The Limits of Reason

Despite claims that America is a deeply religious country, we live in a secular society. The claims are not so much untrue as confusing a tribal identification with an actual embrace of beliefs, values and practices. Asserting that Jesus Christ is one’s personal savior or going to church every Sunday (or not), is sufficient to make one a “Christianist” in Andrew Sullivan’s useful coinage, but is not sufficient to make one an actual Christian, or actually religious. The same is true for believing that every word of the Bible is literally true, which is no more inherently Christian than believing that every word of “A Million Little Pieces” is literally true. In the guise of so-called Christianity, we primarily have in America the pursuit of the most secular, material and craven power; the power to control people’s bodies with the tools of the state, and the power to exploit natural resources without limit. That’s politics, not religion, and in this country religion has been cleaving itself to politics with increasing speed for the past few generations, trading eternity for what amounts to winning the news cycle. It gets one in the news, I suppose.

Of course, this is the country of Elmer Gantry and “Lonesome” Rhodes, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and DARPA, McDonald’s and mega-churches. Our Holy Trinity is celebrity, technology and money, which when combined transubstantiate into Media. This recent New York Times profile of Robert George is the pluperfect example of not only what mainstream religious organization is all about in America but also how those same people who are destroying their religions on the sacrificial altars of materialism are completely blind to their own decadence. The Catholic Church, for so long a repository of and stimulus for a tremendous legacy of intellectual and aesthetic achievement, now seeks the worst kind of establishment, ivory-tower validation from a typical Media talking-head. George is amazing and appalling; as smug and self-enthralled as any pundit, claiming “Reason” is a gift from God based in “Natural Law,” asserting that gay marriage should be prevented because it goes against Reason, and then proceeding to lay out logic which is so flawed and weak that I actually felt embarrassed for him. Natural Law as practiced by conservatives is premised on a willful ignorance of how nature is populated and organized in reality, and George’s logic boils down to gay sex being icky to him, but since he wears a three-piece suit he has to lay that out in a couple paragraphs and call that reasoning (Sullivan has a good critique here). This is Reason not as thought but as brand. And as for values, gay-marriage and abortion are forbidden, everything else, including war and charity, is negotiable.

It takes a person of, well; faith, to find religion, the type of belief that is immaterial and by its necessary nature cannot be reflected in objects of secular worship. In this culture, where does one look? Best to avoid Chesterton, who has become a convenient prop for tendentious “faith,” used to make his supporters feel smarter – he argues well from his premise, but unfortunately skips over the part about arguing for the premise at all, which even Gödel did. Augustine and Aquinas are archaic, but they do have a refreshing combination of ideas and a little bit of doubt, although Aquinas’s views on human gestation would prevent him from receiving the host these days. But again the enduring legacy of the Church is art, as even the current Pope has pointed out, and what better guide to belief than the works of faith rather than the pronouncements of men? At Christmastime, this legacy means music.

A Christmastime concert at a church in New York City means an audience of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and non-believers (among others), because the music, though sacred, is presented as a concert for us to sit and listen to with willing concentration and appreciation, to applaud and admire. When the Tallis Scholars sang Josquin’s Mass to the Virgin at the Episcopal church of Saint Mary the Divine (reviewed here) they did so at the altar and without a hint of religious ritual or ceremony, nothing more ordinary than performers taking the stage, the conductor introducing the works and then leading the singers in concert. We hear the beauty in the construction of the music, the beauty of the voices, the beauty of the singers working together and expressing musical ideas like pitch, phrasing and dynamics. We see and hear their mouths shape the notes by means of words which, being Latin, are unknown to most of us and are regardless made unintelligible through the transformation of singing, which changes emphasis, distorts pronunciation and elongates even the shortest syllables into abstract phonemes. There is an original meaning here, it is the Catholic mass after all, but it has been subsumed several times, first by setting it to music, second by removing the music from the context of the ritual mass itself, and last by presenting it in front of a concert of people who just want to hear the notes and most likely not the message. Augustine had ambivalent feelings about music, cherishing and fearing its physical and emotional power, and the development of liturgical music had to overcome the fear that setting holy texts to song would mean the earthly, secular attractions of sound would overpower the content. Which is of course what happened, as the Scholars’ performance demonstrated. But these works are fundamentally about faith and ritual, and for good or ill the composers who made them did so in the service of their beliefs, and this is obvious in their resonant concord and incredible beauty. The stick of the scold cannot compare in power to the honey of this beauty.

This fundamental power is also clear in John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ re-setting of the Nativity story in the composers Christmas oratorio El Nino, heard at Carnegie Hall the day after and reviewed here. This is a work that is both heretical and worshipful, telling the story through bits of the Bible but also through parts of the Gnostic Gospels and both liturgical and secular Spanish poetry of the last 500 years. While this performance was a concert, the original conception includes a film by Sellars that portrays Joseph and Mary as Hispanic teenagers of uncertain immigration status travelling the highways of Southern California, seeking refuge. The Virgin herself is tattooed and pierced. The text emphasizes the veneration of the Virgin, a humane and earthy sense of familial and erotic love, the completely mystical nature of Christ and, with tremendous power, narrates the slaughter of the innocents through a poem about the massacre of students in Mexico in 1968. This is some of Adams finest music; it moves and flows, has a broad sweep and enticing details and is written with such lyrical clarity that every word sung is clearly heard. Inspired by the legacy of faith, it fulfills the idea of liturgical music, which is to marry sacred text with God’s glorious gift of creation. The Church, having edited the Bible into shape, could not possibly accept this work, yet it is one the greatest pieces of propaganda for the Catholic faith there is. They could use it, because they sure don’t make propaganda like they used to.

And that’s where this legacy of the church’s works begins, in propaganda: advertisements to attract new believers. Aesthetics have been a powerful tool for the Church to make its case, and that’s perfectly fine. Literature is based in this, Plato did it and so did Ayn Rand, although with her you can’t really tell. The Church had the wisdom and the taste to step outside the page, onto the canvas and into the ear. They still try the latter – this recording is a collection of prayers of Pope Benedict set to music. I was offered the chance to review (promote?) the recording and some pre-release tracks, but on hearing the music I could not. It’s the worst kind of Enya-ish world-music treacle, easy-electronic-listening infomercial soundtracks with the occasional vulgar melisma tossed in. I was left wondering how the Church came to enjoy the clichéd vocal sound of a woman having an orgasm and where the entirety of their sense of beauty went. They probably left in the trash in Robert George’s office.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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