Friday, February 5, 2016

Thoughts on Music, Revelation, and Liturgy: Part One

“Embodied Listening” is the theme of the January 2016 issue of Liturgy. The impetus for this focus, as determined by The Liturgical Conference board, was to celebrate the relevance of God’s Word for worship fifty years after the appearance of Dei Verbum.

Joncas’s essay reminds us that we “hear” God’s Word not only in words but also in music. Here he sets up the categories which will inform his conclusions about the revelatory power of music in worship.
In broadest terms, Western Christians up to the so-called Enlightenment took for granted that God had revealed Godself to humanity. Their major debates were about how that revelation occurred, who received it, and what form(s) it took. In addition to these issues, post-Enlightenment Westerners struggle with the very possibility of revelation, however it is understood. Fundamentally, they want to demonstrate that it is possible for limited human beings to encounter God. They want to know how God, the Radically Other, might address human beings in a way that respects their limited capacity, that provides a genuine message from the divine order of existence, and that allows them to recognize this address as precisely divine. 
 The theological tradition from which I come tends to divide revelation into two great categories: general and special or particular. “General” revelation is knowledge of God that a human being can achieve by use of reason. Traditionally, Roman Catholics have posited two areas in which general revelation takes place: reflecting on the world and reflecting on the human person. Reflection on our experience of movement, becoming, contingency, and the world’s order and beauty can lead us to some knowledge of God as origin and end of all that exists. Reflection on human beings’ longing for unconditional love, life, and happiness; openness to truth, goodness, and beauty; experience of freedom; recognition of the voice of conscience; and desires that cannot be fulfilled within this world-system can all lead us to some knowledge of a spiritual component to the human being, an immaterial soul that can only have its origin and resting-place in God. 
 “Special” or “particular” revelation consists of knowledge of God that a human being cannot achieve by reason, but by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Traditionally, Roman Catholics have acknowledged “particular” revelation in states of altered consciousness in chosen individuals, such as prophets; in miracles; in the history of God’s interaction with the human race, especially in the covenantal history of the Jewish people and the life of the church; in the scriptures attesting to the faith experiences of individuals and groups, both in Judaism and in Christianity; and most fully in the life, deeds, death, and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed the Christ of God. 
 . . . Perhaps the most important question is how to correlate God’s revelation with human beings’ responses,that is, can a report of altered consciousness, a deed of power, a historical event, a scriptural text be experienced as revelatory without an act of faith? Theologians have suggested many responses to these questions and they continue to generate conversation among believers and unbelievers alike. 
In the next selection from Joncas’s essay (on February 19), he will turn to the ways in which music serves as revelation. Here is a foretaste:
I said above that one of the modes of general revelation is to come to some knowledge of God by means of reason. I think an examination of music. . . can give us information about the world and thus information about the world’s Creator.

Jan Michael Joncas, perhaps best known for his composition “On Eagles’ Wings,” is an associate professor in theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Jan Michael Joncas, “’Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres?’: Thoughts on Music Revelation, and Liturgy,” Liturgy 31, no. 1 (2016), 34-41.

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