The term “dissonance” can refer to a number of things, from properties of an interval or chord in music to a state of mental conflict to discomfort experienced in the midst of change. Recently, I have wondered about dissonance in the context of faith.
For the most part, we probably consider dissonance as something that should be avoided. When we find ourselves in a state of mental conflict, for example, our inclination is usually to resolve that conflict as quickly as we can. The same thing is true when we find ourselves uncomfortable as things are changing around us: we want to move through whatever the change is and acclimate ourselves to it as quickly as possible to rid ourselves of the discomfort. Or, alternatively, we might put a lot of energy in trying to stop the change, to make things return to a state in which we are no longer uncomfortable. The experience of dissonance in the context of faith prompts a similar reaction: most of us want it to end as soon as possible.
When we hear a sermon or a theology or an interpretation that doesn’t square with our own sense of things, or our own experience of the divine, we can find ourselves conflicted or uncomfortable. When a cherished liturgy or spiritual practice, or some other aspect of our experience of our faith community, changes, we can experience that same sort of dissonance, finding ourselves newly uncomfortable in a space that we perhaps had looked to for comfort. When people of faith experience these kinds of dissonances, there are three ways in which they tend to work them out. The first is to leave their faith community — and perhaps even their faith — behind. They may continue to have a lively spirituality, but they no longer live that out in connection with any particular faith community. Or, they may jettison the spiritual life entirely. The second type of response is to switch from one community to another. People may enter a period of what is often called “church shopping” as they test out different communities to see if they can occupy them more comfortably, without the dissonance they had been experiencing. Sometimes, people who react to dissonance in this way end up with a kind of nomadic spiritual existence, as communities which had seemed comfortable to them cease to be so over time. People will move from community to community, always hoping that in the new community, nothing will happen to lead them into a sense of internal conflict or discomfort. The third type of response is, in my experience, the most rare: it is to remain in the dissonance, facing it head on, and seeking to work through it by seeking to discover its source and its meaning.
In many ways, I think any spiritual life or participation in any faith community is supposed to include the experience of dissonance. Indeed, it is perhaps where people of faith are supposed to live most of the time. One of the truths that lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that life itself is an experience of dissonance, because we are meant to perceive that life as we experience it is not the life that God intends us to be living in certain important respects. The prophetic tradition in Judaism is a ministry designed to create dissonance by pointing out the ways in which people and communities are mis-aligned with the dream and call of God. In Christianity, Jesus offers the image of the kingdom of God to point to God’s call to live a transformed life that reflects the love of God. Indeed, it is the case with all the religious traditions that they perceive a dissonance between what is and what might be or should be. One could argue that it is that perception of dissonance itself that gives rise to religious traditions in the first place.
All of this is to say that we should be cautious about running from that place of dissonance when we find ourselves in it. Our traditions teach us that these places are like the wildernesses of the Bible: places that seem desolate, yet places where we are most likely to encounter the divine. It is at these “pinch points” in our lives of faith that we may find the most challenge but also the most growth. As people of faith, we are called to live in tension. And while it may sometimes feel exhausting, it is often within that tension that the most creative energy is to be found.