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.

A Capella and the Trinity

Arts and TheologyThis past Sunday at Orlando Grace (which is in process of a new website, by the way), I did what was most uncomfortable for me. I did an a capella service (or acapella?). No instruments. Not even other voices. Just me and a hymnal. At first it was scary, but I think it turned out well.

My reasoning for this is not just to do something different (although that is good, too), but was to demonstrate certain aspects of the Trinity and to a lesser degree, affirm the use and importance of music itself in a church service. I didn’t even get to the fact that our bodies are instruments, but maybe that’s for some other week.

So I am standing there in front of the congregation, my guitar now ripped from my iron fists of fear, with nothing but a music stand and microphone. Technically, I was afraid of not starting on the right note, which would make the rest of the song too high or too low. I may have erred on the low side, but it didn’t seem to be much of a distraction. Theologically what I was trying to get across was this (and the confession we picked affirmed this as well): Our God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One God, three Persons.

There is a unity that comes with diversity. And this is a unity in the great sense of the word, not the political correct flavored version. The Trinity’s unity, in one sense comes from the very fact that they are different. And this is the basis of our relationships with one another. We can be unified in our diversity. Christianity is not something that, once it is a part of you, you must become like everyone else. It is not in its nature to be dehumanizing. In fact, it is the opposite! Christianity affirms our differences, our different personalities, giftings, etc., and says we are united because of the uniqueness. We can be one and many at the same time.

And this is where the a capella idea came in. The total sound of the congregation when singing something like Holy, Holy, Holy can be classified as one and many at the same time and space. There is one overall sound and there are many voices. And the overall sound would be something different if one person was not there. I would go so far to say it requires diversity to be unified. That would be the difference between being the same and being unified. We need each other in order to make one sound. This is made all the more clear when people sing different parts and harmonize with each other. This is also something we don’t get to hear when other instruments are in the sound field.

Our church, like may others, projects the words to the songs on a screen so we don’t have to print out song sheets each week. The projector is great, but I think something is lost in that. When all we see is text (like on a screen) we forget the music itself means something. At least a hymnal has notes associated with the words so we can see that a corporate worship song is music plus text. A corporate worship song is not just text. And when we forget about the music, I think we lose out on what the music itself has to teach us, just one of those lessons being unity and diversity.