Ernest Bloch and the Prophetic Impulse: Music as Spiritual Protest

Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Swiss-born but American by naturalization, plays tag with the usual categories.  An inheritor and continuator of the European tradition in concert music, he nevertheless made common cause with his adoptive countryman-composers by attempting after 1916 to write music in an idiom that would reflect conditions in the New World to which he had sworn allegiance.  Bloch was also self-consciously a Jewish composer who understood that the vast majority of his potential audience belonged to the Christian-Protestant professions of a largely Anglo-Saxon nation – a challenging rhetorical situation.  Bloch’s Judaism, moreover, was the Judaism, not of the rabbinate, but of the Prophets.  When he “spoke” deliberately in his distinctive American dialect, he did so in the mode of a musical nabi, and like the nabi, he gave voice, as best he could, to the judgment of divinity on the existing offense of humanity’s disorderliness.  For it must be said that Bloch’s music, from his earliest mature compositions, functioned by intention as a protest against the modern world.  Is Bloch one of those “reactionary” composers, whose reputations traditionalists would like to revive?  In many ways, the answer is “yes,” even though during Bloch’s American years his musical style became increasingly less Romantic and noticeably more modern in its motivic terseness and harmonic astringency.  Yet the composer of the late Trombone Symphony (1954) is unmistakably the same as the composer of Schelomo (1916), the “Jewish Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” that remains Bloch’s best-known and most-played score.

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The Argument from Possibility per se

Possibilities have no actual existence in their own right. They concretely exist only in and as potential acts of some concrete actuality or other. And possibilities exist necessarily: for x ever to be possible in any state of affairs, x must in every state of affairs always have been possible in and for some state of affairs or other. Possibilities exist eternally. That possibilities necessarily and eternally exist means therefore that in every possible state of affairs whatsoever there exists an eternal, necessary concrete actuality, in whom all possibilities exist as potential acts.

If anything be possible, then, God necessarily exists.

The Argument from Definiteness

I often find the popular debate between Religion™ and Science™ intensely irritating, because almost everyone on both sides seems to take it for granted that if we have (or might someday have) a scientific explanation for something, then we don’t stand in need of a divine explanation for it; so that the only places where God might possibly play a role in our explanatory scheme is in the bits and pieces of the world that science has not yet explained. And this notion of the “God of the Gaps” presupposes that the merely scientific explanation is exhaustively adequate, at least in principle. But that means that the whole debate is skewed from the get go by an implicit presupposition in favor of naturalism, and is therefore founded upon begging the very question that it proposes to answer.

It’s dunderheaded.

God is not needed first as an explanation of this or that item in the natural order, but rather as an explanation of the fact that there is such a thing as nature in the first place, or that there exists anything at all that might have a nature. If God does not exist, then there can be no explanation of existence per se, or therefore of any of the things that do seem to us actually to exist. If God does not exist, then all we can say of things in the final analysis is that they are what they are, for no particular reason.

Or can we say even that?

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Colin Wilson dies at Age Eighty-One

The British writer Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) died last night in Cornwall just before midnight, local time.  Wilson, who became a celebrity at twenty-six on the publication of his first book The Outsider in 1956, was a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics from philosophy, with special attention to existentialism, to literature, history, and the occult.  Wilson was never what one might call a traditionalist, but he was an inveterate critic of modernity and a defender of religion against its materialist-positivist detractors.  Wilson’s authorship encompassed both fiction and nonfiction.  In fiction, he exploited genre-formulas in ingenious ways, as in his first and in many ways most ambitious novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960).  His science fiction The Space Vampires was adapted to the silver screen by Tobe Hooper under the title Life Force in the mid-1980s, but the adaptation did little credit to its author.  Ritual in the Dark, several times optioned for cinema, regrettably never made it to the screen, large or small.  Wilson, an impressive autodidact, developed a core of devoted readers who took many cues from his intellectual independence and admired him for the nonconformist freedom witnessed by his contrarian interests.

An excellent introduction to Wilson’s thinking is the immediate sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel (1957), whose chapters on literature, history, and philosophy constitute an important polemic against the deadening cultural assumptions of the mid-Twentieth Century.  Wilson had befriended Albert Camus just before the latter’s fatal automobile accident.  Wilson’s work may be seen as an Anglo-Saxon parallel to Camus’ work although Wilson, in contrast to Camus, was never distracted by politics.

Article of Possible Interest on Cosmology and Religion

I am humbled and pleased that the editors of The New York Review of Science Fiction have given the feature position to my article on William Olaf Stapledon, “Contact, Communion, and the Marriage of Minds,” in the latest number of their publication.  “Contact” is the much-edited version of the talk that I gave last July at “Doxacon,” a colloquium on the crossroads of science fiction and religion.  I believe that the essay will be of interest to readers of The Orthosphere.  Stapledon was a greatly conflicted thinker, tempted by atheism, but unable to shake his profound intuition that the universe is not reducible to matter and the void; that existence has a divine ground.  His fiction and non-fiction alike address the issue.  I try to put Stapledon, as the subtitle of the essay puts it, “in context.”  The context is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which I interpret as, partly, a religious displacement.

I offer an extract below –

Once the investigator grasps Flammarion and Lowell, along with the whole of late-Romantic plurality discourse, in this way [as a vestige of Medieval cosmology,] much of the peculiarity in their exposition begins to make sense.  When Flammarion seems to adhere to a Darwinian vocabulary, making free use of the term evolution, he never means what Darwin or Darwin’s materialist followers meant by the term.  On the contrary, the evolution that concerns Flammarion is that of mind, which he regards as the self-articulation at the microcosmic level of the macrocosmic consciousness – Dieu dans la Nature.  In a Times story for 10 November 1910, Flammarion told the reporter, “I believe there are denizens on Mars, and that they are superior to us.”  Flammarion opines that the Martians “ought to resemble [what humanity] will be several million years hence, inasmuch as Mars is a much older planet than the earth.”  Flammarion believes that the Martians have made several attempts to communicate with humanity, the first one “hundreds of thousands of years ago” and the last one “a few thousand years ago.”

Lowell, who knew Flammarion, writes in the same vein.  In his three-part Atlantic article from the summer of 1895 (June, July, August), he argues that the phenomenon of the canals “points to a highly intelligent mind behind it.”  Martian sentience must take the form of “a mind… of considerably more comprehensiveness” than the human.  Such things as “party politics,” Lowell insists, “have had no part” in the elaboration of the system of planetary irrigation – the canals whose courses Lowell had so painstakingly mapped.

According to Lowell, the very study of Mars exerts a spiritually transforming effect on him who undertakes it.  He learns to “look at things from a standpoint raised above our local point of view,” to “free our minds at least from the shackles that of necessity tether our bodies,” and to “recognize the possibility of others in the same light that we do the certainty of ourselves.”  As Lowell writes in Mars as the Abode of Life, “Turning to Mars with quickened sense, we witness an astounding thing,” a globe “where life at the present moment would likely be of a high order.”In the plurality discourse of the fin-de-siècle, then, the reader will detect the stubborn persistence of a cosmological view that actual modern science tells us is an outmoded and distinctly unscientific way of comprehending the celestial universe.  This late-Medieval way of thinking cosmologically sees the universe as creation; it sees the heavens as instinct with symbolic significance, pervaded by mind in the form of the plural, extraterrestrial humanities, and as responsive – at least potentially – to the effort, not only to establish contact with those humanities, but to come into communion with the sum and total of their shared consciousness.

Atheism Can’t Be Practiced

In a conversation with several other Christians, someone mentioned some atheists who are declaring themselves de-baptized. They have a hokey ceremony incorporating a hair-dryer, and witnesses, and a celebrant: the whole nine yards. 

It can’t be done, of course, any more than pigs could fly. Once baptized, always baptized.

A young Evangelical in the company responded, “You gotta wonder: if they are really atheists, *why do they care*?” We all exploded in laughter. Someone else said, “It just goes to show you that despite what they say about baptism being meaningless superstition, in their hearts they don’t really believe it is.”

You can’t rebel against something you know does not exist.

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The Importance of the Creeds

For the most part, my posts here at the Orthosphere fall into two categories: current affairs on the one hand – politics, economics, public policy, the culture wars, etc. – and on the other philosophical theology. It is not surprising that our site statistics show the latter sort of posts are generally far less popular and interesting to visitors than the former. Only one of my philosophical posts makes it into the top thirty that I have published since the Orthosphere began. It is The Holy Trinity: A Simple Explanation for Children. Though it is fairly recent, it is the fourth most visited post I have published; every day it gets at least a few hits from Google searches, so it is likely to keep rising in the rankings.

Why is that? Why does the Trinity matter to people?

I mean, sure, it’s hard to explain the Trinity, especially to kids, and kids have questions, so there must be lots of Christian parents searching for a good explanation on any given day. But this raises a set of deeper questions. If the Trinity is so hard to explain, why did the Fathers make it so central to the Faith? Why do the creeds take their structures from the Persons of the Trinity? And, what is so important about creeds in the first place? Why can’t we dispense with these troublesome, incomprehensible formulae, and just love God and each other? And, for Heaven’s sake, why should a profession of adherence to the Nicene Creed – it began and remains the baptismal vow – be the threshold and test of Christian faith?

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Article on Ancient Atomism

My article on ancient atomism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  In particular, I undertake a reading of Lucretius’s great poem On the Nature of Things, a strange mixture of bold speculation that anticipates modern physics and cosmology more interesting perhaps for its fairly concerted critique of sacrificial religion.  I offer a sample –


Posterity knows only a little about Lucretius and much of what it knows it gleans from autobiographical references in his poem.  The poem itself is paradoxical.  Alleging to explicate, for the sake of a potential recruit, the scientific truths discovered by Epicurus, the truths that will redeem life for the one who accepts them, On the Nature of Things couches itself in the language of insistent evangelism, making of its intellectual hero, as George Santayana noted in his study of Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, a secular saint.  The poem attests a powerful experience on the part of its author, which can only be described as spiritual conversion, which he then wishes to foster in another.  Already in the generation just after Epicurus, his followers acquired the habit of referring to him under the honorific of soter or “savior,” an etiquette that imitated in turn a propaganda device of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts.  Lucretius, whose time and place knew the afflictions of political breakdown, picks up this thus slightly tainted habit.