I had the privilege yesterday of attending a performance/lecture by Jeremy Begbie, hosted by Wycliffe College in the hallowed environs of Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Begbie is one of the seminal figures in the theology and the arts conversation, dating back to his now-canonical Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (1991) and Theology, Music and Time (1999) through a number of influential books which use music and art as resources for deepening understanding of theological themes. His unique perspective as both a serious theologian and classical musician makes his contribution to this interdisciplinary dialogue vital and illuminating; he is also an engaging and dynamic speaker. I first learned about Begbie’s work when I was at Regent College, where he has often taught in summer school on a break from his regular teaching positions – formerly at St. Andrews, now at Duke and Cambridge.
The talk was on how music allows us to better understand the nature of freedom, particularly in a theological context. His thesis, to which I hope I can do justice, is that for too long theology has been held “captive” to an overly visual paradigm – a spatial model where two (or more) things cannot occupy the same position while remaining distinct. Explanations of the Trinity, for example, often falter because of their reliance on a visual model where three persons must either blend into a bland unity or remain as three separate (ie. non-overlapping) entities without interpenetration. In terms of the relationship between divine and human freedom, a visual theological paradigm means conceptualizing human agency and divine initiative as competing for the same ‘space’ – one will squeeze the other out, so that authentic human freedom is suffocated by God’s action, or perhaps vice versa. Music, however, potentially provides a paradigm where two things can indeed occupy the same auditory “space”; musical tones not only maintain their own integrity when sounded simultaneously, but set each other off to resonate more fully. This, for Begbie, offers us a way of better understanding the relationship of human freedom to the Trinitarian God – not as competing forces which threaten to crush each other to the margins, but as intertwining strands of a polyphonic symphony, unfolding simultaneously on the stage of the world. It is quite a beautiful way of describing what emerges in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work as the “analogy of freedom”; we are most free, not least free, when our freedom is “set off” by the joyous freedom of God.
The best part about Begbie’s lecture was undoubtedly his frequent recourse to music, including performances of Debussy and Bach as well as examples from musical worlds as diverse as Thomas Tallis, U2 and South African isicathamiya. The music resounding in Koerner Hall, along with Begbie’s careful admonishments, reminded us to be more “capacious,” making space within ourselves to experience the divine freedom which flows out of the eternal perichoresis of the Trinity, drawing human culture and creativity into a deeper experience of its own inexhaustible life.