Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: christianrenaissance (page 1 of 1)

Class Notes: Two Renewals

In my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century class, we’re reading, back-to-back, passages from Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920) and Karl Barth’s 1922 lecture “The Word of God and the Task of Theology” (reprinted in this excellent collection of writings by Barth, edited by Keith Johnson). It’s interesting to compare these two vital figures, because their tasks are in some ways quite different but in other ways very similar. 

It is noteworthy, first of all, that Maritain and Barth, born just four years apart, grew up in a generally liberal Protestant world, a mild environment in which pietism and evangelicalism were either embarrassing or totally unknown, and Catholicism known but alien and unthinkable. 

Barth’s lecture was given in response to critics of his great commentary on Romans, and is basically a defense of his “dialectical” method against the gentle anthropological pieties of liberal Protestantism. He wants German Protestants to realize that their project is doomed: it is neither fish nor foul, neither fully Christian nor fully secular; it is mealy-mouthed, tepid, timorous. Nietzsche had made the same point several decades earlier in his evisceration of David Strauss, but Nietzsche wanted the pastors and theologians to cast aside the last vestiges of supernaturalism and move forward boldly into a world freed from the “slave morality” of Christianity. (This move forward is also a move backward in the sense that Nietzsche wants to draw on the energies of a long-marginalized paganism, a paganism ripe for renewal and a final victory over Jewish and Jewish-inspired thought.) 

Barth also wants theology to move both forward and backward: forward fearlessly into a modernity which has no time for warmed-over moralism, and backward to reclaim the radical and essential insights of Luther and Calvin. We have to be as fearless as Luther and Calvin, he thought, if we are to speak convincingly to the watered-down world liberal Protestantism had (largely inadvertently) created. 

Maritain’s challenge to his readers is similar in that he believes that figures from the Christian past, especially Thomas Aquinas, speak to modernity more powerfully and effectually than any self-proclaimed “modernist” theologian or priest possibly could. But in another sense he has a very different problem than Barth — and the problem arises largely because Maritain is interested in the renewal of art

Once he became a Catholic, Maritain entered a church that for the previous century had not been following the liberal Protestant line of cultural accommodation — reconciling itself to its cultured despisers — but rather had been doing something like the opposite: insulating itself, protecting itself, from modernity. Thus the famous last item in Pio Nono’s Syllabus of Errors: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (Pio Nono: Nope.) 

For Maritain this is in one essential sense vitally correct, indeed necessary to the survival of Catholicism. But Maritain knows that however necessary such self-protection may be, it can lead to a generalized prejudice against the new and different. So in this little book he takes pains to insist that even by the standards we acquire through the study of medieval Scholastic thought, Stravinsky and Satie are outstanding composers whose music is worth our most serious attention. (He struggles a bit with certain visual artists, and I may do a post on that.) 

So, in short: Barth wants to lead liberal Protestantism away from an accommodationist tendency that had become sheer cultural capitulation, while Maritain wants to lead orthodox Catholicism away from its tendency to mere reaction against the new, to reflexive revulsion. But both of them think that the cure for the intellectual diseases of their ecclesial communities is: Ad fontes! Back to the sources! 

ADD revisited

On the first day of my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century course — mentioned here — I played for my students a few minutes of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. We paused to talk a bit about the musical language of late Romanticism, about Rachmaninoff’s gift for lush melody, etc. Then I played them this: 

Hard to believe it was composed by the same man, isn’t it? But (I suggested) that’s the difference between a young Russian composer in 1901 — he wrote that concerto when he was 27 — and a middle-aged Russian composer living through overwhelming political turmoil and world war. In time of desperate need Rachmaninoff, not a churchgoer, turned to the liturgical and musical inheritance of Orthodoxy to make sense of his world, to begin the long healing that would be necessary. 

But the healing didn’t happen. Russia was further broken by the war, then entered the long nightmare of Bolshevik rule, and Rachmaninoff became one of many exiles. In some ways he never recovered from this experience. Many years later, while living in California, he lamented his inability to compose music: “Losing my country, I lost myself also.” (Exile versus homecoming — one of the themes of my class.) But the All-Night Vigil remains, for me, one of the transcendent works of music. Rachmaninoff himself thought it perhaps his best composition. 

But I have another motive in having my students listen to this music, which is to get them to listen to music. People these days, especially but not only young people, have music on all the time, but that’s not the same as listening to it. Indeed, as Ted Gioia and Damon Krukowski have documented repeatedly, Spotify — and pretty much all my students use Spotify — positively wants its users to unlisten, to merely have music on in the background, in part because that allows the company to shift from actual music made by human musicians to AI-generated neo-Muzak. The tiny amount that Spotify pays musicians  is already shameful, but it’s too much for a company that doesn’t have a workable business model, so the best way to limit costs is to cut human musicians out of the game altogether. But this will only work if Spotify can habituate its users to empty, mindless schlock, made up of endless variations on the same four chords

I’ve made it a classroom practice in the last year or so to indulge in theatrical rants against Spotify, which is fun for me and for my students. They argue with me and I denounce them, all in good humor. But for all the smiles, I am quite serious. Spotify is creating in millions and millions of its users a new kind of Attention Deficit Disorder, not one that has them jumping from one thing to another, but rather has them in a kind of vague trance state. Spotify is like soma from Brave New World in audio form.  And to be in such a state is to experience a deficit of attention, an inability genuine to attend to what one is hearing. 

So one of the things I am doing in this class, and will be trying in other classes, is to get my students to spend five minutes listening to music. I forbid digital devices in my classes, so they just have their books and notebooks in front of them — they can of course be distracted from the music, but it’s not automatic, not easy. If listening is the path of least resistance, then maybe they’ll listen. I’ve started with five minutes, but I hope to work our way up to longer pieces. My dream — and alas, it is but a dream — is, one Holy Week, to sit together with my students and listen to the single 70-minute movement that is Arvo Pärt’s Passio