In our last post, we talked about secularism as the dominant meta-narrative of the West over the last two centuries. Secularism asserts that religious beliefs and practices have ceded authority to forms of truth and reasoning that no longer require religious grounding. However, we found that secularism comes at a considerable cost, namely, it posits an absolute gap between nature and culture, between nature that operates according to biological, chemical, and physical causal laws, and the world of meaning which is a human construct projected upon an otherwise meaningless world. This dichotomy between the physical and meaningful is the source of the moral relativism so pervasive in our age.

And we found further that Christianity is uniquely situated to overcome this chasm between nature and culture, for at the heart of Christianity is the Incarnation. The Word has become flesh. Meaning and matter belong forever together as the whole cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

With this in mind, we begin a new blog series that will explore a profoundly divine gift rich in resources to heal this secular rift between nature and culture. It involves nothing less than a fundamentally different way of knowing our world, and was used by the ancients as well as the church to awaken humanity to the unity of the cosmos and the harmony of society. This cosmic unity can be found in music.

Playing Guitar in Narnia

I began playing guitar at the age of 12, shortly after my father died. His death had a devastating effect on me. I withdrew from all the sporting events in which I was involved, and I became more and more secluded from friends and activities. My mother, in an effort to get me more outgoing, suggested that I learn to do something constructive, such as play an instrument. I then remembered how I had always wanted to play the guitar.

My love for music was fostered by my paternal grandfather, Harold G. Turley, who emigrated from England in the early 1920s as the first full-time research chemist for Rohm & Haas. He settled with his wife, Cecilia, and four children in a large, stone-front Dutch colonial home in Moorestown, NJ. My cousins called the home ‘the castle,’ for it was in fact an inexhaustible treasure trove of stairwells, pantries, attic spaces, books, and basement that awakened a veritable Narnia within our childlike imaginations. And it was there, in that magical cottage, with guitar in hand absent my father’s touch, that I discovered music.

My grandfather devoted his retirement years to two things: rose gardening and listening to classical music. As I settle into midlife, I recognize more and more the profound sympathy between these two practices. The invisible fragrance of the garden in a very real way becomes audible through the comparably invisible waves of melodies, which intertwine in harmony with the symphony of scents from the bouquet of blossoming flowers. Like gardening, music finds its life in time; it wraps itself up with calendrical seasons and seasons of life, marking rites of passage from birthdays to graduations, weddings to funerals. Its sonic perfume breathes into our innermost beings, imprinting itself in our minds, resounding in our imaginations, and attaches itself to our bodies, sanctifying our senses with a seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove of ineluctable delight.

Sound as Revelation

The world of sound is both a unique and indispensable dimension of our humanity. While sight is directional, in that my visual experience of the world is limited to where my eyes are looking, hearing is omnidirectional. The world of sound surrounds me; it is in front of me and behind me, left and right, above and below. As Theologian John Hull has written, sound is “a world which I cannot shut out, which goes on all around me, and which gets on with its own life …  Acoustic space is a world of revelation.”

The Triumph of ‘Visualism’

Unfortunately, the world of sound has been largely neglected by our contemporary culture. We together live in what is called the modern age, which for us, in the West, means that we live on the other side of that intellectual and technological revolution known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was and remains a Western worldview that enthroned science and reason as the principle methods by which the world in which live can be known with a supposed unprecedented degree of certainty. However, for all of its commitment to objectivity, scholars have noted that the Western obsession with empirical evidence emphasizes the visual, generating its own biases, what might be called a ‘visualism.’ Western thought reflects a deep ideological partiality toward vision as the ‘noblest sense,’ the visual representing the most exact way of communicating knowledge.[1] The famous dictum of the eighteenth-century British philosopher John Locke summarizes well this bias: “The perception of the mind is most aptly explained by words relating to the sight.”[2]

There has thus been a clear distinct triumph of the visual in Western culture, which we see today particularly in the centrality of the image for the graphics revolution which began in the nineteenth-century. There is today a subtle yet pronounced conceptual link established between image and reality, indicated by idioms such as ‘image is everything’ and ‘seeing is believing,’ or the importance of ‘eyewitness testimony’ in the courtroom. In contrast, we never hear ‘sound is everything’ or ‘hearing is believing.’

But what if this prejudice effects adversely the way in which we relate to the world? What if has eclipsed another way of knowing and imagining reality, one that is more in line with the vision of Scripture?

That will be the subject of our next post.

Until then, what role has music played in your life? Is music a form of knowledge of our world, and if so, how?

[1] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 106.

[2] Cited in Guy L. Beck, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 1.

Make sure to get your copy of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. 

Featured image credit: © 2014 Geoff Livingston, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio