Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Taking God’s name in vain – the musical

I don’t know what Karen Armstrong is talking about. Which makes two of us:

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence.

As part of her ongoing campaign to convince us that religion is best defined by postmodern academics rather than by churchgoers, she tells us:

Because “God” is infinite, nobody can have the last word.

Very reasonably, Ophelia is unimpressed, demanding: “how does she know God is infinite?” and rolling her eyes at the scare-quotes.

But Armstrong may have a point here, in a way. If we take the quotes as meaning that she’s talking about the word ‘God’ rather than any putative being with that name or job title, then we can read her as claiming that because postmodern academics can use ‘God’ to mean anything at all, then we’ll never be able to get them to shut up.

Which is true enough.

But I suspect that’s she’s not trying to make this point. She’s actually using “God” to stand for “transcendence”, “divinity”, “inexpressible otherness” and “the sacred” – all terms that she also uses, to equally obscure effect. It’s as though she’s doing her damnedest to prove her claim that “Language has limits that we cannot cross.”

But my favourite passage in the article is this one:

Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, because, like religion at its best, music marks the “limits of reason”. Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be “definitively” rational.

I can only see five things wrong with this.

  1. Of course music is separable from religious expression: there’s plenty of irreligious music and plenty of unmusical religious expression. I refer you to the Taliban’s banning of music, to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and to every deaf religious person who has ever lived.

  2. Music doesn’t mark the “limits of reason”: it has both rational and non-rational aspects, but by the same token you might as well say that music marks the limits of unreason, or that a cheese and wine party marks the limits of dairy produce.

  3. For the same reason, religion (at its best or otherwise) doesn’t mark the limits of reason either.

  4. The (less-than-inseparable) relationship between music and religious expression doesn’t hold “because” both have rational and non-rational aspects: plenty of other art forms also have these properties (dance, sculpture, poetry, stand-up comedy), as do non-art types of human activity (sport, parenting, conversation). No pair of these are especially related simply because of this commonality. Religion has used music (among many other methods of expression) because it’s very effective.

  5. A territory is delineated, not “defined”, by its extremities: Britain is mostly not coastline. A territory is defined by its extremities and what’s contained within them. Even a geometric figure as simple as a straight line is defined not by the two points at either end but by those points and the fact that there’s a line between them.

But, if we ignore these small cavils, I reckon it probably would follow that music must be “definitively” rational. Although I’m not sure what that would mean.

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