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Celebrating the cosmic Yes

by
23 October 2020

Rod Garner reflects on a divine’s surprising musical inspiration

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

Stage design for The Magic Flute

Stage design for The Magic Flute

MORE than 50 years after his death on 10 December 1968, the reputation of Karl Barth as probably the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century remains intact. A Professor of Theology at the University of Basel for 40 years, Barth’s most ambitious work, Church Dogmatics, was published in 14 volumes between 1932 and 1967, and runs to more than 8000 pages. As a monumental and searching exposition of the Christian message, it was later described by one reviewer as “a cosmos with no dead or isolated sections”.

In a time of crisis after the rise of Hitler, Barth was also a founder of the Confessing Church, emphasising the duty of resistance against the evil of the Nazis. In 1962, in recognition of his influence beyond the academic and theological sphere, he featured on the cover of Time magazine — a rare accolade for a religious thinker.

His faith was grounded in the Bible, and in the Jesus he encountered in what he called “the strange world of the New Testament”. Indebted to the writings of St Paul, St Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, Barth was nevertheless clear that, should he ever get to heaven, he would first ask after the composer who had always enthralled and inspired him.

Each morning, after breakfast and the newspaper, and before his daily round of writing, lectures, and meetings with students, Barth listened to the music of Mozart. Together with theology, it shaped his life — so much so that, in Volume 3 of Church Dogmatics, Barth enlists Mozart as a conversation partner. In a speech at a Mozart festival in Basel, Barth said, as though addressing the composer personally: “What I owe you is this: whenever I listen to your music, I feel led to the threshold of a world which is good and well-ordered in sunshine and thunderstorm, by day and by night.”

Other religious thinkers and leaders shared that view, including the future Pope Benedict XVI: writing in 1997 about his upbringing, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger revealed that Mozart’s music “still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

That remark goes some way to explaining why, at an ecumenical meeting of bishops and theologians in 1968, only months before his death, Barth had suggested that the Roman Catholic Church should beatify Mozart. Like Ratzinger, Barth had come to Mozart early in life: “One day my father was playing . . . a couple of bars from The Magic Flute. They went right through me and into me, I don’t know how, and I thought ‘That’s it!’”

Whether singing arias with friends, playing a restrained viola in string quartets, or listening intently to recordings, Barth found his devotion and gratitude increasing with the years, together with his conviction that, on earth, Mozart had no equal.

 

THIS may seem a surprising claim for a distinguished Evangelical theologian to make on behalf of a musician who was a Roman Catholic and a Freemason, not overly given to religious observance, and who — as his letters reveal — retained throughout his short life a fondness for coarse humour and embarrassing bodily functions. None of this mattered to Barth: remarkably, he recognised in this unique and fallible composer something that, he felt, had been denied to other great musicians and theologians.

Mozart secured a place in Barth’s theology because his music embraced “real life in all its discord”: its order, joy, and beauty — and its shadow side. It reflected the chaos, darkness, and death that constitute the unresolved and anguished part of creation, but also pointed to a providential order in which “the Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay.”

Mozart heard the harmony of creation, and saw “a light perpetual” that was brighter than the sun: a light in which, Barth affirmed, “the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy, and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway.”

Mozart’s music constitutes, in Barthian terms, a “parable of the Kingdom”: a “Yes” to the creation that, notwithstanding its shadow side, “praises its Master and is therefore perfect”. It discloses the world as it is, in its incompleteness and raggedness — a world in which “life does not fear death but knows it well,” because the Creator has revealed himself in the crucifixion.

 

IN SO much of his writing, Barth defended the biblical belief that God could be known only through his gracious revelation in the inspired word of scripture and the person of Christ. Confronted by Mozart’s genius, however, he comes close to acknowledging the legitimacy of a natural theology that sees evidence of God in sublime human creativity.

Barth’s endorsement of Mozart should not be seen as a blatant contradiction in his theology. Rather, it reflects an endearing aspect of his character: his ability, like Augustine before him, “to think in questions”; his readiness to change his mind — to affirm, for example, in his later thinking, the humanity and suffering of God, as well as God’s majesty and otherness. Not least, it demonstrates Barth’s conviction that theology should develop an “eavesdropping” strategy that is always ready to learn from the world and from other forms of humane inquiry and artistic achievement.

By “eavesdropping” on Mozart in his early years, Barth eventually came to realise that God could not be fully contained or entirely known within a theological system, however elaborate, or the pages of a holy book, however inspired. Sometimes, the Most High is to be found in unexpected places: for Barth, it was at the end of The Magic Flute, where “the Yes rings stronger than the still existing No . . . and the rays of the sun dispel the night.”

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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