Theology, Music and Time
If my life is a song, I have much to learn about it from music. The previous post in this series (Life Metaphors: Music, Part 1) explored the power of music to resurrect the past and make it coinhere with the present, using Robert Siegel’s Whalesong as a point of departure. In this post I want to reflect on the same theme, from the viewpoint of Christian theology.
That we can learn much about life from reflecting upon music is explored by Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Reading Begbie alongside Whalesong is an ideal way to keep the imagination and intellect in tune, avoiding the imagination deficit disorder. The one reinforces and deepens the other.
In this and the next couple of posts, I’ll mention three ways that music teaches me something about my experience of life: to live in time, to live in hope, and to live in inexhaustible grace. Although I touch upon these themes in a personal way, Begbie explores the theological implications of music with profound insight as a professionally-trained musician and theologian. I am neither, but these reflections profoundly affect my view of life.
Live in time
First, my experience of music shows me how to live in time. I wrote before that music can help wrest us free from the stranglehold of the present. I remember what an enchanting pull I once felt, while an adolescent, for the existentialist ideal of living solely in the NOW. Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed,
“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.“
I would never detract from the kernel of wisdom behind Emerson’s words that one must repudiate the tyranny of the past and the future, consciously attend to the present, and experience each moment as fully as possible. Before we know it, we will turn around and want these moments back. Living in the present means that I savor each moment, and then willingly let it go, embracing change by welcoming the next moment as it comes. In contrast, to hold on to the past, to refuse to let it go, would be to deny the reality of the present. Similarly, to live in the future, refusing to experience the present, would cause me to miss out on the reality of a present hope. In that hope we have confidence that both past and future are being redeemed. So I learned a profound truth from the existentialist affirmation that we live now.
As an adolescent, I indwellt the albums of Kansas as they came out from 1975 to 1979 (Masque, Leftoverture, Point of Know Return, and Monolith), listening to them more than any other group, and felt a soul kinship with their main songwriter Kerry Livgren. Their journey was my journey; their music the music of my life. I will never forget the first time I heard Livgren’s “Dust in the Wind,” I listened spellbound, riveted against a wall, by the end slumping toward the floor. As Kerry Livgren wrote, in this devastatingly beautiful song:
Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.
Thus to release the past and welcome the future willingly, without hanging on, is to participate in the rhythm and music of life, to accept our nature as finite creatures moving within a greater temporal reality.
This sense of time’s fleetingness is what Begbie calls a “fruitful transience” (p. 92):
“Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level. Tones give way to tones. Music is constantly dying, giving way. The next tone in the plainsong melody can only come if the last one is not sung. Musical continuity emerges from transcience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility.”
Yet Emerson’s manifesto asserts more than this, as if the energy of life were exclusively concentrated in the now. Contrary to Emerson’s actual words, the now as we experience it in music does not exclude the past and the future, but rather gathers them up in a relationship of “coinherence” (more on this below). If taken literally, Emerson’s statement entails a disintegration of temporal reality, a splitting apart of the past, present and future. This split diminishes the reality of the present by subtracting the coinherence of the past and future.
“Dust in the Wind” reflects this split as well, where all that is has contracted into the present moment:
I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
In a supreme paradox of existentialism, the futility of these despairing words is decisively contradicted by the very musicality of the song. This work is a masterpiece of despair precisely because of that contradiction. It is a hope against hope, as the piercing longing for coinherence awakened by the music compels one to protest that “dust in the wind” cannot be the last word.
Indeed, like Emerson’s manifesto, “Dust in the Wind” is a powerful example of an insidiously deficient sense of temporal reality.
We are led astray if we have learned from mathematics that the present is a moving point on a timeline, or from physics that a single moment is a solitary tone from an oscilloscope. If we visualize our lives as a timeline where the past and future are separated by the present, we tend to think of the present merely as a geometrical point. If reality is equated with the present, infinitesimally small, the now so conceived rapidly approaches a vanishing point. This reduction of reality and the concomitant disintegration of personal identity is one part of the narcissism of our culture, described with arresting clarity by Christopher Lasch.
Yet our experience of music rescues us from this impoverished view of life as if it were a mathematical point, the now, moving along a time-line so that only the now is real at any given moment. Rather, in music it is clear that there is so much more to reality than the present moment, even if we close our eyes. As we listen to “Dust in the Wind,” for example, at any given moment we experience the import of the past and the anticipation of the future, so that the now is totally other than a solitary note. The experience of music is a powerful demonstration of the way our lives transcend the present, of how our experience of the now involves a real presence, a coinherence, of both past and future. Begbie explains (p. 62):
“If we are in the second phase of a two-beat wave, because of the hierarchical nature of metrical waves, in every instant of the existence of ‘two,’ the ‘one’ is also, in a sense, contained as the partner; ‘two’ is the symmetrical completion of ‘one.'”
When a beat is over, or a note ceases its sound, that moment has not passed from before our eyes like dust in the wind. Hearing a melody is to experience the what is, what was, and what is to come, all at once, coinhering in an enlarged, dynamically-changing now. An atomistic linear model, consisting merely of isolated points on a timeline, cannot account for this. Rather, the present, past and future interpenetrate and coinhere with one another in an inter-related, holistic reality. Begbie (p. 62) quotes the musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl:
“In a melodic succession of tones there is a ‘carrying from’ and a ‘reaching beyond’ sensed through each present: ‘past and future are given with and in the present and are experienced with and in the present; hearing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once.’ ‘To a great extent the problems posed by the old concept of time arise from the fact that it distinguished three mutually exclusive elements, whereas only the picture of a constant interaction and intertwining of these elements is adequate to the actual process.'” (Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, 1956, pp. 175, 228.)
The physicist’s simple oscilloscope, like the mathematician’s timeline, similarly misleads us. A single tone from an oscilloscope discloses nothing to the physicist of the dynamic way we experience the full temporality of music. We no more experience life as a moment in abstraction than a song as a single note, devoid of rhythm, harmony, tempo, texture and mode. Our experience of music shows us that the past and the future are not insubstantial. Now we see that history is real. A view of the present cut off from the past and future is radically deficient. Time is not a mirage or illusion. Music shows us how to embrace a full temporality, a now that is not cut off from the past, and in which the future already has begun.
The reality of coinherence in our experience of life is thus disclosed to us by our experience of music. Hruna might need all night and day to sing his whalesong, yet throughout the song, his past acts as a real presence in a dynamic movement toward an already-becoming future. No wonder, as noted in the last post, that the music of past moments in our lives still has the potency to awaken us to a personal identity which is far from being confined exclusively to the present, but rather in which the past coinheres in a full temporal reality.
Next: Live in hope.