Let’s Go to Theology Class: Hermeneutic Function of Music in Religion

The following summary is from the second week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

What does it mean to suggest that music serves a “hermeneutic function” with respect to texts (Viladesau 2000, 48)? Might something similar be argued with respect to images?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things” (1). Whitehead believes religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness, which might include expression of one’s devotion to God through song. But he added, “Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious” (2). To me, this flies in the face of the need for corporate worship, fellowship, Sunday school and other study groups, and observance of the Lord’s Supper as a congregation. As Whitehead shared, Earth (indeed, the universe) is sustained by creative energy. Whitehead uniquely says, “…actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience” (3). He adds, “Expression is the one fundamental sacrament” (4). An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

We are to answer the question whether music has any hermeneutic value. In other words, can music mirror God and His Word? Maeve Louise Heaney did a theological-hermeneutical analysis of this question through exploring Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (for cello and piano). As I closed my eyes and listened to this amazing piece of music, I was pulled into contemplation. The cello invited introspection while the piano notes seemed to tick off time—suggesting an “inventory” of behaviors or thoughts. This is a great example of how music can take us to a place of transformation.

Christian music, contemporary or traditional, tends to create in me a sense of spirituality that prepares me for whatever comes next in my day. It especially prepares me for hearing the sermon that follows our worship service. We have a full-time Worship Pastor (Holly) who has an M.A. Our worship segment is quite beautiful. Holly has a way of getting everyone involved in worship, as it should be. I believe Christian music that is based on sound Christian doctrine cannot help but mirror God and instruct or motive us to action. Heaney says, “Music is a powerful symbolic form which I believe can and does enrich human living and mediate the Christian faith experience” (5).

Hermeneutics involves explaining, interpreting, or translating Scripture. Much of the same pitfalls that accompany biblical studies—presupposition, bias, personal taste or conviction, attitudes toward the subject matter, and the like— can befall us during interpretation of music (liturgical or other). This should not invalidate the hermeneutic value of music. Viladesau noted that liturgical music is not simply a parallel experience; it is a metaexperience. It can prepare hearts and minds for the “spoken” message delivered by the pastor. The sermon can be “co-experienced” with worship music. Viladesau says music can lead our minds to the sacred by being the “bearer” of the message; by eliciting appropriate emotional reactions; and by the manifestation of a beauty that transcends the human spirit. Music can also carry doctrinal truth. I agree with Viladesau that music serves a hermeneutical function because it helps us interpret the Word of God, moving it from interlocutory to emotive. Music “…does not merely ‘charm the sense,’ but also ‘captivates the mind’ and ‘strikes the heart’” (6).

Response from Fellow Classmates

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your contribution to this conversation. I agree with Viladesau’s statements, as well, regarding the hermeneutic function of music with respect to text. I would also have to agree with Alfred Whitehead’s position as you quoted. I don’t necessarily agree with your assertions, that Whitehead’s statement regarding religion and solitude “flies in the face of the need for corporate worship”, but please do clarify your point if I’m missing something. I don’t see it as a “either/or” position, but rather a “both/add”. He doesn’t say “only of you are solitary”, he says, “if you are never solitary”. Solitary has it place as does corporate worship, I think Whitehead would agree. It could be easy to get caught up in the emotion of corporate worship, without ever contemplating the meaning of a song. Lord knows I have, even while playing in the church band, or singing in the choir. Both “solitariness” and corporate worship, in my mind have an a distinct, but in same respects separate, roles to play in the development of our faith. Anyway, loved reading your thoughts, now excuse me while I click on the link you shared.

My Response to David

David,

Thanks for your comments regarding my initial discussion post. I looked back at Whitehead’s statement. I initially took issue with his remark concerning the “practice” of religion because it sounded too emphatic in stating that religion is solitariness. He further states if you are never solitary, you are never religious. I want to thank you as I think you helped me see my part in limiting Whitehead’s meaning; in fact, it is possibly me who read the statements too narrowly. I thought he was saying we are only religious (or practicing religion) when we’re “solitary.” I now believe Whitehead meant we are only religious if part of our daily worship is solitary: alone with God. This can even include singing privately unto Him. I also agree with (and really like) your assertion that if our worship is limited to times spent with the community of believers, then we might lack true (solitary) worship. Agreed. The corporate worship experience has (by default) a tendency to stifle personal contact and solitary experience.

Thanks for the challenge. It allowed me to correct my viewpoint before it became “ingrained.”

Blessings,

Steven Barto


(1) Alfred North Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 1 notes (March 13, 1926).
(2) Ibid.
(3) Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 3 notes.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Maeve Louise Heaney, “Can Music Mirror God? A Theological-Hermeneutical Exploration of Music,” (April 1, 2014. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel5020361
(6) Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 38.