Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Music, the Senses and Emotion

A short article by Iain Murray, ‘Sensual Worship – A Sign of Impending Apostasy’ (Banner of Truth Magazine, Nov. 2010) calls to mind a number of issues that I hope are worth airing. I shall not comment on the article any further than is required to touch on these. I ask a few questions:

A question about the senses

Murray contrasts the sensual with the spiritual, as in Jude 19, carrying the distinction over into worship. Music that appeals to the senses is ‘sensual’. But Jude cannot mean that if one is spiritual then one has no senses, or that they are inactive, neutered, or hibernating. ‘Sensual’ in Jude’s sense has to do with excess, with lust, with the fleshly, with the senses being being ill-attuned or ill-directed. The reason why this is so is simple. Whenever we worship, it is inevitable that we see, touch, smell and hear. Our senses are exercised. Each act of worship is, in this sense, sensual.

The question that Murray unavoidably raises, then, is not, is there a place for the senses in worship, but, what is the place of the senses in worship? And It makes no sense to answer ‘none’. There is a similar equivocation over ‘natural'. When (according to Murray) Dr Lloyd-Jones refers to the impression of music on natural feelings, one is tempted to ask: on what other feelings can music impress itself than on the natural feelings? But whether the natural feelings are the feelings of a natural man (in Paul’s sense) or of a spiritual man (in his sense) might make a difference.

Either way, the senses are inevitably involved in worship. So when John Owen (as quoted by Murray) refers to the purity and simplicity of the gospel worship, this is a mode of worship in which the senses are engaged, inevitably so. So our senses will invariably be affected ‘at the natural level’, whether or not they need the Holy Spirit to enable us to engage in true worship. For this reason it is not at all clear that the more the senses are occupied, the less room there is for the action of the soul. Where is that in the New Testament? Jude certainly does not teach it.

So, just as there is an aesthetics of a Roman Catholic Service, and of a modern band-led ‘evangelical’ service, - each of which Iain Murray deplores - there is an aesthetics of the ‘pure and simple gospel worship’ that Iain Murray applauds. Some of its elements are: the central, dominating pulpit, plain glass, whitewashed walls, the absence of ornamentation, hard pews, silence before worship (except for the clock ticking). No incense, but a faint smell of damp, perhaps. No icons, but memorial tablets. No band, no flute or violin, but (perhaps) an organ. There’s no getting away from our senses. (There are some evocative photographs in Donald Davie’s A Gathered Church, (Routledge, 1978)) So the question is not whether our worship is ‘sensual’ (or ‘sensory’) - that’s inevitable - but whether it is sensual in the Jude sense, and that (so it seems to me) cannot be determined by such factors as whether or not, when we sing and pray and listen, we are facing stained glass or a vast Victorian pulpit, or singing with the help of a bass guitar, or a flute, or a pipe organ, or a tuning fork.

A question about music and preaching

At various points Murray contrasts music and preaching. But what applies to music also applies to preaching, or so it seems to me. Preaching also involves our senses, including our emotions – seeing and hearing, at any rate. We watch the preacher's face,his gestures,we hear hisvoice . Thisbodylanguage may raise emotions; and listening to preaching may be an end in itself. (A less popular pastime nowadays, it is true, than in Victorian and Edwardian England). A service of worship, and its various elements, may entertain, like a religious music-hall. So the same problems that Murray identifies with music, though they are problems not with some music only, but all music, also crop up with preaching, not with some preaching only, but all preaching. But I imagine he’d agree with his mentor Dr Lloyd Jones that preaching that does not produce emotionally-charged responses is somewhat lacking. Preaching and emotion, good. Music and emotions, bad. Is that it?

A question about emotion

In church worship there is music. Murray complains, using Dr Lloyd-Jones as an ally, that through music natural feelings may be confused with spiritual truths. So they may. When I wept while singing to the ‘weighty, dignified, majestic and modest’ (Calvin) tones of the organ at Westminster Chapel as it accompanied Cowper’s ‘Oh for a closer walk with God’ (say), did hearing and singing in these tones ensure spirituality? Obviously, they may not have. If I sing a hymn or song with a post-Beatles phrasing, and with the backing of a band, and weep, is my weeping for that reason a spiritual response? Obviously, it may not be. (Perhaps Mr Murray would deplore weeping too, as being also ‘sensual’ in the Jude sense.) Does one make a spiritual response more likely than the other? I think that Murray might agree that attempting to answer such a question would lead us into dangerous territory.

(Certainly there are legitimate questions to be asked about the commercialisation of Christian music, about its decibel level, as well as levels of intelligibility, and the dominance of services of worship by a menu of ‘songs’. But Mr Murray does not raise any of these.)

Using Dr Lloyd-Jones (not perhaps quoting him, but paraphrasing him) Murray refers to music producing emotion. But if the melody-line and the beat produce bodily effects - raising one's voice, tapping one’s feet, jumping up and down, beating time, hand-clapping, a headache, or whatever - why dignify that reaction with the word ‘emotion’? These seem to be purely physical effects. Perhaps ‘enthusiasm’, in its original 18th century sense, would be better. Certainly the ‘emotion’, if we allow that word, is in this usage mindless, in rather the way in which a human reflex, like a cry of pain , or a parrot's mimickry, are mindless

Emotion is a good word, though sometimes its use narrowed to refer exclusively to what is violent and disruptive. Sometimes it is utterly appropriate to be scared, or joyous, or exultant. And there are also calm emotions, as David Hume reminded us. It is possible to be calmly impassioned. If our response in worship is emotional in such good senses, then it will contain two elements: correct beliefs, which are what give our emotions their intellectual content; and our desires, which produce feelings of attraction or aversion regarding what we believe. So the callings out of the crowd at Pentecost, or of the Philippian gaoler, are laden with emotion. Or affection. It is surprising that Murray says nothing about the content of the words of the music he is so dismissive of.

An Edwardsean epilogue

Mentioning ‘affection’ inclines one very naturally to think of Jonathan Edwards.

Obviously music can supplant preaching and prayer. Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ can get in the way, as can the seemingly endless repetitions of modern Christian songs, reminiscent of a pub singalong. I suppose that one crucial test is whether in such singing it is possible also to make melody in our hearts to the Lord. But whether or not we can do that, or think that we can do it, is a matter, generally speaking, of the singer’s self-knowledge, and (to put it bluntly) not anyone else’s business.

We may think that it’s a pity that we cannot be more hard and fast. The New Testament is not much help over music and singing, is it? Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, decency and orderliness, making melody in your hearts. Apart from that, nothing much. Is that an accident? Some may still hope (as many have hoped) that the Puritan experiment with the regulative principle would help, but it’s surely an experiment which failed, largely because of the difficulty of determining what is intrinsic to worship and what is a circumstance. Mr Murray wisely refrains from playing that particular card. In fact the use of musical ‘accompaniment’ seems neither here nor there, as regards singing. It has never been an exclusive feature of Protestant psalm and hymn singing, as the tradition of Gregorian or Taize chant shows.

But I digress. Earlier I mentioned affection. ‘Affection’ suggests Jonathan Edwards. And if we find the key to this business about music, the senses and emotion, anywhere at all, we shall find it in his Religious Affections, in the very structure of the work, which has three Parts:

Part I Concerning the Nature of the Affections, and Their Importance in Religion

Part II Shewing What Are No Certain Signs That Religious Affections Are Truly Gracious, or That They Are Not

Part III Shewing What Are Distinguishing Signs of Truly Gracious and Holy Affections

Besides recording the importance that Edwards attaches to emotion in religion, note particularly what he says about the signs that he discusses in Part II – in his judgment the signs that he lists are neither certain signs of truly gracious affections, nor certain signs that they are not truly gracious. Among the twelve signs discussed in Part II are ‘great effects on the body’; fluent talk; sudden and surprising experiences; and zealous engagement in the external duties of worship. The occurrence of such phenomena is, strictly speaking, neutral on the question of whether they are caused by, or accompanied by, gracious affections. He then proceeds (in Part III) to tell us what in his opinion are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections.

Had he been with us today, I can imagine that Edwards might well have added two more signs which do not provide any certainty that religious affections are truly gracious, or that they are not: ‘playing in the band’ and ‘not being prepared to tolerate the band’.

Aquinas on Divine Impassibility

This is the last of three posts on theological connections between medieval and reformed theology. The Reformation was a re-formation, not a revolution, and the Reformed churches regarded themselves as catholic, building on the ecumenical creeds and the patristic and medieval theology, and paying great respect to the great doctors of the church, notably Thomas Aquinas. The Reformed theologians had much in common with the patristic and medieval conception of God:

There is but one living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfections, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory, most loving, gracious merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarda of them that diligently seek Him, and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. (Westminster Confession II.1)

[Incidentally, thinking of our earlier post on Anselm, we may note how much the formulation here owes to his way of thinking about God. The eight mosts express the perfections of this most perfect being. He is most loving; he cannot be more loving. He is most pure: he cannot be more pure. So God is perfectly loving and pure, and wise, and holy and just. Though the manner of the formulation owes much to Anselmic patterns of thinking, of course the compilers believed that these expressions have the clear and emphatic support of Scripture]

Some people get passionate over the very idea of divine impassibility, even in their haste misspelling it as impassability’, and equating it with impassivity. An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern. So at the outset there is reason to relax and to keep cool, and to try to think clearly and exactly. Richard Muller has noted that by and large there is no separate treatment of divine impassibility in Reformed dogmatics, but that the idea is treated as a consequence of divine immutability. Because God is immutable, neither able to change for the better or change for the worse; he is impassible, not subject to the fits and starts of moods and passions. But not impassable, nor impassive. In the medieval treatments, impassibility generally receives a separate locus. So it is with Thomas Aquinas, to whom we now turn.

I shall take the material from Chapter 89 of Book I of the Summa Contra Gentiles. The chapter is entitled That in God there are not the passions of the appetites. Before we examine what Thomas says here, it is worth noting the position of the chapter. It is followed by But in God there are delight and joy, but they are not opposed to the divine perfection.’ (Ch. 90), and That in God there is love (Ch.91) and How virtues may be held to be in God’ (Ch.92) and That in God there are the moral virtues that deal with actions’. (Ch. 93) Remembering our chapter’s location may help us to orientate what Thomas is saying. Whatever he says in Ch.89 is consistent with a God in whom are delight and joy and love. So, at least no impassivity!

What of impassibility, then? This is some of what Aquinas says. First argument: passion is connected with the appetites, and appetites with the body. But God does not have a body, not does he have appetites. [Aquinas deals with the Incarnation elsewhere than here, and we here leave it to one side. But you can be sure that Gods having a body in the person of the Logos uniting with human nature, body and soul, in no way diminishes or compromises the full deity of the Logos).

So, passions are appetites. But (second argument, passions are disturbances.

Again, in every passion of the appetite, the patient is somehow drawn out of his usual, calm or connatural disposition. A sign of this is that such passion, if intensified, brings death to animals. But it is not possible for God to be somehow drawn outside His natural condition, since He is absolutely immutable, as has been shown. (ch.13)

Since the onset of a spasm of anger, or jealousy, is a change, God, who cannot change, much less change in his nature, cannot be subject to such spasms.

Third argument: not only is the very idea of passion foreign to God, particular passions are unworthy of God, unbefitting to God. That is, even if God might be subject to passions, certain passions would be contrary to his character. Which passions? Sorrow or pain, for its subject is the already present evil, just as the object of joy is the good present and possessed. Sorrow and pain, therefore, of their very nature cannot be found in God’. Sometimes passions are distinguished by what Thomas calls their mode. The mode is intrinsic to the passion, as is seen from the distinction between joy and hope. Hope has as its object a good that is not yet possessed. This cannot befit God, because of His perfection, which is so great that nothing can be added to it. Hope therefore, cannot be found in God. And likewise, neither can the desire of some [for] something not possessed. Other passions are connected with evil, as is fear. By a twofold reason.therefore, is fear excluded from God: both because it belongs only to one existing in potency and because it has for its object a threatening evil.

Thomass word potency’ gives us the clue to the assumption that drives this entire discussion. This is, that God possesses fullness of being. He does not lack anything, or need anything. Therefore he does not nor cannot move from potency (potentiality?) to actuality, and therefore he cannot have passions which arise from a lack of some sort.

Another consequence of these arguments connects directly with Reformed discussion. Thomas writes

Again, repentance implies a change of affection. Therefore the nature of repentance likewise is repugnant to God, not only because it is a species of sadness, but also because it implies a change of will.

This may remind us of Calvin.

Shortly after, it is added, The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent’. (1 Samuel 15:29.) In these words, his immutability is plainly asserted without figure. Wherefore it is certain that, in administering human affairs, the ordination of God is perpetual and superior to every thing like repentance. That there might be no doubt of his constancy, even his enemies are forced to bear testimony to it. For, Balaam, even against his will, behaved to break forth into this exclamation, God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good? (Numbers 23:19.) What then is meant by the term repentance? The very same that is meant by the other forms of expression, by which God is described to us humanly. Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity in order to be intelligible. And the mode of lowering is to represent him not as he really is, but as we conceive of him. Though he is incapable of every feeling of perturbation, he declares that he is angry with the wicked. Wherefore, as when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him, but ought rather to consider the mode of speech accommodated to our sense. (Inst. 1.17. 12-3)

Returning to Thomas, there is one more thing to notice. God is not angry. Anger is the appetite of another’s evil for the sake of revenge. Anger, therefore is far from God according to the nature of its species, not only because it is an effect of sadness, but likewise because it is an appetite for revenge arising from sadness due to an injury received.

So, God is not angry (Aquinas), but he does hate all sin (West. Conf.) More to think about here.

One last remark. Whatever one may think of Aquinas’s position, it is a thoughtful one, in that he thinks through the consequences of God being a pure spirit from a number of angles. He is a thousand miles away from the Legoland ‘The God I Want’ approach that is characteristic of so much present-day evangelical (and other) theology.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What it Means to be Objective

I’m not sure what post-modernists make of the Climate Change Fiasco, because it has thrown up some interesting discussion of scientific objectivity. The PMs reckon, I think, that ‘objectivity’ is a purely Enlightenment ideal, and those among the PMs who are Christians think that the Christian Church cannot possibly have a stake in being objective, either because there is no such thing, or because such a concern sells out to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

This very good letter from David Henderson to the Daily Telegraph on the Fiasco offers a fine account of how errors of observation and personal bias may be minimized, and objectivity approached.

Here is the letter -

Unwarranted trust

Sir, Your leading article of today (5 April) rightly makes the point that the conduct of climate science is currently in question. In this context, you note with good reason the contents of emails released in November from the Climatic Research Unit, and recent criticisms that have been made of the fourth and latest Assessment Report (AR4) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the problems have long been known, and they are more wide-ranging and fundamental than you imply.

In relation to climate change issues, the established official expert advisory process which governments have commissioned and relied on has shown itself, over many years, to be not professionally up to the mark. The situation is one of unwarranted trust.

The main headings of unprofessional conduct within the process, all identified and fully documented well before the recent revelations, have been:

Over-reliance on in-group peer review procedures which do not serve as a guarantee of quality and do not ensure due disclosure.

Serious and continuing failures of disclosure and archiving in relation to peer-reviewed studies which the IPCC and member governments have drawn on.

Continuing resistance to disclosure of basic information which reputable journals in other subject areas insist on as a precondition for acceptance.

Basic errors in the handling of data, through failure to consult or involve trained statisticians.

Failure to take due account of relevant published work which documented the above lapses, while disregarding IPCC criteria for inclusion in the review process.

Failure to take due note of comments from dissenting critics who took part in the preparation of AR4.

Resisting the disclosure of professional exchanges within the AR4 drafting process, despite the formal instruction of governments that the IPCC’s proceedings should be ‘open and transparent’.

And last but far from least

Failure on the part of the IPCC and its directing circle to acknowledge and remedy the above deficiencies, a failure which results from chronic and pervasive bias.

Comprehensive exposure of these flaws has come from a number of independent commentators down the years. Throughout, and even now, their work has been largely disregarded by governments and international agencies, as also by unofficial commentators including FT environment correspondents and leader writers.

In an area of policy where so much is at stake, and so much remains uncertain and unsettled, policies should be evolutionary and adaptive, rather than presumptive as they are now; and their evolution should be linked to a process of inquiry and review which is more thorough, balanced, open and objective than has so far been the case.

David Henderson, London W1

Reading it, I was reminded of these words. ‘Even scientific men are sometimes led to suppress or to pervert facts which militate against their favorite theories; but the temptation to this form of dishonesty is far less in their case, than in that of the theologian. The truths of religion are far more important than those of natural science. They come home to the heart and conscience. They may alarm the fears or threaten the hopes of men, so that they are under strong temptation to overlook or pervert them.’

Whose words? Why, those of Charles Hodge, of course. (Systematic Theology 1.12)