We can be a source of beauty and transcendence.
As I work my way through Robert Greenburg’s two lectures on Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat major, “The Hunt,” I am struck by the concept of the sublime and how the sublime, the sense of beauty, clarity, and transcendence, is missing from our public life. Far too often our political debates and even our sermons are filled with shibboleths characterized by self-righteousness, anger and animosity. Yet as I read the Sermon on the Mount, I see Jesus describing and inviting us to a sublime life, a life lived in His Kingdom.
Mozart worked hard to create this sublime quartet. Each of the four movements displays unity within their diverse parts, echoing motifs and phrases that nonetheless are fresh and original as they are transformed in their new settings. The effect of the whole and all its disparate parts is one of beauty and delight. In six weeks, Mozart created perhaps the greatest opera ever composed, “The Marriage of Figaro.” He took three months to complete this quartet. As one who often had whole compositions worked out in his head, Mozart took time and effort to perfect this quartet, one dedicated to his friend and mentor, Haydn.
Anger and animosity overwhelm the sublime. Beauty is no longer a virtue or a value. Anger and animosity are what drive much social media, various hysterias, and certain cable television channels. Social media algorithms locate those with anger and animosity and feed these, while enticing those with anger and animosity to become even angrier. Both kill intelligent and fruitful debate.
As in Mozart’s quartet, there is a certain sense of the sublime in how diverse we are as a nation. We can experience this, for example, in the varied beauty of the cuisines that can be found various cities, including the one in which I live, Knoxville, Tennessee. Our Market Square downtown and the University of Tennessee host a variety of festivals showcasing the cultures that now exist in our town, such as the Hispanic festival, the Asian festival, the KUUMBA festival celebrating black origins, the Middle Eastern festival, just to name a few. We just had Greek Fest at St. George’s Orthodox Church. In these festivals we are introduced to costumes, music, dance, and foods of the various peoples who live in our community, people who are now our neighbors. We even have an East Tennessee history weekend. We might be diverse, but we are also one. There is something sublime in this fact. E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one. We live together and work together in our city and in our surrounding counties. Because of the alliance between U. and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, people are flocking to our city. As they are to many other cities with a growing technological base, from different backgrounds and ethnicities.
E Pluribus Unum should also be the motto and model of the Church. Or as Paul put it, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3). The Church consists of peoples from many tongues and tribes from all over the world. But in far too many cases, anger, animosity, or simple indifference divide us. Instead of the clamor of division, we should all be seeking to evidence in our lives and communions the beauty and the sublime of our reigning Lord. We all should be seeking to enhance and expand Christ’s Kingdom here on earth, a Kingdom that is truly beautiful and truly sublime.
As Robert Greenburg discussed Mozart’s “Hunt Quartet,” he made a comment which I have expanded in this paraphrase: “Great music is like all great art. The art, craft, and skill that creates it comes out of the creator’s whole person.” Let me emphasize those last four words: “the creator’s whole person.” The sublime and the beautiful also come out of the whole person. Creativity and beauty have their ultimate origins in our Triune God, a creative and beautiful Being, a tri-union, three persons but one God. Unity within diversity. The church was created out of the whole Person of our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church is meant to express unity in diversity as unity and diversity are part of the whole Person of our God. Perhaps if we can recover the sense of the sublime – as in the music of Mozart and the great liturgies of the Church – we might bring more of beauty and transcendence into our own communities.