The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Keyby Vigen Guroian
In the Orthodox Christian faith the elements of liturgy, scripture, hymnody, and iconography are the instruments or "voices" of a melody of faith. Here Vigen Guroian presents the fundamental beliefs of Orthodox Christianity through the metaphor of music. Often drawing on his personal religious experience, Guroian weaves together the themes of creation and
In the Orthodox Christian faith the elements of liturgy, scripture, hymnody, and iconography are the instruments or "voices" of a melody of faith. Here Vigen Guroian presents the fundamental beliefs of Orthodox Christianity through the metaphor of music. Often drawing on his personal religious experience, Guroian weaves together the themes of creation and new creation, beginning and end, sin and holiness, Incarnation and deification, sacrifice and salvation. Guroian explores the dogmatic foundation of this rich faith in six chapters, or "movements." Through discussing Syrian, Armenian, Byzantine, and Russian iconography and Gospel illuminations illustrated by icons and Armenian miniatures he further reveals how Orthodox Christianity expresses theology as much in art as through language. As a whole, Guroian's Melody of Faithbeautifully captures the spirit of Orthodox Christianity and takes readers to the theological heart of the Orthodox faith.
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THE MELODY OF FAITHTheology in an Orthodox Key
By VIGEN GUROIAN
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2010 Vigen Guroian
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Litany of Creation
In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life - to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.
Paul Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World
A year ago, one cool September morning, I set off for the Blue Ridge, not far from my home in Culpeper, Virginia, to meet my grown daughter, Victoria, at Old Rag Mountain. We hiked the eight-mile circuit up to the top of the mountain, scaled the jagged stone outcropping for which Old Rag is well-known, and descended to the verdant river valley on the mountain's northeast side. The trek took the better part of a day, andwe came down fromOld Rag as the sun was setting.
The last leg of the circuit leads on to a broad fire road that equestrians use. As we looked over to Old Rag on our right, we watched the late afternoon light retreat into shadows. Darkness descended on the dense deciduous forest as the sun sank behind the mountain. The contours of the ridge were drawn dramatically, like the vaulting of a great cathedral. Victoria and I were gripped with awe and appreciation for the beauty and sheer grandeur of these surroundings. We commented to one another that no human artifice could compare to what nature - nay, God - had laid before us. The songbirds were in chorus and seemed to voice our thanksgiving. And we agreed that what we were experiencing at that moment was truly a gift of faith. "Prayer," says John of Kronstadt, "is a state of continual gratitude." What lay before us might quite naturally evoke gratitude in the human heart, but to whom do people without a belief in God express their gratitude? "To whom will he [man] be thankful, to whom will he sing the hymn ... without God[?]," asks Dmitri Karamazov of The Brothers Karamazov.
My thoughts turned to the book of Genesis. From the opening verses of Genesis through to the books of Psalms and the Prophets, the Old Testament envisions the whole of Creation, heaven and earth, as a vast temple in which the people gather in liturgy to give praise and honor to the Maker and thank him for the beauty and goodness of his Creation. God lays the foundations (Ps. 104:5), sets up the pillars (1 Sam. 2:8), stretches out the canopy (Isa. 40:22), and frames the windows (Mal. 3:10). He is enthroned within the temple, as heavenly and earthly choirs glorify his name.
The first chapter of Genesis introduces the awe-inspiring mystery that Creation springs from a divine litany of which God is both celebrant and respondent, so that the liturgy of Creation is truly a divine liturgy in which we may participate and sing "Amen":
God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.... And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together ... and let the dry land appear." And it was so.... And God saw that it was good.... And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds...." And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds.... And God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:3-4, 9-10, 24-25, RSV)
Ancient Israel not only envisioned Creation as God's temple, but also built its houses of worship as microcosms of the universe. The Hebrew temple incorporated symbols of all the elements and forces of the cosmos. The temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem "holds down the forces of chaos and sustains the first action of creation," says Douglas Knight. "Zion is the foundation, cornerstone, and navel" of the world. The sacrifice and the smoke of incense symbolize God's presence. God meets humanity in the temple, as heaven and earth are there united.
Hymnody and song fill and finish the temple. Indeed, in a real sense, hymnody "builds" the temple. The Hebrew Scripture is replete with music, especially in the great treasure chest of the Psalter. Its songs for voice, sometimes for instrument also, belong to the temple and are as vital to it as the stones with which it is constructed. The liturgy of Creation continues in the temple. God's people are its voice: "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being" (Ps. 104:33, RSV).
* * *
In the Darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing.... One moment there had been nothing but darkness; the next a thousand, thousand points of light....
C. S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew
No one who has read C. S. Lewis's Narnia books can forget the scene early in The Magician's Nephew in which the lordly lion Aslan sings the Narnian world into existence. With his marvelous literary invention, Lewis captures a truth about God and Creation of which theologians who build systems of doctrine often lose sight: that Creation is not only harmonious but musical, and not just musical, either, but a sacred music, a hymnody. The poet hears this melody and sings it out:
... Heark! In what Rings And Hymning Circulations the quick world Awakes and sings! The rising winds, And falling springs, Birds, beasts, all things Adore him in their kinds. Thus all is hurl'd
In sacred Hymnes and Order, the great Chime And symphony of nature. Prayer is The world in tune, A spirit-voyce, And vocall joyes, Whose Eccho is heav'ns blisse.
Thus writes the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan in his poem The Morning-watch.
In his Inscriptions on the Psalms, St. Gregory of Nyssa of the fourth century muses that the whole cosmos "is a kind of musical harmony whose musician is God." In a sensory world of time and space, we experience the temple and the song as separate and distinct. Even so, we can gain a sense of how in eternity temple and song are one. Within great cathedrals, built to acoustical perfection, the music echoes and resonates throughout. This leaves the impression that the stone itself is emitting the sound and the sound constitutes the stone.
Unlike Aslan's song, God's litany of Creation is inaudible. Nevertheless, God "plays" his song on Creation: let us think of Creation as his musical ensemble. The matins service of the Armenian Orthodox Church includes a week's cycle of hymns that celebrate God's acts of creation as recorded in Genesis. The Sunday hymn recalls the four primal elements - fire, earth, air, and water - that God has ordered into a harmony. The ancients believed that these four elements are opposites (or at least initially in contradiction to one another), such that, for example, air is hot and dry, whereas water is cold and wet. The hymn acknowledges this, while rejoicing, nonetheless, over the harmony that God has made from these seemingly antipodal elements:
In the beginning the Word newly created the heaven of heavens out of nothing, and the celestial hosts of incorporeal intelligible watcher angels, and the sensible elements contrary one to another and yet agreeing, by which the ineffable Trinity is ever glorified.
The ancients and the medievals called this harmony the "music of the spheres." Dante hears the music as he first enters heaven in the opening Canto of The Paradisio. "The song of God's glory," writes St. Gregory of Nyssa, is "produced by ... a rhythm and composed of every creature with different qualities." The universe in all of its multifariousness is "an established order, ... a well-arranged musical harmony" constituting an "ineffable hymn of God's power."
* * *
"Beauty will save the world."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
English translations of the book of Genesis render the Hebrew word tob as "good," as in, "And God saw that it was good." Nevertheless, the meaning of tob is broader than the English "good." Tob also connotes "beautiful." Indeed, the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament - which is the text that the early church read and used liturgically - chooses not the Greek agathos ("good") to translate tob, but rather kalos ("beautiful").
Kalos may connote good in so much as what is beautiful, what is in conformity to God's thought and purpose, is good. Kalos normally refers to some "thing," or "object," like a statue, that is attractive to the eye. It is debated to what degree pictorial art played a role in ancient Israel's worship, but it is certainly safe to say that Israel excelled in vocal art and that both its material and vocal art reflected an appreciation of the beauty of Creation.
But not even kalos captures all the connotations of tob. For tob also connotes encounter, meeting, and response. God says, "Let there be," or "Let this happen." And when God "sees" what he has brought into existence, God joyfully responds. God breaks into song and proclaims, "How good are the things that I have made! How appropriate! How fitting! How beautiful they are!"
God is not an art critic who makes aesthetic judgments; nor is God a philosopher who issues metaphysical definitions or ethical decrees. God is more like a cantor who chants his Creation into existence and rejoices everlastingly over its beautiful harmony. His song continues, and its melody moves and inspires humankind to restore beauty and harmony to a Creation that is fallen and misshapen.
* * *
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.
Revelation 22:13, NKJV
The book of Genesis numbers six days over which God calls the whole Creation ensemble into existence, and on a seventh day, God rests. If one asks where or when to locate these days, Genesis answers, "In the beginning." Yet we cannot attribute duration to God, neither in terms of days that are consecutive nor otherwise. God is eternal, infinite, and immutable. Likewise, "Beginning" in the ordinary sense, as the start of a day or a year or a century, does not apply to God anymore than "End," at least not in the temporal sense. Rather, "I am the Alpha and the Omega" is emblematic of eternity, or that which transcends temporality. Any attempt to correlate or conform this language of Genesis and Revelation with the human experience of time or with scientific cosmology is bound to founder on the shoals of a profound mystery which the ancient authors respected and did not try to explain.
"Day" and "evening," "beginning" and "end" are tropes, figures of speech, that the ancient Hebrew poet and the author of Revelation employed in order to account for both this wondrous Creation ensemble that God has brought into existence and the experience that all things temporal have a beginning and an end.
Since time commences when the world comes into existence, Genesis's "In the beginning" cannot refer to a temporal moment but "marks," rather, the emergence of some thing new. In his theological discourse on the Work of Six Days, titled in Greek the Hexaemeron, St. Basil the Great of the fourth century explains, "The beginning of the road is not yet the road, and that of the house not yet the house; so the beginning of time is not yet time." Neither is it possible to divide the beginning in two or three, and so on, because this leads to an infinity of divisions. "It is ridiculous to imagine a beginning of a beginning," states Basil. Thus, when Scripture says, "In the beginning God created," this teaches us "that at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant."
"Creation is continual," writes Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. "If we are to be accurate when speaking of creation, we should not use the past tense but the continuous present.... Creation is not an event in the past, but a relationship in the present. If God did not continue to exert his creative will at every moment [from all eternity], the universe would immediately lapse into non-being." In the words of St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscowin the nineteenth century: "All creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of the divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness."
Yet even such words as unceasing and continuous can mislead when we apply them to God's act of Creation, since they are suggestive of duration-of past, present, and future time - which we cannot attribute to God any more than we can ascribe bodily or spatial dimension to God. "All things are immediate to God," says St. Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century. "Time for me is fractured in this way,/with some things earlier, others later; but for God it all comes in one,/and the great Godhead engulfs it in his arms."
Likewise, the end of time, or the close of this aeon, is not a mere temporal event. No clock will mark it; no history book or scientific journal will record it. Where or when time ceases there simply is eternity. Time will end, but Creation will not cease to exist. God "created all things that they might have being" (Wis. 1:14, NEB). "The form of this [present] world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31, NKJV). But Creation will not vanish. It will, instead, come into another form, its own creaturely shape of eternity, in which there will be no counting of days and nights (Rev. 22:5). In his novel The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner writes, "Clocks slay time.... Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."
"The word of the Lord endures forever" (1 Peter 1:25, NKJV). The image of Creation is eternally "before" God. It does not pass from his "sight." Likewise, his liturgy continues into the New Creation, a "new song" (Rev. 5:9-13, NKJV) of Life that men and angels sing together, glorifying God.
I think that Christians today spend far too much time and effort trying to prove and justify the truth of the Bible's and the church's teachings about Creation with respect to the most recent scientific theories on the origins, formation, and constitution of the universe. The search for such justifications and "proofs" may be intriguing, even at times edifying, but this does not draw us nearer to God or to that "peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7, NKJV). For what does St. Paul say about this? "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God" (Phil. 4:6, NKJV).
What is more, endeavors to present a doctrine of Creation or a theory of cosmology in synchrony with scientific theory risk the introduction of serious misconceptions about God and his relation to the Creation. Consider, for example, a belief many hold that God is the cause of Creation. But God is no more the cause of Creation than are the so-called laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. God does not "cause" Creation as striking a match ignites a flame. God does not "make" the world as a bird builds its nest. Nor do we salvage our notion of God as cause of everything by describing God as the First Cause or Prime Mover that initiates the great sequence of causes and effects that science calls Nature.
On occasion, theologians speak of God as "cause," with the qualification that "cause" is emptied of its ordinary connotations of temporality and spatiality or necessity and determinacy; but this is to say no more than that divine agency is analytically precedent (first in order) to Creation. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume argued that what we call causality is merely our habituated expectation, based upon repeated experience, that certain events follow certain patterns and that these patterns will repeat themselves. Hume scandalized religious and nonreligious alike with his radical skepticism. Yet his observation is a useful place to start when speaking of God and God's relation to Creation. We cannot get behind the cosmic event in order to record or verify how it began. Scientists talk about a "Big Bang" by which the universe began. This intrigues some. "So this is the scientist's way of saying, 'In the beginning,'" some conclude. But no one has seen the Big Bang or heard it. And no one will. And none can prove or disprove that there was not some thing that was before it. The Big Bang is a hypothesis, also a metaphor, not a proof that Genesis is scientifically true.
Excerpted from THE MELODY OF FAITH by VIGEN GUROIAN Copyright © 2010 by Vigen Guroian. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies in OrthodoxChristianity at the University of Virginia inCharlottesville. He tends a large perennial and vegetablegarden with his wife, June, in Culpeper, Virginia. Hisbooks include Inheriting Paradise: Meditations onGardening, Life's Living toward Dying (both Eerdmans),and Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic StoriesAwaken a Child's Moral Imagination (Oxford).
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