The Goodness of Time

If in Christ ‘all things’ have found their fulfillment, then, presumably, the same is to be said of time as an integral dimension of the created order. (Theology, Music and Time, p. 71)

Jeremy Begbie’s book Theology, Music and Time (which I have briefly mentioned here) explores the connections between the interactions of music and time and a proper theological understanding of time. In Chapter 3, “In God’s Good Time,” Begbie sets out to use properties of music to suggest that time is intrinsic to creation and that time is essentially a positive part of God’s “good ordering” of the world (p. 71).

Photo credit: art knowledge news

To support the first assertion, namely that time is intrinsic to creation, Begbie draws on earlier arguments in the book, suggesting that music is necessarily made up of time in the very way it operates – that in music, time is seen not as a container, backround, or mental construct but as absolutely inherent to the “interrelationship between the physical entities involved in the production and reception of sound” (p. 80).

To support the second assertion, that time is good, Begbie presents four ways in which music demonstrates that a “link between time and fallenness” is not necessary:

  1. In music, change and order are seen to coexist; “change need not imply chaos” (p. 85). Tonal music (at least) is by nature subject to persistent change and yet embodies dynamic order.
  2. Music takes time not only to be created but to be. The implication is that the created world takes time to be, and that in music we can see that the fact that creation can only reach its fulfillment through time is not necessarily a negative, fallen characteristic of creation. Thus patience and waiting become potentially positive and enriching rather than empty. Music demands patience and waiting, the trust that there is something worth waiting for, and the realization that the “something” is not detachable from the music. (pp. 86-87)
  3. Different entities have different “time-structures,” different rates of coming into being, reaching a peak, returning to non-being. In musical works, multiple different temporal operations occur concurrently, often with irregularities (for those in the music world, an example is multiple layers of hypermeter, in which irregular hyper measures might occur), and these fluctuating and simultaneous layers of temporal action are crucial to the integrity of the piece. These differences and varieties should be seen not as signs of corruption but as signs of the diversity God has given his creation for good (pp.89-91).
  4. Finally, music challenges the assumption that finitude – boundaries and temporal limits – is by nature a fallen characteristic (p.91). As a result, Begbie suggests (with Barth) that limited duration in human life is “fundamentally beneficial and advantageous” (p. 94). A quote seems clearest here:

Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level… Musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility…(p.92)

Implicit in our finitude is an invitation and direction to through ourselves upon the divine graciousness…creation praises God in its very finitude and thus shows what authentic praise is…[T]he universe is suspended between nothingness and the infinity of God – music can exemplify and embody just this suspension. (pp.95-97)

As Begbie suggests, these characteristics of music in conjunction with the doctrine of Incarnation (Christ’s entering into the created order as God and man) should waken in us the conviction that temporality is an intrinsic dimension of God’s creation and that our interaction with it should recognize it as a gift, as an opportunity to recognize not only our limitations but also the divine goodness of our creator, as something with which we can work and live peacably, working in “the stream of God’s wisdom” (Rowan Williams, qtd. on p. 97).

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