Last month I was at a post-commencement party, at which the wife of our college president commented on how many degree recipients milled about during the three-hour outdoor ceremony. Some had to use the restroom, to be sure, but others decamped to talk to family and friends rather than sit through the awarding of degrees to over 1,500 graduates. Having sat through commencement myself, I know the temptation and take note of colleagues who bring books to while away the time. We all treated commencement the same way we might have treated a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
The experience contrasted greatly with a wedding I officiated in May. The couple asked me to invite the guests to put away their cameras and smartphones and not only “attend” the wedding but also “attend to” what was going on. No texting or tweeting; be quiet and stationary, and stay focused.
Over time, humans have learned how, under certain conditions, to sit still and give someone or something undivided attention. Such learning, though, runs counter to who we instinctively are. We are hardwired to pick up the slightest distraction in our environment and to move toward or away from that distraction. The popularity of events such as Wimbledon and the World Cup reminds us that most of us feel far more at home in stadium culture—getting up, moving around, making noise, attending off and on—than in sanctuary culture.
Beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better.
As I said, many of us at commencement participated in stadium culture, examples of which range from the two-year-old flower girl at the wedding, who sat and stood wherever she wished and made quiet noises to herself, to our behaviors at a rock concert or a filming of the Voice, where audience members are expected to be loud and active. Sanctuary culture, in contrast, finds us relatively quiet, making sound when we are invited to do so (for example, congratulating the bride and groom after the kiss or applauding a performance at a recital) and—above all—staying in one place and not moving around.
Both cultures benefit from technology. Dimmed lights in an auditorium and spotlights on a stage signal sanctuary culture; devices used to photograph and instantly disseminate the experience return us to stadium culture. Both cultures have long been with us, with lectures and libraries and sacred liturgies from christenings to funerals favoring one culture, and with sporting events and marketplaces and secular liturgies from bacchanals to barhopping favoring the other.
Technological advances that help us enter into sanctuary culture are mostly architectural: Spaces that limit auditory and visual distractions and focus attention in one direction come mostly through design, though we speak of natural cathedrals such as the Grand Canyon. And though architecture can assist stadium culture—think of the new soccer palaces in Brazil—the chief technological feature that makes stadium culture possible is multi-directional stimuli, from visual and auditory to tactile and olfactory (think of a dance club with its lights and sounds and other sensations). In short, technology can concentrate attention and distribute attention; it can help us meditate and be more inwardly focused as well as to help us mediate and be more outwardly focused.
In our multitasking world, it should be clear that the preponderance of technology today skews us in the direction of stadium culture. Broadcasting sanctuary culture demands the constant stimulation of multiple camera angles, a concession to stadium culture. Moreover, it is not enough to experience something; I tweet, I blog, I post, I share, therefore I am.
Yes, sharing is an important component of sanctuary culture for those who participate in it in the moment, for those who are present. But our current world doesn’t give us as many opportunities to participate in sanctuary culture as it does stadium culture, to truly be somewhere and only there. Add to this the fact that many of us are avoiding sanctuary culture in our choices of activities, preferring to be in many places at once.
Consider the recent Pew Research Center report, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” which has received a great deal of coverage for how it quantifies the gap between “consistent conservatives” and “consistent liberals”: “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” If you dig deeper, you read about lifestyle preferences that distinguish liberals and conservatives. One of the widest chasms that separates the two groups emerges from how they view art and theater. “And while 73% of consistent liberals say it’s important to them to live near art museums and theaters, just 23% of consistent conservatives agree....”
I teach music that historically has relied on people being able to enter into sanctuary culture, so this liberal-conservative divide disturbs me. I also marvel at the conservative Christian obsession with praise teams and rock music, which renders many evangelical services today more like stadium-style entertainment than sanctuary-style reflection. Religion by itself is no guarantor of sanctuary culture.
Finding and expanding sanctuary culture is mostly a matter of intention. The buzzword of the day—mindfulness—moves toward the center of sanctuary culture. Pausing long enough to reflect on what we’re hearing or seeing or doing throughout our lives moves us toward sanctuary culture. Resisting the temptation to document our experiences through selfies or tweets allows us to try on sanctuary culture. And being with and around others who are actively pausing and consciously experiencing something they know to be wondrous—be it nature or music or liturgy or art or a wedding or a commencement—brings us into sanctuary culture.
And beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better. And if the history of lectures and libraries and liturgies shows us anything, the deliberation inherent in sanctuary culture, more than the carnivalesque nature of stadium culture, holds the key to make our world better than it is today.