Archive for June 9th, 2011

Getting Past Religion

June 9, 2011

My wife inherited a habit. It was her father’s not uncommon practice to sing his way through the day, especially the morning. A devout man, his songs were his favorite hymns. My wife’s habit is similar, only as an Orthodox Christian, her repertoir has grown to include the traditional hymns of Orthodoxy. It is not an entirely conscious practice (I think) – though her heart is clearly engaged in what she is doing. It is a spontaneous outpouring of praise.

I am a sinful man, sometimes grumpy in the morning, and foolish enough to have said, “Stop!” Such outbursts reveal the darkness that continues to abide in my heart.

I knew an elderly monk, himself a convert to the Orthodox faith. In his later years, he lapsed into one of the many forms of senile dementia. To the occasional dismay of the other monks, he enjoyed walking through the monastery and singing the Protestant hymns of his childhood (loudly). It made me think of my father-in-law. It also likely revealed the thoughts of many around him.

There are a number of human activities that reveal depths transcending rational necessity while at the same time revealing the deep truths of Christian theology. Singing is certainly among them. The hunger for beauty is another. Forgiveness and sorrow, sadness and joy are all part of this often unspoken theology.

It is not that such topics or phenomenon are ignored by those who engage in formal theology – rather it is their relegation to a subsidiary status which renders much theological activity arid and uninteresting. I have heard some say, “I’m not interested in religion.” I am tempted to say, “Neither am I.” But it would be a rare thing to encounter someone who had no interest in music (of any kind) or cared nothing for beauty. Joy and sorrow are part of our common lot, though we may not think of them as “religious.”

The rationality and specialization of religious dialog have contributed greatly to the marginalization of religion within our culture. Secularism already prefers to separate God from the concerns of the world – the fascination of theological dialog with its own specialized issues makes this just that much easier. Either God lies at the very heart of the human experience (however we may have perverted it) or He rightly belongs to a place of secondary interest.

Paul Evdokimov observes:

The face of Christ is the human face of God. The Holy Spirit rests on him and reveals to us absolute Beauty, a divine-human Beauty, that no art can ever properly and fully make visible. Only the icon can suggest such Beauty by means of the taboric [Mt. Tabor, the site of Christ’s Transfiguration] light.

Beauty is no mere genetic attraction rooted in the math and pheromones of human sexuality. There is a beauty whose presence all but crushes the human soul. It is a depth that speaks at such a deep level – we have no words for its description. How do we describe a vision which is so great that a human being would give his life for it? The encounter of the face of God in the man Christ Jesus comes closer to describing the fundamental “religious” power of Christ. At its very heart, such an encounter cannot be described as “religious.” It belongs to no category of human life, for it has no rival once it has been perceived.

St. Paul speaks of the “face of Christ,” an odd expression if his only concern were the doctrinal trivialities to which many Christians have reduced him. Rather, he reserves this expression for the greatest description of Christian salvation:

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor. 4:6  But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. 2 Cor. 3:18  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 1 Cor. 13:12.

There is a theology of beauty, which harkens back to the language of the Old Testament when Moses desires to see God “face to face.” Such a vision is not granted to Moses, but many other visions which foreshadowed the vision of St. Paul are indeed given to Moses-the-God-seer. This is not the language of abstract religious thought but the language of the whole of art and its inner desire. We long for beauty, regardless of how poorly we often define it. True beauty takes our breath away and confounds our ability to describe it.

Much the same can be said of music. “God has made man to be the singer of His radiance,” St. Gregory the Theologian has said (PG, 38, 1327). We sing and we love to sing because at its very heart, we are singers of the radiance of God. It is certainly true that we sing many things that resemble in no way the radiance of God – and yet the drive towards song has its roots in God’s radiance. Perhaps the most essential writing in all of Scripture is the book of Psalms. At best, we moderns read it like poetry, though it was always meant to be sung.

God, rendered as prose, is perhaps the deepest misrepresentation of all.

This itself is the problem found in many modern expressions of Christianity – they are prosaic. This is not to say that they are without music – though they are often without good music (let the arguments begin…). Liturgical expression (particularly of the ever-changing make-it-up-as-you-go-variety) fails to rise to the level of mystery. Sacraments, even where underpinned with relatively sound doctrine, still collapse into the prosaic life of modernity. In very few cases would emissaries from a strange land return from modern Christian worship and declare, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven. But of a truth we know that God is with them” (the report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople in the 10th century).

Far more to the point is the prosaic character of Christian lives. Beauty and poetic wonder are not only missing in our relationship with God – they are missing from our lives. My experience is that Byzantine worship is no guarantee of beauty within its participants. However, it does not underwrite the banality of modern culture.

Several years back I was speaking with a small Russian choir, touring the United States from St. Petersburg. They were all Church singers, but also singers from various opera companies in St. Petersburg as well. Needless to say they were an exceedingly talented group. One of the hymns they had sung that night was a particularly difficult and moving piece by the Russian composer, Chesnokov. In the course of the conversation I noted the great beauty with which it was written and with which it had been sung that night. One of the choral members told that that it required careful spiritual preparation (“that all needed to be without anger and at peace with one another”) before this hymn could be properly sung.

Of course, this is not only true of the exquisite music of Chesnokov or other stellar writers – it is also true of a small four-member choir offering the most simple tunes of Obikhod chant on a Sunday morning. Four average voices will never sound like the trained voices of the Russian opera – but they can find beauty – first within and then as an offering of song. In that offering, other lives are transformed and lifted to realm of beauty that is Christ among us.

I do not wish to be foolish or dishonest: beauty, transcendant beauty is and transforming beauty is not the peculiar property of Orthodox Christianity. God is indeed everywhere present and filling all things. And he desires that all participate in His life (which is also a participation in Beauty). I do not offer this as an observation of ecumenism – merely as a resurrection that God is free and “does whatsover He pleases.”

I do, however, offer this in order to encourage Christians to consider such things as Beauty and music – and many other aspects of our lives when considering devotion to God and the presentation of the Gospel. The world in which we live (much of it, anyway) is hungry less for a careful presentation of the Christian doctrine of the atonement than for an encounter with the true and living God. Of course, such careful presentations are not foreign to God, but they rarely manage to rise above the level of religious rhetoric. The desire for beauty is far more than mere aesthetics. Mother Theresa once said that she wanted to do “something beautiful for Jesus.” She did not fail.