Ecumenism and a Musical Theology of Doctrine

(This is Neil.) First, let me congratulate Todd on his successful offer on the house mercifully devoid of “fungal mass.” Whoever thought that Iowa could be so exciting – or perilous?

But here I want to direct your attention to a very interesting recent article in the New Blackfriars by Jeffrey McCurry entitled, “Performing the Same Score: Repentance, Truth and Doctrine in Ecumenical Theology.” (McCurry, of the College of St Catherine, has another article on the Didache in Spiritus that we will probably look at next week.)

Dr McCurry begins with three recent statements on ecumenism. First, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, after Mass in the Sistine Chapel with the Cardinals, claimed that “Peter’s successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” (my emphasis). He went on to say that “inner conversion … is the prerequisite for all ecumenical progress” (again, my emphasis). Second, Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has said that the Church, as a “pilgrim Church,” must “constantly take the way of penance and renewal,” not least in ecumenical dialogue, which “fulfils the task of an examination of conscience.” Third (and finally), a recent American ecumenical working group produced the statement In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, which in part reads, “the achievement of unity will require nothing less than a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them … nothing less costly can finally suffice.”

What is this “inner conversion” (Benedict XVI), this “penance and renewal” (Kasper), and this costly “death and rebirth” (The Princeton Proposal)? I would say that it has many facets, including, as John Paul II wrote, a newfound willingness to discover “examples of holiness” and “unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment” in other Christian communities, as well as the abandonment of “exclusions” – “of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side,’ of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption.”

But what about doctrine? Dr McCurry says that this talk of “penance” and “death” can’t mean that we must repent of the truth of certain doctrines, which we could then conveniently (if disastrously) pronounce “contingent symbols or metaphors of a vague transcendent mystery.” It is instead the repentance of the “exclusions” which would prevent us from seeing our doctrines as reconcilable with other doctrines and then achieving the ecumenical goal of “unity in diversity.”

We might still find ourselves caught between exclusivity and relativism. Dr McCurry, in the really original (if a bit undeveloped) part of his article, asks us to imagine the distinction between a musical score and the diversity of performances that the score elicits.

He writes:

Just as different cellists can give incommensurable and widely divergent performances of the same movement of Bach’s Cello Suites while nevertheless recognizing that both cellists are playing the same fundamental score of music, so different ecclesial bodies can hold to incommensurable and widely divergent understanding of the same scriptural or creedal claim while recognizing that other bodies with different and incommensurable understandings of the same scriptural or creedal claim are committed to the same claim but understanding it in a different way.

Following this analogy, we do not fall into unnecessary exclusivity because we realize that “there may be great variations … in doctrinal formulations,” but we are not relativists because “the differences must be compatible or reconcilable” (George Lindbeck).

Cardinal Kasper again:

Churches do not have to agree point by point on all theological issues. If there is substantial agreement, differences are not necessarily church divisive. A differentiated agreement, a reconciled diversity … is sufficient.

Kasper asks us to see this “oneness in diversity” in the Holy Trinity. We can presumably also think of other analogies, such as the “oneness” of the New Testament “in” the “diversity” of the various gospels and epistles that compose it.

To better understand this “unity in diversity,” we can look at the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christological formula of Chalcedon for an example. The Church once held (and many Catholics doubtless still hold) that Chalcedon gives us the only language that we may use to speak of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. The non-Chalcedonians can then be dismissed as either Monophysites or Nestorians. But presently there is Christological agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and these non-Chalcedonian churches.

In the Joint Declaration of 1971, Pope Paul VI and the Syrian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch, Mor Ignatius Ya’qub III, said, “there is no different in the faith [both churches] profess concerning the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become really man, even if over the centuries difficulties have arisen out of the different theological expressions by which this faith was expressed.” Likewise, in the Common Christological Declaration of 1994, Pope John Paul II and the Assyrian Church of the East’s Patriarch, Mar Dinkha, affirmed together, “The controversies of the past led to anathemas, bearing on persons and on formulas. The Lord’s Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about in this way were due in large part to misunderstandings.”

The supposedly Monophysite Christology of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the supposed Nestorianism of the Assyrian Church of the East have become recognizable as “performances” of the “score” of the earlier Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Whereas the Chalcedonian churches were concerned about Apollinarian tendencies, the particular “performance” of the Syrian Orthodox was meant to guard against Nestorianism and thus emphasized the coming together of Christ’s divinity and humanity through claiming that it formed a single “nature.” As McCurry writes, “Many diverse and perhaps irreconcilable theological articulations can exist of a doctrinal truth – e.g. that the Word became human so that humans could become divine – without thereby denying the fundamental doctrinal truth being diversely articulated.” He notes that multiple sets of doctrinal claims can be seen as “subsidiary commentaries on a more fundamental and shared single doctrinal truth-claim.” That fundamental doctrinal truth-claim, however, is not sacrificed. The “score” persists and Arianiam, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, or other heresies are not recognizable as “performances.”

But the multiplicity of performances is recognized. This acknowledgement need not be a sad and tragic concession to reality. Instead, as McCurry writes:

We might say that the truth of the musical score is simply too large to be communicated in the performance of one cellist alone. Or, conversely, we might realize that a musical score has internal tensions that entail that no one performance can express certain meanings and emotions in a given piece of music without denying or risking denying other meanings and emotions in the same piece of music. Lastly, we might believe that du Pre’s recording vastly outperforms Ma’s without thereby having to say that Ma has not truly performed Bach’s Cello Suites.

The principle of “unity in diversity,” then,” means agreement on “what the doctrine says,” but recognizes differences in “how this claim is articulated or inflected.” We might consider that one “performance” – here, perhaps, the Chalcedonian one – is still best, without dismissing the relative adequacy of other “performances” and retaining the capacity to accept these other “performances” as gift. This principle, then, would allow for ecclesial reconciliation without absolute uniformity.

So, perhaps, if we are to think of ecumenism, we should also think about music. What do you think?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Ecumenism and a Musical Theology of Doctrine

  1. Copernicus says:

    The Fungal Mass is ok, but it’s not one of Marty Haugen’s best.

  2. Todd says:

    This is excellent, Neil. Thanks for picking up on this fine metaphor, which seems very apt for us today.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for writing. I’d speculate more about Haugen’s “Fungal Mass,” but I think that Haugen occasionally reads the site.

    I’ll try to write a bit more about music when I come across an interesting book or article.

    Jimmy Mac, do you know anything more about this Church of St John Coltrane or the African Orthodox Church? (For other readers, please see here.)

    Thanks again.


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