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.
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.”