The Bach Experience

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Brother Lawrence Whitney:

Credo

First: confession.  Second: glorification.  Third: belief.

Here, at last, we turn with Bach in the movement of the Mass to belief.  “Credo…” “I believe…”

“Br. Larry, I’m not sure I believe in hell anymore,” a student stated with no small hint of trepidation.  “So?” I asked in reply.  “Br. Larry, don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with Jesus,” another student remarked, “I’m just not sure he’s the only way to God.”  “Should you be?” I inquired.  “Br. Larry, how can I believe in an almighty God who let my friend die like that?”  After a period of silence I wondered aloud, “After such a tragedy, can any of us believe in such a God?  Should we?”

There is an underlying concern in these inquiries.  This is the reason to bring them to a chaplain, even one who refuses to give a straight answer.  The concern is what impact these beliefs, at odds with received tradition, might have on the salvation of those who hold them.  If I believe the wrong things, can I be saved?

This reduction of salvation to doctrinal conviction is not classical Christianity but rather a modern phenomenon.  It is a result of the encounter of Christianity with particular forms of Enlightenment rationalism, admittedly itself an evolution of Protestant thinking.  Ironically, Christianity as right belief in this way takes a pernicious turn toward humanistic works righteousness.  It insists that salvation is achieved by intellectual assent and not in the first instance by the grace of God.  Frequently it turns to idolatry by turning the bible, and belief therein, into the gatekeeper of heaven.  As the slogan goes, “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  This is Christianity become Biblianity, in spite of Paul’s injunction that “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

If this misplaced emphasis on belief were limited to the Protestant Christians from whom it arose it would be bad enough.  Alas, given the ways in which belief-oriented Christianity has become a taken-for-granted stream in the American conscious, it has become the predominant paradigm for interpreting all religious orientations in our pluralistic society.

As we speak, the United States Supreme Court is in the process of hearing several religion cases. One regards prayer in legislative sessions.  Two regard the right of corporations to deny birth control coverage on the basis of the religious beliefs of their owners.  If their decisions in these cases follow their track record, and we should expect they will, it is likely the Court will err.  The errors will not be on the basis of jurisprudence, but rather on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of religion as belief at the very foundation of American jurisprudence.  In spite of the fact that there are no Protestants left on the Supreme Court, it is likely that all of the justices will prove themselves Protestant by proxy in making decisions based on a particular Protestant understanding of religion as belief.

Given the transitions in the field of religious studies over the past fifty years, it is unlikely that any undergraduate religion major could graduate without a thorough understanding that belief is but one aspect of religion, and a minor one in many traditions.  Little wonder, then, that Secretary of State John Kerry said, “if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

Religion reduced to belief is dangerous.  Assertions of belief are ways of delineating in-group, out-group boundaries.  Right now, Arizona awaits the signature of their governor on legislation that would allow religion as belief to be cited as grounds for denying services to gay and lesbian couples.  Beliefs become justifications for standing your ground against those who believe else or otherwise.  For most of human history, the function of religion was in fact to just so delineate groups from one another.  In the Axial Age, however, figures such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus, among many others, were instrumental in the transformation of religion toward a universality that transcends difference.  And so it is that Jesus rejects any justification of “Stand Your Ground:” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

This is not to say that belief has no place in religion at all.  The “Credo” in its proper context in the Mass setting is an excellent example of belief within the wider framework of the practices of religion.  The “Credo” is sung, that is, it is embodied in the voices of the choir, the tintinnabulations of the orchestra, and the gestures of the conductor.  It is the belief of individuals who belong to a community and to God.  It is belief enacted, not belief intellected.  Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about what we believe with Bach this morning.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

In October we began our journey in this great cathedral of music, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, entering first the narthex with the supplicant Kyrie. In December we joined the mighty congregation in the nave in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Today we come to the Cathedral crossing – where the tenets of the faith are taught, affirmed and observed.

Written late in Bach’s life, the Credo is an unparalleled compendium of compositional style and skill. Marsh Chapel congregants are now well familiar with Bach’s interest in symmetrical structures and architectures. The nine movements of the Credo unfold in such a way that the Crucifixus text comes as the centerpiece with Et incarnates est and et resurrexit on either side. These three movements, the crux of the faith, form the central portion of this grand Credo setting. On either side, Bach sets extended portions of text for arias – first a soprano/alto duet and later a baritone solo. The first depicts the three in one nature of God. You’ll hear the alto melody as an extension and mirror of the soprano, interweaving and informing one another, as if to depict being of one substance of the father.

The capstones of the Credo are two pairs of choruses. Each set begins with a movement proving Bach’s skill and interest in the old 16th century style of a Renaissance motet. These two movements – ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and ‘Confiteor’ –draw their compositional model from Gregorian Chant melodies. Both movements yield in spectacular display to music in the high Baroque style with trumpets, timpani and full-on display of Bach’s unmatched mastery of the contrapuntal style.

For the performer – and we hope for the listener – Bach’s music impels these texts to leap from the page. As Luther wrote, “The Notes makes the texts live.” And as Br. Larry reminds us today, Bach’s music calls us to a belief re-imagined, a belief quickened, revitalized, and transformed. This is a Credo of cosmic utterance, new realities and possibilities of faith far beyond the sum of the parts.

Brother Lawrence Whitney:

Dearly beloved, what we believe with Bach this morning is the living and breathing of the life of faith.  The words are ancient, the spirit is fresh.  Believe then in God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Amen.

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