Cosmic Symphony – Józef Życiński (1948-2011)

Józef Życiński, 2008

It was with great sadness that I learned last Friday of the sudden death in Rome of Józef Życiński, Archbishop of Lublin, at the age of 62. Not only was he widely recognized as one of the most balanced and enlightened voices in the Polish Catholic hierarchy, but as a philosopher he was also one of the most intellectually brilliant figures in contemporary European Catholicism, equally capable of lecturing at Oxford or Berkeley as of presenting his ideas with engaging directness to young people at Polish rock festivals. One of the most spiritually sensitive contributors to the ongoing dialogue between science and faith as well as a penetrating commentator on human culture, he was known in the United States both through his collaboration with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and as a Distinguished European Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. In his own country he was an active and frequently outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation, with particular reference to the Jewish community, receiving the 2007 the ‘Person of the Year’ award from the major Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza for “defending the values of the democratic order and pluralism and his Christian witness to humanism and tolerance”. In making the award, Gazeta‘s editor Adam Michnik related how the Archbishop’s Letters to Nicodemus (heavily censored by the communist authorities) had provided inspiration to those involved with the Solidarity trade union in the years following the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981.

‘Przystanek Woodstock’ Festival, 2007 (photo: Stefan Mazewski/REPORTER)

Listening to the Cosmic Symphony

In the series of posts ‘Truth is Symphonic’ on this blog I quoted from Archbishop Życiński’s seminal God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism, one of the most philosophically articulate yet deeply meditative recent treatments of the relationship between scientific and religious thought. I was particularly haunted as a composer by his use of the metaphor of a God as the author of  ‘Cosmic Symphony’ to illustrate his concept of Divine interaction with a world which is guided by the Creator towards its final destination of beauty and goodness, but not coerced. God in Życiński’s vision is both transcendent to and yet deeply involved in the immanent processes of the world:

‘The God hidden in evolution directs that process towards a transcendent reality which is not yet physically realized but which in some way already forms the structures of the processes which are actually occuring. The history of the world is not then a recording played from a cosmic compact disk, but the completion of a great symphony in which man can aim at Divine patterns of beauty, but can also keep his own authorial rights to cosmic dissonances and discords.'[1]

Archbishop Życiński, who frequently adopted Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God as the ‘Poet of the World’,[2] had a long-standing engagement with the arts, dating from his organization of conversational workshops for artists in Kraków in the early 1980.  He saw of the choice facing contemporary humanity as lying between the call to be  ‘a generation of God’s artists entrusted with the mission of defending beauty in a culture dominated by kitsch’ [3] and a robotic, de-humanized future dominated by reality TV and soulless technology.

Praying through Penderecki

Introducing a performance of Krzysztof Penderecki’s monumental Seven Gates of Jerusalem in the Lublin Philharmonic in 2009 in memory of John Paul II, Archbishop Życiński issued a provocative call to ‘pray through Penderecki’, challenging those who associate prayer with moving Rosary beads but not with listening to an oratorio or meditating on the words of Ezekiel set to music:

‘Then we need to read through John Paul II’s letter to artists. A letter, in which he writes of how the service of beauty, like the introduction of beauty into our lives, is a form of connection with God and something which has the character of prayer par excellence.‘ [4]

The Archbishop’s musical analogy in God and Evolution therefore comes as no surprise in this broader context; Życiński’s philosophical work can be seen as endeavoring to reunite the sciences and the humanities. His specialization in issues of cosmology linked him to a historic Polish tradition linking science, art and contemplation, as exemplified by Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Copernican’ Symphony or the work of Życiński’s scholarly and clerical colleague Michał Heller (b. 1936), who recently established the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Kraków with the money from his 2008 Templeton Foundation Prize (the world’s most prestigious award in the area of faith and science). Heller uses the same symphonic metaphor as Życiński when discussing universal history:

‘Mathematical structures that are parts of the composition determining the functioning of the universe are called laws of physics. It is a very subtle composition indeed. Like in any masterly symphony, elements of chance and necessity are interwoven with each other and together span the structure of the whole. Elements of necessity determine the pattern of possibilities and dynamical paths of becoming, but they leave enough room for chancy events to make this becoming rich and individual. […] There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising Mind of God, what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation.’ [5]

Letting the notes tell their own story

This analogy of Heller’s and Życiński’s seems to me to be a poetically subtle description of a deep truth concerning the interplay of freedom and directionality in the world’s relationship to God. It reconciles the existence of surprise and spontaneity in a world populated by free beings capable of undertaking actions with possibly tragic consequences, with a Biblically-inspired confidence in the ultimate destiny of creation.

The comparison with the genesis of a symphonic composition is a telling one, as I can vouch from personal experience. Imagine a composer embarking on a symphony, having an overall vision of the work in terms of its starting and ending-points as well as its general structure, division into movements etc., but without determining the details. Because that overall vision exists in the composer’s imagination, it naturally shapes those details as they come into being during the compositional process (to use a popular scientific term we can therefore talk about ‘top-down causality’, as the whole influences the parts), so that the flow of good symphonic music has a sense of direction to it obtained by keeping the big picture in the back of one’s mind all the time. During this creative process I for one find myself constantly asking ‘background’ questions such as ‘how far am I into the structure?’, ‘are the proportions appropriate between sections?’ or ‘am I losing the plot?’, and these affect my choices as I work at the ‘foreground’ level, shaping melodic lines, harmonies, rhythmic patterns etc. However, while this foreground material needs steering in order not to get out of control and wandering off in completely the wrong direction, my experience is that it also needs to be allowed a certain degree of room for spontaneous evolution if the composition is to have any genuine life rather than sounding completely ‘programmed’.  The established structure needs a certain built-in flexibility, or else it becomes a straightjacket.

Curiously, an important element of this flexibility is the necessity for the composer to listen to the story that the notes themselves are telling. Admittedly every musician’s perception of this story is subjective, as aesthetic sensibilities are a highly individual business, but my own impression is frequently that the notes are leading, as if of their own accord, in certain directions and not others by virtue of their acoustic properties. The tonal system is of course a particularly notable historical codification of innate tendencies in the notes related to the harmonic series, but even in non-tonal music these harmonic phenomena (which Olivier Messiaen used to term la résonance) still exist, and are ignored at the composer’s peril. There are of course various strategies for trying to develop musical systems on bases other than the overtone series (12-tone composition being the most famous), and these naturally constitute interesting and useful resources in the contemporary composer’s toolbox, but they have to be used with care and in awareness of their acoustic consequences. I have learnt by trial and error that forcing the the notes into places where they do not want to go is not a recipe for good music. [6]

It strikes me that Życiński is expressing a profound intuition when he describes the Creator’s dealings with creation in similar terms. In the unfolding narrative of history God gives considerable autonomy to God’s creatures in the same way that a sensitive composer allows the music to unfold according to its own organic development (I remember hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen giving a compelling description of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony in these terms), working by persuasion rather than brute strength. Just as without a degree of improvisation, allowing the notes to ‘find their own way’, the music becomes too scripted, too formulaic, so in our lives God seems to invite us to follow rather than dragging us along kicking and screaming, even if our chosen paths are at times distinctly non-linear. I would venture to say that God’s motivation for allowing such autonomy is in some way analogous to that of the composer;  in the life of the world that is God’s Cosmic Symphony, freedom is indispensable if there is to be the authentic music of real relationship, of genuine love.

A Meaning stronger than evil

Although God and Evolution is a book primarily concerned with science, Archbishop Życiński maintains a humanistic perspective throughout, insisting (along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin, one of his major influences) that natural history and the evolution of human culture cannot be artificially separated from one another, even though culture transcends mere questions of biology. He therefore concludes with a meditation entitled ‘Solidarity and Meaning’ (hardly a haphazard choice given the Polish context) expressing a combination of realism and hope in a call to the human responsibility that freedom implies:

‘The future of evolution is not the result of cosmic determinisms; one may not formulate it from the perspective of a fatalistic necessitarianism, in which the future of our race is understood by looking back at the extinction of the dinosaurs. The future of our race depends to a large extent on the connection of our activities with the action of the Divine Creator. On that cooperation depends the shape of the future culture of life, the consciousness of the next generations of the species Homo sapiens, a civilization of a Meaning stronger than evil. […] The shape of that evolution depends not only on possibilities in the development of nature, but also on the direction of human efforts towards those Divine ideals which the Poet of the World, hidden in the heart of nature, discreetly proposes.'[7]

An English-language obituary of Józef Życiński can be found at .


[1] [2] Józef Życiński, God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism, translated by Kenneth W. Kemp and Zuzanna Maslanka (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 164.

[2] ‘God’s rôle is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. […] he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.’ (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), 346.) A compelling and entertaining podcast featuring Philip Clayton of the Claremont School of Theology in conversation with Tripp Fuller on the correspondence between Whitehead’s work, contemporary Christian thought and a ‘musical’ understanding of history can be downloaded at

[3] Nanovic Institute lecture, University of Notre Dame (available online at ).

[4] “Modlimy się, przesuwając paciorki różańca, natomiast kiedy słuchamy oratorium albo rozważamy słowa Ezechiela z piękną muzyką, nie kojarzymy tego z modlitwą […] Wtedy trzeba nam przeczytać list Jana Pawła II do artystów. List, w którym pisze on o tym, jak służba pięknu, jak wprowadzanie piękna w nasze życie, jest formą więzi z Bogiem i czymś co par excellence ma charakter modlitwy” (,1342,title,Symfonia-Pendereckiego-w-rocznice-smierci-Jana-Pawla-II,wid,11003943,wiadomosc.html?ticaid=1bc94)

[5] Michał Heller, ‘Deciphering the Mind of God’ in First Things, March 19, 2008. An English-language author who has made extensive use of the metaphor of the universe as God’s composition – and who is cited approvingly by Życiński – is Arthur Peacocke (a subject for a future post in his own right), who uses it to tackle the age-old conundrum of how to affirm Divine Transcendence without excluding God from immanent natural processes:

‘The model of musical composition for God’s activity in creation is here, I would suggest, particularly helpful. There is no doubt of the ‘transcendence’ of the composer in relation to the music he or she creates. The composer gives it existence, and without the composer it would not be at all. So this model properly reflects that transcendence of God as Creator of all-that-is which, as the ‘listeners’ to the music of creation, we wish to affirm. Yet, when we are actually listening to a musical work, say, a Beethoven piano sonata, then there are times when we are so deeply absorbed in it that, for a moment we are thinking Beethoven’s musical thoughts with him. […] Yet if anyone were to ask at that moment, ‘Where is Beethoven now?’ – we could only reply that Beethoven-qua-composer was to be found only in the music itself. The music would in some sense be Beethoven’s inner musical thought kindled in us and we would genuinely be encountering Beethoven-qua-composer. This very closely models God’s immanence in creation and God’s self-communication in and through the processes by means of which God is creating’ (Arthur Peacocke, The Palace of Glory: God’s World and Science (Hindmarsh, South Australia: ATF Press, 2005).

[6] This observation on the element of freedom integral to the emergence of a musical composition seems to correlate very closely to the view of Divine creativity expressed by scientist-theologians John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, conveying a concept very similar to those of  Życiński, Heller and Peacocke:

‘The history of the universe is not the performance of a fixed score, written by God in eternity and inexorably performed by the creatures, but it is a grand improvisation in which the Creator and the creatures cooperate in the unfolding development of the grand fugue of creation. God is not a mere spectator of this process […], but neither are the creatures caught up willy-nilly in a process in which they have no active part to play’ (John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth: Fifty-One Questions about God, Science, and Belief, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 15).

[7] Józef Życiński, God and Evolution, 251.


Par la présente, je prends contact avec vous afin de demander l’autorisation de reproduire les deux extraits ci-joints tirés du Diptyque et du Quatuor pour la fin du temps d’Olivier Messiaen pour un ouvrage musicologique sur la musique d’orgue du XXe siècle édité par Christopher Anderson du Southern Methodist University, Dallas, qui sera publié par Routledge. Je vous serai remerciant de bien vouloir m’indiquer les droits à acquitter.

Dans l’attente de vous lire, je vous prie de constater, Mesdames, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées.


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