Maeve Louise Heaney, “Musical Space: Living ‘In Between’ The Christian and the Artistic Callings”

Life is rich and complex, and from the surplus of meaning our refraining to resolve all things allows, new and fruitful insights could be born. – Maeve Louise Heaney, “Musical Space: Living ‘In Between’ The Christian And The Artistic Callings”, in Beaudoin, ed. Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p. 17

And therefore, whether we realise it or not, every creative activity of the human spirit has become an element in the personal history of your Word, because everything has come to belong to this world, the world into which he came in order to share with it in its living experiences, to suffer with it and to glorify it with himself. – Karl Rahner, “Prayer For Creative Thinkers”, in Beaudoin, ed., p.27

Having just spent quite a bit of time with Ms. Heaney, I believe I was expecting something very different from what is in this essay.  Not so much an apologia as an explanation of the odd position of the Christian musician who isn’t explicitly Christian, Heaney uses both Karl Rahner and Bono from U2 extensively to support the idea that human creativity, in all its guises, is a gift from God, returned to God in all sorts of ways.

Despite the fact that religion and art are both lived as “callings,” they pull against one another.  And yet, are these two callings really destined to pull against each other?  Are they incompatible?  Or would identifying these “points of contact and outright opposites” help us to hold them together and play them out?  I believe it would, and that not only are they unavoidable but also something of a condition of possibility for a fruitful outcome of the artistic endeavour, without which we could not be present to the world nor prophetic.(p.21)

To the idea that secular music might well contain ideas, thoughts, emotions, and so on that might be offensive to God, Heaney says the following on p.25:

God is not offended by human feeling and pain.  Indeed, the passionate and tender God of Jesus is the very root of our human capacity to feel.  This is the backbone of the contemporary theological approach which names human experience as the first stage of knowledge, theological included.  And coming back to our point about musical expression, naming experience and allowing people to find themselves in that mirror can be the first stage to being found there by grace

Just before this, she had written about the honest expression of emotion in contemporary music, its more than occasional rawness, and its sheer variety (p. 26):

[H]onest expression can be liberating and salvific.  The way to experiencing God’s grace is not avoiding the harshnes of human existence and paying more attention to the potential (or future?) goodness of life in God, but rather to follow God’s gaze, and the direction of his loving action, through the incarnation, to human life and history, and find God there, or rather, here.  Our images of God sometimes underestimate God’s passion, as if the depth of our feelings (especially the negative ones) were too much for God to handle!.

She spends some time speaking about the “in-betweenness” of the callings of the artist and the Christian, and how that lived tension can be both a struggle as well as the opportunity for creative expression, not always in ways that are explicitly Christian.

It is at this point that she introduces Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian”, which she explains as follows on p.28:

[I]n God’s universal desire to reach out and save all humanity, grace is readily offered to all, be it explicitly, through the teaching and message of the Church, or in a hidden way, implicitly, through God’s love poured out in the world, silently, and constantly. . . . [Rahner] says that, in every option of knowledge and freedom that we make, we either open up to and receive that grace, implicitly welcoming God’s love into our lives, and as such becoming channels of that grace to the world, or we close off and “say no” to love’s grace.

While noting the rather condescending tone of such an idea, as well as denying the real lived experience of those who have no inkling one way or another that God is at work in and through them – and might even deny such a possibility! – this is nevertheless a helpful concept, in a limited way, to getting past and through the constant badgering about contemporary secular music and all its problems.

It allows us to listen to and make music without having to delineate ever so clearly the secular-sacred divide, since God passes through that wall effortlessly.  It allows us to compose songs which speak of God in new ways, perhaps not quite so obviously, free of the fear of not saying everything that needs to be said.  Maybe God doesn’t need that much help.  Maybe the ineffable can transmit itself without so many of our words to point the way.  I would go further and ask why ambiguity is such a problem in certain theological circles.

Indeed, why is ambiguity such a problem?  How is it possible not to hear, in certain songs written perhaps for a wholly different purpose (at least according to the composers), the voice of God speaking loud and clear?  I would admit that the further we get from the mainstream, that kind of hearing becomes more and more difficult, taking practice and time and the ability to be generous with our willingness to hear, perhaps in anger or frustration or even what some might call blasphemy, a deep longing for God to come and fill the empty space the world has hollowed out in the songwriter.  On the other hand, there are those songs in which the still, small voice is loud and clear, regardless of compositional intention.

This is a beautiful explanation of the need for musicians, church members, theologians, and even those not involved in church yet deeply committed to the idea that music is a powerful tool for communicating to all sorts of people to be in dialogue with one another.  It is also a poetic defense of the call of the musician as Christian vocation, even if that is not an explicitly Christian music that is created.  Finally, it is a marvelous codicil to Ms. Heaney’s lengthier work, Music as Theology.  That music not explicitly Christian nevertheless sings with the voice of heaven, at least to ears that would hear it, is less in need of defense and more in need of explanation.  This Ms. Heaney has done beautifully.