Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome


Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 1962 (photo: Peter Geymayer)

One for the dispatch box – our thoughts today are with regular SDG collaborator and advisory board member James MacMillan, currently in Rome for a very special assignment. At today’s Mass in St Peter’s Square launching the Year of Faith, ‘a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world'[1], the Scottish composer received from Pope Benedict XVI a copy on behalf of the world’s artists of a message given by Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Proclaimed during the concluding ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council (whose proceedings opened fifty years ago today), Paul VI’s message contains a passage directly addressed to the artistic community on the role of art in the contemporary world which surely offers as much food for thought in 2012 as in 1965:

To Artists:

We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theater and the cinema. To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends.

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy You have aided her in translating her  divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the  Holy Spirit.

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

Paul VI, December 8, 1965

For more about James MacMillan’s participation in the ceremony, which was also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the composer’s theological consultant for his work Parthenogenesis (2000), a collaboration facilitated by another SDG advisory board member, Jeremy Begbie) and Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, see

[1] ‘This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church’ Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which can be read in full at

Rowan Williams – End of an era

So, the news is just in that Rowan Williams will be stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of this year … Whatever his detractors may say about his tenure and the painful controversies in which he may have found himself entangled (the majority not of his own making), Rowan Williams surely remains one of the giants of contemporary theology. Moving, like NT Wright not long ago, back into the somewhat quieter waters of British academic life (as Master of Magdalene College Cambridge) from the turbulence of Church politics, it is only to be hoped that the loss in terms of leadership of the Anglican Communion will be scholarship’s gain. And who knows – maybe somebody might even be able to persuade him to help out a theologically-minded composer or two as he did as the consultant  for James MacMillan and his librettist Michael Symmons Roberts during the creation of their Parthenogenesis, part of Jeremy Begbie’s Theology Through the Arts project which is now based at Duke University under the name Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.


For those who are long-time fans of ‘The Bearded One’ (as some of my North American theo-friends refer to him), it is perhaps worth pointing out just some of the rich audio and video resources available on the internet which provide ample evidence that whatever toll his time at Lambeth Palace may have taken on him, Rowan Williams’ theological insight remains both as sharp and as profound as ever:

‘The Finality of Christ in a pluralist world’ – in this lecture given at Guildford Cathedral in 2010, the Archbishop offers what has to rank as one of the most cogent recent suggestions for how to reconcile a robust commitment to the core of historical Christian orthodoxy with an authentic respect for other religious traditions.

‘The Image of Humanity in the Philokalia’ – the 2010 Father Alexander Schmemann Lecture given at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY. A reminder of the extent to which Rowan Williams’ vision has been deeply shaped by the traditions of the Eastern Church (both ancient and modern), as well as of his contribution to the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox heritage in the West.


‘Emerging Church Expression’ – in a quite different vein, a video sampler of the DVD accompanying the highly stimulating Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging by Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran and Jason Clark (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Especially recommended to those who may not know that the Archbishop has for a number of years been one of the staunchest supporters of the Emergent Church in an Anglican context (‘Fresh Expressions’).

‘The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin’ – video of the recent debate moderated by Sir Anthony Kenny between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford this February. May disappoint those expecting gladiatorial combat, but is likely to go down in the annals as a model of respectful but substantial engagement between two very different viewpoints about the essential nature of humanity.


On a more personal note, one of the most thought-provoking of the many books by the outgoing Archbishop remains for me his short but grippingly dense series of ‘reflections on art and love’ entitled Grace and Necessity (London: Continuum, 2005), a haunting set of meditations on artistic creativity which probably has more underlinings per page than any virtually other item on my shelves. At a music and spirituality conference at the London South Bank Centre in 2008 I attempted a musical transposition of some of Rowan Williams’ ideas (centred on the thought of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain) in a paper entitled ‘The Necessity of Grace’. Although some of my comments regarding the post-modern philosophical revival of interest in the via negativa of apophatic theology would probably receive some nuancing were I to update it, I offer the essay to any interested readers here as a pdf for want of any better way to mark what is definitely the end of an era.

Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture

Top ten books 2011

Another ‘Top Ten’, this time of the most thought-provoking pieces of writing I’ve come across in 2011, listed in alphabetical order. Inclusion here doesn’t necessarily indicate my agreement with the authors concerned – who I’m sure would generate a lot of friction among themselves if you let them slug things out in an enclosed space! They have however all given me a good deal to chew on over the last year.

  • Jeremy Begbie Resounding Truth
  • Jason Clark, Kevin Corcoran, Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins  Church in the Present Tense
  • Harvey Cox The Future of Faith
  • Ian Morgan Cron Chasing Francis
  • Elizabeth A. Johnson Quest for the Living God
  • René Girard and Gianni Vattimo Christianisme et Modernité
  • Stanley Hauerwas Hannah’s Child
  • Jean Staune Notre existence a-t-elle un sens
  • Peter Rollins Insurrection
  • Holmes Rolston III Three Big Bangs: Energy-Matter, Life, Mind

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.