Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Music of the Spheres - Robert W. Jenson and the Silmarillion

I've been slowly reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, vol.2, The Works of God (there really isn't a fast way to read it). I enjoy the way his mind works, and especially appreciate his interaction with other disciplines such as science (especially physics) and music. He gives the little grey cells a good work-out.

Anyway, in the chapter "Time, Created Being, and Space," he describes God as "a fugue, a conversation" (p.35), adopting a musical term to describe being, rather than the more traditional Greek understanding of being as that which is seen (i.e., what is manifest to the eye or the mind). This is a decidedly Hebrew ontology: God speaks creation, and creation responds with speech. God speaks to Moses, naming himself "I AM" (Exodus 3:14), which is merely the Hebrew verb "to be" (yavah, יהןה). However, because God is Triune, divine speech has a musical quality - the harmony of voices within the Godhead, which Jenson calls "the triune fugue" (p.38). This leads him to say further:

"To be a creature in specific relation to the Father is to be a motif in the orchestration that occurs when God's musicality opens ad extra [i.e., to that which is external, or outside of God]. We might say: the Father hums a music "of the spheres," the tune of the creating triune conversation...Nor is it merely that there are creatures who are then harmonious with each other; to be a creature is to belong to the counterpoint and harmony of the triune music" (p.39).

{It should be noted that Jenson here is not writing metaphorically, but rather offers an alternative to the more traditional language of reality, which prefers to speak of "substance." He rightly notes there is no reason why one cannot replace the concept of "substance," with that of "tune." Both are merely words describing aspects of reality.}

The point to all of this, and I do have one, is that this is remarkably similar to the opening passages of J.R.R. Tolkien's, The Silmarillion. This book chronicles the history of Middle Earth prior to the events found in The Lord of the Rings. It is an earlier work of Tolkien's (although it was published after the Ring opus), and in it he sought to create a mythology for England. It contains a creation narrative which is oriented around music. God ("The One") sings, and creation emerges, singing back in harmony. The book begins thus:

"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but a few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony."

This celestial music goes out into the void, filling it with all creation, and it seemed for a great while "good." But there was a fall from perfection, and there was discord, and evil entered into the universe through pride.

"But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself."

Tolkien even offers a beautiful image of providence and God's sovereignty:

"Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said..."And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."

I must confess to being enraptured by Tolkien's genius, and that I believe this image of God as a Triune musical conversation to be both evocative and healing. For it takes us from the lumbering language of substance and decree, and lifts us up in an aesthetic theology of harmony, counterpoint, dissonance, and recapitulation.
Music is healing, it "soothes the savage breast," and more importantly, it involves the creature in a dialogue with the Creator. Does this not make God more beautiful to our aching hearts? Does this not make our life in God more authentic and interactive? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had similar intimations, and I commend his work to you. Also, Jaroslav Pelikan's, Bach Among the Theologians is another source of reflection along these lines. "It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High" (Psalm 92:1, NIV).

{Saturn and its moon Dione, from Cassini. "There is geometry in the humming of the strings...there is music in the spacing of the spheres." - Pythagoras}

5 Comments:

Blogger Gina Burgess said...

This was a most interesting post. I love the thought of voices in harmony, the Triune God. Beautiful.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Hiya Ars,

Thanks for the intro to Jenson. A few years ago a speaker awakened in me an interest in language and God. I've had a bit of difficulty in pursuing this idea. Any suggestions? So the intro to Jenson is most welcome. He's on the list.

Many blessings

4:26 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

The issue of language and God is a vast, contentious interdisciplinary field which is a continuation of the debates the early church had with pagan culture, and with itself about the Trinity, the hypostatic union, etc. Arius and Celsus had very different understandings of the word "God." One was a heretic, the other a pagan. Both were countered by energetic theologians who had themselves a fundamentally different view of what words mean. Today, postmodernism (e.g., Derrida, etal) and Open Theism are presenting similar challenges to what we mean by our God-talk. A book that seems interesting to me, is Graham Ward's "Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology." Clark Pinnock's "The Openness of God" and Sallie McFague's "Metaphorical Theology" push up against our notions of what we mean by our theological concepts.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I've owned the Silmarillion for over a year and haven't gotten to it yet.

Cursed be those long reading lists!
[Insert Howard Dean scream here]

9:24 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I am reading it again at night. I read it two or three times in my younger days, but it's been a while, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is full of sorrow, though.

A great Tolkien website is called The Encyclopedia of Arda. Worth checking out.

3:59 PM  

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