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Aug 16, 2013 | C. Andrew Doyle

Bridging the Divine


Not long ago a priest brought to my attention the work of the code switchers. In its popular context, code switching is the art of bridging across differences. Code switchers are those people who relate well to people from other groups, with different backgrounds, and even languages. In the business world, the art of code switching has become valuable as it enables an organization to benefit from collaborative efforts and teamwork and even to bridge the gap between the organizations, followers or clients. Musicians are a kind of code switcher.


On the one hand, the musician switches between the divine and humanity—bridges the gap between heaven and earth. They help provide an aesthetic that engages the whole spirit as well as the body. The musician is involved in the sacred work of interpreting the divine, or reflecting the divine through their playing, writing and scoring. The poet, author, and Dean of York (appointed in 1941), Eric Milner-White, wrote a poem called “Thy God, Thy Glory.” Here is the last stanza:


O God, most glorious,

Make our life the vision of thee

To the praise of thy glory;

that we all as a mirror may reflect it,

and be transformed into the same image

from glory to glory,

world without end.i 


Music, composition and performance are gifts from God. No matter how brilliant or talented a person is, we as Christians believe their gifts flow from the Holy Spirit. The Christian aesthete understands that because of the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus and His dwelling among us that we cannot penetrate to the “heart of beauty without the aid of the Holy Spirit.”iiHans Urs von Balthasar believed “it is always the function of a given epoch to make itself receptive to the art of the Holy Spirit…”iii   


As Anglicans we understand precisely this as we use symbols, language and music to inform and participate in the Divine Liturgy. While holding fast to ancient liturgical traditions, we have always created beautiful conversations between the local cultural context and the divine—most often in music but more recently in all forms of the liturgical arts. The vocation of the musician is a particular vocation which is itself empowered to manipulate creation that it more easily reflects God and God’s beauty. 


The musician Carlos Santana used to listen to a John Coltrane album as his day ended or began as a kind of contemplative act. In Santana’s words: “I could hear God’s mind in that music ... I heard the Supreme One playing music through John Coltrane’s mind.” Another reviewer said, “I’m agnostic—and yet, John Coltrane’s masterpiece, A Love Supreme, has almost made me see God.”iv 


Paul Tillich believed that humanity’s longing is always offered through symbols like Coltrane’s or the musicians featured in this issue.v This means that our praise, our work, our own singing and listening participates in a symbolic language and it is where the Holy is manifest. Music and its host of symbols open up a reality that is otherwise closed to us. It unlocks dimensions of our soul that correspond to the dimensions of reality. 


Any musician will tell you their work grows out of the unconscious or the spirit life and that it is alive. The music grows, dies and can be  To paraphrase John Milbank’s view on language that can be applied to the note and the lyric: words are more than tools, they have being, they are of substance, they make real that which is unseen and unexpressed.vii 


Music is a revelatory sacrament of God’s beauty. By code switching between the divine and creation, the musician also negotiates the journey from humanity back to God. In this way the musician is not only concerned with the work of offering beauty to the world, the musician is also invested in the work of drawing the participant into the beauty, of music and thus into the divine. The artist is reflecting God and at the same time enables humanity to reflect back to God’s glory—God’s divine beauty.


In this issue you will read the masterful work of evangelists, code switchers, artists who are musicians. These are people who are invested in the work of revealing beauty, and through ancient and post-modern means, they help us to experience the divine.


i Excerpt from: Thy God, Thy Glory, Eric Milner-White, 1884-1963.

ii Hans Urs von Balthasar was a Swiss theologian and priest who was to be created a cardinal of the Catholic Church but died before the ceremony. He is considered one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. Explorations in Theology, I. The Word Made Flesh, p. 126.

iii Explorations in Theology, I. The Word Made Flesh, p. 126.

iv Season 18: Episode 34 of Tapestry on CBC Radio.

v Paul Johannes Tillich was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian. Tillich is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Dynamics of Faith, p. 41.

vi Ibid., pp. 41-43.

vii Alasdair John Milbank is a Christian theologian and the Professor of Religion, Politics and Ethics at the University of Nottingham, where he also directs the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. The Word Made Strange.