Music, self & the physical cosmos

Music, self & the physical cosmos


I’m still slowly plugging my way through Jeremy Begbie’s excellent book Resounding Truth, in which he explores a Christian theology of music.

The groundwork for thinking about music is to firstly establish a proper understanding of creation, and he is keen to stress the inherent physicality of creation and music. This got me thinking about the kind of materialist arguments that my old Atheist sparring partners would often employ, and moreover, how those arguments were largely based on, or reactions to what are common misconceptions in many Christian circles.

The common portrayal is of ‘going to’ heaven, as disembodied spirits, but this is certainly not the biblical view [p217].

To insist that Christians are to be spiritual is indeed quite proper, but to be spiritual is not to renounce the body per se… It is rather to be Holy Spirit inspired, an inspiriation that encompasses the body – indeed, liberates the body – and as such grants a foretaste of what it will be liike to have a spiritual body beyond death (a body animated by the Spirit..) There is a a proper bodily involvement in the world that enhances the inherent value of our bodies in the process.

Begbie points out that the cosmos, with its physicality, is an outpouring, an expression of love by a creative God, in order for our flourishing, and ultimately His own glory, albeit, marred by the fall [p213]:

Brought forth from God’s own free love, the cosmos as a whole is value-laden, the object of God’s unswerving faithfulness and the theater of God’s loving intentions. As such it is able to sing his praise despite the pollution that evil has brought. God… has pledged himself to the world in its physicality – a pledge confirmed in the coming of Jesus, the Word made material flesh.

While I reject the kind of circular material reductionism that is often employed by Atheist arguments, so too is it wrong to think of our true self as purely spiritual, with a disposable, temporary physical shell. This means, I think, that when someone tries to say that the mind, for example, is nothing but the brain, while we might reject the total reductionism as unsatisfactory, we can acknowledge that there is no reason why such consciousness might not be tied intrinsically with our physical body. This means, for example, that even though we know that drugs which affect the brain can alter personality, it does not point necessarily to the claim that our mind and personality is ‘nothing but’ neural sparks in the brain; there is a middle option between reductionism and strict dualism (i.e. it’s not a case of either the mind is the brain, or that the mind entirely distinct from the physical brain), namely that we our metaphysical and physical are somehow inter-dependant (if that is the right word – I’m still thinking through these things, and am certainly no real philosopher).

This raises a number of questions for what happens to ‘us’ (which we certainly conceive of in more than purely physical terms – ‘what happens to me?’ is not the same question as ‘what happens to my body?’ – we can, after all, abuse someone without even touching them) until our physical body is re-created? What does this mean for death? John Polkinghorne gives a computer analogy:

God will download our software into his hardware until the time He gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.

Of course, it’s an analogy (fraught with the danger of stretching), and we are not computers, but the relationship between software and hardware is not dissimilar to the point I’m trying to make about our consciousness and physicality.

This is getting a bit rambly, perhaps, and certainly has moved away from Begbie’s focus on music (though he argues that we Christians have wrongly tended distrust the inherent physicality of music, and sought only to have it point to the spiritual), but the point is to say that perhaps the materialist objection is a reaction to a wrong view or distrust of the physical in Christian thought, and that perhaps we need to be better at embracing a more holistic physicality within our theology, remembering that Christ will also redeem and recreate the physical cosmos.

2 responses to “Music, self & the physical cosmos”

  1. Matthew says:

    I’ve been reading NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope in which he emphasises the physicality of the new creation – the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the new creation, so that tells us that to God physicality is important. Christ was raised in a (glorified) physical body. (In his introduction he also shows how the physicality, new creation has been somewhat forgotten, particularly in some older hymns).

    In an interview with ABC in America Wright says: “I’ve often put it like this, if somebody you know has been very ill, you say, ‘Poor old so and so, he’s just a shadow of his former self.’ And the extraordinary truth in the New Testament is that if you are in Christ and dwell by the spirit you are just a shadow of your future self,” Wright said. “There is a real you to which the present you corresponds as a photocopy corresponds to the glorious original. You know, there is a real you, which God is going to make and it will be more physical — more real, not less.”

    One of the things I like about Gungor’s music is that it feels so…creaturely. In the behind the scenes video of Ghosts Upon the Earth they say we often think of life with God as being less real or ethereal but rather it’s more like as Wright says it will be more real. Perhaps culturally we are so materialistic and confined by sin and finitude that its hard to conceive in our minds something of how it might be. Sure in some ways we can’t imagine but do we or can we begin to imagine and dwell on it?

What do you think?