From a talk given to musicians

For the Lasker Conference on Music   9/13/2006

It is a great opportunity for me to be with you to talk about the relation of faith and art, music and spirituality. These conjunctions have been of great personal interest for me. Our spiritual life seeks expression in more than words, and art and music seem naturally to open up to a spiritual depth.

For our purposes this afternoon I want to focus on three aspects of this intersection.
1. First, The beauty of music is an expression of the beauty of creation, of the orderliness of the cosmos. Art is profoundly natural.

In Genesis 1 we read that God called forth creation from disorganized emptiness and each day the creation branched into a ever more differentiated complexity that referred back to the previous steps in creation.

(Leo Strauss, ever a careful reader, pointed out that in Genesis 1, after initially speaking creation into existence, God commands what he has already created to bring forth. This indicates that long before humans, God delegates to creation some creating. Why is this not noted by those who deny evolution could harmonize with creation?)

God punctuates each stage of the branching and mirroring, repeating with variation, with the refrain, “It is good.” “It is beautiful.”

At the crest of creation God made humans, giving them a position of privilege, a loftiness from which they could survey the rest of creation and share some of the Maker’s pleasure at its wholeness, its complex interactions, its symmetry, its beauty.  Made in the image of  our maker we too can say, “It is good.” And to us was given the capacity and responsibility to nurture and direct and protect the rest of our world– a conserving, curating function.

According to the regiving of the 10 commandments in Deuteronomy,  Sabbath is for calling forth our capacity to behold the wonder of what is finished, what we create, what God has created. The apex of creation is to behold it.

The first command we read in Scripture is the that we are to be fruitful and multiply, to extend the branching diversity of the world God made. Of course this command to be fruitful includes the extension of the human race over time by sexual reproduction, but it is not reading too much into it to see this command bids us to become co-creators in other senses. To produce more branches in the tree of creation, to make new beautiful things, new organization based on the givenness of the underling orderliness of the world we have received. To be fruitful. Our role as creatures within the larger creation is to conserve, to behold, and to co-create.

But all this is based on what already is.  Pythagoras long ago recognized that the orderliness of creation, the logos of the world, could be seen mathematically and musically. Observing that hammers of different weight created different pitches, he noted when struck together, a hammer and a second hammer half its weight would produce what the ear perceives as an octave. More interestingly, hammers whose weights were in simple ratios made harmony, created what we call a scale.

The same phenomenon of mathematical relationship was discovered in a vibrating string, as a violin string. An octave was produced when the string was vibrated in two equal parts, a fifth when it vibrated in three equal parts and so on.

Similarly the natural overtones, which you can observe on a grand piano by striking a low note with the damper off and observing which strings above it vibrate in sympathy to it, unfold the fundamental tone into octave, fifth, octave, fourth, etc, till 7 notes have been discovered, describing the 7 tones of our common scale, and then, as it continues higher, eventually describing the 12 tones of our chromatic scale.

What this came to mean for Pythagoras and those who came after him was that music is a sensual articulation of an invisible and underlying order of creation. In a sense in our songs we are giving voice and demonstration of the orderliness inherent in creation. The beauty imbedded in the structure of nature of which we are a part.

We could pursue the same mathematical relation in visual art through the mysterious recurrence of phi rations, the Fibonacci sequence, the golden square. The proportions perceived as most attractive are those in which such ratios predominate. We see it, even if we do not know the math in what we are seeing. For example, an experiment found that across cultures the human face that was seen as most beautiful exhibited the ratios of the Fibonacci sequence.
Our art, whether music or dance or sculpture, is a testimony to the beauty of the world done in the alphabets of order within nature. Our creating is out of the creation we are given. Beauty in our creation rises from harmony with an order in what is already. It is therefore natural that our art should lend itself to praise of our creator.

2. The second point I would make is from Genesis 2. The ambivalence of beauty.  God placed the primal couple, representative of all the human race, in the bounty and beauty of the world, whose orderliness is described with the metaphor of a planted garden. Unlimited freedom was given with one prohibition. The fruit of one tree was forbidden. We could spend much time with the nature of this tree and fruit and why it was in the garden, but let us take the situation as emblematic of this: we are created with freedom to make, to realize many possibilities, but not all possibilities are in harmony with the original will of God in creation, not all possibilities rhyme with the purposes of creation, the form of nature.

Of course, humans used their freedom to choose the very thing that would curtail their greater freedom, that would undermine their self-confidence (making them ashamed of their own nature in its nakedness”).

And how is it that this happened? Here we have an interesting turn in the story. It was beauty that undermined faith. Eve saw that the fruit was lovely to look at, pleasant to smell, tasty looking, and besides held the mirage-promise of making her as wise as God, rendering God obsolete, dismissible. Who needs God if I can know everything and choose omnisciently?

The choice was between a created thing and the Creator.

Here is the temptation at the heart of all idolatry: to take what we can sense, what we can comprehend, as an adequate substitute in our lives for the Divine Mystery. To settle for the golden calf we fashion for the God who remains hidden within and beyond the cosmos. Rather than the creation pointing us beyond itself toward its source and its dependence upon the Creator, the creature is mistakenly taken as totally self-referential, self-sufficient.

When art becomes an end in itself, its spiritual resonance is lost.
David came into Jerusalem ahead of the ark. In abandon of dance and music he whirled ecstatically in minimum clothing. “You sure made a show for the young ladies!. What kind of royal behavior was that. I know what you were up to trying to impress the crowd,” his wife Michal sneers accusingly. “I was not dancing for them (or for you!). I was dancing for the Lord. And I will dance even more for the Lord.”

The music and dance, all the arts have this capacity: it can draw upon the order of creation, reflecting, extending, harmonizing with it, riffing upon it. And the arts can do this “for the Lord” or the very presentation of art to our senses can mislead us to see only it and not through it a deeper vision of the creator. Art can be idol or icon.

3. Which brings me to the third point. How can it happen that our song, art , our music may be inspired, may be directed to God and recognized as something profoundly from God and giving voice to the Divine, responding to some depth?

In 2 Kings 3 we read of the kings of Israel and Judah coming to Elisha to ask the Lord’s guidance in their planning. Elisha consents and we read he called for the musicians. As they play, the Sprit of God comes upon him. Literally, the Spirit “puts him on”, as we would a set of clothes. Elisha becomes a vehicle for the word of God.

What an interesting conjunction of music and inspiration! Is there something about art that opens us up to God, to the experience of God’s presence.

Is art one way in which we allow God to “put us on” so that we speak or sing or draw or paint in partnership with the Divine? Indeed it is because this happens that we call some art “inspired.”

Psalm 22 expresses the most profound abandonment by God. It is the psalm to which Jesus referred on the cross in the cry of lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But, oddly, it is in this very psalm, of all places that we read of the path to greatest intimacy with the Divine. “The Lord inhabits the praise of Israel.” God becomes present with and to those who begin to sing his praise.

We wait for such. We offer ourselves to such an event. And when it happens it is glory.

We stand upon the Beauty of nature,to testify to the Beauty of God in the Beauty of our art.


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