The Trinity through Tallis and Tavener

Arts and TheologyLast week in my Sunday School class I’m teaching, we took a look at the Trinity. We spent some time on how the Bible teaches that there is one God, and that there are three Persons. How can God be one and three at the same time? At first glance, it seems to be a paradox. This has been an age-old debate (and definitely not one we’re going to find a sufficient “answer” to) that is not limited to the realm of religion or theology, but is an area of interest for philosophy as well: the one and many. Is the essence of being, or the essence of the world singular or multiple?

First off, we should not expect to be able to define and understand and categorize everything about God. If he is God, then there will be aspects of him that are above us. If we could completely understand him, he would not be God, he would be something lesser. There is a grace in ignorance. But just because parts of God are unsearchable doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in the air and give up: though He is transcendent, He is knowable. There are parts of Himself that God has given us the grace of knowledge, the faculty of knowing. Too easily we fall into one side or the other: God is knowable but not completely knowable.

With that said we attempt to look at the Trinity. Because our own experience does not come close to the truths that are found within the Godhead, we resort to analogies. And though analogies always break down, some are more helpful than others. The analogies we most often use are physical or sight based: the Trinity is like 3 states of matter: water, ice, vapor or the Trinity is like an egg: yolk, shell, the white stuff (whatever that’s called). There are many more out there, I’m sure. The problem with physical analogies is that only one thing can occupy one space at one point in time. If a pen is on the table, 2 more pens cannot be in the same exact place at the same exact time. Yet thinking about the Trinity requires more than one thing to occupy the space.

This is where using our ears can be more helpful than using our eyes. For a sound environment, multiple sounds can occupy the same space simultaneously. If 3 violins are playing, one can hear all three violins at the same time, and they take up the same space of sound. Going further, one can focus on the overall sound and understand the one-ness, or one can listen for the individual parts and understand the three-ness. And this happens in the same space and the same time. The apparent paradox presented in the physical world makes more sense when looked at in the aural world.
By the way, this was a corporate collaboration on the Sunday of a capella hymns.

Two great examples of the one and many come from John Tavener and Thomas Tallis. These are both choral works. Tavener, who is still alive and composing, is influenced highly by his Eastern Orthodox faith, and puts a high priority (at least musically) on the purity of one-ness. Here’s one of his most famous pieces, The Lamb.

Tallis, on the other hand, was a medieval composer, and embraced polyphony: he liked the idea of the many. Here’s one of his more famous pieces, Spem in Alium.

Between listening to both of these pieces, we get an idea of how the Trinity can be one and many at the same time.

3 thoughts on “The Trinity through Tallis and Tavener

  1. I love Tallis. We had Tallis sung at our wedding.
    I love choral music above all else (except maybe British brass band music) and am sitting right now next to a stack that includes Robert Shaw singers doing Tallis Lauridsen, Rachmaninoff, and others, plus other groups doing Durufle, Robert Harris, Randall Thompson, Persichetti and Shaw/Parker arrangements. Your post hit me right in the middle of a choir explosion. It makes me happy.

    Beside that though- I’d never heard anyone make an aural analogy to the trinity. Makes way more sense than any of the traditional ones.

  2. Tim, thanks for the comment and glad you dig the Tallis and explosions of choirs. I stole the idea (as I do most of my ideas) from someone way smarter than me. In this case it was from Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time…at least that’s the first place I heard about it. The more I think about it, the better of an analogy it is. It just makes sense (especially to us music-types), but there are some really cool analogical implications. One I’m all about right now is the idea of the Trinity, as a sound, not just resonating for each Person, but a sound that resonates outward, the Mission of God for all the earth.

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