In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, he develops an amazing reflection on the power of music to shape and transform theology. Given that I just finished a book on pop music and that I think most naturally in metaphors and similes (perhaps one of the reasons why parables of Jesus always made sense to me and the Epistles of Paul leave me generally dry and parched) Bonhoeffer’s musical insights have been very helpful:
20 May 1944
There’s always the danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there… It’s a good thing that that book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct’, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me till after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I am driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. Perhaps a good deal will be easier to bear in these days together, and possibly also in the days ahead when you are separated. Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come again with all its dangers, but rely on the cantus firmus. – I don’t know whether I have made myself clear now, but one so seldom speaks of such things. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 162 – 3)
Bonhoeffer is developing a fascinating aesthetic theology of personhood in this short letter around this ancient musical principle of the cantus firmus. A cantus firmus is a melody to which one or more contrapuntal parts can be added – parts that are truly distinct, novel and even seemingly at odds with other parts until they are bound to this consistent yet fluid melody that is the cantus firmus. Bonhoeffer is extending the music analogy to the Christian life by stating that the arc of the cantus firmus is similar to our relationality to the Triune God who is the core melody that carries and propels the contrapuntal parts (the unique, unrepeatable miracles of God who are made and claimed in the Imago Dei) towards a penultimate note that is a step above the final. This push and drive toward a final point is a point of no return (Galatians 2:20 “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me” if you will) that catalyzes into a freefall into a climax on a high note, which is melodically consonant – in harmony – with the first and final notes (i.e. at a distance of a major or minor 3rd, perfect 4th or 5th, major or minor 6th, perfect 8ve, or major or minor 10th) thereby creating unity from the first note to the last. Throughout the movement there is always modulation and balance between ascending and descending motion that allows space for variation, change, innovation and even dissonance.
If the cantus firmus is heard, then diversity is not only tolerable, it is celebratory given its allegiance to the core musical theme. If the cantus firmus is dampened – think of white noise generators in Bose headphones that don’t remove the surrounding din and clang, but merely provide an alternative frequency that merely turns the auditory nerve toward it as a sonic distraction into nothingness – then order is sought for through external locus of control for fear of chaos and anarchy.
Theology needs to find its cantus firmus and I believe Bonhoeffer is right to seek it in the language of music. The textual nature of dogma flattens the search for God into right and wrong propositions in ways that the movement of the Spirit does not. Music is a permeable, flowing, ever-generative affair. In the confines of prison solitude, it was this permeable, flowing call and response with God that Bonhoeffer saw as the hope. In this he was freed and Theology even today needs to be liberated.