and sing our praises to God,' and the musical introduction begins. It's amazing the change in atmosphere as the chatter stops and we begin to focus. One kind of sound stops and another begins as we start to sing. The individual conversations stop and we sing the opening hymn as one great, united proclamation."
As I read that description of one worshiper's experience, I immediately thought of a similar thing I have witnessed on my own campus. We are a faith-based institution and, as is common among institutions of this type, we have a weekly devotional service (Tuesdays @ 11:05 a.m.) where the campus community comes together to hear a speaker or view some kind of cultural performance. One thing that has always fascinated me is the way these meetings begin. Just like a church bustles with conversation and action before the beginning of a service, the large building where BYU's devotionals are held is alive with students pouring in the doors and lively conversations. However, when the clock hits five after the hour and it is time to formally start the meeting, there is no formal pronouncement from anyone (e.g. "Let us begin," etc.). Rather, the organist begins playing, the text to that morning's hymn appears on a video screen in the center of the assembly hall, and we begin to sing. It's a remarkably simple and effective way of focusing the attention of a fairly large group (I would guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 - 4,000 students & faculty most Tuesday mornings).
There is something selfless about hymn singing in a congregation of worshipers. We shift attention from our individual concerns, and join together in singing a hymn we haven't chosen (unless you happen to be the person who has that assignment). We each contribute in our own unique way, but our voices come together to form a unified chorus. And, at times, it can be an incredibly sublime and uplifting experience for individuals as well as the collective group. Perhaps the selfless nature of the act has something to do with this.
As I read the essay I found myself wondering whether their is anything that happens on a college campus (aside from faith-based institutions who sponsor devotionals or "chapel hour" as it was referred to at my first alma mater). Academic institutions have an inherently selfish tone in many respects. Students pursue their own academic majors, faculty members conduct their own research, and each department generally has its own set of concerns and challenges. At times, there is very little drawing us together as a campus community.
Part of me wonders whether this is much of a concern for academia. Is it even true that one of the purposes of an academic institution is or should be to draw its members together? That's a question that can only be answered by individual institutions. But, if unifying students, faculty members, and others on a campus is one of our aims, we should take care to find ways of doing so on a regular basis. And, whatever we come up with should be something that invites us to give up a bit of our selves and join with others in working towards a common goal.