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).

…the purpose of music…

…the purpose of _De Musica_ is to bring the soul to a recognition of its fallen state and promote its return to God, to move from the world of sense to the world of intelligibility. The soul is fallen from the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy-ness of temporal activity. Because of the fall, we are ordered by the tapestry of time, ‘sewn into’ the order of spatio-temporality. We have become so many individual ‘words’, each forming part of the poem of the temporal whole but unable to perceive the harmony and beauty of the connected work. By immersion in temporal sequence, we have lost the purview of the whole temporal series we possessed prior to the fall.


…by the time we reach the _Confessions_ a more positive attitude to the created order, materiality and temporality is evident… The recitation of a psalm, though so obviously in time and subject to the distractions of the temporal order, is … used to illustrate the way in which the mind’s descent into diversity has not entirely effaced its ability to grasp that Unity from which all things proceed. Insofar as the mind achieves some ordering power over time, it approximates, albeit very weakly, to the perspective and character of eternity.

…For all the qualifications we have noted, it is hard to ignore the signs of the ancient tendency to run together temporality and fallenness, and especially significant for us is the way in which music is discovered and known insofar as we abstract from the temporal relations of physical realities patterns which reflect in some measure the order of eternity. Despite its considerable subtlety and fascination, for this vision to be advanced as offering a way forward for the theological deployment of music today would be, I suggest, dubious.

[Because] [t]onal music exhibits not the temporality of a single straight line but that of a multi-levelled matrix of waves of tension and resolution, in which the temporal modes interweave within an overall directionality[,]… it would seem that music is capable of demonstrating that such a strong link between time and fallenness need not be assumed, and that there is no necessity to distance ourselves from the mutable multiplicity of the temporal world in order to experience beneficial and enriching order.

Jeremy Begbie on St. Augustine’s remarks on theological engagement with time and music (some of which are quite beautiful); also questioning the assumption that temporality and fallenness go together, that materiality is only of value in its signification of that which is eternal. ~ Theology, Music and Time, 82-84, 68, 85

art | redemption | hope

Check out this brief post on the Culture Making blog:

Good art in dark times | Culture Making.

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

This seems to support the thought that art should be redemptive, having “as dark a worldview as it wish[es]” but not forgoing hope in what God is doing and will do with and in humanity.  In spite of this fallen world, the current uncertainty and often apparently prevailing darkness, God is in the process of redeeming his people and the whole of creation.  Perhaps art should lift up not just what is human, but what is godly and therefore the hope of humanity, its potential – but this might just be that which appears “magical” and is certainly that which lives and glows.  After all, Christ is the light of the World, and his light shines through us as vessels.  There is great richness left in us because God has not abandoned us.  So let’s not give up hope.

(cf. Philip Ryken, Calvin Seerveld, and Jeremy Begbie)