Saturday, June 26, 2010
In Praise of Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God"
One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual gasp. We constantly push our thought to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, since, like religion at its best, music marks the "limits of reason."* Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be "definitively" rational. It is the most corporeal of the arts: it is produced by breath, voice, horsehair, shells, guts, and skins and reaches "resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness."** But it is also highly cerebral, requiring the balance of intricately complex energies and form-relations, and is intimately connected with mathematics. Yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence. Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike, and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one. Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. "It is decisively the fact the language does have frontiers," explains the British critic George Steiner, "that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours."***Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof. It is "brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression."**** Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.
*Denys Turner, Faith reason and the Existence of God (Cambridge, U.K. 2004), p. 217
**George Steiner, Real Presences: Is there ZAnything in What We Say? (London, 1989), p.217
*** George Steiner, Language and Silence (London, 1967) pp 58-59
****Steiner, Real Presences, p.217
The inexpressible otherness, transcendence, meaning surpassing and enfolding ours...a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof...and it is our relationship to this that extends our lives and our imaginations and our hopelessness into the realm of hope.
Even for the empiricists, this is where hope and dream and God exist!