As I perused the December 2015 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, two articles caught my eye. The first is a journey through all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies, including elements of the background of each composition. Those contexts are significant to an appreciation of these masterpieces. For example, during a sojourn in Heiligenstadt, Austria (on the outskirts of Vienna) Beethoven composed his Second Symphony and he composed “an impassioned letter to his brothers” confessing his despair at his progressive loss of hearing. In that Second Symphony, Jeremy Pound finds a work that is “largely upbeat,” though punctuated with “moments that point towards the growling and fist-thumping composer of Beethoven’s later years” (29).
The other article that intrigued me is an interview with the conductor Semyon Bychkov. Unlike the German composer, I was completely unfamiliar with this maestro. What drew me initially to his story was the note in the introduction to the interview that he was “a product of the rigorous Soviet system” (39). Partly because of his Jewish heritage, but also because he found the environment stifling, Bychkov left the Soviet Union in 1975 (aged 22), prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the monumental changes that have occurred in Eastern Europe since then. What fascinates me about the interview is a pair of statements by Bychkov. The latter of those comments is that “society has a deep inner need for culture and spirituality. That need is always there, because it is inside us” (41). Earlier in the interview, while relating an anecdote concerning the relationship between orchestra and conductor, Bychkov recalled an incident when a musician suggested a change in the treatment of a particular phrase in Brahms’s Third Symphony. In the midst of the performance, Bychkov followed the recommendation for those two bars. “I knew it was right. I saw it on their faces when we played it. I didn’t do it to please them; I did it because it was true. It was convincing and that’s why we did it” (39).
This casual reading reminded me that history, physical maladies, politics, family, culture, music, truth, and spirituality are thoroughly interwoven into one another. We are not atomistic creatures who can be dissected into isolated parts, each of which can then be analyzed to find “the real me.” We are complicated, and often inscrutable, “wholes,” and our identity extends beyond our individual selves to incorporate the communities that we form by our membership. As human beings, we need to be fully integrated with ourselves. The plural forms in that sentence are intentional; in the inimitable words of John Donne, “”No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17, written 1623, published 1624).
If that integration is vital to us as human beings, it should be vital in our labors in the Christian academy. Preparing to conclude this series of reflections, I reviewed my fourteen prior submissions. In those musings (ramblings?) I seem to have been tethered to philosophical concerns: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology in particular. I warned myself that I would do that; in the conclusion of “Chaos or Kosmos in the Classroom?” (August 27, 2015) I claimed that “The various disciplines that constitute the Christian academy intersect most clearly at this foundational level.” I believe that I have substantiated that claim in the thirteen intervening discussions. As I addressed those various topics, I included issues relevant to literature, music, history, physics, economics, sociology, psychology, mathematics, cartography, and geography. Again recalling my initial musings, I declared my aspiration: “My desire is to consider the outlines of some of those intersections, investigating how Christian scholarship informs theology and how theology informs Christian scholarship. If successful, I hope that I will detect a few fingerprints of the Creator.” Hopefully my meanderings through the halls of the Christian academy have begun to satisfy the desire I expressed almost four months ago.
Finally, for now, I feel compelled to raise the question: What are the theological disciplines? Obvious members of that group include hermeneutics, linguistics, and systematic theology; but that list is woefully incomplete. I believe/hope that I have presented a credible case for including literature, music, history, physics, economics, . . . in that category. These disciplines are not subordinate to theology; rather theology depends on them and, at least in the Christian academy, they depend on theology. As a sketch of the synergy I have in mind, theology can assist practitioners of the other disciplines as they seek to comprehend the depth of the questions they are asking while they, in turn, guide theologians in comprehending the breadth of the questions we are asking.
A correlated question is “What is a university?” Is a university a coherent entity, or is it merely a convenient sharing of real estate by an amorphous assemblage of essentially independent scholars? The etymology of the word in the Latin adjective universus, which can be translated “all” or “whole,” suggests that in its origins the university was intended to be an organic unity, with the various components informing one another. If we are to achieve that ideal, as Christian scholars we need to find avenues for collaboration. Perhaps the interrelationships I have outlined in these fifteen weeks offer us a sketch for how such a true “university” might function; theology can offer a forum at which the various trails through the academy converge to form a genuine university.
The opening paragraphs of this entry suggest that theology might not be the only such forum in the Christian academy. Music in particular, and the arts more generally, could fill a similar role. Politics and music are not isolated from one another. Beethoven revoked his symphonic dedication to Napoleon when he realized that the Corsican had become a tyrant; in his pursuit of his craft, Semyon Bychkov had his citizenship revoked on the orders of Soviet officials. Bychkov recognizes the “deep inner need for . . . spirituality” in society and Beethoven composed sacred music; music and theology can collaborate meaningfully and effectively. Similar comments can be made concerning theatre and . . .; but that task would require many more weeks and must be assigned to someone more competent than me.
For now I must conclude by returning to the beginning of this sequence of reflections. The Christian academy is (or should be) a reflection of a unified Ktisis (Creation) and should reveal the imprint of the Creator. When we strive for that ideal, we become Christian scholars living out our sacred calling in the Christian academy, embodying the best of what a university can be.
Scott, Rivers, ed. No Man Is an Island: A Selection from the Prose of John Donne. London: The Folio Society, 1997.