Counterpoint to “the G-word”

Phil Ford

One of the things that’s been good about this summer has been the fact that, since Jonathan and I have been out-of-commission at various points, we decided to bring Robin Wallace on board as a summer guest blogger. It’s good to have someone bringing up issues that we don’t, and one issue that Robin has brought up repeatedly is the question of religion — what role it might play in musicology, and what role it does play. This isn’t something it would ever have occurred to me to talk about, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the desire to testify, to bear public witness of one’s own religious faith, has always seemed, from my doubtless inhibited Canadian perspective, to be such a typically American thing. The Canadian stereotype of the American is, basically, Homer Simpson — a big, sloppy, sentimental, let-it-all-hang-out kind of guy, never letting a passing emotion go by unexpressed. I was raised in the high Anglican church (the “smells and bells” register of the Church of England, called Episcopalian here), which always seemed to proceed from the assumption that, since all the better sort of people belong to it, why make a fuss about what exactly you believe? Anglicans teach their children that it’s impolite to talk about religion in public, so it feels weird to write about this topic at all. But Robin hoped that his post on “the G-word” would “sprout a little shrub of (bemused? baffled?) comments, and perhaps send down some roots,” and fair enough. If there’s one thing I agree with in his post, it’s that we should start feeling we can speak and write about such things, and what better place to do it than on a blog?

But the other reason I don’t usually feel like talking about religion is that I do not believe. It’s not simply that I don’t have Christian beliefs; I don’t believe in belief. I’m not a hard-core rationalist — the Universe is to me, in the end, a very great mystery, and it strikes me as the greatest imposture and impudence for anyone, religious or atheistic, to claim dominion over that mystery, which is why I don’t call myself an atheist. But still, I have no patience with arguments that circumvent reason with an appeal to faith, and in any event we’ve heard entirely too much of that for the past six years. I hate (really hate) it when people casually denigrate other people’s religious beliefs, and I don’t want to come off as some kind of louche absinthe-sipping ascot-wearing Baudelaire-quoting decadent who simply can’t believe that there’s anyone who still believes in this childish God nonsense. But I have a problem with religion, and it has a lot to do with a couple of things that Robin wrote in his post.

Like this:

The question of whether I believe in God is a side issue. People are free to believe or not believe in air, but they keep breathing. That’s the way God is for me; if I stop breathing, I hurt.

I have no reason to doubt Robin’s own personal good faith, but this seems to me, nevertheless, the kind of bad-faith argument that non-believers are always hearing from believers. On the one hand, Hey, you can believe what you want, it’s cool — but then this apparent concession to pluralism is immediately retracted when God is compared to air. You can “believe” in air or not, but it’s still there. And what’s the proof? “If I stop breathing, I hurt.” If, in this metaphor, “breathing” means worship and prayer, then I haven’t taken a breath for a long, long time. Which leaves me with only a couple of options. Either I’m kidding myself, like the guy in the footprints-in-the-sand parable, carried by God’s love and childishly ignorant of it (or, to stick with the metaphor, breathing but not admitting that that’s what I’m doing); or I’m some kind gill-using Creature from the Black Lagoon subhuman freak, alien to God’s love and fellowship in the human community; or maybe I’m the Living Dead, not alive at all. And it’s no accident that these interpretations form the basis of a rhetoric that the Bush administration’s flying monkeys, people like Hugh Hewitt and Bill O’Reilly, have used, rather successfully, to make pariahs of non-believers.

Again, I know that this is not Robin’s intention, but for me it’s not a question of the person making the argument, it’s the logic of the argument itself. If God is what believers say He is — the divine Creator from whom all existence and meaning flows — then this surely cannot be a mere matter of opinion. If you say “you worship your God and I’ll worship mine and we’ll both be right,” God becomes elective. But an elective God is a limited God, and this is not the God of either the New or Old Testaments. In which case, why would you tolerate any other religion? There’s a reason that the first commandment is “you will have no Gods before me.” That’s the commandment that makes the others possible. I mean, if you can’t get that one right, what’s the point of the other nine? I imagine that all the thoughtful religious people I know* would say that the recent Christian protest of a Hindu chaplain leading a prayer in the Senate is a travesty of Christianity. But if there is an omnipotent and indivisible God, then the protesters have every right to shout down a Hindu chaplain — indeed, it is their duty. If Christ is Lord, then public praise of some other God is an intolerable lie. And if Christ isn’t Lord, then why bother showing up to church on Sunday?

In other words, belief in an omnipotent and indivisible God is inherently, logically hostile to pluralism. “The prevailing wisdom is that all points of view are welcome, as long as they don’t lay claim to universal relevance,” Robin writes. Which is another way of saying something I’ve heard a lot lately — that tolerance (in speech and writing, in schools, etc.) should extend to beliefs that explicitly deny tolerance.**  But even as well-phrased as this sentiment is in Robin’s post, I have to ask: how do you square this with the humanist tradition that underwrites musicology and, for that matter, the institution of the University? Humanistic scholarship is founded on a libertarian idea of the free pursuit of reason, without the prior restraint of any political or religious belief. A belief held to be universal and eternal is a prior restraint on free inquiry; so when you assert the eternal, universal truth of your belief, surely your intellectual enterprise, however worthy in itself, is committed to a different ideal?

To say that I was raised in the Anglican church is actually something
of a simplification. My Dad was a hard-boiled atheist, while my Mom
could probably be described as conventionally religious — someone for
whom religion was never the most important thing, but for whom religion
must necessarily form a part of any well-regulated life. She was not happy with my father’s gleeful blasphemy, the positive pleasure he got from insulting God. So it was an interesting upbringing: I got to hear both sides, you might say. I played organ for a few years in my
early teens and for a while became a rather devout Anglican, singing in the church choir and planning on a career as a church musician. But when my church started a fund-raising drive for missionary work in Africa, it stuck in my throat. Africans already had religious beliefs; we wanted them to have ours instead. On what grounds? Well, ours is true and theirs is false (although, being Anglicans, no-one ever said so quite this
bluntly). But on what grounds could we be so sure? As John Stuart Mill noted in the second chapter of On Liberty, human history presents an unbroken record of great men and women oppressed by people who sincerely believed things that now seem absurd or monstrous:

Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opinion of his time, there took place a memorable collision. Born in an age and country abounding in individual greatness, this man has been handed down to us by those who best knew both him and the age, as the most virtuous man in it; while we know him as the head and prototype of all subsequent teachers of virtue, the source equally of the lofty inspiration of Plato and the judicious utilitarianism of Aristotle, “i maëstri di color che sanno,” the two headsprings of ethical as of all other philosophy. This acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived — whose fame, still growing after more than two thousand years, all but outweighs the whole remainder of the names which make his native city illustrious — was put to death by his countrymen, after a judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality. Impiety, in denying the gods recognised by the State; indeed his accuser asserted (see the Apologia) that he believed in no gods at all. Immorality, in being, by his doctrines and instructions, a “corrupter of youth.” Of these charges the tribunal, there is every ground for believing, honestly found him guilty, and condemned the man who probably of all then born had deserved best of mankind, to be put to death as a criminal.

To pass from this to the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the mention of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anti-climax: the event which took place on Calvary rather more than eighteen hundred years ago. The man who left on the memory of those who witnessed his life and conversation, such an impression of his moral grandeur, that eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person, was ignominiously put to death, as what? As a blasphemer. Men did not merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he was, and treated him as that prodigy of impiety, which they themselves are now held to be, for their treatment of him. The feelings with which mankind now regard these lamentable transactions, especially the later of the two, render them extremely unjust in their judgment of the unhappy actors. These were, to all appearance, not bad men — not worse than men most commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and respected. The high-priest who rent his garments when the words were pronounced, which, according to all the ideas of his country, constituted the blackest guilt, was in all probability quite as sincere in his horror and indignation, as the generality of respectable and pious men now are in the religious and moral sentiments they profess; and most of those who now shudder at his conduct, if they had lived in his time, and been born Jews, would have acted precisely as he did. Orthodox Christians who are tempted to think that those who stoned to death the first martyrs must have been worse men than they themselves are, ought to remember that one of those persecutors was Saint Paul.

My first doubt became my last. It was, at bottom, a question of pluralism. The choice was between a tolerant faith that undercuts its own principles and becomes hypocritical, and a faith, rigorously pursued, that kills what for me is most holy — the infinite diversity of thought and expression that is the crowning glory of our humanity. So I stopped going to church, though I’ve never stopped thinking about spiritual things. Art is spiritual, after all, indeed holy — but, for me, its holiness is in its humanity. If that makes any sense at all.

About musicology: so what would (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a faith-based musicology look like? What role could religion play in music scholarship? This is a serious question, which I really can’t begin answer here — this post is already far too long. But if Robin writes a counter-counter-post to my counter-post, perhaps we could talk about it.

*And I know quite a few. Pace Robin, in my experience most academics, including academic Marxists, feminists, and assorted postmodernists, do in fact believe in God and regularly attend church, and there is data to prove it. (Download a pdf of the study here.) But it fits a certain narrative  to claim otherwise.

**Which I actually agree with. I don’t like loudmouth religious bigots
like the ones that heckled the Hindu chaplain, but they’ve got the same
rights as anyone else. The degenerate version of this argument is to complain that one is oppressed because one has been prevented from oppressing others, which for some
reason reminds me of a favorite Onion news bit: “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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12 Responses to Counterpoint to “the G-word”

  1. Lyle Sanford says:

    “Art is spiritual, after all, indeed holy — but, for me, its holiness is in its humanity.” – Sounds like for Phil there’s no overlap between spiritual and religious, and that for Robin there’s a lot – This discussion could go all kinds of places, one being whether there’s any overlap between what each of you mean when you say “spiritual”.
    Great posts – Thanks.

  2. Robin Wallace says:

    Phil –
    Thanks for your tactfully worded response, which is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping I might get here. I’ve enjoyed being a guest blogger (counter-blogger?) this summer because it’s a different kind of experience; I’m used to talking about religion with religious people, who can be fractious enough to shatter any illusions you might have that they even agree about anything, let alone can hope to make others agree with them.
    Perhaps I should clarify that I myself was raised in no church at all. My mother is Jewish, and my father is a former Catholic. I am currently a Christian of the Protestant, Lutheran (ELCA) persuasion, meaning that I belong to a denomination which has signed ecumenical agreements with the Episcopal and Catholic churches, ordains women, and regularly debates issues relating to homosexuality. An important part of my own faith has been the acknowledgment—shared by increasing numbers of Christians—that Judaism has in no way been superseded by Christianity.
    In fact, there are many Christian theologians and popular writers—Walter Wink and Brian McLaren can serve as an example of each—who maintain that Christians can and should learn from all other religions of the world with genuine humility.
    My point in raising this argument is that I don’t want to come across as one of those “my way or the highway” people whom you rightfully deplore. I fully understand the concern that arguing an exclusivist point of view is anti-intellectual and anti-humanist. At the same time, though, I cannot live with nihilism, which is the opposite extreme. I hope it’s possible to argue that God exists without claiming that I have any kind of beeline to absolute truth. In fact, I believe the exact opposite: that faith in God gives me the ability to question my assumptions without having to fear that there’s nothing left to hold me up once they are revealed as mere constructs, if that’s what they turn out to be.
    As for what the issue of faith-based scholarship would look like: We discuss this at Baylor all the time. What a lot of people may not realize is that traditional Baptists place an enormous priority on free intellectual inquiry. Many believe that faith-based scholarship is simply scholarship done by people of faith, and that the attempt to be more deliberate about it is fraught with perils. The hard-won knowledge of these perils is one of the treasures of the Baptist tradition that I’ve come to know since moving here four years ago. And yes, I know you’re right that most academics believe in God and are thus, by a reasonable definition, people of faith.
    So why am I bothering to stick my neck out by saying things like those contained in my “G-Word” post? I suppose because this is my own personal daimon, to turn to an analogy from Robertson Davies. The core of a person’s intellectual life is based on the search for meaning, and my search for meaning has led me to religious faith. Therefore, not to talk about it would be in bad faith, if you can accept the horrible play on words. My interpretation of Beethoven’s music is the fruit of that daimon, and therefore to fail to proclaim it would put me in the position of Francis Cornish when he refuses to buy his own paintings for fear that they are actually forgeries. His daimon nearly leaves him in disgust.
    Thinking of bad faith, I’m sorry if my “air” argument struck you that way. Let me try to rephrase it. To me (perhaps not to you) God is a psychological reality that I can’t think around even if I try. I know there are many who do not perceive this psychological reality, or who do perceive it and resent it and try to think around it. I gather you’re in the first category and I’m cool with that.
    Anyway, I’ve gone on too long, but you certainly gave me a lot to respond to and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Thanks for the challenge; it’s been fun.

  3. Robin Wallace says:

    I probably should leave well enough alone, but I have one additional thought to add. I didn’t see Lyle’s post until after I put mine up, but I notice he singled out the following phrase:
    “Art is spiritual, after all, indeed holy — but, for me, its holiness is in its humanity. If that makes any sense at all.”
    Let me just say that this makes perfect sense. In fact, many theologians would say that this kind of statement is incarnational; it points to the reality that there is no locus outside of human history where spiritual truth can be perceived and understood in all its wholeness.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    I don’t believe in belief
    Phil Ford is E.M. Forster!
    “I do not believe in Belief” is the first sentence of his pamphlet “What I Believe”.

  5. Eric says:

    With respect to the G-word post, I was more taken aback by the following statement: “. . . I believe classical music could, and perhaps must, play a defining role in the 21st century’s spiritual life.” I was shocked because classical music means nothing to the society at large, and thus, it will be totally irrelevant to the spiritual lives of the Mass man. I mean this respectfully, but the comment smacked of someone who is spending too much time in the Ivory Tower and not enough time ‘plugging in’ to the real world around us. Make no mistake: We academics are sequestered on a beautiful little island of knowledge and learning; the common man doesn’t want to be on our island, he has a huge continent of soft porn, big-time wrestling, and pro-sports.

  6. Robin Wallace says:

    Indeed he does, but I believe all those leaven and mustard seed metaphors mean something, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t be bothering to contribute to a blog that only a handful of people are reading.

  7. Lyle Sanford says:

    “A belief held to be universal and eternal is a prior restraint on free inquiry . . .” Once you remove belief, how is “spiritual” defined without getting into territory that’s universal and/or eternal? What is “incarnational” if the body is all there is? And whatever the answer, how does music interact with it?
    Feeling distinctly out of my depth and will revert to lurker status. Thanks again for the great posts.

  8. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be bothering to contribute to a blog that only a handful of people are reading.”
    As just one of the “handful”, let me beg for the continuance of this kind of blogging. It is a discussion I do not hear elsewhere, and certainly not heard so honestly stated and thoughtfully worded.

  9. Eric says:

    We’re on the ‘island.’ And yes, it’s FANTASTIC (in fact, the only island I would care to be on), but the common man doesn’t even know where it is! Which is okay–I’m really not an elitist–it just that ‘our stuff’ is of no interest to the common man. He has his own music (e.g. C&W), theater (e.g. Bruce Willis movies), poetry (e.g. rap), and so forth.
    On another point: I’ve never quite understood why my notion of God (and I do believe) is so very far removed from what anyone else believes. I see God’s fingerprints everywhere (on absolutely everything around me), but I’ve never understood the idea of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’; I cannot even comprehend what these terms mean. But I don’t claim to be right; in fact, I’m probably quite misguided about such matters.

  10. Robin Wallace says:

    Eric –
    I think I know what your problem is. You’re looking for soul or spirit in the Cartesian sense, as something that is independent of our bodies and doesn’t really need them. I don’t blame you if that seems like a pretty meaningless concept.
    Actually, though, “the body” is an equally meaningless concept. That’s why Lyle’s “the body is all there is” belongs to a different conceptual field entirely than what I mean by “incarnational.”
    The body is less than what there is. The totality is a soul. “Spirit” literally means breath, and it’s what makes your body more than a sack of chemicals. It’s the animating force that moves us, and that seems to be living us rather than vice versa. It’s life.
    Thus, if you see God’s fingerprints everywhere, you see the spirit of God. It’s about as simple as that.
    Knowing that this will satisfy nobody …
    – Robin

  11. Bob Judd says:

    Thanks, Robin, for raising this interesting topic. I sympathize, as my own faith tends to compel me to want to involve my whole self, research-self included, in my relationship with God. So I poke around at it, try, as best I can manage — more of a stumble than anything else, I guess. My last AMS paper, 1999, took up the spiritual in a faith-based way, and was pretty good, if I do say so myself. (If only I had the ability to finish up my papers and publish them…) It’s called “Listening as Spiritual Combat,” with ref. to Lorenzo Scupoli’s book “Spiritual Combat”, made somewhat famous in the writing of J.D. Salinger (Franny & Zoe), but pretty famous all on its own.
    I also felt a strong spiritual streak to some other essays still awaiting publication (Synechdoche in Music; How can we find truth in contradictory interpretations of music). Abstracts of these are still at my old Penn web site, though that page will vanish one day soon I imagine.
    The thing is, it’s a huge topic, so big that it’s really hard to know where to begin work on it. For me, it’s definitely a matter of going where I can, hoping that there might be connections drawn together one day, if not by me, by someone.
    I appreciated Phil’s quotation from Mill– I’d add a ref. as well to Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People.” Is persecution the best sure sign that you’re on the right track? Sometimes it seems that way. There is no question that the community of religion in the world today has a massive amount of problems, from money-grubbing televangelists to Jim Jones to Catholic molesters to Israeli squatters to Muslim suicide-bombers. In a nutshell (and related to the Mill/Ibsen paradox) I figure the reason there’s so much wrong in religion today is because there is something important that is right about it. But I digress from musicology.
    The Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship ( ) was formed as a way for those of the Christian persuasion to get together and talk about music and faith matters, in the sense that Robin is looking for. There have been annual meetings since 2003 (Robin shyly omits mention that next year’s meeting is at Baylor, and he’s on the program committee!). There’s a broad array of angles taken at these meetings. It’s interesting. I serve on their pro tem board at the moment, and would like to encourage those with interests in this direction to check it out and come to a meeting. An not coincidentally, I’m trying to get the FMCS blog fired up, so if you want to talk more about religion and musicology, give it a spin at .

  12. Phil Ford says:

    There I was, thinking that my “not believing in belief” line was very clever and original.
    “A blog only a handful of people are reading”: well, it’s one of your larger handfuls, at least. Dial M just got its 50,000th page view. That’s a lot more people than would be reading my stuff otherwise.
    Thanks to everyone who posted a comment on this thread. I hope people continue to post stuff on it — it’s been a fertile topic.

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