This week in our Practices of Incarnational Presence series, we come to the third of the “social imaginaries” that shape Incarnational Presence on our campuses. The imaginary is the jazz ensemble, listening together to the “heavenly music” and then entering in.
By Julian M. Reese with Teresa Hooper
“Then Illuvatar said to [the Ainur], ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music…. Ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, and each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.” J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, p. 4
The purpose of Incarnational Presence is to awaken Great Beauty in the academic departments of the university as we encourage creative participation in what God is already doing. An Incarnational Presence exhibits awareness of an invisible transcendent reality— the “music” of the gospel— and it encourages others to participate in making this Great Music visible.
As we consider habits that encourage participation in the present reality of the Kingdom of God, we use the jazz ensemble as an imaginary to cultivate this vision of “participating in the music.” We will expand this lens by using the ancient concept of the “music of the Spheres.”
THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES: HEAVENLY JAZZ
We find in Jesus’ metaphors and stories that there is a power in the imagination that points to a deeper, inarticulate Truth beyond our understanding. J.R.R. Tolkien understood that power of imagination and pictured it in his work. Behind all of the stories of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien imagined the Great Music of Illuvatar, invisible and inaudible but real and present. In his magisterial mythological world, he reflected the ancient concept of “the music of the spheres,” a philosophical idea that the movements of the celestial bodies, the Sun, Moon, and planets made a form of music. This harmony, while inaudible, could be heard by the attentive soul, and some, like Johannes Kepler, believed this music to be the imitation of God.
An Incarnational Presence recognizes the work of the Gospel in restoring harmony in creation through the reconciliation of all things. We see this as a present reality that is inaudible and invisible, unless there is a presence that can hear the music. An Incarnational Presence cultivates the habit of awareness of the Gospel music and makes it known, even in a world devoid of transcendence.
HEARING THE MUSIC
Following Jesus, an Incarnational Presence “hears the music” of the light and life of God. His imagination is awakened and enflamed by the presence and voice of God. We do not create the music, but we listen to the music. Then we express it according to our understanding and skill. In the case of faculty ministry, we can think of the Music of the Spheres as more like a jazz ensemble: based on the overall theme of God, we “join in each with his own thoughts and devices,” striving to make harmony with the others in that sphere. In that way, we improvise like Tolkien’s Ainur who sang before Illuvatar.
But improv to the music of the Spheres must always start with listening to the main theme. In the words of C.S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward, the purpose of the transcendent “Music” is to “awaken an unrecognized desire in the reader, which may be turned into a mystic experience of divine presence” (Ward, p. 228). We hear the music and are drawn into it.
Some years ago, I decided to let the prayers that Jesus prayed, the Psalms, inform what I prayed and how I prayed about it. As I read small portions of the Jesus story in the four Gospels, I would imagine Jesus praying the Psalm I was reading that day in his context. I would ask him questions like, how did he remember the author of the Psalm experiencing the content of the Psalm? What did he learn from the Psalm that informed how he prayed that day for his circumstances and the people around him?
I entered the memory recorded in the text of Scripture. I opened my imagination to the story. And I continued my spiritual apprenticeship to participate in the music of God. I would imagine myself present with Jesus as he prayed those words and ask the Spirit of Jesus to shape and reshape my prayers according to what I was learning. Participation in the life and prayers of Jesus became a way for me to “hear the music,” which in turn fed my mind and my imagination. An Incarnational Presence cultivates habits of listening to the music.
PARTICIPATION IN THE MUSIC
When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was a present reality, he demonstrated the kingdom with evidence— healings, deliverances from unclean spiritual influences, forgiveness of sins. The recipients of these works of Jesus were participating in the kingdom but not necessarily choosing to enter it. Some were given the ability to choose to enter the kingdom. But some who experienced “signs and wonders” turned against their healer and turned him into the authorities who destroyed him.
As the Incarnational Presence reveals the presence of the kingdom of God in the department, the department benefits— and participates. Some of those who participate will respond in faith and “enter in” to the kingdom by identification with Jesus. This begins the spiritual journey of movement “further up and farther in” to the being of God because Incarnational Presence shows them the Way.
Theologian Hans Boersma uses the language of participation to explain how God draws us into the divine life: it “expresses the way God graciously condescends in order to allow the created order to share in the reality of his life” (Heavenly Participation, p.185). He finds this idea in the writings of the Church Fathers:
“For Gregory of Nyssa, ever-increasing growth in purity and perfection is possible… ‘because one already participates in a real manner in this good; an infinite growth is possible because this good in inexhaustible’… Since God is infinite, human progress must likewise be infinite… Gregory’s notion that participation allows for continuous (eternal) growth, is an answer to the idea that satisfaction of human desire would lead to weariness in the experience of God. (p. 83-84)
This is what we see in our departments. When Dr. G agrees to a Veritas conversation with a Christian speaker, Dr. G participates in the presence of the Kingdom of God. When Dr. N agrees to have a lunch with me, he is participating in the Kingdom’s presence. When Dr. H introduces me to some of her recent faculty hires, she participates in the welcome of God in Christ that is appearing in her department.
The role of the Incarnational Presence is not just to announce the presence of the Kingdom of God and to demonstrate its power; it also shows others the Way of “perpetual progress,” “farther up and farther in” toward the fulness of God’s love, and goodness, and joy — all that God is for us in Jesus Christ.
JOINING THE ENSEMBLE
The purpose of an Incarnational Presence is to bring together the members of the academic community in partnership, much like the jazz ensemble, to participate in the music. They hear the same music, but as they improvise, they express and complement it in different ways. We envision jazz ensembles participating in the music of God in every department of the university. An Incarnational Presence invites the ensemble to come together and participate in the music. Sometimes we lead. Sometimes they lead. But every member of the ensemble supports the others when they solo, and each solos with an opportunity to showcase her talent.
Incarnational Presence shows the way of progress to those who want to experience the life of God more fully. It recognizes that the members of the academic community are already participating in the music of creation and renewal as they “study the great works of the LORD” (Ps. 111:2). In their publications they “make his wonders to be remembered” (Ps. 111:4). In their classrooms, they “tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength and his wondrous works which he has done” (Ps.78:4).
Dr. D. sifts through the sands of Jordan and uncovers one of the earliest churches ever found. Dr. S and Dr. H study the history of Christianity and anti-Semitism. “Matt” unlocks some of the mysteries of fungi and how they might bring healing to humans. “Louise” looks at women preachers and the role that sponsors play in their professional success or failure. “Andrew” participates in the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering to improve life on the planet.
They are all sharing in the music of the spheres. The Incarnational Presence gives them further opportunity, helping these friends to see and to enter what is unseen and untested. Sometimes, they ask us in to support their melodies; and as we have seen in our Veritas conversations and elsewhere, sometimes they offer to support us while we improv our own melodies.
We imagine a Trinitarian Community, a Trinitarian Jazz Trio, if we may. And we are invited into that ensemble in never-ending movement of progress or, as C.S. Lewis envisioned in The Last Battle, a vision that points us to the land beyond the mountains. That vision is our Music, and He encourages us farther along that we might participate in the Music more fully— and so our lives may be full, and our universities might know renewal of their Song.
Next week’s article concludes the series with two campus stories of Incarnational Presence. Previous posts in this series are: