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Music and Faith

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev - archbishop of Volokolamsk, permanent member of the Holy Synod and chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, and a classical composer - spoke at my law alma mater, The Catholic University of America, about the relation between music and faith.

Alfeyev divides classical music as pre- and post-Bach, then treats 20th century and modern artists before touching upon his own experiences as a composer. I wager it's almost impossible to read his speech without learning something of value. If you enjoyed Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, Alfeyev is required reading. His introduction is below:

I would like to begin with a thought on the relationship between music and creativity. I am convinced that culture and creativity can enhance faith, but they can hinder it too. The artist, composer, writer and representative of any creative profession, can, through his artistry, glorify the Creator. If creativity is dedicated to God, if the creative person puts his efforts into serving people, if he preaches lofty spiritual ideals, then his activity may aid his own salvation and that of thousands around him. If, however, the aim of creativity is to assert one's own ego, if the creative process is governed by egotistical or mercenary intentions, if the artist, through his art, propagates anti-spiritual, anti-God or anti-human values, then his work may be destructive for both himself and for those about him.

We are familiar with Fr. Pavel Florensky's view that 'culture' comes from the notion of 'cult.' We may add that culture, when divorced from cult, is in fact opposed to cult (in the broad sense of the word) and forfeits the right to be called culture. Genuine art is that which serves God either directly or indirectly. The music of Bach - though not always intended for worship - is clearly dedicated to God. The works of Beethoven and Brahms may not directly praise God, yet they are capable of elevating the human person morally and educating him spiritually. And this means - admittedly indirectly - that they also serve God.

Culture can be the bearer of Christian piety. In Russia during the Soviet years when religious literature was inaccessible, people learnt about God from the works of the Russian classics. It was impossible to buy or find in a library the works of St. Isaac the Syrian, yet we did have access to the writings of the elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, which were inspired by the works of St. Isaac. Russian literature, art and music of the nineteenth century, albeit secular in form, preserved a deep inner link with its original religious underpinnings. And nineteenth-century Russian culture throughout the Soviet period fulfilled the mission which, in normal circumstances, would have been the work of the Church.

Now that religious persecution has ceased, the Church has entered the arena of freedom: there are no obstacles to her mission. A wall, artificially constructed in Soviet times, isolated the Church from culture. But now that it is no more. Church ministers are free to co-operate closely with people from the world of the arts and culture in order to enlighten the world. Church, culture and art share a common missionary field and undertake the joint task of spreading enlightenment.

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