What is it that keeps us sane?

The chief mark and element of insanity… is reason used without root, reason in the void…. But we may ask in conclusion, if this be what drives men mad, what is it that keeps them sane? …[T]o give a general answer[:] Mysticism…


Bath Abbey sanctuary

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic…. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also…. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health…. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing….

Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility–Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world… Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.

A stunning quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, pp. 17-19. I have argued here and here that rationality as the main or only measure of humanity is both insufficient and potentially dangerous… and the idea that mysticism keeps us sane – I would argue keeps us human – is especially meaningful for those of us in the arts.


Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Vocation, Justice, and a New Creation | Chesterton House

Written by my friend Karl Johnson, this article addresses our need for a doctrine of vocation – why does our work matter before God?

Today, we need the doctrine of vocation as much as ever but for mostly different reasons. Whereas Luther argued that “vocation” ought to include labor, today’s secularized version of the work ethic reduces vocation to nothing but labor. Instead of holding too low a view of work, many students suffer from careerism, associating work not so much with service as with self-fulfillment.

Thinking of our calling as a response to God’s calling also expands the notion of calling to include all of life. “The word vocation is a rich one,” writes our recent guest Steven Garber, “having to address the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally—all of this and more is seen as vocation, that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.” Or as Os Guinness puts it in The Call, “everyone, everywhere, and in everything lives the whole of life in response to God’s call.”

RE: Remembering the Mystical

I wrote this post a couple of years ago, and as I reread it, I am both encouraged to see that these ideas have continued to influence my scholarship, specifically in my own research area, and bothered by my own failure to remember in my daily life. Remembering is difficult but terribly important. That God formed the nature of music is part of the picture, but that God formed me and the whole context of my life must necessarily shape the priority I place on the study of music. However significant this art and the study of it may be, even more so is the living out of my WHOLE life, body & soul, for God’s glory.

Pictures on Silence

How do I practice music in such a way that I am treating the created world “as able to glorify God in its own way, by virtue of its own distinctive patterns, rhythms, and movements?” (Begbie, RT, 92)  This as opposed to viewing music as merely a pointer beyond itself to a Platonic ideal harmony, as dangerously earthy, emotional, nonverbal, as necessarily contained in its proper place by the clarity and purity of words and ideas.

As a theorist, I must necessarily treat music as a less-than-scientific whole.  The analytical-logical side of me longs to understand music as a science, to articulate how it works in an orderly, organized fashion, to hypothesize and experiment, to explain away its ineffableness.  And to a great extent, delving into the organized patterns that compose effective music is aesthetically and spiritually rewarding, leading to a grand appreciation of the existence of such…

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Against Houyhnhnm-ism: Recovering Wholeness in our Perspectives on Reality

“Reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature…” according to Gulliver’s master Houyhnhnm in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels.  While human reason is construed as being tainted by the passions and a natural propensity to vice, the Houyhnhnms’ perfect rationality leads to a disregard for relationships, life, and the soul because their sole aim is “to cultivate reason and to be wholly governed by it.”

As Swift asserts, human rationality is subject to emotions, sin, and individualism, but most of us living in the post-Enlightenment West treat reason as the most unassailable and essential element of ourselves.  I think it is for this reason that we frequently perceive studies of the “rational” and “useful” sciences as more important and worthwhile than the study of the arts.  This view is not uncommon in the Western church either, especially among the theologically minded.  For example, music does not speak directly to our rational sense; indeed, it moves our emotions and not our minds, and may thus be at best, innocuous to furthering our spiritual growth (especially when it is wordless) and at worst, dangerously inhibitive to our spiritual understanding.

I am overstating the case, but to a purpose: I, loving the rational, have struggled to believe that music can have integral value in my life as a Christian because it does not directly influence my rational understanding of my relationship with God.  I tend to “treat the world as an arena of objects that [I] can manage, control, and speak about reasonably efficiently,” yet music, and the arts in general, reveal a world beyond our control and understanding, with more meaning than we can express in rational prose (Begbie, Resounding Truth, 51).  Music makes connections with things in the world, but it does not signify things in the world in the way that words do.  Much of the value, meaning, and pleasurableness in music comes from the relation of musical sounds to each other – the “science” of which forms the meat of my daily work as a music theorist.  These relationships then connect with our social, mental, spiritual and bodily states, interacting with understood conventions, associations, actions and physical perceptions of sound, thus leading to a richly meaningful experience that cannot be contained in rational expression (Begbie, RT, 53-56).

Music reminds of our whole selves, of our interaction with the created order, of the non-rational good that is part of how we are created.  We cannot be caught up in the opposite error, reveling in the sensuous beauty and emotional effect of music without recognizing its import, but if we reduce it to its usefulness or the lack thereof, we miss its ability to restore us to a holistic, integrated perception of the reality of our humanness in God’s created world.