Constrained by the score?

Miroslav Volf

A couple of days ago I was listening to a fascinating discussion with Jürgen Moltmann recorded at the 2009 Emergent Theological Conversation (thoroughly recommended and available on-line at http://www.emergentvillage.com/podcast/2010-emergent-theological-conversation-episode-1 ). Towards the end of the session, Prof. Moltmann was given a string of theological and philosophical names on which to comment in the space of one sentence; this prompted some priceless answers which would merit entire posts in themselves. Try the following for size – ‘Augustine? ‘Ask his wife about him’. Pelagius? ‘The saint of American Christians’. Alfred North Whitehead? ‘Very complicated to read’. One name that however provoked a rather longer response was that of the brilliant Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf – perhaps Moltmann’s best-known student -, currently the director of Yale’s Center for Faith and culture, where he teaches a course on faith and globalization together with former British prime minister Tony Blair. Moltmann emphasized the way in which Volf’s seminal Exclusion and Embrace and much of his subsequent work derives its power from a combination of searching reflection and lived experience in the Yugoslavia of the 1980s. One piece of writing which powerfully demonstrates this concern for the coherence of theory and praxis, penned for a more general audience than Exclusion and Embrace, is Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. My purpose here isn’t to attempt to summarize this highly thought-provoking book, but to highlight a particularly interesting passage concerning freedom, obedience and the way in which our contemporary culture frequently misconceives the relationship between them. Read on and you will understand the relevance of the question to this blog.

‘Constrained by the score’: freedom and obedience

One of the most compelling passages of Free of Charge concerns the issue of giving and freedom in the context of human relationships. What we mean by the word ‘gift’ is a question which has generated a great deal of recent comment among philosophers and theologians (e.g. John Milbank’s Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon), much of it revolving around a basic conundrum: given that the dealings of human society so often seem reducible to a play of vested interests, can there be any such thing as a free lunch among the fundamentally selfish human beings that we all are? Is real altruism possible, or are there no gifts in life that come without strings attached? Is it possible for us to give anything to anyone without ulterior motives, or are we all just manipulators at heart? Are we ourselves capable of giving freely, or are we merely the slaves of our own egotism?

In the course of his inquiry into the nature of giving and human freedom, Miroslav Volf notes that the New Testament confronts us with a basic paradox. On one hand, it would seem that giving is only genuine if it is free from compulsion, yet on the other Volf insists that to give to others is also an obligation. So the question naturally arises: ‘Is it possible to be obliged to give freely?’ Or, to put it another way, how can love be a command (as it is in John 15)? Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

In attempting to answer this riddle, he makes the important point that the apparent contradiction between obligation and freedom largely results from our having conceived freedom wrongly, equating it with ‘autonomous spontaneity’ (p. 65), freedom ‘from something’ rather than freedom ‘for something’, a purpose that includes service to others. Why?  Because we have swallowed our modern Western culture’s notion of a person as an autonomous unit, ‘self-defined and free-floating’ (p. 66):

‘Strip down all the influences of time and place, abstract from culture and nurture, and then you’ll come to your authentic core. This core is who you truly are, the thinking goes – unique, unshaped, unconstrained.’ (p. 66)

Volf doesn’t say as much, but I’d characterize this as the Gospel according to Frank Sinatra, the ‘I did it my way’ mentality:

‘For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!’

Frankie’s famous peroration is put in the context of facing ‘the final curtain’ (which is probably the main reason why the popularity of this hymn to egotism at funerals has become something of a social phenomenon). However, the same mindset is reflected just as well by the first full recorded sentence of a two  year-old acquaintance of mine: ‘c’est moi qui décide(‘I’m the one who decides’). Volf comments that this vision of personality – one which is foundational to modern Western society – is ‘more like a caricature of a divine self than an accurate description of a human self.’ (p. 66)

To illustrate what ‘freedom for something’ might look like, Volf offers an eloquent example which I would like to discuss and develop a little from a practising musician’s perspective:

‘Imagine your life as a piece of music, a Bach cello suite. You’ve heard it played by a virtuoso. You love it and would like to play it well. But try as you might, you fail – not so much because you’ve had a bad teacher or haven’t practised enough, but because your left hand has a defect. You make music, but it’s nothing like it’s supposed to sound. Then you have surgery performed by a magician with a scalpel. Your hand heals. You return to your lessons with new vigor. And then one day, you play the piece nearly perfectly. Full of joy, you exclaim, “Yes! I love it! This is the way the music of my life should sound!” Constrained by the score because you have to follow its notation? Well, yes. But loving every moment of that constraint – and not feeling it as constraint at all – because the very constraint is what makes for the beauty and delight.’  (p. 67)

Here Volf seems to make a very cogent point regarding the interplay of freedom, constraint and grace. As anyone who has every practised a musical instrument knows, there is no point in trying to interpret a Bach cello suite unless you have first disciplined your mind and body to do so. Switching instruments to make a point, today’s electronic pianos are equipped with magic buttons marked ‘DEMO’ which, when you push them (as my children love to do) will instantly and effortlessly give flawless renditions of a Chopin study or a Sonata by Mozart. However, those masterworks can never be learned just by pushing a button. It is discipline and effort which create freedom in musical performance, and Volf is surely on good Biblical grounds when he suggests that this is an analogy of the spiritual life. St Paul’s letters are full of references to the element of struggle (Romans 7 …) which ensues from the fact that our ‘new selves’ are in constant tension with our old, ‘Adamic’ nature. Frequently using athletic metaphors, he speaks of ‘straining toward what is ahead’ (Philippians 3), running the race (2 Timothy 4:7), even beating his body and making it a slave (1 Corinthians 9:27), which may sound shocking to our ears but certainly not to anyone who has done any serious sports, musical training or dance. At the same time, he implies that all the practice in the world is of no use at all if your left hand has a defect; then freedom for performance requires the intervention of the magician and his scalpel. Similarly, our sinful will is damaged and needs the healing of God’s grace to set us free. There are things that we simply can’t do on our own.

This leads us on to a second dimension of the relationship between freedom and constraint which is maybe worth exploring. The player whose hand has been mended is in one sense ‘free’ from her previous limitations. But that does not mean that she has license to abuse that freedom by change the notes arbitrarily during performance. As Volf remarks, she still remains ‘constrained by the score’ of Bach’s cello suite by virtue of her relationship to the composer.

Reflecting on Volf’s observations, I would say that musical performers in my personal experience tend to fall into one of two categories (even at the highest level). Firstly, there are those for whom the bottom line is personal self-expression at all costs, who primarily seem interested in using the music as a vehicle for emotional catharsis or (worse) the demonstration of their own technique. As a classic example, you could cite the operatic tenor (and I’ve known quite a few representative samples) who insists on holding the high note at the end of his aria long after the orchestra have finished playing and packed away their instruments. Or the CD cover featuring the words ‘Karajan’ (embossed in 72-point bold type) conducts ‘Beethoven’ (10-point Arial Narrow, lower case only). This category clearly sees ‘freedom’ as equivalent to an unbridled display of ego; as parents of budding performers will probably realize, it is a moot point whether the arts attract this personality type or in fact create and reinforce it.

The second category, however, (one which I must say has been made an increasingly endangered species as artists are pressurized to sacrifice to the idols of the Western music industry) comprises those musicians who seek their artistic freedom by giving themselves over so completely to the music that it is difficult to say where Bach stops and they begin. In seeking unselfishly to realize the composer’s intentions, indeed to listen to what the notes in the score are themselves trying to say, they discover authentic liberation, finding their true personalities by being taken outside themselves. In the encounter with genuinely great art, we do not ‘interpret Bach or Mozart’ – they interpret us, if we have the patience, receptivity, and humility to allow them to do so.

The same can surely be said, indeed far more so, of our encounter with God’s living Word through the written words of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Here is the ‘score’ by which we are constrained in our spiritual lives; we cannot find any true freedom other than in allowing ourselves to be shaped by the Biblical narrative of creation and Redemption, in recognizing our utter dependence on the One who made us. We cannot find any liberation other than in the path of obedient discipleship, following the one who himself was ‘obedient unto death’ (Philippians 2).

Nonetheless, any performer worth her salt will know that Bach’s music cannot be adequately played simply by mechanically reproducing what is written on the page.  Not least because the notation of all music of Bach’s era leaves a lot of liberty to the player, indeed presupposes interpretive creativity. To that extent, the act of making music is a genuine collaboration between the composer and the performer. However, the performer’s interpretation can only be valid if she not only deciphers the notes of a musical score, but also understands the spirit in which they were written. Similarly it is not enough to know the words of Scripture (not synonymous with the Word in the singular, it should be added) without the illumination of the Spirit. Only such illumination can make possibe the living practical application, the ‘performance’, which results from our active collaboration with the Divine Composer. This however is where the analogy reaches its limits. Unlike Bach or Beethoven, this Composer is alive to guide us every step of the way and indeed unites himself to us in a way that no human composer can: for it is only in His strength that his score can be performed at all.

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