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‘Take Heed What Ye Hear’: Listening as a Moral, Transcendental and Sacramental Act

  • Bernd Wannenwetsch

Abstract

This paper aims to demonstrate that listening is not only a highly complex sensory-perceptive phenomenon, but also an activity that invites considerations of its moral, political and religious dimensions. Drawing from the perspective of an early monastic tradition that understood theology as a sounding practice rather than a primarily cognitive one, the author draws attention to the fact that the biblical tradition itself prioritized hearing over seeing in its portrayal of the human being as ‘all ear’ when communicating with and responding to a God that addresses her from the first. Analyses of Martin Luther's account of the new creation in Christ as one that will be awakened to hearing afresh, thus becoming attentive to the ‘address of creation through creation’, and of his theology of the psalter, in which the reformer presents an excitingly different hermeneutics of scriptural interpretation based on the sensory perception of hearing/chanting the text, prepare for concluding remarks on the inevitably communicative and quasi-sacramental character of listening.

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1 On the musical dimension of theology, viewed historically, practically and hermeneutically, see Bernd Wannenwetsch, ‘Singen und Sagen: Zur musisch-musikalischen Dimension der Theologie’, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 46 (2004), 330–47. Cf. also, though from a different perspective, Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge, 2000).

2 On the history of the notion and practice of theology, see Gerhard Ebeling, ‘Theologie, I: Begriffsgeschichtlich’, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. Friedrich Michael Schiele, 3rd edn, rev. Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen, Erich Dinkler, Kurt Galling et al., 7 vols. (Tübingen, 1956–65), vi (1962), 754–69.

3 See Wannenwetsch, ‘Singen und Sagen’, 342–6, and cf. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia, PA, 1984), 64 et passim.

4 Biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version throughout.

5 The biblical authors knew aural perception as by no means limited to the organs of the ear, but as permeating the whole human body and soul. ‘Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake’ (Job iv. 11–14). ‘Sound […] is the only major medium of communication that can vibrate perceptively within the body. The sound of the human voice could not be amplified and projected were it not for chambers and resonators of air inside the human body (the lungs, the sinus passages, the mouth) that vibrate in sympathy with the frequencies of the vocal cords. […] the human experience of sound involves, in addition to the sympathetic vibrations of the eardrums, the sympathetic vibration of the resonators of the body. Sound […] can thus be felt in addition to being heard.’ John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge, 1997), 135; see further Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, 26–7.

6 ‘If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination’ (Proverbs xxviii. 9). ‘In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear’ (Psalm 40, 6).

7 The usual English translation ‘understanding’ (‘understanding mind’, ‘understanding heart’) implies primarily a cognitive reception, and does not really do justice to the Hebrew root of the participle which is the same as in the Shema Israel and conveys the sense of a perceptive activity that encompasses all human faculties.

8 In the New Testament, there are various similar such formulas of ‘awakening’: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear’ (Matthew xi. 15); ‘take heed what ye hear’ (Mark iv. 24).

9 ‘They did not listen to me’ (Jeremiah vii. 26a; cf. Deuteronomy ix. 23b). When one who prays can, conversely, also charge God for not listening (Habakkuk i. 2), the reason for it is not found in a perceived deafness of God: ‘Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear’ (Isaiah lix. 1–2).

10 This 1538 sermon is available only in a somewhat fragmented German/Latin transcription by G. Rörer in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. J. C. F. Knaake et al., 72 vols. (Weimar, 1883–2007; hereafter WA), xlvi (1912), 493–5; my drawing on this sermon is inspired by Oswald Bayer's interpretation in his Schöpfung als Anrede: Zu einer Hermeneutik der Schöpfung (2nd, enlarged edn, Tübingen, 1991), 62–79. Translations are my own.

11 ‘Non audimus, etiamsi totus mundus et creaturae clament et deus promittat.’ Luther, WA, xlvi, 495.

12 ‘Non audimus, etiamsi totus mundus et creaturae clament et deus promittat.’ Luther, WA, xlvi, 494.

13 ‘In summa: ut eorum bona sunt ceca, ita ipsi, quia habent aures et non audiunt, quid deus clamet per suas creaturas.’ ‘Non audimus, etiamsi totus mundus et creaturae clament et deus promittat.’ Luther, WA, xlvi, 494–5.

14 ‘In summa: ut eorum bona sunt ceca, ita ipsi, quia habent aures et non audiunt, quid deus clamet per suas creaturas.’ ‘Non audimus, etiamsi totus mundus et creaturae clament et deus promittat.’ Luther, WA, xlvi, 495.

15 It would be tempting to explore how repercussions of this biblical imagery could provoke a conversation with recent scientific observations on the ‘sound’ of creation, the ‘language’ of the stars, the ocean, the inner earth, and so forth.

16 The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw (London, 2002), 39.

17 John Hull, reflecting on the experience of going blind, addresses the immediacy of the aural sense by speaking of a ‘world revealed by sound’. ‘What is the world of sound? […] The world revealed by sound is so different […]. [The acoustic world] stays the same whichever way I turn my head. This is not true of the [visually] perceptible world. It changes as I turn my head. […] It is not like that with sound. […] This is a world which I cannot shut out, which goes on all around me, and which gets on with its own life. […] Acoustic space is a world of revelation.’ John M. Hull, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (London, 1990), 92ff. Jeremy Begbie, in analysing Hull's experience, points to an important characteristic of the world of sound as interpenetrative, which distinguishes it from the spatial world structured by seeing. ‘Sounds do not have to “cut each other off” or obscure each other, in the manner of visually perceived objects. The tones of a chord can be heard sounding through each other. In the acoustic realm, in other words, there is no neat distinction between a place and its occupant.’ Begbie, Theology, Music and Time, 24.

18 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Part I, § 334. Cf. Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein (Oxford, 1986), 57.

19 Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens (Oxford, 2004), 281–97.

20 On Augustine and Luther as exemplary readers of the psalter see Brian Brock, Ethics in Scripture: Singing the Psalter with Augustine and Luther (Grand Rapids, MI, 2007).

21 At the end of his exposition of Psalm 1 in his Operationes in psalmos, Luther puts it like this: ‘At the end of this psalm I wish to exhort us, as many of the fathers like Athanasius and Augustine did, not simply to sing along or read the psalms as though they had no business with us; rather we are to read and sing them in such a way that we are thereby bettered, our faith is strengthened and our conscience is consoled in all sorts of trouble. After all, the psalter is but a schooling and exercise of our heart and our affections, as to how these are and are to be minded and inclined.’ WA, v, 46. On the historical details and wider contexts see the splendid study by Günter Bader, Psalterium affectuum palaestra: Prolegomena zu einer Theologie des Psalter (Tübingen, 1996).

22 At the end of his exposition of Psalm 1 in his Operationes in psalmos, Luther puts it like this: ‘At the end of this psalm I wish to exhort us, as many of the fathers like Athanasius and Augustine did, not simply to sing along or read the psalms as though they had no business with us; rather we are to read and sing them in such a way that we are thereby bettered, our faith is strengthened and our conscience is consoled in all sorts of trouble. After all, the psalter is but a schooling and exercise of our heart and our affections, as to how these are and are to be minded and inclined.’ WA, v, 46. On the historical details and wider contexts see the splendid study by Günter Bader, Psalterium affectuum palaestra: Prolegomena zu einer Theologie des Psalter (Tübingen, 1996). 173–82, 248–50.

23 ‘Nam hoc vere est psallere seu, ut scriptura de David dicit, percutere manu citharam. Leves enim articuli illi citharoedorum, qui per fidiculas currunt et eas vellicant, ipsi affectus sunt in verbis psalmorum cursitantes et eadem moventes, sine quibus ut cordulae non sonant, ita nec psalmus psallitur, quia non tangitur.’ Luther, WA, v, 47, lines 5–9.

24 On the magisterial reformers’ central thesis in theological anthropology as expressed in Melanchthon's famous formula ‘affectus affectu vincitur’ (‘an affect can only be defeated by another, [stronger] affect’), see Bernd Wannenwetsch, ‘Caritas Fide Formata: “Herz und Affekte” als Schlüssel zu “Glaube und Liebe”’, Kerygma und Dogma, 45 (2000), 205–24. See. also idem, ‘Affekt und Gebot: Zur ethischen Bedeutung der Leidenschaften im Licht der Theologie Luthers und Melanchthons’, Passion, Affekt und Leidenschaft in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Johann Anselm Steiger, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden, 2005), i, 203–15.

25 See, for example, Erasmus of Rotterdam in his commentary on the psalter: ‘Quot sunt affectus in homine, tot sunt chordae in cithara’ (‘As many affections as there are in the human being, so many chords are there in his cithara’). Enarrationes in psalmorum, no. 38 (1532), Desiderius Erasmus, Opera omnia […] recognita et adnotatione critica instructa notisque illustrata, ed. Jan Hendrik Waszink, Le'on-Ernest Halkin, Cornelis Reedijk and C. M. Bruehl, iii (Amsterdam, 2005), 181. See further Bader, Psalterium affectuum palaestra, 46–7.

26 Bader, Psalterium affectuum palaestra, 253.

27 Luther, WA, v, 379.

28 In referring to the sacrament of the ‘word’, the Christian tradition has always had in mind that listening is as much part of the process of proclaiming as is speaking.

‘Take Heed What Ye Hear’: Listening as a Moral, Transcendental and Sacramental Act

  • Bernd Wannenwetsch

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