Maeve Louise Haeney, “Towards A Theological Epistemology Of Music”

Before I begin, let me just say that, by and large discussions of “epistemology” leave me feeling a bit like this:

Even The Thinker Needs A Clean Ass

Even The Thinker Needs A Clean Ass

Furthermore, when I encounter people who really really really want to talk about epistemology in order to make clear how intelligent they are (or, at least, have read about Immanuel Kant), I just want to put this record on as a way of making them shut the hell up:

I will, however, give Haeney her due.  In this chapter, she manages to take the general categories from the previous chapter on semiotics – on music as involving the whole body; music as inherently relational; that music is a physical reality – and weaves them in and through the theological thought largely of Bernard Lonergan, although she does include the less rigorous, more mystical thought of Rosemary Haughton.  The conclusion to which she comes is long, but needs to be quoted in full before we move on:

[T]here are numerous qualities of musical symbolism that emerge as significant, precisely because in music the sensual and spiritual are intrinsically united.  Music can teach us to feel differently: to experience reality as dynamic and corporal at the same time.  Understanding reality in this way is fully Christian.  God is relation: three Persons in constant interaction with one another, and with the created world which is not far or distant, but somehow redeemed, assumed and loved within and as a part of of the Body of the Son.  This is our faith.  The growing awareness and presence of music in culture and the Christian churches could be read as one way in which the Spirit is pushing us towards a fuller living out of human life in Christ, and its understanding: the “language” of beauty as expressed though music, capable of leading or even introducing us into the realm of our triune loving God, who is beauty.  Not to pay attention to this form of expression of communication when it is coming to the forefront of human life, or to neglect to welcome, discern and integrate it where possible into Christina living would be a lack of intellectual responsibility and, unwittingly perhaps, a stifling of the Spirit. (Maeve Louise Heaney, Music As Theology: What Music Has To Say About The Word, p.181)

What follows is, in fact, my own rejection of the very question of “epistemology”, whether applied to the Christian faith or anything else.  I know some might think this would be a bit like this:

It is not, however, an unimportant matter.  For far too long, we in the west have been seduced by the idea that if we could only give an account of how it is we know reality, we would have some kind of key to being able to understand all that is.  At the end of the day, what we ended up with was science, a particular method for asking particular questions, investigating their implications, and determining whether or not they are interesting – let alone correct – questions.  Philosophy has struggled to keep up, even spending part of the 20th century insisting that it could give a coherent definition and understanding of “science” that would universalize human knowledge.  This failed as miserably as all previous such attempts.

Then along came Richard Rorty who asked a simple, yet revolutionary question: Are these even interesting questions?  Do they actually tell us anything?  Since Darwin and Freud and Einstein, we have far better ways of answering such questions as what it means to be human, how it is we know what we know (or think we know) and the nature of reality.  Rorty posited that, rather than ask questions which are neither fruitful nor interesting, it might be better if philosophy investigated what it might be like if the web of human beliefs, as expressed in language, had an actual impact on human behavior, in particular in how we treat one another.  Many consider Rorty’s thought to be a retreat.  Still others have insisted he was the quintessential Reagan-era philosopher: uninterested in what everyone else insisted was important, pushing irrationalism and the negation of thought so we can feel better about ourselves.

Which completely avoids the matter of whether or not Rorty was or is correct.  To my mind, he dispenses with so much of the weighty baggage of western thought, baggage that is old, falling apart, filled with clothing no one wears, and yet we insist on dragging around with us.  Far better, it seems to me, to wonder what it might be like if our beliefs and desires – that which previous philosophers called knowledge and truth and morals – not only affected human behavior.  He also asked a much more important question: What would it be like to alter our vocabularies that describe our beliefs and desires, even by one word?  Would it be possible to affect real human interpersonal and social change then?

The question of epistemology in religion, particularly in Christianity, is as uninteresting to me as the general philosophical questions Rorty ended up dismissing.  Part of the reason for this is that far too many Christians put the cart before the horse: they insist on prioritizing the Biblical testimony to revelation rather than the revelation itself, and the God who reveals.  To my mind, our Triune God is prior to any testimony about that God.  It is the reality of God, separate from any human words about God, that is the focus and end of our faith.  God would exist whether the whole human race affirmed that existence, or if the whole human race disappeared tonight and not another word was ever spoken about God.  Atheism, non-Christian religions, anti-Christian rhetoric; these things couldn’t interest me less than the vulcanization process of rubber or an instruction manual on arc welding.  For far too long we Christians have spent our energies trying to prove that our words have some reference to some other words that might or might not have meaning for people in their lives.  What we have not done is recognized that “theology”, like biology, say, or sociology, is little more than a game, a vocabulary with its own set of rules, what is taboo, what might possibly expand the meaning of the overall game, and so forth.

Before any of that, however, is God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who have lived, who live, and who will live regardless of anything we human beings say or do.  Ours is a faith, however, about the human encounter with this God, an encounter initiated by God.  In this initiation, and throughout the relationship, it is God’s actions that determine not only that we know God is, but who we know God is.  These encounters, centered around the Christ-event, define the testimony about them in Scripture, shape our understanding of that testimony, what came before, and what will come after.  We must always remember that: reality is, and God has entered this reality, and by so doing not only altered that reality, but altered not only our understanding of reality, but how we understand that reality.

Anything else, to my mind, isn’t Christian thought.  It is, more or less, intellectual masturbation of the worst kind, a bunch of guys (and it’s mostly guys) sitting around comparing dick sizes, instead of dealing with the real matter at hand: we know God because has chosen to be known in the way God has come to be known.  It’s both that simple and that all-encompassing.

To that end, music, as something we human beings do in our lives, most certainly can and should serve the Word; it most certainly be a vehicle God chooses to reveal the Good News of Divine Love; we have lived our lives far too long under the spell of the distinction between the sacred and profane not to recall that in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has erased that distinction once and for all time.  Our holding fast to that distinction, just as Bonhoeffer says of our affection for good and evil, is a sign of our continued fallen state, our separation from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  To me, that is all the “theological epistemology” we need for moving forward with the matter of music as theology.