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Redeeming the Senses: The Sanctifying Significance of the Arts (Part I)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Mar 27, 2015 11:12:00 PM

“Extraordinary!  On the page it looked nothing.  The beginning simple, almost comic.  Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns - like a rusty squeezebox.  Then suddenly - high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! … This was a music I'd never heard.  Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling.  It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

These are the words of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri from the 1984 movie, Amadeus, describing the music of Mozart. This theme of "hearing the voice of God" pervades the history of Christian music. It is no coincidence that the church was for 1,500 years the principal financier of art and music, for the church reimagined the arts in terms of what we might call the redemption of the senses. Christians believed that it was not just our souls that fell with the first sin in the garden, but our bodily senses were affected adversely as well. Thus, in the context of Christ’s redemption of the world, the purpose of art and music was to sanctify our senses by re-directing or re-training them away from the carnal and the sensual and toward the eternally True, Good, and Beautiful, and thereby prepare our bodies for their resurrection.

The precursor to this distinctively Christian vision of the arts is found in the works of Plato. In the Timaeus, Plato proposes that the contemplation of the cosmos could lead the soul to God and hence transcend the world. And this contemplation of the cosmos entails an interest in the senses, where sight is appropriated as the foundation of philosophy and the sense that leads to a discovery of divine Truth.[1] In his pursuit of Beauty in the Symposium, Plato appropriates visual Beauty as that which initially inspires the philosopher to mount the ‘heavenly ladder’ to God, who is absolute Beauty (Symposium 210 d-211 b). Hearing, as well, plays an important role in this divine ascent. Plato’s pursuit of the Good in his Republic outlines his musike paideia, how music and poetry provide the chief means by which rhythm and harmony could be communicated through the body and sunk deeply into the recesses of the soul.[2]

This means, for Plato, that both soul and body are deeply sensitive to Beauty, and it is the practice of contemplation that united Beauty, morality, and intellection in the formation of our humanity. Thus the soul ascends into what Plato calls in the Symposium, “the wide ocean of intellectual Beauty.” It is there that we find life, that which is eternal and perfect and incorruptible, absolute in its proportion and symmetry, in short, absolute Beauty.

In the Christian development, Christian writers follow this cosmic trajectory by reflecting on the nature of the cosmos as creation and God as Creator. Second-century hymns such as the Odes of Solomon and writers such as Clement and Tertullian celebrate creation as a means by which one could contemplate the very nature of God himself. In his work, On the Six Days of Creation (Hexaemeron), which became paradigmatic for Byzantine creation theology, Basil of Caesarea (330-379AD) argues that through the revelation of creation one could encounter something of the divine nature:

Let us glorify the Master Craftsman for all that has been done wisely and skillfully; and from the Beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of Him who is more than beautiful; and from the greatness of [what is perceptible and circumscribed] let us conceive of Him who is infinite and immense and who surpasses all understanding in the plenitude of His power.[3]

For the Patristic tradition, this encounter with the divine presence through nature is possible because the divine Logos and the created order have in fact conjoined together in the Incarnation, such that the fourth-century Christian writer Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD) could speak of the Old Testament, New Testament, and nature “as three harps on which the Church played the music of Christ, all proclaiming the same God in perfect harmony.”[4]

However, while the Incarnation of the Son of God has reawakened God’s divine glory in Creation, such a reawakening remains obscured by the fallen sense humanity has of the world. In this early Christina tradition, the senses have fallen along with the soul, and are thus in need of redemption. So, the union of heaven and earth in the Incarnation must extend into the sacramental life of the Church in order to awaken the senses to the renewed condition of the created order. Hence, for Ephrem, baptism bestowed upon the believer a new physical sense that is able to receive knowledge of God through sanctified sensory experiences (Hymns on Faith 81.9). Augustine, in his Confessions, described his experience of encountering the Beauty of God in terms of the divine reconstitution of the senses:

You [O Lord] called and cried aloud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. (10.27.38)

As such, the body, washed in baptism, became the location for Christianity, one that focused on the redemption of the senses that shaped aesthetic sensibilities in accordance with the new creation in Christ.

In our next post, we will encounter some of the ways Christians developed the arts in terms of this vision of redeeming the senses.

Until then, how has art and music served to sanctify your senses and awaken you to God’s presence?

[1] Anthony Synnott, “Puzzling Over the Senses From Plato to Marx”, in David Howes (ed.), The Variety of Sensory Experience (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 61-76, 63.

[2] Louth, Origins, 8.

[3] Quoted in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 59.

[4] Quoted in Harvey, Scenting, 60.

Featured image credit: © 2008 BriYYZ, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

This post is part of a series on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty promoting the release of my new book, Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, available here.

Topics: blog, truth goodness and beauty, redeeming the senses

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