Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music by Heidi Epstein

Tannhauser In The Venusberg by August von Heckel. As presented by Wagner, the Venusberg is a garden of carnal delights, whose forbidden fruits tantalize.

Music’s theological significance now resides, not in its incarnation of harmony and order, but in its promiscuity and disintegration, that is, in its disorderly conveyance of power, pleasure, and intimacy among willing bodies. – Heidi Klein, Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music, p.186

Few Christian doctrines are grasped as superficially as the Incarnation. Oh, we say the words of the Creed, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. All the same, ever since St. Paul, most likely unconsciously, expressed his culture’s ambivalence regarding embodiment, we Christians have sought to minimize the full import of the declaration that in the man Jesus is the fullness of the divine Son of God. Jesus is a man. He got tired and hungry. He fell ill with all its uncomfortable bodily side-effects. He broke wind after a good meal. He enjoyed wine and festivities. And, yes, he understood sexual arousal at an embodied level. It is this last that we so often refuse even to imagine. How is it possible to claim dogmatically that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine if we cannot accept that this same Jesus understood the power of human sexuality? I suppose imagining Jesus farting is funny enough; there’s just something bordering on blasphemous, however, imagining Jesus having sexual feelings and thoughts.

Of the many gifts feminist and womanist theological re-readings have offered, it is this reclamation of the blessedness of our embodied selves in all their fullness that are most to be celebrated. By turning the tables on millennia of what author Heidi Epstein calls, in the title of one of her chapters, “A Phallic Rage For Order”, we are reintroduced to ourselves as whole beings, body-and-soul indivisible with the possibility that precisely in our enfleshed, embodied existence lies both the reality of salvation as well as a rich source of theological reflection. Overthrowing the dualities of traditional dialectics of body/soul, immanence/transcendence, sacred/ profane, in feminist theologies we are offered the possibility of an integrated understanding of salvation-as-reintegration of that which sin has rent asunder.

Heidi Epstein’s Melting The Venusberg* is an important, I daresay necessary, corrective to much of the tradition of theologizing about music we in the west have continued even to our day. Beginning her deconstructing of the western Christian tradition of theologizing regarding music with the great pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, whose discovery of the way certain harmonic ratios are reflected in numerical ratios and relations, then through Plato’s preference for a restrained, perfectly harmonized music that reflects the image of the Form both of number and music, most of those who have commented on music, from John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas up through the reformers to the 20th century with Karl Barth’s effusive theologizing regarding Mozart and Jaroslav Pelikan’s similarly enraptured commentary on Bach, have insisted that it is this harmonic resonance alone that both demonstrates and embodies the perfection of what Hildegard of Bingen called Jesus as God-made-music.

The western tradition has always maintained that music has an ethical and pedagogical core; in learning of harmony’s numerical perfection, people (men) would be educated into recognizing the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation (an idea St. Augustine stole from Plato; an idea that continues to influence musicology and theology today). We learn about God through music. As her survey of the history of western theological reflection upon music demonstrates, however, Epstein emphasizes it is not just “music” as some abstract conception, but particular modes, with an emphasis upon harmony rather than either melody or rhythm. Indeed, it was precisely contemporaneous popular musics through the history of the west, with their emphases upon just those other elements, sidelining the numerical perfection of harmony as servant to other masters, that drew Christian commentator’s disdain. Like the Venusberg, music that impacts us bodily is a danger precisely because it is a pleasure and should thus be shunned, even damned.

In our fractured, post-modern, post-Christian context, however, this pursuit of harmonic perfection at the expense of the embodied pleasures of music is no longer even desirable, let alone theoretically defensible. Both theoretically and practically, Epstein offers an understanding of music that is wholly incarnational without ever losing sight that, as such, both sides must exist together. Theoretically, she defines music as a set of embodied practices, keeping it whole rather than, as she says, “dissecting” music’s body by breaking it down to its constituent parts in order to understand its whole. Practically she retrieves Hildegard of Bingen’s apologia for her own and her convent’s music-making against official clerical censure. She tells the story of Renaissance nuns in Bologna who defied clerical bans to create music in a contemporary idiom that was appreciated both for its aesthetic and contemplative powers. She reclaims woman-as-performer – something the west has always denigrated as little more than sexually promiscuous teasing (consider for a moment much of the criticism leveled at Nikki Minaj) – by retelling the stories of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and performance artist Diamanda Galas, we are confronted with the embodied practices of woman as conveyor of (musical) theological truths in subversive, transgressive ways precisely because of the sexual and ethical power they live in and through their musical performances. When we revision ourselves in light of Epstein’s ideas, passion and contemplation are no longer opposites, but inseparably linked through the disharmonies and even dissonances of Music-as-Woman. Rather than emasculating men (something men either covertly or overtly feared, at least according to much musicological theory since the 18th century in particular), a feminist theology of music makes us all, woman and man, whole again as we celebrate not the dialectic of Incarnation but its ever-present duality: always together in the single body of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m not sure Epstein’s work is a “great” work, if only because I think the era of “great” theological works is long behind us. I do, however, recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking in new, productive, seductive ways about the revelatory power inherent in music.

*As envisioned by Wagner, the Venusberg is a cave/castle ruled by the eternal temptress, a place both of danger and pleasure. Epstein’s title, therefore, is equivocal in its notion of the “melting” of such a center of female empowerment. I accept, however, that precisely because it’s an obvious metaphor for women’s sexual power over men – a cave filled with both pleasure (sexual intercourse) and danger (dissipation in sexual wantonness; fathering an unwanted child) – the idea of “melting” also has an obvious double entendre I’ll let the reader consider for him- or herself.

It Is A Fearful Thing To Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God: Soteriology & Providence In De consolatione theologiae

In Christ, beside the divine will – for He was Himself God – the threefold will . . . is to be found. According to the first Christ wished continually whatsoever God willed, praising and approving the order of divine wisdom, goodness, and justice in whatever God willed and accomplished: in heaven regarding salvation, in the abyss of condemnation, and on land and sea regarding the various activities of those to be saved and those damned. Therefore we ought to imitate Jesus according to this will, even if we are not in everything able while we live to reach equality, both because we have not yet been confirmed and because through the second of these wills the higher will within us is able to be distracted and disturbed. – Jean Gerson, De consolatione theologiae, quoted in Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, p. 201.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

It is only fitting that the pivot point both of Mark Burrows’s study of Gerson as well as Gerson’s work is a consideration of the doctrine of soteriology, one which Burrows describes through the title of the fourth chapter as via media et regia. Encompassing as it does matters of Christology, atonement, election, anthropology, and Providence, how we understand and live through our understanding of salvation is how we show the world who we believe God to be. The heart of Christian discipleship lies here; matters of justification, questions of freedom within an acceptance of Divine Providence as absolute, and the place of the crucified and risen Jesus; the ethical obligation placed upon those who seek to be conformed to Christ; we either get these things right exactly at this point or we end up in a muddle.

Thus it is this particular chapter is both lengthy and extremely technical both in its exposition of Gerson’s views on these matters as well as in Burrows’s rhetorical point that by presenting a way through the scholastic divide presented by a near-absolute determinism on the one hand and a Pelagius-like reliance on the human will to achieve salvation through works Gerson has altered his previous reliance upon one particular strand of late-medieval thought. It would be ridiculous to attempt a summary of all Burrows has to say without essentially retyping his entire chapter. For our purposes, therefore, I wish to focus upon Burrows’s explanation of Gerson’s rather high Christology, with its emphases upon Divine grace as granting faith to those who have succumbed to the despair described in the previous post. I also want to point out how Gerson’s acceptance both of Divine election as well as the burden placed upon the Christian to follow Christ – using the late-medieval idea of imitatio Chisti – not only demonstrates what Burrows’s calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair and hope, but preserves a particular imputed dignity to the one living through faith in hope lived out in acts of charity. To those familiar with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, much of this might well sound familiar.

After opening sections in which Burrows grounds Gerson’s soteriology both upon the absolute will of God in the Divine Election and a species of pessimistic Augustinian anthropology, Burrows answers the unasked question: If God’s will is indeed absolute and the human condition is one of sin in its three-fold expression – original, acted, and habitual – upon what rock does human hope rest? That cycle of despair discussed previously, it would seem, leaves us nowhere but a kind of existential terror. It is precisely at this point in the discussion that Burrows begins a section entitled “Pastoral Theology In A New Key: The viator’s Role As Seeker”. Introducing this theme, Burrows writes on p. 176:

Gerson quite deliberately opposes any form of trust in one’s own accomplishments; salvation is “not by works,” since these inevitably lead to desperation in one’s abilities coram judice Deo. But the broader structure of the Ockhamist soteriology apparently remains intact: that is, what Gerson takes away through his suspicion of moral works he replaces with a covenant of seeking. Hence, the shift in the pastoral basis of Gerson’s soteriology from facientibus  to inquirentibus is extremely significant, since this conceptualization of the biblical covenant by which viatores become contractual partners with God both avoids absolute resignation while also preempting the pride falling upon those who trust in i own works as effecting salvation. Justification is “by grace alone” and not strictly speaking by works, though the biblical covenant of Heb. 11.6 calls viatores to the “work” of seeking God and trusting in divine rather than human iustitia.

Further, on page 177, he specifies the locus of our faith in and hope for salvation:

In a striking passage early in De consolatione theologiae Gerson establishes faith as the operative concept – or what has been called the “Klammer” or brackets – by which divine and human freedom are held together, thereby distancing his soteriology from the acceptatio Dei doctrine which for Scotus had served this purposes. . . .

Having argued that predestination and election occur “from eternity” and according to the “pure generosity and grace” of God, . . . [Gerson] argues that although God has ordained “fitting means without number for acquiring the “beatitude” that God’s acceptance promises, “principal among these means is grace” itself

It is important to point out that for Gerson this is not the mediated grace of the sacraments, relying as this idea did upon the idea of faith as a “deposit” held by the Church to be offered through sacramental practice to the faithful. Rather, this is the grace of Jesus Christ, of whom Gerson writes (quoted by Burrows on pp. 177-178), “since He has merited this grace in sufficient measure for all . . . .”

The rock of human hope, a word Gerson uses specifically (p. 184), then is the crucified and risen Christ. What Burrows calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair (from a zealous scrupulosity) and hope (rooted by faith in the hope that the Divine iustitia is incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ rather than any human act). As Burrows writes on p. 184:

[This inquiry into the linear dialectic} drives to the very heart of Gerson’s soteriology, exposing the foundation of his via media where doctrinal and pastoral considerations coalesce: namely his understanding of how faith and righteousness intersect, following the Pauline formuation credere ad iustitiam (Rom. 10.10). Indeed, this these establishes the biblical rational for Gerson’s newly conceived pastoral theology by which he argues for a “certitude” of salvation, since viatores who “believe unto righteousness” do so by moving from despair in themselves and their own iustitia to hope in God and a trust in the divine iustitia.

After moving through a discussion of humility and its place as the root of Christian discipleship, Burrows then asks the following question (p. 203) that pushes to the heart of the late-medieval conflict between a too-confident reliance upon imputed righteousness through good works (particularly partaking in the sacramental life of the Church) and a view of Election and Providence not just as precognition but as pure determinism, stripping humanity – and indeed all of creation – of any freedom whatsoever. “[I]s [Gerson’s] theology of seeking, rooted as it is in a mystical doctrine of justification, compatible with the voluntarist emphases of his soteriology, and particularly with his admonition that viatores are to conform their wills to God’s?”

This, it seems to me, is the question each generation of the Church must face squarely. How do we faithfully reconcile what, in plain terms, seems irreconcilable? After noting that Gerson’s discussion of the human will, discipleship as imitatio Christi in a particularly moral framework, Burrows notes that Gerson still does not allow this as the basis for any alignment of the Divine and human wills. “Ultimately, the conformity of the human and divine wills depends upon divine grace, as mediated per Jesum Christum, such that Gerson place the discussion of imitatio Christi within the broader soteriological framework of Christus victor.” (p. 205)

[D]oes Gerson allow any language of the free conformity of the will from the human side? Apparently his via media does allow for this, although without giving up any ground on the question of election. And with this he falls back upon the language of paradox, offering an argument strikingly similar to Aquinas’s explanation that “man’s turning to God is by free choice, and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God;but free choice can be turned to God only when God turns it.” Gerson echoes this Thomist theme in essential structure and logic . . . . [Gerson] prefers to speak of the human will not as free in an unqualified sense, but as “free by participation” in God’s higher will; the human will must be “freed” by participation in the divine will, since the libertas arbitrii is ultimately “fortified” and “established” insofar as the human will is “vivified in Go through grace.” (p.205)

It should be noted at this juncture that, as I pointed out at the beginning, Burrows roots Gerson’s soteriology in part in a thoroughgoing pessimistic Augustinian anthropology; yet Burrows does not point out that here, at the other end as it were of any discussion of theological anthropology we come face to face with the Bishop of Hippo’s understanding of how grace works in the life of the believer. To this extent, while Gerson might well be using the language of late-medieval nominalism, his thought is rooted in the heart of Christian theology – St. Augustine.

This idea of human freedom as “participation” leads directly to a discussion of Providence as “co-operation” of God and viatores.

[V]iatores serve as partners in God’s providence, and thereby act with a freedom which confers upon them what Thomas had called “the dignity of causality”. God’s ministratio does not stand over against, but encompasses free human acts in the broad spectrum of causation, yet these require “beyond nature” the “gratuitous governance of the spiritual” in order to attain “to the goal of eternal beatitude . . . an eschatological qualification which again brackets the scope of human freedom in teleological terms.

This conception of ministratio Dei, which unites divine and human freedom in a process of cooperation, overcomes any tendency toward determinism in Gerson’s soteriology. And, against a synergism of human acts, he conceives of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love along with “the prayer linked to them” as the means by which the viator freely chooses to “participate” in the divine will. (p. 208)

If this sounds familiar to any United Methodists, it should. With a high doctrine of Divine Freedom, a high Christology, and a modified Augustinian understanding of the redeemed human person as participant in the Divine will, viewed eschatologically, there is much in Burrows’s description of Gerson’s soteriology and Providence that resonates with Wesley’s view that sanctification is much the same journey Gerson’s viator travels, one’s actions ever more rooted in love for others to the glory of God (Wesley’s understanding of human perfection). I’m not suggesting Gerson is a protean Wesleyan (anymore than Burrows cautions readers in seeing Gerson a kind of proto-Lutheranism, either in a too facile sola scripturasola gratia, or sola fide). I am suggesting, however, that the roots of Wesley’s teachings regarding sanctification have deep theological roots that extend not only to the East, as is pointed out a bit too often. Those roots also lie squarely within this Western church tradition through Gerson to Duns Scotus, St. Thomas, and St. Augustine.

Gerson’s vision of humanity as free participants along with God in the penultimate work of preparing Creation for that final beatific presence not only snatches hope from the jaws of despair; it preserves the notion of humanity created imago Dei, this Divine image restoring itself by faith through grace in hope God’s righteousness, incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ, really is the final arbiter of divine justice.

Some Changes Around Here

Selfies, apparently, are a learned skill

Selfies, apparently, are a learned skill

A while back someone asked me what I thought of St. Augustine. I wasn’t quite sure what the questioner wanted, but I said the following: What I like about St. Augustine is he’s just this guy trying to figure things out as he goes along. That he is willing to admit when he’s wrong, that his struggle is so public – in the form of his voluminous writings – and that he is among the first individuals to offer us a glimpse of his psyche (in the modern rather than Aristotelian sense) says much about his lack of ego. Both his Confessions and Retractiones offer us, when read alongside all the other things he wrote, a prime example of someone growing in the faith, stumbling on occasion, but refusing to stop just because it’s hard.

Augustine was not perfect and he knew it. Nor was he without the occasional error in his theology, usually committed out of his deep love for God. That the neo-Platonism of his youth never quite left him, even as he struggled to overcome it; that this patina of classical philosophy has left a stain upon Christian thought we are still trying to scrub away; that’s all true enough. Who of us, however, can say with any confidence that our thought isn’t so far inside one system of thought or another we can’t recognize how we’re staining the faith in our own special way. After all, Christian theology is like all else in this existence between the times: it is both justified and sinful. Unless we are confident enough in our own sanctification that we can proclaim our thought free from the taint of sinful love, I would suggest we offer Augustine just the kind of grace he struggled so hard to define even as he experienced it in his own life.

In other words, I like Augustine because he’s human. While I have little doubt that he was very much the minor aristocrat, particularly after being raised to the Bishopric of Hippo (which he detested; who really like being promoted to administrative positions?), I would suggest the one way Christian theologians just don’t follow our greatest Church Father is the simple humanity we are willing to offer the world. Everything from Church offices through our professionalized, secularized academy training to the special charism of ordination offers far too many the temptation to exult and extol themselves over others. We have become enamored of titles. Far too many people believe receiving an education and a piece of paper entitle them to positions of authority, not to say power, to which others should automatically defer. Still others wish nothing more than to be a voice of authority.

What has always been implicit is now explicit. This is all I am, and what I have to offer are just bits and pieces that folks can take or leave as they wish. It actually goes for the other two sites as well; those, however, are specialized while this one is general whatever-is-on-my-mind-after-I’ve-read-or-seen-something. It is neither false humility nor self-deprecation. It is, as always, exactly what it is, nothing more and nothing less.

So the changes are more about clarity than any change of tone or subject matter.