Friday, May 16, 2008

Beauty, Subjectivism, and Liturgical Music

As the conversation has gone across the Catholic web about liturgy and music, a frequent thread or tendency of thought has surfaced repeatedly: that is, the idea that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". An example of this kind of thinking was seen in the comments of a Catholic blog a while back:
And so I think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so therefore if you consider something beautiful, that is your perorgative [sic]...

This attitude seems to me to sum up the thinking of many, if not most, Catholics, whether musicians or those in the pews. On numerous occasions, in my efforts to explain and promote the authentic vision of Vatican II regarding liturgy and music, I have heard from parishioners and others a response something like this:
Well, Father, you like all that classical music and chant, and the traditional hymns, and that's fine for you. But I [we] like [insert musical genre here], and, after all, it's all for God's praise. One kind of music is just as good as another.

Alasdair McIntyre, in his seminal book After Virtue, described this mode of thinking as emotivism, that is, the collapsing of all moral or qualitative judgments into mere expressions of personal preference. And this kind of thinking is the besetting sin of the post-modern West.

What is missing in the thinking illustrated above is any sense that the liturgy, and the music of the liturgy, has any objective quality whatsoever.

The fact is, the Church has never treated the liturgy and its music in the relativized and subjective fashion typified above. Indeed, to adopt that kind of relativism is to reject the mind of the Church. The Church has always insisted that there are norms for liturgical art and music which stem from the objective nature of the liturgy itself. The liturgy, being the re-presentation of the saving action of Christ, is the most objective thing in human experience. It is God Himself, making Himself present to us. As Pope Benedict taught earlier this week:
...[T]he liturgy is not something constructed by us, something invented to produce a religious experience during a certain period of time; it is singing with the choir of creatures and entering into the cosmic reality itself [emphasis mine].

Thus, the liturgy has an objective nature to which we more or less perfectly conform ourselves. The Church expresses her appreciation of this objectivity by holding up certain forms or expressions as models which we are urged to adopt and which have been treated as sources or starting points for development which is "organic", that is, which always respects and makes reference to the model. In the area of music, the Church has held up chant and polyphony as those models.

The post-conciliar period has seen, in many if not most sectors of the Church, a loss of a sense of the objective nature of the liturgy. With the liturgy coming to be seen, as Pope Benedict has written, as the outlet for personal "creativity", the liturgy became something expressing not that which is universal and objective, but private and subjective. As I have argued previously, the liturgy was made a vehicle for all sorts of agendas and ideologies which, in many cases, were at odds with the Faith. As a result, our understanding of, appreciation for, and ability to apprehend the liturgy have all been compromised.

There is certainly an element of truth in the sentiment "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". If someone does not "see" beauty, they don't see it. But the problem is that the person uttering the sentiment treats it as though that is all there is to be said about the matter. If the "eye of the beholder" doesn't see it, well, that's it. The sentiment treats the "eye of the beholder" as though it were an infallible and final arbiter of the matter, and it isn't.

What if the "eye of the beholder" is blind? What if the ear of the beholder is deaf? What if the eye of the beholder has been perverted and deformed by a constant exposure to disorder and ugliness? What if the ear of the beholder has been corrupted by a steady diet of noise and chaos? In such cases, the beholder's ability to apprehend beauty is severely compromised, and his judgment is not to be relied upon. What we must be willing to say, and what the Church has not shied away from saying dowm through the ages, is that sometimes the eye of the beholder is wrong.

Aristotle taught that the ability to make correct judgments was about more than simply amassing the necessary data. It involves the training and formation of the person in virtue, so that he has the kind of mind and soul that can apprehend the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. These three Transcendentals have a moral quality, and the inculcation of moral excellence and the ability to make right moral judgments requires, as the ancients taught, and as the Church continues to teach, the proper formation of the mind and soul.

The culture in which we live is formative. It both shapes and expresses our attitudes, values, and tastes. The culture can be said to be an "incarnation" of our values and priorities. The Church has always understood the power of cultural expressions - music, art, etc., and because of this has always jealously guarded the way that the Faith is "incarnated" in cultural forms, particularly in the liturgy. The Church, understanding and living the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, wants to make sure that there are no "mixed messages" to obscure the Faith that we pray. Frequently (and no more so than today), the dominant culture which surrounds us proposes to us attitudes, values, and tastes which are inimical to the Faith. And so she has insisted that the liturgy itself, it's texts and actions, be taken as the source of our cultural expression.

So the question is, have we, as Church, been forming our Catholic people according to the mind of the Church to understand and apprehend the objective nature of the liturgy? Have we been giving them a liturgical formation which takes the texts and actions of the liturgy, as lived in continuity thorough the ages, as the primary source of our music and art in the post-conciliar period? I would have to say, "No."

No, what has happened in large part is that extra-liturgical forms and even sometimes texts, many of which come from the dominant mass culture, have been imposed on the liturgy from without. And this has obscured the meaning and nature of the liturgy. It has led to confusion and a weakening of faith. A people that has been led to believe that the liturgy is whatever Father Feelgood or Sister Liturgist make it this week is not a people who will necessarily be able to properly apprehend truth or beauty when they encounter it. The moral equipment that they need to do this has been damaged, and it needs to be repaired.

And how is this repair to be effected? Slowly, firmly, and with great patience and charity. Pope Benedict has led the way to re-building the culture. Priests, musicians, and those of us who love and treasure the Church's great liturgical patrimony must engage in the work of leading people, often one by one, to a re-appropriation of what the Church offers us. And, first and foremost, we must give an example of joy and love, so that all will see that Beauty does indeed lead to God.