The New Albigensianism, PART II: Comte and the Combox

For Part I, click here.

Just as the woman with the hemorrhage reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic, so do post-modern secular Westerners reach out to touch the hem of scientists’ lab coats. Despite the plain fact that any given scientist or doctor or other “expert” will be tend to be specialized in only some tiny sliver of his or her field, hopeless intellectual wanderers will gather at the feet of these people to learn all the mysteries of the universe… which is dumb. How did this happen?

Let’s take a step back.

The manifesto of the post-modern Westerner par excellence is this: “Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.”

Herein we see two strands of thought colliding, one about the mind and one about the will: positivism and existentialism. Historically, they are not friends. How they have become fused together in post-modernity is a strange tale.

Today we will break open the first clause – real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, the positivist element.

From the outset, we must make a distinction between “positivism,” which is an epistemic and social theory, and “logical positivism,” which is something more metaphysically aimed. My goal here is to show the roots of the broader idea of positivism, how it found its academic zenith in logical positivism, then how the aftermath of its fall has affected Western philosophy and science at large as well as in the minds of millennials.

A brief sketch of the positivist genealogy will suffice. We recall Descartes to point out his obsession with certitude, just as we note the empiricist thrust of Bacon, Locke, and Hume. We must mention Kant, both as the originator of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which will become enormously important) and as an influence to Hegel, who is notable for his approach to philosophy as something integral with history. Condorcet and Diderot should be pointed out as influential, being the greatest embodiments of the French Enlightenment, wherein reason and revealed religion are opposing forces. Marx, though he would reject positivism as a social ideology, helped inspire it along the same lines as Hegel had. The penultimate step was Henri de Saint-Simon, whose utopian socialism was all the rage during the French Revolution which was attempting to put his political theory into political practice.

Of course, these men were not positivists. It is Henri de Saint-Simon’s pupil, Auguste Comte, who brings us this unwanted gift of an empiricism so strong it entirely and unabashedly rejects any and all metaphysical knowledge outright. This led Comte to build a reducible hierarchy of the sciences based on their certainty or “positivity,” and he claimed (rightly) that the trend of empirical studies was heading toward a “social science.” This conception of a reducible scientific hierarchy – one where, for instance, biology can be put in terms of chemistry, and chemistry in terms of physics, etc. – was a rather new way of thinking… Previously, it had been more or less taken for granted that each science has its own irreducible terms and methods, even admitting some kind of hierarchy (such as with the classical progression of the liberal arts).

Not only was Comte the first real philosopher of science, he was also the first sociologist. According to Comte, humanity was passing from its first two stages, the theological and the metaphysical, into the third and final “positivist stage” where only empirical data would ground truth-claims about the world. Having evolved to a higher clarity about what the world is, and having built up enough of the more basic physical sciences to explore how that world works, sociology could finally occur. Mathematical evaluation of social behavior, rather than qualitative analysis, would serve as the proper method of the “queen of the sciences” in this new age.

Comte outright jettisoned religion qua supernatural and revelatory, but his intensely Catholic upbringing had driven into him such a habit of ritual that he could not altogether shake the need for some kind of piety. What was a French Revolution atheist to do? Well, start a “religion of humanity,” of course. (The “positivist religion” never became a major force, especially since Freemasonry already filled the “secular religion gap,” but it did catch on in some areas. Take a closer look at the Brazilian flag and its meaning, for example…) We should also note, for the record, that Comte was only intermittently sane.

The epistemic side of positivism almost ended up just as much of a flop as the pseudo-religion side of it. Unfortunately for the West, Durkheim and Littré became interested, and they, being altogether sane, effectively diffused Comte’s ideas and their own additions through the West at the start of the 20th century. Eventually, a group of like-minded academes started habitually gathering at a swanky café in Austria to discuss how filthy and naïve metaphysics was compared to the glories of the pure use of the senses and simple mathematical reason – the Vienna Circle was born.

Together with some Berliners, these characters formulated what came to be known logical positivism. When the shadow of Nazism was cast over Germany, some of these men journeyed westward to England and America, where their ideas were diffused.

The champions of logical positivism were Hans Hahn, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell. While Russell is no doubt familiar to some readers (think “tea pot”), the others fly lower under the radar. It is Ayer’s formulation of the logical positivist doctrine which we will use, however, for our analysis.

“We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.” (Language, Truth, and Logic, 35)

Got that? What this means, in the context of the whole book, is that in addition to statements which are “analytic” (“all bachelors are unmarried”) being true necessarily, only statements which we can actually use our 5 senses to verify the truth of can be meaningful – that is, able to be true at all. These are “synthetic” statements. If I say that Pluto is made of bacon grease, I am making a meaningful statement, even though I cannot actually verify it; it suffices that it is hypothetically possible to verify it. If I say that the intellect is a power of the soul, this is not meaningful, since it cannot be verified with the senses. For the details, see Ayer’s book, which is rather short.

Needless to say, it is rare that a school of thought truly dies in academia. A thorough search of university philosophy departments in the Western world would yield a few die-hard fans of Plotinus, Al-Gazali, Maimonides, and maybe even Heraclitus. Perhaps the best or even only example of ideological death was logical positivism. W.V. Quine’s landmark paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” was such a blow to the doctrine that eventually Ayer actually admitted himself to be in massive error and repudiated his own work.

What was so blindingly erroneous about logical positivism?

First, the analytic-synthetic distinction, as formulated by the logical positivists, is groundless. Analytic statements supposedly don’t need real referents in order to be true, but they are instead simply about the meanings of words. For some kinds of statements which employ basic affirmation and negation, this might work, as it is simply just a dressing up of the principle of non-contradiction. Fine. But if one wants to start using synonyms to take the place of some of the parts of these statements, the distinction begins to disappear… What the relationship is between the synonym’s object and the original word’s object cannot be explained without a reference to real things (synthetic!), or without an ultimately circular appeal to the analyticity of the new statement through a claim of the universal extension of the synonym based on modal adverbial qualifications (like the word “necessarily,” which points to an essential characteristic which must either be made up or actually encountered in reality and appropriated by a synthesis). In other words, it is analytic “just because.” (Thus, the title of Quine’s paper: Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Read more here.)

Beyond that, logical positivism is a self-refuting on theory its face… If meaningful statements can only be about physically verifiable things, then that statement itself is meaningless because it is not analytic (or is arbitrary if it is, and we go back to the first problem) and cannot be verified with the senses so is not synthetic… How does one verify “meaningfulness” with the senses? Logical positivism is a metaphysical theory that metaphysics is meaningless. Once again, this can only be asserted, not discovered. Except with this dogma, it evidently claims itself to be meaningless.

But the cat was out of the bag: “Metaphysics has completely died at last.” Logical positivism had already made its way from the salons of Austria to the parlors of America and lecture halls of Great Britain. The fuel was poured on the fire that had started in England by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore after they had decided to reject the British Idealism that dominated the scene by creating an “analytic” philosophy that didn’t deal with all those Hegelian vanities that couldn’t be touched with a stick or put in a beaker. Russell’s star pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would also come to be a seminal force in strengthening the analytic ethos, after having already inspired much of the discussion in the Vienna Circle. Though Quine did indeed destroy the metaphysical doctrine that metaphysics is meaningless, the force of positivism continued nonetheless within this “analytic” framework – and it is with us to this day en masse in university philosophy departments, which has led several generations of students to miss out on a solid education in classical metaphysics and philosophical anthropology.

In sociology there arose the “antipositivism” of Max Weber, which insisted on the need for value-based sociology – after all, how can a society really be understood apart from its own values, and how can a society be demarcated at all without reference to those values, etc.? A liquid does not assign a value to turning into a gas, which it then acts upon, but a group does assign a value to capitalism, or marriage, or birth status which it then acts upon.

In the broader realm of the philosophy of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn’s postpositivism came to the fore. Science in general cannot be best explained without regard for some kind of value, but that the possibility of and/or actualization of the falsification or failure of a scientific theory is the characteristic feature of the sciences – in contrast to the optimism of the positivists that we can “just do science,” and that that will be useful enough.

In “science” itself, an air of independence was diffused. Scientists do “science,” other people do other things, and that’s that; never mind that we have no idea how to define “science” as we understand it today, and never mind that values are always brought to bear in scientific evaluation, and never mind what might actually be done with what potentially dangerous knowledge is gained or tool developed. A far cry from the polymaths, such as St. Albert the Great or Aristotle, who never would have considered such independence.

Then there are the “pop scientists” who try to do philosophy. A few examples of many will have to suffice to show that there exist three traits among pop scientists who are the go-to sources on religion and philosophy for countless curious millennials and Gen-Xers alike.

The first is an epistemic myopia, which derives immediately from positivism: if you can’t poke it or put it in a beaker, it’s not real. (Yes, it is a little more complicated than that, but you’ve read the section above describing positivism, right? Empirical verification is the only criterion and process for knowledge… Etc.) This is often manifested by a lack of awareness that “continental philosophy” (as opposed to analytic philosophy) often works in totally immaterial terms, like act, or mind, or cause, or God. This immediately creates equivocation – a pop scientist says “act” and thinks “doing something,” for example.

The second is an ignorance of basic philosophical principles and methods, which follows from the first characteristic. If you don’t know how to boil water, don’t go on “Hell’s Kitchen” – everyone will laugh at you and wonder what you are doing there in the first place. We might do well to have a philosophical version of Gordon Ramsay roaming about.

The third is the arrogance to pontificate on philosophy and theology nonetheless, and this of course follows from the second characteristic. They don’t know what they don’t know, but they got a book deal, so they will act like they are experts.

Everyone knows Dr. Stephen Hawking. (They made a movie!) But did you know that the average 6-year-old could debunk the central claim of his most recent book? It is now an infamous passage:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” (From The Grand Design)

I can hear the 1st graders calling out now: “But gravity’s not nothing!” And they would be right. The myopia of Dr. Hawking (and Dr. Mlodinow, his co-author) is evident in the inability to grasp that, as Gerald Schroeder pointed out, an immaterial law outside of time that can create the universe sounds a lot like, well, God. The ignorance of basic philosophical principles, in this case, the most basic, is clear from realizing that “gravity” can’t be both SOMETHING AND NOTHING. Then, the arrogance to go on pontificating anyway is self-evident by the fact of the existence of the book, and then a TV series which aired shortly afterward wherein we find philosophical reflection which is similarly wanting.

If you really want to do a heavy penance, watch this “discussion” between Hawking, Mlodinow, Deepak Chopra, and poor Fr. Spitzer – I had the displeasure of watching it live several years ago:

Then there are folks like Dr. Michio Kaku. He regularly shows up on those Discovery Channel specials on string theory, quantum mechanics, future technology, yadda yadda. All well and good. But here’s an… interesting quotation for our consideration:

“Aquinas began the cosmological proof by postulating that God was the First Mover and First Maker. He artfully dodged the question of ‘who made God’ by simply asserting that the question made no sense. God had no maker because he was the First. Period. The cosmological proof states that everything that moves must have had something push it, which in turn must have had something push it, and so on. But what started the first push? . . . The flaw in the cosmological proof, for example, is that the conservation of mass and energy is sufficient to explain motion without appealing to a First Mover. For example, gas molecules may bounce against the walls of a container without requiring anyone or anything to get them moving. In principle, these molecules can move forever, requiring no beginning or end. Thus there is no necessity for a First or a Last Mover as long as mass and energy are conserved.” (Hyperspace, 193-195)

The misunderstandings here are as comical as they are numerous… The conflation, found explicitly in the full text, of the first 3 Ways as “the cosmological proof,” which obscures the issue, the belief that “motion” is a term about something necessarily temporal, the thought that only recently did we discover that matter and energy don’t just appear and disappear, and then the most obvious blunder – Thomas does NOT start any of the 5 Ways by saying anything like “God is the First Mover, therefore…” There is no such ungrounded assertion which “dodges the question,” as Kaku puts it. One must wonder if he even bothered to read the original text – which is readily available. Kaku has even weaker arguments (unbelievably) against both the “moral proof” (which is a characterization I have never heard of the 4th Way until Kaku’s book, which troubles me from the start) and the teleological proof on top of this disastrous critique, but I won’t bore you. (Basically: “Because change and evolution.” Read it for yourself.)

Once again, we see three qualities: epistemic myopia (as evidenced, for example, by the error about “motion”), ignorance of the most basic philosophical principles (albeit these are a little more complicated than the one Hawking whiffed on), and the arrogance to pontificate about God and the act of creation nonetheless.

Next you have a man like Richard Dawkins, one of the nastiest examples of publicly evangelical atheism the world has to offer at present. Here’s one particularly embarrassing quotation from his seminal anti-theistic work, The God Delusion:

“However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” (p. 138)

philmeme1

Can you see the three characteristics? Material beings only (or at least “things” with “parts”), no idea what metaphysical simplicity is and how it relates to God in Western philosophy, and yet here we have one book of many which address this theme.

It is not that these folks don’t believe in classical metaphysics – it’s that they don’t understand them in the least. They play a game of solitaire and claim to be winning a game of poker.

We won’t even get into discussing Bill Nye the Eugenics Guy… for now.

Okay, yes, quote-mining is easy. But this is the cream of the crop from a very large and fertile field. I am not sure I recall ever reading an important and sensible argument about religion or metaphysics from a world-renowned scientist who lived in the past 50 or so years. Someone prove me wrong in the comments.

All this leads us to the average “scientism” which one finds in the comboxes of Youtube videos about religion, threads on various websites, and debates on social media. Yes, there are plenty of religious people in those arenas, but the skeptics who try to make wild claims like “science disproves religion” or “evolution means God does not exist” or even just dismiss the idea of revealed religion outright with some kind of mockery ought to be seen as the children of positivism. It is the most probable explanation – the sources of their myopia, ignorance, and arrogance can usually be traced back through intermediate steps to a talking head like Dawkins who ultimately owes his own irrational ramblings to Auguste Comte.

Why is post-modern positivism so naïve? At the combox level, it is because these people, as all others, have an instinctive drive to trust in someone beyond themselves. For many it is due to circumstance and perhaps a certain kind of emotional insecurity and intellectual laziness that they latch on to the confident scientistic loudmouths to formulate their worldview – and it becomes a pseudo-religious dogmatic cult of its own, a little like Comte’s “religion of humanity.” At the pop-science level, it is just plain laziness and/or intellectual dishonesty combined with arrogance, as we have investigated. At the lecture hall level – and I mainly speak of the general closed-mindedness towards classical metaphysics found in analytic circles – it is a deeper kind of blindness which is the result of the academic culture created by the aforementioned ideological lineage. Each level has its own share of responsibility which it is shirking.

The truth is that matter is known by something immaterial – a mind or person – and this reveals to us a certain kind of hierarchy and order, seeing as matter itself does not know us. Man is indeed over all matter and ought to control it and master it, and all without the consent of matter; but this does not mean that there can’t be knowledge of things nobler and/or simpler than man, like substance or causation or God. Not looking at matter as the product of non-matter, and as being ordered to the immaterial in a certain way, is part and parcel of the New Albigensianism.

So there we have the first part of the manifesto explained. Irreducible facts (the ones devoid of metaphysics and value judgments) about the material world constitute the only real knowledge. The less reducible, the less it is really known. Even though the West is full of supposed “relativists,” it would be difficult to find a person who would truly let go of the objectivity of “science.” To say, “Christianity is your truth but not mine” is one thing; it is quite another to say something like, “Geocentrism is your truth but not mine.”

There is yet more to be explored… Next time, we will dive into the second half of the “postmodernist manifesto” with a look at its existentialist roots and how misconceptions about the relationship of the self to one’s bodily life have led to transgender bathroom bills.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Positivist Temple in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Source: Tetraktys – User:Tetraktys, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3295600

Sing to the Lord a New Song – in an Old Way?

“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But if you can’t figure out what that chord was, maybe just try singing. God made your voice, after all.

With roots going back to ancient Judaism, singing is an integral part of Christian worship. St. Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:17-19). One would guess that musical instruments would be helping to make this melody, adding another musical layer and aiding proper pitch, tempo, and rhythm.

Aulos_player_Louvre_G313
Aulos Player

However, the Fathers of the Early Church came down very hard against the use of any musical instruments in the liturgy. For example, St. John Chrysostom says rather forcefully that “where aulos-players are, there Christ is not.” By exploring their reasons, we’ll uncover some theological underpinnings to the Church’s use of chant in her liturgy.

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Hebrew Psalter, 15th century AD

Jewish Roots

“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6)

Although the Temple at one point was known for its loud instruments, Judaism itself cast aside musical instruments in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. When the Romans left Jerusalem devestated, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire abandoned their harps and lutes, as they had once done in the Babylonian Exile 600 years prior:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For it was there that they asked us, our captors for songs, our oppressors, for joy. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? (Psalm 137: 1-4)

Like the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Temple fundamentally changed Jewish worship, and the “lute and harp” lost out.

Another reason musical instruments lost out was that pagan cults were known for playing musical instruments. And since the early Jews had a real fear of obfuscating the sacred and the profane, the association of musical instruments with paganism was enough to render musical instruments unclean.

When the Early Church looked for guidance in how to conduct their worship, they seemed to follow suit. But the Church Fathers didn’t stop with just condemning the use of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church; they went on to condemn them in other aspects of secular life. For example, St. John Chrysostom calls musical instruments “the devil’s great heap of garbage.” St. Augustine adds: “The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”

Because of this great aversion to musical instruments, early Christian liturgical music was exclusively vocal. The liturgy would be sung but only in a subdued fashion, using a form of singing called “cantillation” that resembled speech more than song.

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St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD)

Patristic Interiorization

“He who sings, prays twice” – this aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine is actually a distillation of his commentary on Psalm 73:

For he that sings praise, not only praises, but only praises with gladness; he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.

Perhaps better distilled as “Only the lover sings,” singing adds to our praise the element of love, the internal disposition of the heart. The act of singing, involving the mechanisms of the human voice, expresses that love of God or, even, is that love of God. Something much more profound is happening in the song of the lover than a mere doubling of prayer.

But what about musical instruments?

Although Jewish and Christian worship changed, the Old Testament did not. How did the Early Church contend with the many instances of musical instruments in the Old Testament?  The Church Fathers interiorized the external musical instruments featured in the psalter. Chief among the Church Fathers in that area, St. Clement of Alexandria writes on Psalm 150:

The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry, chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,’ for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; ‘praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute, praise Him,’ understand the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth, which, with the movement of the lips, produces words.

Far removed from the “unrestrained revelry” of pagan culture, the human voice alone sufficed for authentic praise of God. All the references to musical instruments are made into allegories for the human body, each signifying different aspects of our physical anthropology.

But more than just our bodies, God made the whole human person – body and soul – in His image, capable of praising Him in melodious song. The early monk Cassiodorus writes that “the notes previously observed as issuing from musical instruments are now seen to emanate from the rational bodies of men.” Connecting this to the Incarnation, St. Clement of Alexandria writes:

The Word of God, scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments, and having rendered harmonious by the Holy Spirit both this cosmos and even man the microcosm, made up of body and soul – he sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument: “You are my cithara, my aulos and my temple,” a cithara because of harmony, and aulos because of spirit, and a temple because of the word, so that the first might strum, the second might breathe, and the third might encompass the Lord… The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.

The Word of God became flesh – with human lungs, lips, tongue, and voice – and continued his eternal praise of the Father, now as one of those “beautiful breathing instruments.”

The definitive departure from “lifeless” Davidic musical instruments made room for such interpretations of the psalms. With this anthropologizing and allegorizing of the psalms with the elevated anthropology of the Incarnation, we have the beginnings of a theological foundation for liturgical chant.

Theology of the Unassisted Voice

When the Word became human flesh in the Incarnation, the study of human nature became a study of God – anthropology became a theology. Likewise, the study of the human voice reveals in some way the mystery of Christ. According to Dom Mark Kirby, the human voice in the Church’s liturgy prepares “in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word” (“The Psalmody of the Divine Office,” 17-18). In this way, liturgical chant is a participation in Christ’s mediation to the Father, as manifested in the Incarnation.

Here (with some help from Dom Kirby) are some theological musings on several aspects of the unassisted human voice.

Breathing: Within the Trinity, “the breath of God is indissociable from the word of God, and the word of God cannot be uttered save in a communication of the breath of God.” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 15). Breathing thus images the action of the Holy Spirit in singing. In a cappella singing, pauses for breathing are left unfilled and exposed. Through the breathing necessary for supported singing, “the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption” (Ibid.). Together, the co-incidence of breath and word resonate in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of the temple of one’s body, where one prays to the Father in secret (Matt 6:6).

Memory: Unlike visual art which is stretched spatially, music is stretched temporally, requiring the human memory to link words across time into a coherent discourse. “Liturgical chant,” according to Dom Kirby, “being heightened discourse, engages the memory of both singer and hearer, becoming a disclosure, in time, of the timeless mystery, a contemplative unfolding of the Word” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 14).

Communion: The prayer of the Christian is never solitary; every prayer is uttered in union with Christ and in communion with His Church. Chant captures this aspect of communion. The propers, antiphons, and psalmody chanted in the sacred assembly make present that communion of persons, all praying ecclesially with the voice of the Church. Chanting the prayer of the Church together leads to a uniformity without homogenization, a unity without loss of identity – each unique voice aids the others in a common song of praise. Even when chanted alone, the prayer of the liturgy is united with the prayers of all the faithful from the rising of the sun to its setting, stretching throughout space and time.

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16th Century Chant Manuscript – Psalm 89: “I have made a covenant with my elect: I have sworn to David my servant. Alleluia.”

Silence: Chant begins and ends with silence: “the context of liturgical chant is, before and after anything else, silence. It originates, with the word, in silence. Like the Word, it ‘springs from the silence’” (Ibid., 20). More than merely assisting prayer, chant is prayer. In fact, chant is a participation in the highest prayer of Christ’s mediation to the Father. As such, chant should not feel rushed or busy, but must rather be irrigated with silence. The pockets of silence are little Mount Horebs wherein we hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kg 19:12). This prayer does not need musical instruments filling in the gaps of singing and supporting the sound of the human voice with additional melodic layers. Rather, in liturgical chant, the exposed and vulnerable human person encounters the Father most authentically in silence.

What Next?

In chant, the human voice alone carries the word and expresses the fullness of the human person – body and soul. Chanting the text without accompaniment, one’s voice, one’s prayer – one’s whole person – is exposed to God. Chant is thus a full, conscious, and active participation in the prayer of the Church in the liturgy.

As the Church spread throughout Europe and the influence of paganism began to wane, musical instruments lost their negative associations. No longer seen as “the devil’s heap of garbage,” the Church began to reintroduce instruments into worship. With a little help from Charlemagne, the pipe organ became a prominent feature of medieval churches. As a “breathing” machine operated by bellows, the pipe organ was seen as an appropriate mechanical approximation of the human voice.

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St. Cecilia (d. 230) anachronistically depicted playing the organ

But before the organ became a staple of church construction, the initial vacuum created by the Church Fathers’ opposition to musical instruments was filled by a theology of the unaccompanied human voice. Even though the Church no longer fears a connection to pagan worship, it was that initial aversion that occasioned the development of a robust theology of the unaccompanied voice – a theology whose praises are often unsung.

Such a theology became the basis for the great depositum orandi – deposit of prayer (to coin a phrase) – in Gregorian Chant. To this day, Gregorian chant is still “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

Like the Early Church, the negative cultural associations of some contemporary genres of music ought to be taken into account in developing liturgical music fitted for the worship of the Father through, with, and in the incarnate Son. But more importantly, we ought not to turn our back on the larger theology of chant rooted in the Incarnation.

 

Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber, C.O.

 

Main image: The Worcester Psalter
The Initial of Psalm 97