The Limits of my World
Repertoire choice in the liturgy is like a musical-religious vocabulary, so it should be wide enough to form and express the whole range of liturgical interpretations and emphases, though some parts of the vocabulary will appear more frequently than others.
The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984) by George Lindbeck
- How are language and religion similar? What is liturgical music’s role in the comparison?
- How do we know what liturgical music means?
- How often should different parts of the religious vocabulary be repeated?
“Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it”, goes Aquinas’s maxim (Summa Theologiae, I:I, q. 8 a. 2). Repetition is an essential part of nature’s life and of human life, and this is perfected in the Christian life. The repetition of nature’s seasons, human breaths and heartbeats come to their fullness in the repetition of liturgical seasons, prayers and sacred actions, which all come around in new contexts. When we sit on the balance between change and continuity, we feel secure and hopeful. We are so used to this rhythm that we easily lose sight of what it is: too much continuity and we lose focus, too much change and we lose our rootedness. In our personal prayer lives, we know that a healthy spirituality will involve mediating that tension. Some prayers we know we ought to say daily or more, others will come round less frequently. We might say the rosary every day, but the mysteries change through the week. The Sacred Liturgy, which is the source, summit and pattern for our personal prayer, has that balance built into it: the fixed and changing parts of the Mass and Divine Office. Music has its role to play in finding that balance. The repetition of repertoire is certainly a consideration worthy of careful thought on the part of liturgical musicians.
Why would we want to repeat a piece of repertoire in the first place? It may be practical considerations like the amount of repertoire an ensemble or congregation is able to learn over a year; but perhaps there are more profound reasons too. Perhaps there are some pieces for which repetition is actually part of their function, whereas there are others that we need to hear rarely to make sense of them. Implicit in this is the idea that music bears a meaning greater than itself in the liturgy. Therefore, how do we judge what needs to be sung often and what needs to be sung rarely?
Following George Lindbeck (1923–2018), I suggest that we can think of liturgical music as analogous to a part of speech in a language and pieces of liturgical music as individual words. There are some words that give meaning to a sentence when they are repeated, sometimes we repeat words for rhetorical effect, and some words are most powerful when used rarely.
1. Liturgical music as language
As its title hints, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) great work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is not a book that any sensible person reads. It is a tome as intense as it is dense. However, one of its more immediately understandable lines is the aphorism
“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein, 2001, ¶5.6)
To grossly oversimplify this thought, the purpose of language is not (as people tend to think) primarily to communicate; rather it is to allow us to have an experience of the world. This makes sense when you consider that the way we are able to access the world is by thinking. Wittgenstein contends that even the most immediate sense experiences, like burning yourself and instinctively pulling back your hand from the pan that has just been in the oven, require us to link it to the word “pain” before it can become an experience (Panda & Nath, 2020, p. 23-24).
As we grow up, we stretch our use of language as we experience more of the world. “Language” and “experience” exist as concepts in opposition to each other, which are informed by one another, and which borrow from one another (in the model of dialectics described by Paul Ricoeur). This is the background to the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that speaking one language rather than another means that you experience the world in a particular way.
Lera Boroditsky has provided some well-known examples of this. In languages that have genders
Spanish and German speakers… ascribe more feminine or more masculine properties to objects depending on their grammatical gender. For example, asked to describe a ‘key’ (a word masculine in German and feminine in Spanish), German speakers were more likely to use words like ‘hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful’, while Spanish speakers were more likely to say ‘golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny’. To describe a ‘bridge’, on the other hand, (a word feminine in German and masculine in Spanish), German speakers said ‘beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender’, while Spanish speakers said ‘big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering’… It appears that even a small fluke of grammar (the seemingly arbitrary assignment of a noun to be masculine or feminine) can have an effect of how people think about things in the world. (Boroditsky, 2003, p. 920)
Yet, the reason that Germans and Spaniards have language to talk about keys and bridges is because they live in societies in which they experience what it is like to turn a key in a lock and to walk across a bridge. Rather than experience causing language or vice versa, their experience is formed by language that is itself formed by the experience: they exist in a dialectic rather than causal relationship. Likewise, the words they use make sense not only because of the grammatical context of the words themselves (Wittgenstein, 2001 ¶664), but also because of what Wittgenstein calls a “depth grammar”, that of the context of the human lives in which the language is used (Kripke, 1982, p. 96).
George Lindbeck took this concept of language as an analogy for religions. In his Post-Liberal Theology, each religion is like its own language. It forms how we see the world and enables us to communicate and miscommunicate with each other in it. As a language is made up of parts of speech (verbs, adjectives, pronouns and so forth), a religion is made up of “symbols, concepts, rites, injunctions, and stories” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 81). Following the line of reasoning set out by Christopher Small, music functions as a means of exploring, affirming and celebrating our concepts of relationships (Small, 1998, p. 13) because taking part in any way in music is taking part in a ritual (Small, 1998, p. 207) and a story (Small, 1998, p. 169). Applying Lindbeck’s analogy, liturgical music therefore is its own “part of speech” within the “language-game” of religion.
It might be worth considering what liturgical music is not before we look at how this analogy works. First of all, it is not a proposition about what is true and what is not true, about what is going on or about what is not going on (though this may be a secondary function) (Lindbeck, 1987, p. 16). Neither is it a mere expression of feeling or of spiritual experience (though this may be another secondary function) (Lindbeck, 1987, p. 21). Rather, liturgical music is a part of a comprehensive framework that we call “faith” or “religion” that allows us to experience reality, much as a language is a means of participating in and experiencing reality. Each piece of liturgical music can be thought of as an individual word belonging to the same part of speech within the language of faith. Words in a spoken language are meaningless in practice without a surface grammar to organise their meanings. In Lindbeck’s analogy, this surface grammar is akin to doctrine.
He puts forward a “rule” theory of doctrine, in which doctrines should be understood, not “as expressive symbols [as claimed by Liberals] or truth claims [as claimed by those who take religion to be a series of truth statements]; but as communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 18). According to Lindbeck, doctrines permit, assess, and prohibit other potentially truth bearing statements. For a statement, interpretation, or even experience to be true within the religion, it must abide by all the “rules-of-the-game”: doctrines. As grammar governs the interpretations it is possible to impose on words, doctrines govern the interpretations it is possible to place on rites, stories, pieces of music and so forth. “Doctrines are not first-order propositions [about how reality is], but are to be construed as second-order ones”, which “[inform] the way the story is told and used” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 80). For example, if a soloist sings a liturgical text on their own, this cannot legitimately be interpreted as the personal prayer of that soloist for themselves, but has to be understood as standing in for the prayers of the faithful. This interpretation is dictated by the doctrine of the liturgy as the corporate prayer of the whole Church.
Lindbeck refers to the need to abide by the rules-of-the-game as “intra-systematic” truth. The rules are “adequate” if they “can be made to apply to what is taken to be real”, for example liturgical music and its relationship with our spiritual and religious lives (Lindbeck, 1987, p. 48).
2. Why should we repeat repertoire?
In any language, there are always some words that need to be used more often than others. This might be because the surface grammar requires them (for example conjunctions and pronouns) or because of the context of the lived reality in which the language is used (who knew that “unprecedented” would be such an important word this year). Rarely does my mother need to curse, and if she does so too often, it loses its rhetorical force. On the other hand, sometimes repetition is the source of rhetorical force.
This is true of the place of liturgical music in Catholicism. Sometimes the surface grammar of the liturgy requires us to repeat the same combination of text and music, and without that repetition the liturgy does not make sense. We repeat the responses for this reasons and cannot substitute them for anything else. As the function of the conjunctions or pronouns require their frequent repetition, the function of these responses mean the same musical text must be repeated often. The way we interpret them is governed by doctrines, for example:
“The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.”
These responses are understood within the framework of the Christian concept of Lordship and an anthropology which includes the physical and spiritual reality of our participation in the liturgy. Historically a number of tones have existed, but the one which has survived in the Ordinary form starts each response on a consecutively “higher” note, raising the “pitch” of the responses to its highpoint in the reciting note of the Preface which follows. We no longer vary the tones of the Preface dialogue because the weekly or daily repetition of this sung ascent prepares the spiritual ascent to the consecration, and our understanding of what is going on is governed by the doctrines of the Eucharist and of Eucharistic participation in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the very basis of our faith, indeed perhaps there is nothing more fundamental. Therefore, it requires the greatest degree of repetition and so the previous variation in the repertoire of chant tones has given way to repetition.
“A religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought.” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 33). As a culture and language limit the sorts of literature or road signs that can be written, a religion dictates the possible musics that can be created within it. Hymns, motets, the propers and settings of the ordinary are all made possible by the Christian faith and without it they would not exist. Conversely, these combinations of text and music build up that same faith, just as language constructs the experience by which it is constructed. They do not exist in a causal relationship, but in a dialectic one. Furthermore, like a language, a religion is not so much the lens through which the world is interpreted, but the cornea of our eye. We cannot simply take religion off, rather every experience we have is interpreted through it and it is an integral part of who we are as interpretative agents.
This means that when a Christian listens to secular pop music it is a religious experience, because we cannot have anything else. However, secular pop music does not form a part of Christianity’s own “vocabulary”; rather a part of life that can be experienced through that “language”. On the other hand, liturgical music seems to fulfil its secondary role of making statements about a liturgical moment’s reality. We can accept or reject those statements according to whether they play by the “rules-of-the-game”: doctrines. For example, using banal melodies and instruments associated with secular culture seems to oppose the doctrinal understanding of what is happening in the sacred liturgy, and therefore we can reject what those hymns are saying about the liturgical moment as untrue.
The variety of musical settings available for some of the more common liturgical texts are akin to the use of synonyms in language. Synonyms significantly overlap in meaning but have slight differences in inflection or emphasis. The same is true when we vary the Ordinary of the mass, keeping the same essential meaning because the text remains constant, but the different melodies make it possible to emphasise different parts or interpretations of the same text. The interpretation of these meanings is governed by the communally authoritative rules we know as doctrines.
For example, the doctrine of the atonement governs how we interpret every setting of the Agnus Dei, but one whose music emphasises sorrow by emulating crying or wailing is drawing attention to a very different aspect to one whose “dona nobis pacem” is upbeat. Giles Swanye’s Magnificat emphasises very different aspects of the text to Howells St Paul’s Service. By repeating a cycle of “synonymous” music, we have the option to vary legitimate interpretations of the same text. When we repeat synonyms, we are not repeating exactly the same words, rather we select the right word to express the right emphasis. Using these “synonyms” over the course of a lifetime gives us the opportunity for an extended meditation of the different emphases and interpretations of the same text: “if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says…, because he lingers more thereon” (Summa Theologica II:II, q. 91 a.2).
There are of course some pieces that are almost entirely dependent on the context to gain their meaning, so if we were to repeat Allegri’s Miserere Mei or Eccard’s When to the Temple Mary Went outside of its given moment in the year, it would lose its force. Indeed, perhaps once a year is too often and we need time to forget the impact in order to be able to feel it again. Jacques Derrida’s theory of language draws heavily on his concept of “iterability”: that a word gains its meaning from the variety of contexts in which it is used (Derrida, 1988, p. 25). I know what a table is because every time I encounter a new table, I repeat the same word to describe it. Perhaps these pieces of music can function in a similar way: that every time we encounter a particular feast or concept, we use the same piece of music to understand it. No repetition of a piece of repertoire is the same because the context changes the meaning.
But then, sometimes a word might mean different things depending on the context in which it is spoken. A “sentence” is a very different thing in a courtroom to a linguistics class, for example. It could be said that in a similar way, Schubert’s Ave Maria has a very different meaning in the context of the Solemnity of the Assumption compared with when it is sung at the end of a funeral. Its meaning is dependent not only on the immediate surface grammar of the liturgies themselves and the associated doctrines, but also how the liturgies exist within the correlative form of life of those attending. Repeating the same piece of music in different liturgical and social contexts means that the same piece of music is capable of bearing more than one meaning. This is a paradox highlighted by Derrida, who notes that the power of repetition lies in changes of context (Derrida, 1988, p. 53).
3. Liturgical music as a bearer of truth
There is a valid criticism that Post-Liberal Theology is too wrapped-up in whether a religion is coherent and does not spend enough time wondering whether it bears a close or perfect resemblance to reality, which Lindbeck calls “ontological” truth. His assertion is that for a statement to have the possibility of resembling reality, it must also make sense within the framework of a true religion and of the form of life in which it is uttered. That a statement sticks to the rules-of-the-game (the doctrines of a religion), does not guarantee that it reflects how things really are. Similarly, some statements can be true in some contexts and not in others, for example,
“the crusader’s battle cry ‘Christus est Dominus,’… is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance). When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 64)
If a Kyrie, such as that from Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D does not call us to repentance, but rather distracts us and draws attention to itself, then it might be “intra-systematically true”, in as much as it abides formally by the doctrines of God’s mercy and the grammar of the liturgy, but the form of life it prompts contradicts those very doctrines. It is therefore unhelpful to repeat these “untrue” statements.
What then does make a statement that meets these requirements “ontologically” true?
Lindbeck situates this in an utterance’s performative role in reality. When we say an utterance is performative, we mean that it not only describes reality but has an effect upon it. “A religious utterance… acquires the propositional truth of ontological correspondence only insofar as it is a performance, an act or deed, which helps create that correspondence” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 65). If we apply Lindbeck’s thought, pieces of music cannot contain ontological truth, but rather, “it is only a function of their role in constituting a form of life, a way of being in the world, which itself corresponds to the Most Important, the Ultimately Real” (Lindbeck, 1984, p. 65).
When liturgical music helps us to be and to do what we claim to be and to do in the liturgy, then it has a close correspondence to Ultimate Reality: it is ontologically true. This begins to sound like Christopher Small from my last article, whose book Musicking (1998) focusses on music as an action rather than a text. Like language, music carries a meaning beyond itself. By musicking, we explore, affirm and celebrate our relationships as we would like them to be. By experiencing them in this way, we can actually take part in that identity in the moment of the music’s performance. In the liturgy, we identify as the priestly people of God. Liturgical music makes it more possible for us to perceive that identity so that we can explore, affirm, and celebrate it. Music that makes this participation in the liturgy possible is ontologically true because it conforms closely to the Most Important and the Ultimately Real. Such music bears appropriate repetition so that we can deepen our understanding of our true identity.
One of my favourite books is C S Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which imagines the correspondence between a junior demon, Wormwood, and his Uncle Screwtape. Over the course of the epistolary novel, Wormwood clumsily attempts to lure his “patient” to their “father below”. The somewhat slow-witted Wormwood has a predilection for ostentatious sin, whereas his more experienced uncle knows that more ordinary means are the surer road to Hell. After Wormwood’s patient converts to Christianity and begins to attend church, Screwtape suggests that one way past this obstacle might be to guide him towards one particular parish whose vicar
“has been so long engaged in watering down the faith to make it easier for a supposedly incredulous and hard-headed congregation that it is now he who shocks his parishioners with his unbelief, not vice versa. He has undermined many a soul’s Christianity. His conduct of the services is also admirable. In order to spare the laity all ‘difficulties’ he has deserted both the lectionary and the appointed psalms and now, without noticing it, revolves endlessly round the little treadmill of his fifteen favourite psalms and twenty favorite lessons. We are thus safe from the danger that any truth not already familiar to him and to his flock should ever reach them through Scripture.” (C S Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 2001, p. 82).
This expresses the dangers of repetition done badly. If we repeat a text or piece of music simply because we like it, what do we actually mean? That we are comfortable with the interpretation we have placed on it and so it has become unchallenging. It does not move us to be what we claim to be in the liturgy and is therefore ontologically untrue, even if the same text might be true when heard less frequently.
There is an element of repetition present in the process of being liturgical: the words come back each day, each week, each month, each year or each three year cycle. In one sense, there is nothing “new” at all if the liturgy is done well. But the musical variety that comes with the liturgy should prevent that becoming unchallenging. Each annual repetition of a feast or weekly repetition of mass or daily repetition of the Office calls for different music so as to uncover something new in the same text.
That is not to say we should not repeat some repertoire each day, week, or year; but we should know why we are doing so. In our natural life, we repeat those things which are fundamental to our being more frequently: breaths, heartbeats and the like. Just as the repetition of the fundamentals is good in nature, it is good in the life of grace. But does our choice to repeat repertoire express an emphasis or interpretation that is fundamental to what is going on, or are we limiting the liturgy’s participants to our emphasis and interpretation? If the vocabulary of liturgical music is too limited, then we limit the liturgical experiences and interpretations it is possible to have, whereas a rich and varied liturgy opens up the limits of our world.
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Lera Boroditsky, “Linguistic Relativity“, in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science ed Lynn Nadel (London: MacMillan Press, 2003), p. 917-921
Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988)
Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Clive Staples Lewis, The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2001)
George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville, KY & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1984)
Mamata Manjari Panda & Rajakishore Nath, “Wittgenstein on Public Language About Personal Experiences”, Philosophia (2020)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 2nd Edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001)
Small, Christopher, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1998)
Copyright © 2020 Wilfrid Jones