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Religion and the aesthetic sense

Listening to 'Sunday' on BBC Radio 4 today I heard a contribution from Prof. Paul Robertson, former leader of the Medici Quartette. He was talking about Bach and the profound religious basis of his music. Bach's whole life, he said, was based on the idea of resurrection and redemption. He illustrated this by playing a short extract in which Bach used the letters of his own name in a shift from minor to major keys, to mean "Bach is redeemed."

Robertson was then asked which of Bach¿s compositions meant most to him; he selected the Great Chaconne, of which Brahms said: "Merely to have conceived it would have unhinged my mind." Robertson went on to say that the message we draw from Bach is that though the outer form of life cannot be changed its meaning can be. Bach illustrated this with his ¿wonderful mathematical ordering of the

This seems to me to encapsulate what I wrote about in my last post, where I touched on the connection between religious and aesthetic experience. I love Bach¿s music but am largely musically illiterate, which means that I can appreciate only a small fraction of what someone like Robertson finds in the music. But even if I could appreciate it more fully, would this carry religious conviction for me? Would I then find myself believing the same things as Bach? I don¿t think so.

There seems to be a paradox here. Bach's whole life was founded on what seems to me like an elaborate mythology of resurrection and redemption without a basis in reality (did Jesus even exist?), yet it worked for him and enabled him to produce what may be the most profound music in the Western tradition.

I don¿t know how this paradox can be resolved. I do know, however, that facile dismissal of religion as meaningless nonsense does not do justice to the historical facts and to the position of religion in many people's lives. I wrote in my previous post about two versions of atheism, and said that I favoured that of people like Iris Murdoch and Marghanita Laski because they gave due importance to religion even while they rejected the beliefs on which it was founded. Bach¿s music provides a perfect example of why we need to do this.

The 'Sunday' programme also featured snippets of comments on the Nativity story from people who said it was a lot of nonsense. Few of them, I suspect, would have given any real thought to the underlying issues. Much of the current irreligion in Britain seems to me as facile and thoughtless as the religious outlook it is replacing. It¿s hard to know which is worse: mindless apathy about religion or the Biblical literalism so widespread in the USA.

Our species seems to have had religious aspirations, in the broadest sense, from the late Palaeolithic right down to our own time. It is not clear that we can do without religion of some kind, even though the beliefs that religion gives rise to seem to me to be mistaken. If the need for religion is real, as I think it is, the problem for our society is how to accommodate it without blowing the
world up in the process.


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