Truth, Reason, and Textless Music

A piece of music for solo piano by Philip Glass called ‘Metamorphosis Two’ is performed during a Christian worship service immediately after the reading of brief excerpts from Genesis 1. As a result of hearing this performance, several worshippers gain new insight into aspects of ‘Christian truth’.

What does textless music have to do with truth? And how can textless music be mentioned in the same breath as reason? For some, the yoking of this triad – truth, reason, and textless music – reflects shaky ground indeed! This is the case particularly if truth (including ‘Christian truth’) is seen as something to be mastered (by a select few), expressed essentially through propositional language, and accessed directly through reason, whereby reason is equated with premise-to-conclusion processing. Of course, postmodern thought in particular has shown that truth cannot be reduced to such notions, and reason exceeds deductive method. But still, how can indeterminate, non-propositional, and multivalent phenomena such as textless music play a significant role within the (Christian) truth-seeking enterprise?

Truth

It has been said that ‘… all the great philosophers have allowed for more than they could explain, and have, therefore, signed beforehand, if not dated, the death-warrant of their philosophies’.[1] Susanne Langer notes that ‘… the early philosophers are conceived to have been not so much disturbed by the contradictions in the tradition as attracted by certain factors on the horizon of experience, of which their tradition gave no adequate account’.[2] While these statements relate specifically to philosophy, they shine a light on the ever-present gap between propositions about reality claiming truth status (theological or otherwise) and actual experience of reality through time. These statements imply that truth-seeking involves a disposition of openness to disruption, purgation, and expansion of currently-held views. So how can truth be defined, particularly within a Christian context?

It is not presumed that such an immensely complex topic as truth can be dealt with adequately here, but some thoughts will be offered in light of aspects of the theories of Charles Peirce (1839–1914), an American scientist and philosopher. According to Peirce, a progressively reasonable representation of reality (what is real independently of what anyone in particular thinks)[3] is ascertained and appropriated by humanity at the communal level through the continuous growth of ideas and the emergence of real generalities (patterns or ‘laws’) over time through experience. Truth is the finally agreed upon (reasonable) representation of reality, although this does not mean that such a representation is necessarily actually attained (yet). What Peirce offers ultimately is a method for truth-seeking (in all areas of life including science, religion, and everyday experience). In this sense, truth is not like some ancient, fixed, abstract, object-like phenomenon that can be dug up, enshrined, possessed by some select group, and fortified against the onslaughts of anomaly, paradox, and new ideas and experiences. Neither is it a merely human invention to be determined or discarded at will. Rather, it is an (objective) ideal that perpetually surpasses what can be grasped fully but is, nevertheless, that toward which humanity can (and ought to) progress over time.

While some fundamental aspects of Peirce’s theoretical system are incongruent with a traditional Christian framework, truth as conceived above can be seen in some sense as coincident with God’s self-communication. Christians believe (ultimate) truth is constituted by God’s active disclosure of God’s being, nature, action, will, and relation to and view of the world (through Christ’s life, teaching, Passion, and perduring presence). However, this disclosure is not unmediated as if transmitted in some pure, complete form but is mediated symbolically and progressively (against the horizon of the final manifestation of God’s ‘kingdom’). Such symbolic mediation involves the emergence of real generalities (patterns or ‘laws’) over time through experience (according to socio-cultural contexts). (‘Experience’ is not dichotomised here into so-called ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’ categories; however, some experiences, e.g., corporate worship, are seen as more ‘saturated’ with theological truth-seeking potential than others.)

Reason

Symbolic mediation involves (human) reason as a vital dimension. For Peirce, at any point in time, a group (or individual) operates within a particular set of ‘coherent and stable assimilated habits’.[4] Habits are mindsets or beliefs which come into operation and drive thinking and behaviour at both implicit and explicit levels (‘belief’ is conceived pragmatically by Peirce and not reduced merely to intellectual assent to some explicitly-expressed dogma). However, within experience, expectations carried by these habits/beliefs can be thwarted. Consequently, a group (or individual) can become aware of the inadequacy of these habits/beliefs to account reasonably for reality (i.e., to constitute truth). Ideally, a process of further inquiry ought to be triggered and new hypotheses generated and tested which account more reasonably for reality and lead to new, adjusted, refined, or expanded habits/beliefs.

According to Peirce, there are three necessary stages of reasoning which constitute such inquiry: abduction, deduction, and induction. Deduction (derivation of conclusions from given premises) and induction (inference of general principles from a selection of singular cases) are well-known. However, abduction, a vital first stage of the reasoning process, is not necessarily widely recognised. Abduction is the generation of a hypothesis. It is of the nature of an informed guess – a creative leap which nevertheless relates in some respect to what is already known. It is not heavily controlled by the mind and will and is predominantly unconscious; seemingly instinctive. Peirce says it ‘comes to us like a flash … it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together’.[5] As open, creative, and inventive, abduction is the only means whereby new knowledge and beliefs can be acquired (e.g., in scientific, theological, and everyday contexts). As fallible, abduction needs to be tested and refined through deduction and induction. Truth-seeking demands all three stages.

Abductive-deductive-inductive reasoning is a vital dimension of human receptivity to God’s self-communication through the Spirit. (I suggest that it is overly presumptuous to equate automatically and exclusively the work of the Spirit with abduction. The emergence of thoughts or feelings as if ‘out of the blue’ – even as the Spirit works – involves the brain doing what the brain does, as in the cases of deduction and induction.) Within a Christian context, particular sets of habits/belief in relation to truth-seeking pertaining to, for example, interpretation of Scripture, and Christian dogmas, practices, and metaphors may be shown to be inadequate (or even highly problematic) through the emergence and recognition of anomalies, paradoxes, and new ideas and experiences. In such cases, it is hoped, one might be compelled to inquire further.

Textless music

Textless music, including its performance during Christian worship, can provide a rich opportunity for abduction to occur. With its non-prescriptive character, textless music can disrupt habitual, linear, premise-to-conclusion operations by allowing worshippers to experience ambiguity and surprise, and by bringing cognitive dissonance to the surface. As a result, some worshippers may engage in reasoning processes that result in shifting or enlarged views pertaining to Christian truth.

In the scenario described at the beginning of this article, the performance of Metamorphosis Two follows after the reading of excerpts from Genesis 1. These excerpts include the description of the ‘earth’ as ‘formless’, ’empty’, and covered in ‘darkness’, with the Spirit ‘hovering over the waters’ (verses 1 and 2). Small extracts of each of God’s commands (‘Let there be …’) are read (verses 3-26). Having conveyed the divine establishment of order, fullness, and light, the reading climaxes with the words, ‘God saw all that [God] had made, and it was very good’ (verse 31).

Metamorphosis Two is an evocative work that can be said to embody a range of feeling qualities (I recommend Sally Whitwell’s performance in the album Mad Rush). Three of its most salient qualities are continuity, gentle propulsion (constant oscillation between two quaver length tones a minor third apart), and circularity (a series of phrasal ebbs and flows, always returning to the tonic chord). A quality of deep profundity also marks the piece (minor mode; regular sustained tonic octaves in the bass), perhaps being heard as interiority or even desolation and/or darkness. The melodic line (played in octaves in the treble) with its accompanying harmonic progression embodies lyrical warmth, beauty, and light but could be heard also/instead as melancholy, quiet resignation, and/or uncertainty. After some time, rapid, forceful, triplet arpeggio figures break in. These figures shadow the melodic line and double the aforementioned harmonic progression, conveying what could be heard as cosmic-like power, perhaps electrifying in affect. Everything then continues as it began. (Purely for the purposes of this article, it is assumed that worshippers do not associate the piece with any other context in which aspects of it may have been utilised).

Metamorphosis Two may appear initially anomalistic or paradoxical in relation to Genesis 1, particularly if Genesis 1 has tended to be reduced in import to conveying merely some distant, cosmic, singular, literal, or final event. (One might expect a musical narrative of disorder followed by complete resolution along with pastoral, chirpy, or grand galactic musical tropes!) However, these (micro) abductions (above) can give rise to a macro level abduction which involves guessing what would have to be the case in order for this piece, with its particular range of feeling qualities, to make sense within its Christian worship context.

The piece seems to situate the worshipper within time as if folded into the continuing present; within the immediacy and flow of real life and the depths of human existence and experience (in which, for example, desolation and beauty cohere). This immediacy and flow is powered by a disruptive, creative, life-giving force (the arpeggio figures) that originates from an external source but permeates and imprints itself upon all that is encompassed by the continuing present (the arpeggio figures shadow the melodic line and double the harmonic progression). For worshippers who reflect upon such an abduction, further implications could be derived utilising deduction and induction. Straight lines could be drawn from this abduction to Christian teaching regarding the redemptive (breaking-in) work of God: the imaging of its primordial dimension in Genesis 1; its primal locus in the cross – a place of desolation and triumphant power; and its continuity expressed in the manifestation of God’s kingdom as ‘already and not yet’. Relevant data elicited by real-life experience could include the existence of ongoing desolation and uncertainty as part of life, but, at the same time, the real (not fictional) possibility of hope, strength, and transformation through, for example, suffering and acts of solidarity with those who suffer, along with other (creative) acts via which humanity can participate with divinity in bringing increasing order, fullness, and light to the world.

In this way, textless music has allowed aspects of ‘Christian truth’ in relation to God’s creative/redemptive work to cut through into the immediate, personal, general (and ongoing), always real, and developmental dimensions of existence – something that propositions (if taken ‘flatly’) cannot necessarily attain (try using a string of propositions to explain why a comic strip is funny). For some worshippers, this musical-liturgical experience may help to mitigate highly problematic mindsets such as, on one hand, ‘spiritual entitlement’ whereby God is seen largely as a ticket (for a select few!) to escape suffering, or on the other hand, fatalism in relation to suffering at global levels (often conceived through an ethnocentric, chronocentric lens). The experience may counter tendencies to reduce the proposition, ‘God saves’ to some abstract, extramundane legal transaction (as reflected in the abovementioned mindsets), and facilitate a wider (and more truthful?) vision wherein ‘God saves’ involves – as an intrinsic dimension – human participation with God in the (continuing) creation/transformation of the world.

[1] C. D. Burns, ‘The Sense of the Horizon’, Philosophy 8, no. 31 (1933): 303–04.

[2] My italics. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 6.

[3] See Cornelis de Waal, Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 130.

[4] Luis Oliveira, et al., ‘Musical Listening and Abductive Reasoning: Contributions of C. S. Peirce’s’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies 4, no. 1 (2010): 13.

[5] Charles Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 5:181.

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Jennifer Wakeling is a musician, educator, and researcher in the area of intersection between music, theology, and worship. She has recently been awarded a PhD for her work in investigating how meaning is generated via instrumental music performance within Christian worship. She lives in Kau-in Kau-in, Ningi Ningi country.

2 thoughts on “Truth, Reason, and Textless Music

  1. Happy New year! Came across this interesting post of Jason’s, and thought you might be interested in a bit of light reading. We’re on Gt Barrier- been windy, but some nice periods. Happy tramping xx

    On Mon, 23 Dec 2019, 3:23 PM Art/s and Theology Australia, wrote:

    > Jason Goroncy posted: “A piece of music for solo piano by Philip Glass > called ‘Metamorphosis Two’ is performed during a Christian worship service > immediately after the reading of brief excerpts from Genesis 1. As a result > of hearing this performance, several worshippers gain ne” >

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