Music, Faith, and Skepticism

Using the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams as a starting point, Terry Teachout asks, “How can skeptics make convincing works of art?” His answer? Of Vaughan Williams’ work he writes:

an artist need not be an orthodox believer—or, indeed, any kind of believer—to be inspired by the eloquence of scripture and the transforming power of faith. You can, I suppose, dismiss that message as purest Victorian hypocrisy, but to listen to the G-Minor Mass and the Fifth Symphony is to know that the greathearted genius who made them was the truest of believers in the power of art to uplift and ennoble the souls of his fellow men. We should all be such hypocrites.

Vaughan Williams is an interesting case, because of the popularity of his hymns among Anglicans (and, indeed, English-speaking Christianity). How many people have come to faith, or had their faith strengthened, by “For all the Saints” (Sine Nomine) or “Come Down, O Love Divine” (Down Ampney)?

Jeff Warren is exploring the relationship between music and religious faith from a slightly different perspective in a series of essays on BioLogos, specifically, with reference to human evolution. In the first essay, he writes:

considering music as culturally embedded lets us recognize something quite different from the arguments that musical meaning is either subjective or encoded within the music itself. Music does allow for subjective response, but not truly autonomous response—our experience of music occurs within the bounds of cultural norms.

The tendency in Western thinking about music to conceive composition as creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), not only seems to put the composer on the same level as God the Creator, but it also seems to deny the importance of community and relationship.

In the second essay, he looks more closely at what neuroscience is learning about music. According to Warren, neuroscience also points to the importance of cultural appropriation. Working with the ideas of Eric Clarke:

Clarke – an Oxford scholar trained as a psychologist and musicologist – offers an ecological theory of listening that examines organisms listening in their environment. He argues that “we all have the potential to hear different things in the same music – but the fact that we don’t (or at least not all the time) is an indication of the degree to which we share a common environment, and experience common perceptual learning or adaptation”.5 This runs contrary to at least the popularized versions of the neuroscience of music — which attempt to unlock a singular biofunctional “key” to understanding music — and moves us back toward the essential idea that music, for all its neurological components, is also a cultural phenomenon that must be examined in terms of human relationships.

In the third essay, Warren draws on the work of Ian Cross, who

Cross asks if music might have been the most important thing we ever did.2 The key to his argument is that music’s “floating intentionality” allows for a kind of mutual participation among different individuals that he calls “entrainment,” opening the possibility of shared emotional states that may have been critical to the evolution of culture.

From this brief survey, he concludes:

I have approached various topics relating to music and science to show that encountering other people is foundational to musical experience. If music is fundamentally inter-relational, then all musical experience has ethical implications, and that needs to be considered in any scientific investigation. But how might this understanding contribute to the charged discussions on the role of music in worship services?

Or to put it another way, “musical encounters can and should be enactments of loving your neighbour.”

This puts the “worship wars” in a completely different perspective.


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