Resounding Visions

Resounding Visions

I have just finished Jeremy Begbie’s latest book-length treatment of the music-theology relationship, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2007), a penetrating but accessible exploration of a wide range of musical and spiritual issues destined for a educated but non-specialist readership which has merited strong endorsements from the likes of contemporary heavyweights such as Rowan Williams and NT Wright. As some of you will probably already know, Jeremy Begbie, currently Thomas Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, is without doubt one of the foremost figures in the interdisciplinary conversation between Christian faith and the arts, a compelling writer and dynamic speaker who brings his understanding of music as a trained practitioner to bear on his theology in highly creative ways.

After an opening section outlining a basic approach to looking at music as ‘art in action’ (drawing on the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff) and dealing with music in Biblical times, Resounding Truth embarks on a concise but far from superficial history of the sometimes stormy relationship between music and theology. The journey from Pythagoras and Christian neo-Platonism through the Reformation, Bach and Schleiermacher through to Barth, Bonhoeffer, Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan is skilfully set against a broader backdrop of the search for resolutions to ancient tensions in conceptualizing the relation between God and World, matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible, nature and culture, music and text, an objectively existing world and human subjectivity. Part Three, perhaps the most original and thought-provoking section of Resounding Truth, argues persuasively that music has a positive rôle to play in a present-day context as a component of a responsible ‘Christian Ecology’ that would avoid the false dichotomies of the past with regard to human beings’ relationship to the physical world, offering neither escape from temporal embodiment into a realm of timeless spirituality, nor the idolization of the material as such.

To affirm music’s place as belonging to a broader ‘ecology’ rooted in an ultimate and loving purpose to the world’s existence requires that music has to be acknowledged as more than simply a social construct. This, Jeremy Begbie contends, is

‘arguably the important question facing the theology-music conversation in the present climate: Is music in any way grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world that we did not make but that is in some sense given to us? Are music making and music hearing to be understood as embedded in and responsible to an order wider than that which we generate – one that is worthy of respect and trust?’[1]

One reason that this question is so significant is that we are living at a time when, because of the ambivalent trajectory of modern Western thought over several centuries, many are no longer convinced of ‘the extent to which our world is to be considered anything more than is simply there in a bare, neutral sense.’ Although not mentioned by name, it is clear that contemporary debates between reductionist materialism and a theistic world-view are in the background here: ‘Even if not raised with theological concerns in mind, this issue inevitably presses us strongly in a theological direction – if the world is given, then by what or whom, and to what end?’[2]

Begbie-Resounding-Truth-cover-200x300A core assertion in Resounding Truth is that we need to recover a sense that the universe has meaning as a created cosmos which, as modern scientific research into natural processes is increasingly showing, is an interplay of order and freedom (theologically this can in Trinitarian terms be mapped on to God’s creative activity through the Son and Spirit respectively – a line which regular readers of this blog may well recognize):

‘A stress on both Christ’s and the Spirit’s work in creation can help us here. In the New Testament, Christ is associated especially with the ordering and coherence of the world […] [b]ut along with this, do we not also need a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit, whose particular ministry is to realize now in ever fresh and unpredictable ways what has already been achieved in the Son? To put it another way, the Spirit is the improviser.’[3]

Given such a framework of creation, the structure which we discern in music is therefore not merely a projection of our own making, but is a question of the ‘grain of the universe’. Music is certainly a human activity, and many of its ‘meanings’ are undoubtedly the products of cultural encoding, but it relies at a deeper level – as Pythagoras was the first to discover – on the inherent properties of sound, without which no music would be possible. Until the late Middle Ages the link between these properties and the proportions of a ‘harmonious’ universe was assumed as the basis for theorizing about music; Resounding Truth’s contention is that the history of music in the West from the Renaissance onwards can in some respects be viewed in terms as a mirror of the gradual collapse of the belief in an objectively ordered cosmos and its replacement by a concentration on the human subject as the generator of meaning. This trend in Western art-music reaches its ultimate point in the absolute determination of the music material in ‘integral serialism’ of the avant-garde in the 1950s (the subjection of all parameters of musical composition to mathematical control). The paradoxical outcome, however, is not the apotheosis of human freedom but – as Adorno saw half a century ago – the resistance of the material, with an artistic result which is aurally indistinguishable from its theoretical opposite, randomly generated chaos. This Begbie sees as a form of ‘control at the price of destruction’, emblematic of the modern ecological crisis, which he describes in terms reminiscent of Jacques Ellul: ‘through ever stricter control we lose control of our God-given home and become increasingly alienated from it.’[4]


Jeremy Begbie


At the heart of post-Enlightenment modernity, it has been argued not only by Begbie but also a variety of other thinkers such as John Milbank, Charles Taylor or most recently Oxford University’s Professor of Religion and Science Peter Harrison[5], is a dualistic view of the universe as divided into an inert, demystified and ultimately meaningless material realm on one hand which is dominated ruthlessly by a seemingly all-powerful technology on the other. Developing Resounding Truth’s line of interpretation, it might be said that this outlook – which has also had a major impact on religious thought, not least through a disastrous reading of Genesis 1:26-28 in terms of domination rather than stewardship – expresses itself in (at least) three different but equally problematic ways.

A first consequence, as has just been noted, has been the steadily increasing alienation of human beings from nature, resulting in the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources, the generation of Adorno’s soulless ‘administered world’ and the ecological devastation we see all around us. That this has to a large extent become the default position of Western civilization in late modernity is something which, thankfully but belatedly, increasing numbers of people are now realizing.

The second consequence of the disenchantment of the natural realm is in some respects the opposite of modernity’s hubristic elevation of humanity to God-like status, although it follows logically from it. Once non-human nature has been stripped of any metaphysical significance (no longer ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous formulation), then reductionist scientific materialism’s deconstruction of the supposed qualitative difference between humanity and nature effectively reduces human beings to nothing but ‘machines controlled by our genes’ (Richard Dawkins). According to this nihilistic scheme, the ‘ancient covenant’ of meaning is ‘in pieces’, to cite Jacques Monod’s memorable conclusion in Chance and Necessity; humanity is as much an instantiation of an underlying futility as volcanic ash or pond scum.

The third possibility arises out of a reaction to the first two: in an attempt to re-invest the universe with meaning while (understandably) accepting the continuum between human beings and the natural world, this view takes the ‘pantheist’ option of deifying nature, an option followed by much New Age spirituality. This at least restores some semblence of sense to the sphere of the material, but at the price of leaving no room either for a transcendent deity or for human culture as being somehow more than nature. Once an impersonal vitalism is embraced as a governing interpretive framework for viewing the world, it is human history and civilization which risks being deprived of any significance.


Olivier Messiaen, 1930

The philosophical interest of a figure such as Olivier Messiaen (whether or not one likes his music) is that he seems to believe that there is an alternative to all three of these scenarios, and that this alternative consists in some way of a return to a ‘sacramental’ universe in which things point beyond themselves not to a Kantian sublime of abstract concepts which relegates the realm of the senses to insignificance, but to a transcendent, loving source of all beauty, goodness and truth which imbues the material world with meaning. However, if there is an element of nostalgia for a pre-modern world-view here, Messiaen’s approach is not regressive (his belief that all times are simultaneous for God relativizes human categories of historical progress or regress). For all his frequent appeals to Thomas Aquinas in works such as Les Corps Glorieux, Messiaen is not embracing a reactionary, obscurantist agenda (his Aquinas is far closer to the holistic blend of theology and devotional spirituality promoted by the nouvelle théologie than to a dry scholasticism). Messiaen’s fantastic cosmos is certainly ‘re-enchanted’, but not by a denial of modern scientific discovery; like many thinkers at the frontier between science and faith from Teilhard de Chardin to Alister McGrath or Holmes Rolston III, he instead finds an element of wonder and mystery in modern science itself that he intriguingly reconciles with the pre-modern, with a profound meditation on the nature of number providing the most obvious common element shared between the two historically distant epochs. The musical universe that results is ‘half-medieval, half ultra-modern’, to use his description of one of his heroes and main influences, the composer and organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Messiaen is every bit as much at home with Einsteinian relativity as with Gregorian chant, as a glance at the bewilderingly wide array of topics in his multi-volume compositional treatise reveals.

Where Messiaen’s work is fascinatingly actual is in the clue that it perhaps provides to a possible way out of some contemporary quandaries as to how our world might be ‘re-enchanted’ without relapse into superstition. Messiaen is not a fundamentalist in the sense of asserting that the modern scientific enterprise is to be dismissed en bloc as a snare and delusion. But neither does he suggest that the Biblical narrative needs a thorough-going demythologization in the light of science, of the type famously proposed by Rudolf Bultmann, whose famous essay on de-mythologizing the New Testament appeared in 1941, the same year as Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. In that work, as in Visions de l’Amen, Messiaen appeals to a robustly orthodox over-arching framework of Creation (of an evolutionary sort, it should be said, a gradual emergence from an initial nebulous potentiality as depicted in the first ‘Vision’), Redemption and ultimate Consummation. But at the same time Messiaen approaches composition not merely as a form of self-expression – although his music can at times be extremely lush and provocatively emotional – but also as a type of ‘scientific’ experimentation with new technical procedures, mathematical permutations and startlingly original combinations of apparently irreconcilable musical materials. As a composer, Messiaen is indisputably one of the great pioneers of the twentieth century. There may be some validity to the criticism of Jeremy Begbie and others that Messiaen’s thought is too uncritical of static categories of being that set an immutable Divine eternity in polar opposition to this-worldly temporality (it has to be said that the category of becoming is not a natural one for him), but on the other hand, Messiaen’s praxis as a teacher and participant in French cultural life over six decades demonstrates that he was anything but disengaged from historical processes and the life of the world around him.


As a thinker, Messiaen undoubtedly has his limits. His written commentaries on his own music are highly idiosyncratic and frequently, if not always fairly, laughed out of court for the naïveté of theirextravagant language. For all his considerable knowledge of Christian tradition, his Biblical exegesis and use of literary sources frequently border on the whimsical. And yet it would surely be unreasonable to require of Messiaen, as someone who cautiously called himself a ‘theological musician’, the type of intellectual rigour expected either of a professional philosopher or a systematic theologian. To see Messiaen as providing the conceptual resources for a refutation of atheistic post-modern thought, as has boldly been claimed by writers such as Milbank and Catherine Pickstock in their arguments with Gilles Deleuze,[6] is perhaps to stretch the point too far, despite their many intriguing insights. Argumentative coherence is not Messiaen’s primary aim – although there are definite elements both of dogmatic theology and philosophical speculation in his work which cannot be neglected for its proper appraisal, his greatness principally lies in the richness of his musical output.

Here it would seem important to bear in mind the extent to which Messiaen’s mindset was shaped by his day-to-day experience over 60 years as a church organist in the service of the Eucharist. Messiaen’s theorizing and composing are both ultimately best seen as acts of prayerful worship; viewed in this light his intellection is essentially a ‘liturgy of the mind’ as it meditates on Creation. His music may remain impossibly arcane for some, crassly sentimental for others, but perhaps Messiaen’s greatest achievement is his reconciliation of theology as rational reflection with an authentic spirituality expressed through music, the testimony of a life which is liturgical in the sense of being shot through by wonder, lived in a spirit of ‘supernatural childhood before God’ (Romano Guardini). And at its best, as in the wartime works such as the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, Visions de l’Amen and Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine as in his later masterpieces such as La Transfiguration, Messiaen’s music strikes a remarkable balance between the head, the heart and the gut, offering us an inspiring glimpse of the wholeness intended by God not only for human beings but for the entire cosmos.

[1] Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth : Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2007), 307.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[5] In his 2011 Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, which can be viewed on-line at . See especially Lecture 3, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’.

[6] See Catherine Pickstock, ‘God and Meaning in Music: Messiaen, Deleuze, and the Musico-Theological Critique of Modernism and Postmodernism’ in Sacred Music Vol. 134/4 (Winter 2007), 40-62.

Roman Carnival

I am not generally one for participating in Facebook discussions, the majority of which I find banal in the extreme (unless, that is, they are calling for the removal of various Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships, in which case they clearly constitute one of the most important social and political phenomena in the contemporary world). I was however intrigued by a recent exchange between two friends from the Crescendo network. The first comment came from a wonderful Czech violinist who had played in the première of my Hermosura de Dios at the Zemplen Festival in Hungary. On tour in Spain as a member of the Prague Philharmonia, one of Europe’s foremost chamber orchestras, he remarked on how struck he was on each visit to the Iberian peninsula by the atmosphere impregnated with the spiritual legacy of centuries of mysticism. His impressions were enthusiastically endorsed by a Dutch musicologist who is an avid fan of Andalucia, adding that this Spanish ‘mystic heaviness’ was something he missed during his travels in Italy.

Vatican City seen from Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

I found myself thinking about this exchange this week as I spent a few days of family holidays in Rome with our children. Having clambered around the stunning ruins of the Foro Romano and Ostia Antica (and making sure that there were just enough injections of Italian ice-cream to keep everyone onboard for the cultural side of the visit), we made the obligatory trip to St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums on our final day. Personally I have never found mysticism in short supply in Italy, but that is perhaps because I have had the privilege of giving organ recitals in some of the country’s most remarkable and inspiring sites, such as the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna and above all the sanctuary of La Verna, where St Francis of Assissi received the stigmata. I found it well-nigh impossible, however, not to feel highly ambivalent about the monumental but decidedly non-mystical architecture and art of the Vatican, for all the magnificence of the Sixtine Chapel and Raphael Stanzas. For starters, it is hard to forget that the construction of St Peter’s played a key rôle in the fragmentation of Christianity. The present Basilica was completed in the sixteenth century with money obtained by the sale of indulgences, a practice which directly provoked the young Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, setting in motion the momentous and tragic train of events associated with the break-up of the Western Church. Theses 50 and 51 pinpoint Luther’s justifiable objections to the manner in which the Basilica’s completion was financed:

Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers [here Luther is referring to the Dominican indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel], he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.

Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.

It is not at all my purpose here to enter into the theological spats of the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics; indeed, it is surely one of the most encouraging signs of recent decades that the Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches have at last been able to endorse a ‘joint declaration on justification‘ that goes a long way to healing the misunderstandings of the sixteenth century. What both interests and disturbs me is rather the central question of the relationship of the Church to money and temporal authority, and the way in which ‘high art’ has been co-opted into a narrative of ecclesiastical power. In the case of St Peter’s that murky story did not begin with the re-building of the church in the 1500s, but with its initial construction under Constantine in the fourth century, a time when Christianity moved swiftly from being a persecuted faith to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 under the emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I.

The historical narrative of the ‘Constantinian fall’ of the Church has of course been widely promoted in recent decades – a sorry tale of how Christianity became captive to an imperial, millenialist theology seeing Rome not as the Antichrist of the Apocalypse but as God’s providential instrument for the realization of his Kingdom. Prominent adherents of such a line include writers such as John Howard Yoder, Jürgen Moltmann [1] and Jacques Ellul, ( who in La subversion du christianisme (1984) spoke of Christianity’s historic capitulation to ‘le carnaval politique’, hence the title of this post), or more recently James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) and Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith). This thesis concerning the catastrophe of ‘Constantinianism’ has admittedly come under fire in some quarters as simplistic. Standing before the huge facade of St Peter’s I nonetheless found it difficult not to acknowledge that there is more than a grain of truth in the view that Christianity sacrificed something essential to the identity of its mission when it effectively embraced the methods of the Roman Empire, and that its future credibility depends to a large extent on the renunciation of that heritage. As I walked inside the Basilica, I found this conviction being reinforced, as I was struck by the fact that the building’s most precious and moving artwork, Michelangelo’s Pietà – surely one of the most sublime expressions of the core of the Christian message -, is actually tucked away in a corner of the edifice and is far smaller than the huge, domineering sculptures of various Popes nearer the altar.

photo: Stanislav Traykov

On the other hand, all this does not necessarily mean that St Peter’s should be ‘reduced to ashes’ as Luther’s thesis suggests (even if it is interesting to speculate how Christian history might have turned out had that occurred in the 1500s). The history of the Basilica is after all not only a depressing story of human hubris; it was in its walls that the Second Vatican Council made its historic and revolutionary declarations in 1959-1965, and it was from its steps (in the open air, significantly, rather than from inside) that John Paul II made his famous and world-changing declaration of 1978 : ‘Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ! (‘Non abbiate paura! Aprite, anzi, spalancate le porte a Cristo!). Indeed, it might be said that it is St Peter’s Square rather than the Basilica which symbolizes the hopeful future of contemporary Catholicism and the post-Vatican II understanding of the Church as the People of God. However, if what we are looking for are traces of ancient Christian spirituality, it is to other places in Rome that we need to go.

In what follows an unlikely starring rôle is played by the memory card of my cell phone, of all things, on which three items are stocked – a piece of music, a photograph and an audio lecture. The first is Arvo Pärt’s work for choir and orchestra Cecilia, vergine romana, which I had the privilege of discussing with the composer during his 75th birthday celebrations at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival last September, and which was recently performed at the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI.  In this moving work in memory of the patron saint of music (which I loaded onto my phone before travelling to Italy), Pärt sets a text recounting the death of Cecilia in the second century CE under the Roman prefect Almachio , who arrested her for burying the bodies of Christian martyrs and then ordered her execution when she refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. In the DVD 24 Preludes for a Fugue directed by Dorian Supin, Pärt can be seen contemplating Stefano Maderno’s life-size sculpture of the saint in the church of Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere quarter of Rome (supposedly modelled on her body found intact in 1599 when her relics were disinterred).

Stefano Maderno (1575-1636), Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia. Photo: Remi Jouan.

As I have said elsewhere, it seems logical that Pärt should have chosen this text in response to a commission from the Accademia Santa Cecilia for the year 2000, given his experience as an Estonian Christian in the USSR. His frequently-quoted remark that  ‘it would not have been difficult for the Apostles to have lived in the Soviet Union’ indicates the evident commonality between Christians under persecution throughout the centuries. Cecilia, vergine romana serves as a reminder to those disillusioned by the Church’s compromises with the secular state throughout the ages that Rome also offers a counter-narrative to that of the admirers of Constantine; as writers across the theological spectrum (from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to N.T. Wright) are increasingly stressing, our perspective changes once we recall that the worship of the early Christians was an act of political as well as religious resistance.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to see more of Trastevere than the somewhat dismal railway station, but we did visit another, much more famous site of Christian witness – the Flavian Amphitheatre, better-known as the Colosseum. Visiting this monstrous arena, built largely by Jewish slaves captured by Rome during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and which subsequently functioned for 450 years,  is both an awe-inspiring and chilling experience, a grim testimony to the way in which technological prowess and moral progress definitely do not go hand in hand in human history. The Good Friday Via Crucis evening liturgy which begins in the Colosseum provides a powerful annual remembrance of the martyrs of the early Church at the hands of Rome in a way which connects past and present, as Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong put it in his meditation for the 2008 Way of the Cross:

‘Clearly the central figure in this Via Dolorosa is Our Lord Jesus Christ, as he is presented to us by the Gospels and the Church’s tradition. Yet behind him there are many people from the past and the present, including ourselves. In our prayer this evening let us be mindful of the presence of so many brothers and sisters from times past. They, probably more than ourselves, experienced in their bodies the Passion of Jesus. In their flesh, Jesus was newly arrested, maligned, tortured, derided, dragged and crushed under the weight of the Cross, and nailed to that wood like a criminal.

Obviously, we are not alone at the Colosseum this evening. Present in the Holy Father’s heart and in our own hearts are all the “living martyrs” of the twenty-first century. “Te martyum candidatus laudat exercitus“‘.[2]

Which brings my cell phone into play for the second time. The day after visiting the Colosseum I was extremely surprised when I woke up and found that this picture of a memorial cross in the arena, which I had taken the previous day, had become the default screensaver on my mobile. I’m still not quite sure how it got there; it can hardly have happened accidentally considering that a sequence of five keys would need to have been pressed without my knowing it. The rather worrying thought did cross my mind that someone in a mobile phone company (presumably with a Christian apologetical agenda) had somehow hacked into my photo gallery and selected this for me as material for a morning devotional, but this seems too conspiratorial to contemplate. Alternatively, maybe Someone is trying to tell me something … In any case, seeing the image of the cross in the Colosseum pop up like this made me pause for reflection. The previous evening I had been listening to cell phone item n.3: a stimulating panel discussion from the series The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity in which the scientist Joan Roughgarden and theologians John Haught, Karl Giberson and Ilia Delio had been responding to questions on the interface between science and religion. At one point Sr. Ilia Delio, a Franciscan Friar, had been discussing the work of the philosopher and pioneer of ‘environmental ethics’ Holmes Rolston III, who we will have the pleasure of hosting at the American Church in Paris in April as a guest lecturer on the subject of his latest book Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind (and with whom I will have the great privilege of interacting as a panelist). As Sr. Ilia mentioned, one of the key concepts in Rolston’s thought is the idea that nature is in some way ‘cruciform’, a ‘passion play’ in which suffering love is at the heart of a reality full of pathos:

‘ The story we have from Darwinian natural history echoes classical religious themes of death and regeneration. In the midst of its struggles, life has been ever “conserved,” as biologists find; life has been perpetually “redeemed,” as theologians find. Both in the divine Logos once incarnate in Palestine and in the life incarnate on Earth for millennia before that: “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 5)’.[3]

Holmes Rolston III

Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University, Rolston (a Presbyterian minister as well as a scientifically-trained philosopher) acknowledges that such a view is an intuition rather than a logical deduction, yet he finds it impossible not to conclude that what is revealed on Golgotha is in fact the deepest principle of the world which has been operating since the beginning of the universe – God suffering with and in a sense through creation in the very processes of life ‘out of which new life was redemptively to come’:

‘In some way that we mixedly believe and dimly understand, the biology of the world, not less than the physics of the universe, is a necessary and sufficient habitat for the production of caring sentience and, at length, of suffering love in its freedom. Life is a paradox of suffering and glory, and this “secret of life” remains hidden in God, unresolved by biochemistry or evolutionary theory.'[4]

It struck me that the image on my mobile phone was curiously consonant with precisely this thought, and that the Cross in the Colosseum is a witness to this suffering love of Christ in deep existential union with the Body of his followers, silently and courageously persisting in the face of a worldly power which love will ultimately deconstruct. The Cross may seem tiny compared to the vast amphitheatre of cruelty in which it finds itself, just as Michelangelo’s Pietà is dwarfed by the building in which it is housed, but appearances can be deceptive. The message of both Cross and Pietà is that compassionate, self-giving love is no abstract concept, but embodied in the life of God’s creatures whose condition and story God shares through the Incarnation. Rolston’s point is that if this is supremely true in the earthly existence of Jesus, this does not imply that God has been absent from the created realm for the remainder of universal history, since the human nature embraced in the Incarnation is the product of that history. From the standpoint of the Cross seen as a disclosure of the heart of reality it becomes apparent that the suffering of creation is something that God has on some level always shared. As Rolston concludes, ‘the way of nature is the way of the cross; via naturae est via crucis.’  That is a mystical insight which can be gained from contemplating the ancient stones of Rome as much as the pavements of Spain, the rocks of Colorado, the underground Church in Estonia or the backstreets of Hong Kong.

Holmes Rolston III will be giving three Lenten Lectures at the American Church in Paris at 7.30 p.m. on April 5, 6 and 7. Further information on Professor Rolston and an extensive selection of his writings can be found at


[1] In his Grawemeyer Award-winning The Coming of God, Moltmann exemplifies this shift by quoting the court theologian Eusebius, who appealed to the census under Caesar Augustus as providing the link between Christ and Rome in the Divine economy of salvation. According to Eusebius, it was under Augustus, ‘Lord of the nationalities’, that secular unity appeared as ‘the pluralistic rule by many was dissolved and peace embraced the whole’. This peace should be seen as the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy as much as the appearance of Jesus, Eusebius contends; it is the beating of sword into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, ‘for among the Romans every rule by many was at once abolished, since Augustus assumed sole rule at the very point in time when our Redeemer appeared’ (quoted in Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)), 160-161).

[2] ‘Cardinal Zen’s Meditations for Via Crucis‘, published on-line at

[3] Holmes Rolston III, Science & Religion: a Critical Survey (2006 edition) (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), xli.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] Ibid.

  1. Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.
  2. Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.