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A Comment on Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time


(presented 12 May 2001 at “The Jazz of Life” symposium, Trinity College, University of Toronto)

A Comment on Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time


Nowhere does Prof. Begbie attempt a “natural” theology of music that holds up music as a source of revelation, the nature of music thereby acquainting us with the nature of God. The book, rather, holds up everywhere Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, as the event in which we are made the beneficiaries of God’s redemptive and creative gifts through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time the book nowhere submits to the older (i.e., late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century) notion of Kulturprotestantismus. In Kulturprotestantismus, supported by many thinkers in one era of Germany’s intellectual history, the kingdom of God is understood in terms of developments within history, the culmination of which is a cultural achievement whose genuine richness only the philistine would ever deny. Yet as world-occurrence was soon to make manifest, the richest cultural achievements are not the kingdom of God, are not revelatory, have no power to redeem (whatever else they might do as a creaturely good), but rather can be and have been co-opted by powers that even the non-charismatic among us have described as demonic.

Prof. Begbie’s book aims, rather, at theologizing through music. Since music tells us more about time than does any other cultural phenomenon, it theologizes specifically through a discussion of time as an essential feature of music. And by probing time in its significance to music, it discusses the theological significance of that temporality which is essential to the entire created order and which God has pronounced “good” without qualification.

In my work as a teacher of theology I have found that students bring with them several misunderstandings that can be traced to their assumption that Plato, particularly in his discussion of time and eternity, is an ally of Christians. The same misunderstandings, I have found, haunt the parishioners whose minister I was in the course of decades of pastoral work. Prof. Begbie’s book highlights these misunderstandings as rooted in a flight from time; specifically, a refusal to cherish the necessity and goodness of the temporality of the created order. I list several of them now.

[1] In his homooousion, where Father and Son are said to possess the same rather than merely similar substance, Athanasius distinguishes between “God in the form of the human” and “God as human”. Students put forward “God in the form of the human” as an affirmation of the Incarnation when in fact it is a denial, God now merely masquerading as human. The Incarnation is reduced to the illustrative, illustrating a truth that lies behind it, where even the “illustration” is dysfunctional because deceptive. To speak accurately of the Incarnation, “God as human”, however, commits us to the temporality of God. On account of the Platonic notion that haunts the church everywhere (in part because it lurks in the Fathers everywhere), temporality and eternality are deemed mutually exclusive. Since God’s eternality is never denied, God’s temporality has to be. The consequent denials are legion, not the least of which is the denial that God suffers.

[2] Since eternity pertains to our ultimate blessing, and eternity is commonly understood as timelessness rather than as fulfilled time, time is suspected as an impediment to that blessing. This flight from temporality entails a flight from the body and its attendant earthliness, not to mention its attendant earthiness. In contrasting a doctrine of creation with Plato’s Timaeus, I set the students the exercise of distinguishing between the erotic and pornographic. Few are able to articulate the distinction; fewer still appear to have the intra-psychic freedom to acknowledge that the erotic is a God-ordained good and is to be received with thanksgiving. More generally, temporal existence pertaining to any of the senses is deemed inferior to a realm of pure spirit (so-called) that has to do with intelligibility. (When, for instance, I ask students about the role of the sense of smell, both literal and metaphorical, in scripture, they are startled to learn that scripture discusses it at all.) While students suspect sin’s distortion everywhere in the created order, they make an exception for intelligibility, thereby indicating the extent to which rationalism has supplanted a biblical understanding of revelation.

[3] A confusion is made between temporal existence and fallen existence. On this point Prof. Begbie discusses Augustine at length. Augustine, however, is not alone. In the theological turbulence of Reformation-era Lutheranism, the gnesio-Lutherans, represented by Matthias Illyricus Flacius and opposed by Philip Melanchthon, maintained that in the wake of the fall humankind is essentially depraved. Paul Tillich says as much himself inasmuch as he equates existence with estrangement. If sin is humankind’s essence, then plainly the fallen creature is no longer human at all, the image of God having been effaced rather than merely defaced. Similarly, if sin is the essence of humankind, then redemption can only render us non-human. When Prof. Begbie opines that many people aren’t “at home” in time [71], his assertion is only confirmed when theologians as diverse as Augustine, Flacius and Tillich exemplify a common confusion.

[4] Students espouse an organic notion of the kingdom of God that borrows from the liberal myth of progress. History is deemed to progress, and the kingdom of God is the crown and completion of the progress. Oddly, those students who are most hostile to any notion of biological evolution (for which there is evidence) are often quickest to endorse a notion of historical progress (for which there is no evidence), thinking that faith must affirm a historical inevitability that is benign. Lost here is the biblical category of promise and fulfilment, wherein promise and fulfilment, alike events in time arising from the act of a person, alike depend on God’s grace.

[5] Most distressingly, in the wake of their denial of the temporality of God students espouse a notion of God’s sovereignty that equates sovereignty with sheer power, sheer arbitrariness. Here it is maintained that if God is truly God, then God can do anything at all, anything he wills. Never considered is “What is it that God wills? How is what he wills related to who he is? What is meant by ‘power’?” (Students are always surprised to learn that power is the capacity to achieve purpose.) Most tellingly, on account of their religious environment, students are reluctant to admit that we humans have no fitting idea at all as to what God can or cannot do. We know only what God has done: in his Son, for our sakes, he has given himself up to suffering, degradation, and the death of profoundest self-alienation.

While the cross has many meanings at many levels, it surely means at least that there is no limit to God’s vulnerability; the resurrection in turn means not that vulnerability has been left behind but rather that there is no limit to the effectiveness of God’s vulnerability. Sovereignty has to be understood in terms of the triumph of a vulnerability limitless with respect to God’s self-exposure and protracted in time.

Since Incarnation, cross and resurrection occur in time, plainly time is affirmed as real; time is the theatre of God’s self-disclosure and self-bestowal; time is the venue of that obedience whereby we “glorify God in our bodies”, and of that instance of obedience which is self-forgetful exultation and praise. Here the students need another book from Begbie; namely, Theology, Dance and Time.

To grasp the temporality that Prof. Begbie probes relentlessly is indeed to find, as he declared, our theologizing assisted. When he speaks of the interplay between the temporal processes of music and the temporal processes that riddle human existence in its multidimensionality, from the “micro” of heartbeat to the “macro” of the change of seasons, I am reminded of a remark I heard from violinist Isaac Stern when last he spoke in Toronto. A promising young violinist played for Stern and admitted she couldn’t get the phrasing of the music right. As often as she re-phrased her playing it wasn’t right. Stern told her to sing the part. “I have a poor voice and I don’t want to sing”, she told him. “Sing the violin music anyway”, he told her. She did, and the phrasing fell into place immediately. “You see”, continued the old master, “when you sing you have to breathe. Breathing is a natural temporal event; the breathing that is part of singing will acquaint you with the natural phrasing — the timing — of the violin music.” The point that Stern made about the relation between the timing and rhythm of breathing, a human occurrence whose “realism” no one denies, and the realism of the phrasing of the music; this relation, an intertwining of music with the temporality of the world at large and also with the temporality of the incarnate one through whom and for whom all things have been made; this matrix I found discussed most profitably throughout the book.

The chapter “In God’s Good Time” provided a framework and an articulation for so many matters that I had had in mind and heart for years yet for which I hadn’t been given useable tools. The first section in this chapter discusses the manner in which time demonstrates that there can be ordered change, that change need not imply chaos. Change is chaos, or at least the threat of chaos, of course, where the frozen fixity or immobility of Greek metaphysics is ascendant, the Greek eternal being the unchanging. Yet according to Isaiah the creator of time asks us, “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” Jesus expects his people to be able to read “the signs of the times.” And discernment of the genuinely new, the new-at-God’s-hand, is the principal gift of the Spirit in the book of Acts.

“Taking time”, the second part of this chapter, recalled for me the time that Jesus spent repeatedly, deliberately, in the wilderness, without which the time he spent elsewhere would have been fruitless. And since “natural processes have an inherent time-structure”, according to Barbara Adams whom Begbie quotes, I felt myself vindicated for the time I am free to “waste”, as it were, instead of having to fill up needed leisure time with something that is deemed to be productive and therefore not actually leisure at all. Time spent waiting recalled for me the scriptural connection between waiting and watching. For God’s people waiting is never “waiting around”, loitering; still it is waiting. Not stated in the book but presupposed nonetheless is the fact that the New Testament word for “wait” combines the two concepts of tension and endurance. Tension, of course, together with resolution, goes to the heart of music, as does endurance, since music, unlike fine art, inherently entails protracted temporal process.

“Temporal differentiation” found in even the simplest music, attests the marvellous variety in the creation and the wisdom needed to avoid forcing “our time” on everything and everyone.

The “Limited duration” of music is one with the limited duration of all creaturely existence. Limited duration is inherent in finitude, finitude as such being not evil but rather an instance of transience. Music bespeaks fruitful transience; i.e., transience that doesn’t reflect a resented futility but rather a welcome transition at God’s hand. As a pastor who stood at deathbeds for thirty years I came to grasp what the writer of Ecclesiastes meant when he wrote, without any hint of bitterness or futility, that in God’s good ordering there is indeed a time to die.

In the chapter “Resolution and Salvation” once again I found an articulation for and exposition of the truth that the “time” of anticipatory yet delayed “closures” within a piece of music points to eschatological anticipation, surely the ultimate “hyperbar” in Christian understanding and living. Our eschatological anticipation is fraught with partial fulfilment “on the way” to the final fulfilment, each partial fulfilment serving to quicken steadfastness, to warn against a premature identification of hope with sight, yet also to reassure us of the substance of hope and the imminence of its appearing.

All my formal music training was classical; only recently have I come to appreciate jazz. For this reason the chapter on improvisation was the most moving part of the book for me, specifically the understanding of improvisation as “giving and giving back.” Prone as we are to “thingifying” (or trying to “thingify”) all that pertains to persons, the mutuality of “giving and giving back” that presupposes the irreducibility of persons found me pondering not only Begbie’s discussion of Romans 9-11 but also the work of a thinker whom the church needs to recover, Martin Buber.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger maintained that language is the “house of being.” To say the same thing differently, being is a function of language. To be sure, Heidegger would never deny the converse: language is a function of being, albeit in the relatively small sphere wherein words name or describe objects. Vastly greater, however, is the sphere wherein being is a function of language. Here the force of language isn’t that we have more words in our vocabulary and can show off more readily; rather, expanded language creates a world and admits us to a world that is vastly richer than the world inhabited by someone with meagre language. Here language doesn’t describe an already-existing world but rather gives rise to a universe imperceptible to those for whom language remains only a function of being.

As I read Prof. Begbie’s book I began to wonder if it couldn’t be said, in the spirit of Heidegger, that metre and rhythm are another “house of being.” Admittedly, temporality as such is common to the created order. Still, I can’t help wondering if our awareness of the fact, nature and ubiquity of the “rhythm over metre” that is exemplified in music and riddles life; I can’t help wondering if one’s awareness of this doesn’t facilitate an ever-expanding universe we should otherwise never know and enjoy.

Victor Shepherd, Tyndale Seminary, 12th May 2001