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.
First, The beauty of music is an expression of the beauty of creation, of the orderliness of the cosmos.
In Genesis 1 we read that God called for 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. 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. That here we might with the maker say, "It is good." to us was given through the capacity and responsibility to nurture and direct and protect the rest of our world. And secondly the first command: to be fruitful and multiply, to extend the branching diversity of the world God made. Of course this includes the extension of the human race over time by sexual reproduction, but I do not believe it i s reading too much into it to see this command as bidding 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.
Pythagoras long ago discovered the connection between beauty and music and the orderliness of creation in such a way that the logos of the world becomes the lexicon for our new musical creation. Pythagoras, it is said, discovered that hammers of different weight created different pitches. A hammer half the weight of a second hammer 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. The natural resonance unfolds 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 articulates something in the basic order of creation. We in a sense in our songs are giving voice and demonstration of the orderliness inherent in creation. Beauty is 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 these 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. We make our creation out of the creation we are given and beauty comes when what we do harmonizes with 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. 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. Beauty 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 as 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 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, our art has this capacity: it can draw upon the order of creation, reflecting, extending, harmonizing with it and second we can lift it to 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.
Which brings me to the third point.
3. How is it that it can 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?
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. The Beauty of nature touches the Beauty of God in the Beauty of our art.