Hearing God in Music: A Christian Critique of Semiological Analysis of Music

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In many places, the Scriptures tell us that all the world is created and upheld according to a wise Creator’s plan.  In Psalm 119, for instance, David tells us that all things are God’s servants, existing by his appointment (v. 91).  Psalm 104 teaches that God made and ordered all things in wisdom and for a reason.  (See also Job 38, 39; Ps. 139:13-14; Eccles. 3:11; Is. 45:18; Jer. 33:20; Col. 1:17; etc.)  And the writer to the Hebrews declares that the Son of God continues to “uphold the universe by his word of power” (Heb. 1:3).

The Christian scholars of the Middle Ages dealt with the idea of creation as a matter of course.  In the thirteenth century, for instance, St. Bonaventure taught that the purpose of creation is the communication of divine glory, and that the perfection of God is the only satisfactory explanation for the structure of the world.1 Etienne Gilson explains Bonaventure’s teaching by saying, “The science of nature is, as it were, the ethics of things. . . .  For every creature, . . . it is one and the same thing to exist and to praise the Lord . . . [for] God created the universe as an author composes a book, in order to manifest His thought.”2 Within the intellectual limitations of our humanity, we are able, by reading this book, to discern the mind of God, because each part of the book bears to some extent the image of God, an image which is both an effect of the Creator’s agency and an analog of some aspect of the Creator’s being.3

Music was by no means exempt from the medieval course of instruction and in fact played a central role in the schools’ and universities’ program of relating everything known to God’s power and wisdom.  All medieval students in the Christian west started in higher education by learning the three arts of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  They proceeded then to the four numerical arts of the quadrivium: mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music.  In this curriculum, music theory itself was considered a Christian study, appealing to other Christian truths as analogies or premises, and in turn was considered one of only seven foundational studies prerequisite to doctoral training in theology, medicine, philosophy, or law.4

More recently, in The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman eloquently defends this longstanding Christian tradition, explaining that all parts of a proper knowledge of our world ought to be integrated.  “All branches of knowledge,” Newman says, “are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator.  Hence it is that the Sciences, into which our knowledge may be said to be cast, have multiplied bearings one on another, and an internal sympathy, and admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment.  They complete, correct, balance each other.”5 Newman encourages scholars to develop “enlargement of mind,” which he describes as “the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.”6

As we know, the academic culture is almost completely different today.  Many Christians (indeed people of many other faiths, as well) claim to encounter God in musical experience.  And yet the appeal to God as an explanation for any musical fact or phenomenon is not to be found in current academic journals.  The situation creates the appearance that all those claims of hearing God in music are intellectually indefensible.  It is not my purpose to rehearse changes in intellectual culture during the modern era or the reasons for those changes but rather to explore the possibility of semiotics as a foundation for a methodologically rigorous defense of the claims of hearing God in music, a foundation that could make such claims acceptable in today’s academic climate.

Semiotics is generally defined as the study of signs.  When semioticians speak of “signs,” though, they do not just mean road signs and messages on post-it notes.  Most semioticians tell us that everything is, for us, a sign: everything means something else.  They may disagree on the nature of reality, that is, on the definition of “thing,” but what ever the thing is-concrete object, idea, fragmented totality of intersubjective experience, or solipsistic dream-the thing is a sign.  We could say, then, that semiotics represents an attempt by modern (and postmodern) humanity to grapple with the interconnectedness of the world.  In the words of musical semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “An object of any kind takes on meaning for an individual apprehending that object as soon as that individual places the object in relation to areas of his lived experience.”7