Monday, July 4, 2016

The spiritual power of music: a greater lesson in theology

Consider the following interesting passage from 1 Sam 16:
And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him (v. 23).
I have spoken with many people, including musicians with doctorates, about the spiritual power of music. This is something that is well recognized by very many people: music has a certain spiritual power; it is capable of affecting the spirit of a person in various ways, whether favorably or unfavorably, whether in a manner that sensitizes him to God or else in a manner which desensitizes him to God. I listen to all sorts of music, and the spiritual effect of each genre on me differs: rap music, for example, troubles me and makes me uncomfortable, if the lyrics describe crime and licentious living and so on; old time hymns produce a different state; and so on.

And this power is recognized by the Bible, as well. We see here rather plainly that David had the skill to play music of a certain sort on his lyre, such that when he performed this music, an evil spirit which troubled Saul would leave and the king would have peace of mind once more, at least for a while.

This spiritual power of music is a particular instance of the interconnection between the bodily and the spiritual. The human person is closely connected, so that the body has an effect on the spirit and the spirit has an effect on the body, as well. Music clearly has an effect on the spirit of a person, but it does so through the mediation of the body -- obviously enough, since music touches the human person by her sense of hearing. And so also our various other senses can affect us spiritually as well.

Believe it or not, recognizing the spiritual power of music connects to the debate about icons. John of Damascus wrote three treatises on holy images, and one of the arguments he repeats in favor of icons and other sorts of images is this: the icons have a power spiritually to affect the person who gazes upon them and to make them conscious of God, desirous of serving him, disposed to worship him for his great works throughout history, and so on. Through an inspiring and striking image depicting some saint or perhaps Christ or the Virgin Mother, the spirit of the faithful person is lifted up to the worship of God, it is sensitized to the divine presence, and in this way the icon becomes a means of preparing a person for prayer.

Consider John's words to his iconoclastic interlocutor:
You, perhaps, are exalted  and  immaterial  and  have come  to  transcend the body and as fleshless,  so  to speak, you spit with contempt  on  everything visible, but  I, since  I am a  human  being and wear a body, I long to have communion  in  a bodily way with what  is  holy and  to  see it. Condescend to  my  lowly understanding, O exalted one, that  you may preserve your exaltedness. Christ accepted  my  longing for him  and for those who belong to him (Three Treatises on Divine Images, I:36).
This is one of John's essential arguments: that the use of icons in worship fits with the essentially embodied nature of the human person, for whom communion with the divine has to come about at least partly through the mediation of the body. And the incarnation of the Lord demonstrates that God does not utterly despite matter, nor disregard its essential place in the economy of salvation, but makes use of it to save us. There is nothing inherently wrong with matter's functioning as a means of spiritual communion with God, then, as is proved by the incarnation. And so later on he writes:
I may  not  have many books,  nor have  much  time to read, but, strangled with thoughts, as  if  with thorns, I come into the common surgery  of  the soul, the church; the luster of the painting draws me to  vision and delights my sight like a meadow and imperceptibly introduces  my  soul to the glory of God. I have seen the perseverance  of  the martyr, the recompense  of the crowns,  and  as  if  by fire I am eagerly kindled to zeal, and falling down I venerate God through the martyr and I receive salvation (I:47).
There is still a further consequence of the spiritual power of the material world. I heard a preacher this past Sunday at a Pentecostal church here in Romania. I had lunch with him and the pastor of the church after the service. He was pretty well-read, but when I told him that I studied philosophy and that I will teach philosophy this coming fall semester, he went on a longer diatribe against all Greek philosophy: he said to call the philosophers "human" would be to exaggerate and overestimate them, in light of their questionable morals; and in general he despised the respect and veneration of philosophy in the early church fathers. It seemed to me that his general point of view is a more exaggerated Protestant one: philosophy and all other would-be sources of information are worthless; the Bible alone is genuine revelation, and nothing of much value can come from sources outside of it. Even in his sermon that morning, at various places he affirmed a stark contrast between what reason demands and what faith believes. And he engaged in anti-Orthodox polemics (straw man arguments, they seemed to me) at various points in his sermon, as well, which is to be expected out here in Romania.

I could not disagree with this individual more, but I held my tongue when we were at the table. In general, his theological understanding is implicitly anti-matter: the natural world provides no genuine revelation of God or of his will, whether or not this is recognized by anyone; the decoration of a church or its design serves no genuine spiritual function; etc. And I have no doubt -- though he did not bring up the matter -- that he disagrees with the iconodulism of the Orthodox church as well.

A quasi-gnostic distrust of matter as a genuine means of spiritual communion with God characterizes these Protestant theses. God is understood as working apart from the material world, not through it -- that's why there's no genuine natural revelation of God; that's why communion with God cannot be mediated through material objects; etc. But this is not biblical in the least, as is demonstrated by the example of David's casting out the evil spirits from Saul through music. The human person is essentially embodied; and if this is so, then there is no escaping the mediation of matter in divine-human fellowship.

If you are not convinced, then listen to this and repent of your gnosticism:


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