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Music and Theology

Music and Theology

by Don E. Saliers

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Music and Theology will be a volume in the Horizons in Theology series. It will offer a relatively brief but highly engaging essay on the major concerns and questions regarding Music as it intersects with theology—past and present. Don Saliers is a senior scholar in this field, one who is able to address in a clear and concise style the scope and contours of this


Music and Theology will be a volume in the Horizons in Theology series. It will offer a relatively brief but highly engaging essay on the major concerns and questions regarding Music as it intersects with theology—past and present. Don Saliers is a senior scholar in this field, one who is able to address in a clear and concise style the scope and contours of this question as it relates to theological inquiry and application. He will sketch the nature and significance of the subject, the history of reflection, the current lines of inquiry, and his own contribution to the discussion. The scope of the essays cannot be exhaustive and completely interdisciplinary. Instead, Saliers will open the broader lines of discussion in suggestive, evocative, and programmatic ways. The Horizons in Theology serve as supplements and secondary required texts in colleges and seminaries, as well as the interested nonspecialist reader.

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Abingdon Press
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Horizons in Theology Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)

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Music and Theology

By Don E. Saliers

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-1944-8


Sound, Synaesthesis, and Spirituality

Each of the human senses plays a constituent role in the formation and expression of a theologically determined spirituality. In most historic theistic traditions, seeing and hearing have a primacy of place in awakening, sustaining, and deepening awareness of the divine–human relationship. In many key disciplines of spiritual practice, tensions between what is seen and not seen, between what is heard and not heard are deliberately heightened. So, for example, in devotional practices before religious icons, sight may seem primary. Such prayer involves learning to "read" the icon as a revelatory image by which a person participates in the mystery of the divine life. For the one praying, a window into spiritual reality opens, and the person receives the "gaze" of the theological mystery given in the icon. But the immediate conditions for the gaze include touch and tactility in the devotional kiss, and the kinetic aspects of bowing and reverencing before the image. The interrelation of these senses in the full-orbed devotional practices with icons forms what we might call a synaesthetic matrix. The term "synaesthetic" refers to the simultaneous blending or convergence of two or more senses, hence a condition of heightened perception.

Synaesthesia is the multi-sensory receptivity of what is real. Such a matrix is found in nearly all religious traditions. This is, as we shall see, especially at the heart of ritual and liturgical participation. For Christianity this characteristically begins in sound: "faith comes by hearing."

Traditions of communal spiritual practice employ a variety of sounds to awaken, elicit, and sustain particular states of consciousness. Consider the bell in Hindu temples, Buddhism, shamanism, and Christianity. Drums and cymbals, the shofar and the trumpet sound and signify a range of religious sensibility in Jewish tradition, attested to in the Hebrew psalms. The sense of taste is prominent in all food rituals, from Hindu puja to Jewish Passover to the Christian Eucharist. Yet "tasting" can be the opening to "seeing," as in the psalm refrain, "O taste and see that the LORD is good" (Psalm 34:8). Could this be analogous to occasions in which we experience "seeing the divine" in and through sound—especially when music and text combine in ritual context? Such "tasting and seeing" require having in mind both "goodness" and having heard of this "Lord."

These initial points remind us at the outset of the ubiquity of human senses across the wide spectrum of religious and spiritual traditions. Even the most severe of interior practices presupposes the role human sense experience plays in spiritual discipline. At the same time one rarely finds one sensory mode standing alone. So in "live" musical experience we both see the musicians making the music and communicating with one another as well as hear the music. Ascetic bodily practices of restraint concerning images, whether visual or acoustical, alter the language of the senses, not only to remove distraction, but also to unveil that which transcends the ordinary content of sense experience. In fact, the discourse of spirituality characteristically speaks of another kind of sense—a religious or contemplative "sense" as a way of understanding reality and oneself. Cultivation of such a "spiritual sense" by which the divine glory and grace is perceived is often the aim of practices known as spiritual disciplines.

Still, one of the primary clusters of sense so crucial to much Christian spirituality is sound. In particular I am interested in how hearing sound as music, both with and without words, is central to spirituality. How is the hearing of sound itself part of the multiple senses that occur in any worship event? More especially, what is it about ordered sound as music that constitutes an intrinsic dimension of ritual participation? Music has been called the "language of the soul made audible." Behind this popular definition is hearing sound as an image of the deepest center of human existence. The human voice is primary in this domain of the formation and expression of a religious sense of being-in-the-world.

Saint Augustine of Hippo's ambivalence in his Confessions provides a good starting point. He addresses a lover's question to God:

When I love you, what do I love? Not the body's beauty, nor time's rhythm, nor light's brightness ... nor song's sweet melodies, nor the fragrance of flowers, lotions and spices, nor manna and honey, nor the feel of flesh embracing flesh—none of these are what I love when I love my God. And yet, it's something like light, sound, smell, food, and touch that I love when I love my God—the light, voice, fragrance, embrace of my inner self, where a light shines for my soul. That's what I love when I love my God! (Book X: 6,8)

How deeply intertwined the sensible joy and delight in creaturely things are in Augustine's reflections on what loving God is. He was certainly possessed of a sensibility for the beautiful, rooted here in a Platonic view of reason as eros, but also steeped in the concrete language of doxology nurtured in the sensory rhetoric of the psalms and Christian scriptures. What we hear, say, see, smell, taste, and touch in worship and devotion become the best analogy he can find for the soul's communion with God. This is the force of his "And yet." To say what loving God is "like" is to appeal to a whole series of senses. These seem to form a matrix of sorts. The seeming denial of the physical and sensual aspects of religious devotion is immediately forged into the description of interrelated patterns of perception. Loving God requires the interanimation of all the available senses.

Even more to the point here are Augustine's references to the beautiful melodies of psalm settings he heard in Milan. He wept with joy at the liberated "delights of the ear" in praying these psalms. Yet he also wishes at times to banish the melodies because of their sensual sound properties in order to attend to the words alone as the hearing of God's word (Book X: 33). As we will discuss in chapter 2, Christian tradition inherited his ambivalence toward the aesthetic dimensions of religious practices, both liturgical and devotional. Yet I contend that his tears of recognition were part of his "hearing." This ambivalence about music (the ordered sound that articulates and animates the texts of prayer) is not peculiar to Augustine. This is a central aspect of how Christian spirituality is formed. Could it be that, in order to show how sound and music shape the Christian life and sense of the divine, we must attend to the permanent tensions between aesthetic sensibility and holiness as transformative receptivity to God?

Perhaps we can formulate the foregoing reflections in thesis form: Music confers upon human language addressed to God the appropriate silence and mystery required by prayer. Music is the language of the soul made audible especially as music is the performative mode of the prayer and ritual engagement of a community. This implies that ordered sound, particularly when it animates certain texts, shapes human beings in distinctive forms of affection and receptivity. To this aspect of our inquiry we now turn.

For several years in the late sixties and early seventies my family lived in the inner city of New Haven. Our four daughters, then quite young, were taught a set of ritual songs by neighborhood friends. The children would form a circle with jump ropes. Calling out to one another across the swinging ropes, they were singing. One at a time the children would dance into the circle, hop a few steps, then dance away, all the while singing amid the whirling ropes:

"Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack ... all dressed in black, black, black ... with silver buttons, buttons, buttons ... all down her back, back, back." This was a narrative ritual game. It was clear that children had to learn to accent the words just so. The movements were unmistakably improvisational—with maturation, they could become quite complex. Yet the rules were clear: "Don't miss the skips, know the words, and get the right spirit; keep the rhythm coming."

The children learned the words, the singing, and the dance together. Performing led to an ever-deepening dexterity and delight, and to communal solidarity. This image of the singing, dancing children remains for me a wonderful metaphor for the formative and expressive power of authentic liturgical participation. It is an image of vitality and of doxology. This natural language of praise is found in the fusion of ordered sound, ruled kinetic participation, and a communal sense of shared narrative.

The children were formed in a way of being together and of receiving a world of joy, precisely in the multi-sensory doing of the ritual. The sounds of the whirling rope, the sounds of feet on the earth, the squeals of delight combined with the music in performance. These formed them in a kind of understanding they have not forgotten.

The body remembers shared music making long after the mind may be dimmed. Those children participated in this synaesthetic matrix. Sound, pitch, rhythm, and bodily movement are found in what we human beings do in our work, our festivals, our solemn occasions of grieving, or rejoicing. Whether around campfires, in fields of harvest, or in temples and churches, the communal act of singing has formed and expressed deep human emotions. Such emotions are not simply passing states of feeling or mood; they are capacities to consent to a sense of being in the world. If music is the language of the soul made audible, then human voices conjoined in community are primary instruments of the collective soul—a medium for what transcends the immediately commonsense world. In such cases the hearing and the sound itself encode more than what is heard. This is a profoundly crosscultural fact.

Music has the power to encode and convey memory with powerful associations. Anyone who participated in or lived through the American Civil Rights movement will always hear the courage, the suffering, the pain, and the promise in "We Shall Overcome." A whole generation of Americans who lived through World War II cannot forget the sound of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America." The African American spiritual "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" and the Appalachian song "I'm Just a Poor Wayfarin' Stranger" touch something beyond our surface longings and wishes. Words set to music are given greater emotive range and associational power than when we only speak them— much less when we only think about them. We are asked to say some things that we don't truly think we believe until we sing them, or hear them in appropriately complex activities.

Some years ago I studied the singing practices in several Protestant churches. In Bethel United Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., I interviewed a group of older women. After asking them to identify their favorite hymns (to which they gave a standard list of hymns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—many of them gospel songs), I asked them why these hymns and songs were so significant. They spoke of "hearing their grandmother's voice," of "leaning against their mother's breast," or hearing the "squeak of the parlor organ," of weddings, funerals, and Sunday evening gatherings. The sounding of those hymns evoked a marvelous range of life experiences and relationships. Especially prominent was the sound of human voices, as though human existence itself was held in paraphrase before the divine, yet with all the ordinariness of non-perfection.

Anyone working with Alzheimer's patients knows that often the last way of bringing a person a present is to sing for them (and with them) songs from their childhood. This itself is a kind of metaphor for the deeper power of music to encode life, and to make it present—even in the face of cognitive diminishment.

The witness of those churchwomen also recalls Susanne Langer's notion of music as a "non-discursive symbolism." By this she means that music is not like verbal language with its specific descriptive powers of referring. Unlike "discursive" symbols, music presents us with a "language of sound" that presents and symbolizes the patterns of how we live and experience our world. Music itself offers us in the hearing—and I would add, in the singing—a pattern of how we actually experience the world and our lives. It presents to us the tensions and releases, the intensities and rests, the dissonances and harmonies of life—a "morphology of human sentience," to use Langer's phrase. In more humble terms, I propose that spirituality has to do with sounding life before God. Because we live through time, music is perhaps our most natural medium for coming to terms with time, and attending to the transcendent elements in making sense of our temporality. Our lives, like music, have pitch, tempo, tone, release, dissonance, harmonic convergence, as we move through times of grief, delight, hope, anger, and joy. In short, music has this deep affinity to our spiritual temperament and desire. Our lives, like music, can be understood in remembering the passage through time. The order or sound is comprehended as we remember and re-configure the previously heard in light of the yet-to-be-heard. So, too, the deeper desires and yearnings of the human soul are not understood until a larger pattern emerges. Remembering the sound of voices of those we loved and lost to death is perhaps one of the startling examples of recapitulation and fresh re-understanding of that relationship as we move through time.

The foregoing reflections might be formulated in a second thesis: Music is intimately related to the narrative quality of human experience, presenting our temporality in symbolic form, but always bodily perceived through the senses. Ritual contexts activate the formative and expressive power of sound with respect to the deep patterning of human affections.

I now understand new depths of spirituality implied in St. John Chrysostom's remark: "The psalms which occurred just now in the office blended all voices together, and caused one single full harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sang one single melody ... together we make up a single choir in perfect equality of rights and of expression whereby earth imitates heaven" (Homilies on the Psalms).

When the Christian assembly gathers to sing in the context of worship, deep memory is required. The act of singing praise, lament, thanksgiving, and intercession to God goes beyond the surface of the words, and beyond the musical score. This event itself is metaphoric, parabolic, and symbolic. Singing/hearing music that expresses life before God confers a special dignity on our human desires. If the text and musical form are adequate to mystery, to suffering, and to the deeper range of human emotions, the human soul is available to the transfiguring grace of the divine life. This is the domain of liturgical spirituality. But such phenomena are also present in devotional and personal attentiveness to musical form—even to each distinctive sound. Gerard Manley Hopkins testified to this: each thing "Deals out that being indoors each one dwells."

Spiritual formation and experience, by definition, take us beyond the obvious surfaces we perceive in hearing with the physical senses. Music is remarkably ephemeral, always passing away from us; yet it does seem to open "levels of the soul." The question of meaning in music hinges on the interaction, and the interanimation between order, sound, and the range of other senses—visual, kinetic, gestural—it conjoins. The circumstances under which something is first heard and then remembered lead to the deeper power of what music offers Christian life. Music is not therefore simply an ornament of something already understood, such as a text. Neither is music, in ritual and devotional contexts, an enhancement of something already fully determined by the text. Rather, music mediates multiple senses and the reception of religious significance precisely by crossing over to what is not heard. This begins with the human voice in primordial rituals with mother and child. Sounds convey bodily images; they have kinetic powers and evocative efficacy.


Excerpted from Music and Theology by Don E. Saliers. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Don E. Saliers is William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

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