Many sincere believers don’t see the point. Why bother reading recondite tracts? Pondering the deep meaning of, say, transfiguration isn’t going to make their faith any purer.
True. In fact, St Anselm (d. 1109) agrees wholeheartedly: “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.”
But let me ask a different question. Why bother learning the basics of musical theory? It wouldn’t make one enjoy music more, would it?
In fact, it could even mean less enjoyment. Some people get so deeply engrossed in decorticating musical structure that they lose sight of why they listen to music in the first place. The analytical English mind in particular runs that danger, which was astutely observed by Chopin.
“The English,” he said, “love music. They just hate listening to it.” His eye was of eagle-like sharpness.
However, that danger notwithstanding, it doesn’t follow from there that learning about musical structure is useless. By analogy, we can still enjoy a bœuf bourgignon even if we know its recipe – and are aware of the perils of overeating.
It’s just that the greatest products of man’s genius live on multiple planes. Thus, someone who likes, say, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor without knowing anything about counterpoint, may still perk up when hearing the familiar tune on Radio 3 no matter how well or badly it’s played. In fact, he may not even know the difference.
Yet a musically literate listener, while enjoying the piece on the same emotional level, may also appreciate, for example, the subtlety of the opening passages rushing down from the top to the bottom, with a diminished seventh chord awaiting.
That appreciation may not be conscious at the time the music is played. It’ll only take a precise mental shape afterwards, as post-rationalisation. Yet, although the educated listener may not be aware of it, even at the moment of listening his understanding will deepen his enjoyment by adding new planes to it.
Content and form are like a bottle of wine. The bottle without the wine can be used criminally, for hitting someone on the head, or responsibly, for recycling. But by and large it’s useless. However, the wine without the bottle isn’t a delicious drink. It’s an unsightly puddle.
Raising our sights a bit, we realise that form and content are inseparable. They have a different provenance and possibly a different final destination, but when they come together they form a unity, to be perceived as such.
From there, it’s but a short step to theology, starting from the understanding of Christ as both fully divine and fully human. Any church-goer has heard this phrase so many times that he doesn’t stop to contemplate that unity in duality. Yet the church took several ecumenical councils and some five centuries to understand the deep meaning of that confluence.
Many deadly heresies had to be defeated in the process, many battles won. Some of them weren’t just rhetorical. For example, St Nicholas is reported to have punched Arius in the face during the First Council of Nicaea in 325. But then Arius could try even the patience of a saint.
Understanding the true nature of Christ or any other doctrinal concept, such as the Holy Trinity or the Transfiguration or anything else, won’t make one’s faith purer. But it may make it deeper, add new levels to the edifice of belief.
Yet even a non-believer may still find much intellectual pleasure in studying scriptural sources and commentary on them. For the theological science sits at the top of the intellectual hierarchy, just above philosophy.
If a man has no religious predisposition, perusing De civitate Dei or Summa Theologica won’t make him a believer. But it will make him more intelligent, more capable of acquiring the mental discipline essential to grasping subtle and intricate points. That, in turn, can stand him in good stead throughout his life.
Not everyone has the capacity for such exploits. But those who do would be cheating themselves of the higher reaches of pleasure they could ever attain if they let that ability go to waste. For pleasure too exists on many different levels, with more and more appreciation boosting enjoyment as one climbs up.
Of course any talk of a hierarchy of pleasure or appreciation or whatnot goes against the grain of modern egalitarianism, the unshakable conviction that all men aren’t just created equal but stay that way in every respect. This is an interesting paradox.
For the grossly misnamed Age of Reason produced gradual yet ineluctable diminution of reason. The attempt to replace divine wisdom, Sophia, with its putative superior, common sense, has produced much that is common but little that is sensible.
The study of disciplines that used to be seen as the bedrock of knowledge, such as theology, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, music, classical mathematics, has fallen by the wayside like so much rubbish dumped into a skip. Modern man has no time for abstractions – he has more important things to worry about.
Oh well, more power to his elbow. But he shouldn’t complain when I find him excruciatingly dull, as a collective entity. Whatever I may think of each man individually.