Why theology?

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.

22 thoughts on “Why theology?”

  1. Some days I wonder what prompts you to write what you write. We’ve gone from the lunacy of sports fanatics to theology. This entry is interesting to me, as last night my youngest son and I watched a series of videos on the Holy Trinity. At 8 years old he is familiar with modalism and Arianism and their fundamental errors. I hope that soon his knowledge and understanding will surpass mine (not a difficult feat).

    You sent me scrambling for my dictionary (yet again, though it has been some time) with “decorticating”. Reading the definition I realized I have heard the word, but forgotten it for lack of use. And writing of musical appreciation has me thinking I need to get back to the online course I purchased. I have heard many times there is a deep connection between mathematics and music. I have a better-than-average understanding of the former, so I am hopeful it helps with understanding the latter. I am envious of your knowledge of music, but must admit I have spent no time on the subject.

    “Modern man has no time for abstractions” and thus you find him dull. I would say even after the “Age of Reason” modern man has no time for reason, logic, and rational thought and action – narcissism seems the pinnacle. Thus I find him excruciatingly irritating. (That is, the “average” man on the street, or in the car in front of me, or in the voting booth.)

    1. Graphomaniacs always find something to write about — it’s a compulsion. As to my finding modern man dull, I recall something the Russian writer Veniamin (Benny) Yerofeyev wrote: “I hate being bored, and everything except Christ is boring.” Yet I realise that others may find many other things boring as well, such as repetition, which is why I vary my subjects.

    2. “At 8 years old he is familiar with modalism and Arianism and their fundamental errors. ” He will be able to dispute a Jehovah Witness if one was to knock on the door.

    1. Oh that. I thought the whole thing was deranged! One of the theologians read a passage about God commanding some midwives to murder babies, and his sole concern was the ethnicity of the midwives!

  2. Having asked this question of you, I rewatched his first lecture on the topic.
    This is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-wWBGo6a2w&t=13s
    It is in excess of two and a half hours and I stopped this time after 45 minutes. I think 5 minutes, after the adds and clapping, would give you a treasonable understanding of his approach. The totality of these lectures exceeds 25 hours, so he put a great deal of his time into the subject. The Jordan Peterson of then appears more innocent than the rather bruised and circumspect person of today.

    1. I’ve managed half an hour, enough to observe Peter Principle in action: here’s a clever man who has reached the level of his incompetence. For me, his whole appproach is vulgar — Christianity, like any other serious discipline, is something that can be understood only from within. You wouldn’t discuss physics in the terms borrowed from, say, musicology, would you? A Judaist or a Muslim could engage a Christian in a debate becaue they would all operate within the same conceptual and terminological framework. Psychology is no more helpful here than the critical race theory or various bidding systems in bridge.

      And anyone who draws in Freud and Jung (Fraud and Junk?) for support is on a loser. Petersen makes it sound as if no one before Freud had realised that some of our action are driven by unarticulated impulses, which is demonstrable nonsense (Homer? Plato? Shakespeare?). As to Nietzsche, he was right about the formative effect Christianity had on our civilisation, but his analysis of why that had come about was incomplete: he dismissed a priori the very possibility that Christianity was so influential because it was true. Once you accept that possibilty, if only as a hypothesis, everything begins to click into place. One detects a longing for faith behind Nietzsche’s diatribes against it.

      Also, Petersen ought to learn that ‘phenomena’ is plural of which the singular is ‘phenomenon’. And learning how to pronounce the names of Biblical personages wouldn’t go amiss either. Several times he probounces ‘Isaac’ as ‘Isaiah’ with a ‘k’ at th end. This has nothing to do with the substance of his topic. but it strengthens the impression of vulgarity his musings make. A very intelligent man nontheless, but this isn’t his subject, not by a long chalk.

  3. “Why bother learning the basics of musical theory? It wouldn’t make one enjoy music more, would it?”

    “Too many notes Mozart. Too many notes”

    1. https://youtu.be/x6_ESSfyiYE
      I think you’ll prefer Jordan’s approach in this one. Bless him, though. Judging by the YouTube comments on his Biblical lectures, his very public struggles with the ‘accursed questions’ saves lives. One longs for him simply to accept Christ and everything would fall into place, but then he wouldn’t be Jordan Peterson, and I think he’s an important figure.

      1. Thank you, I’ll have a look. He is indeed an important figure, but the gleam of insanity shines too bright for my liking.

  4. Here is a quick comment on a matter of detail, Mr. Boot, in your very good article: divine wisdom is ‘Aghia Sophia’ in Greek, not just Sophia. It was also, as you know, the name of the imperial cathedral in Constantinople during the Byzantine era.

    1. Yes, thank you. That cathedral took my breath away when I first saw it. But in Anglophone theology, the full name of divine wisdom is seldom spelled out.

  5. Peterson’s arguments are not directed at religious believers but at non-believers. He is not arguing from a religious view point but from a psychological view point. The fact that he is outside any religious discipline provides him, with perhaps, the ability to identify the reasons for the current decline, in the West, of religious observance, which he believes is a disaster. His ability to attract thousands of the young people to hours long lectures on the bible has astonished some theologians and has raised the idea, in them, that he has identified something of merit.

  6. Music and Theology are not merely analogous. Music as we know it in Europe (the delightful simultaneity of individual melodies) expresses the relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity better than any Thomist or Palamite could, and was first devised in the High Middle Ages explicitly to do so.

    As a means of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, Bach’s B minor Mass (for example) surpasses all the Holy Icons.

    Is it a coincidence that the modernist attack on Theology is accompanied by the modernist attack on Music?

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Music — and especially Bach — expresses the essence of our civilisation better than any written word, except perhaps the Scripture. Yet one Thomist springs to mind who made a fairly good fist of it: Dante.

      1. I’m glad that you couldn’t agree more. Otherwise I might have had to write a large book to explain what I mean. If it isn’t obvious, it’s hard to put into a few words.

        I can’t really comment on Dante. I’ve known and enjoyed his shorter poems for a long time, but I read the Inferno for the first time last year, the Purgatorio for the first time this year; and I plan to read the Paradiso for the first time next year. (Of course I’ve read translations in the past, but they’re worse than useless.)

        But my impression of Dante so far is that he was as much a critic as a follower of St Thomas. Not that it matters: no theologian (not even St Gregory of Nyssa) and no poet (not even George Herbert) can hope to produce any work so perfectly Christian as the music of Bach. In the Resurrection, all our speech will be elevated to the level of singing, and all our singing will be elevated to the level of Bach. Millions upon millions of independent voices will combine in harmonious trillion-part counterpoint. There will be an infinite number of other pleasures to enjoy, but this will be the best.

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