Many people who participate in religious worship have missed singing. Thankfully, it is returning to churches and other places of worship. Singing once again has reminded me of the rich resource of both melody and poetry that makes up our finest hymns. Last Sunday featured Immortal, Invisible, God only wise at Evensong in York Minster. The phrasing and economy of the text allows a rich vein of theology to flow throughout the hymn. The paradox of a God who is hidden in light; lacking nothing, and yet whose bounteousness isn’t wasteful. Neither growing nor diminishing.
Hymns have the capacity to connect our hearts, spirits, minds and emotions in powerful ways. The enduring presence of Songs of Praise on Sunday TV is testimony to the need people feel to hear these much loved tunes and words in their lives. Hymns continue to be sung at some football clubs before matches, and Abide with Me is a part of the traditions of the FA Cup final. Radio 4’s Soul Music has featured a number of hymns and told both the story behind their creation and the impact they have had on people’s lives.
Last week I listened to another Radio 4 programme which set me thinking about all of this. Start the Week took on the ambitious topic of consciousness and how we have a sense of self. Deep waters indeed. One of the speakers was Tiffany Watt Smith, Director of the Centre of the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her contribution to the programme Tiffany focused on the idea that language enables emotions. In other words, that “language allows us to notice those inchoate physiological experiences”. The implication is that if we lacked words to express our sensory experiences it could create a degree of inner tension and psychological difficulty.
This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about the capacity of the language of poetry to express those feelings and thoughts that teeter on the edge of perception. So that my worship of a God hidden in light can find shape and expression in the combined effect of music and words. Nothing else will do this nearly so well. Dr Watt-Smith gave some examples during the programme of cultures that had a word to describe a feeling for which we no longer seem to have a use – and words we had in the past to express this, which have now dropped out of use. Perhaps ‘melancholy’ might be one example?
A cursory review of contemporary Western societies suggests that the ebbing of religious language does not represent the loss of religious experience. The growth of spirituality; the interest in phenomena such as eclipses; and the turn to mindfulness, all demonstrate a search for the transcendent. What the atheist Philip Larkin described in Church Going as an unexpected ‘hunger’ to be more serious. In the current edition of the Church Times the reviewer Andrew Brown notes the ‘uncharacteristically tentative article’ in The Economist about the state of the Church of England. The Economist article ends with words reminiscent of the experience of Larkin. Are some things timeless and beyond price?
The experience of working with people living with dementia provides vivid examples of the anxiety and frustration that are generated when words to express feelings elude. Following Watt Smith’s argument, this is not simply a problem in the communication of feelings: the lack of language impedes the development of feeling itself. If we cannot tell, then we are unable to experience hearing our own words being spoken, heard and reflected back to us.
“The Christian worldview is shaped by a variety of forces: community praxis, scripture, prayer, and perhaps supremely, participation in the liturgy”.White, S. J. (2006). “Sing to the Lord A new song”: Christian Hymnody and the Scientific Worldview. Liturgy, 21(3), 41-50.
It may be that faith cannot be shared and developed when the language of belief has waned. This is not a purely technical problem in sharing faith, but a fundamental obstacle in allowing religious sentiments to grow. A hunger may be felt, but how will that appetite blossom and flourish? The resources that animated an inner sense of God were once plentiful and rich. Now it feels that there are gaps and holes in the discourses available to us, and a central theme with multiple facets has become a landscape of disparate ideas, struggling to sustain a core.
The Jewish people in exile asked how they could sing the Lord’s song when they had been ripped away from the fabric of of community and context. It is a question that is highly relevant for Christians in the West today as societies become ever more distanced from Christian culture and heritage. In the midst of exile it is never easy to see how liberation might come – yet time and again God’s people eventually found the freedom to re-establish a culture of faith.
We need the poetry and music to re-pattern the narrative of faith, even as we search for ways to live faithfully in a land that may feel unfamiliar and strange. In Susan White’s paper, there is a widening gap between a scientific world and a Church singing hymns reflecting a pre-modern world. I echo her conclusion that unless we find new ways of faith in the 21st century ‘we will find ourselves wandering directionless between the two worlds’. We need poets and musicians who can use the kind of economy , skill and depth illustrated by Immortal Invisible. This is no easy task, but unless we renew the culture of faith in the West, religious feeling will reach for words that can no longer be found.