Pastor Stephen Feinstein
In today’s post, I will be summarizing Francis Schaeffer’s discussion on mysticism as it affected music and art. Recall that mysticism is the third level below the line of despair. The line of despair refers to the rejection of the existence of absolutes, such as truth. This way of thinking is the natural byproduct of atheism. If the universe is not God’s universe, but instead it is random material happenings, then there can be no absolutes. Truth would be relative, right and wrong would be concepts of nonsense, and all existence would be without meaning and purpose. Many people bought into this, but it proved impossible to live out. As humans made in the image of God, we live according to absolutes, we cannot separate ourselves from them, and we intrinsically know that everything has meaning and purpose. We know things are not random. Our very lives depend on the universe being stable and predictable rather than random and chaotic. So those who still chose to embrace the irrationality of their atheism had to find a way to live with absolutes even though they believed such absolutes were not real.
Nihilism gave way to dichotomy, which allowed people to pick whatever truth they wanted to believe in, while at the same time understanding that it is nothing more than a preference based on one’s leap of faith. Well, this dichotomy was not good enough for some, and so mysticism was the next result. Mysticism was this idea that there is some sort of absolute, but it is unknowable. All attempts to define and explain it are inadequate and therefore are equally valid expressions of the truth. Mysticism became necessary because most people could not deal with the idea of reality being meaningless.
By this point of reading my posts, I hope you can see that each major thinker that has been introduced has a different explanation of what this mystical absolute is. It is no different with music. Schaeffer focuses in on John Cage (1912-1992). He was so committed to the idea that the universe is random, that he saw that randomness as the mystical absolute. He did whatever he could to make his music random too. He would compose his music after flipping coins thousands of times. Eventually the methods became more sophisticated than this, but the result was the same – music that made little sense to the ears. Cage believed that the “truth” of chance can best be communicated through chance methods coming forth in his music. Well, sometimes when his music was played, rather than offering applause, the audience hissed and booed. Why? It is rather simple. In our heart of hearts, we know that the universe is not meaningless and it is not random. It is designed with intelligent purpose. We were designed with intelligent purpose, and given that we ourselves are designed along with everything else in nature, anything we create must be intelligently designed too. Cage’s randomly designed music was not pleasing to our ears. If chance is the true mystical reality, then chance should be able to communicate to us, but it cannot. Why? Because the ultimate reality is not chance! The fact that his music was aesthetically worthless should have caused him to reject his own presuppositions of randomness, but instead he pressed on and continued to produce utter nonsense. Consider this one more example of an atheist claiming to believe the evidence, but then ignores the largest pieces of evidence that stare him right in the face.
An interesting point to note about Cage is that like all other atheists that claimed there are no absolutes, he could not apply this belief consistently. To his credit, he did apply his philosophy to his craft of music. In that sense, he was consistent. However, he eventually became a mushroom enthusiast. He would wander the forest and study mushrooms diligently to where he became a very well informed amateur mycologist. He had a large library just on mushrooms, and knew that many were deadly and poisonous. He is quoted as saying, “I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operations, I would die shortly. So I decided that I would not approach them in this way.” In other words, he could not apply what he believed to be the truth of the universe to the simple hobby of picking mushrooms. If he picked mushrooms randomly, he would be dead in a few days. With his life on the line, he practiced mycology as though there were absolutes, meaning is real, and intelligent care must be taken with each mushroom. This is just one more proof that that Cage’s atheistic assumptions were wrong. The fact that people booed his music because it was random, and the fact that he would not randomly pick mushrooms because his life was at stake both demonstrate the impossibility of living according to his assumptions. These were two screaming realities that should have caused him to reject his folly, and seek the real truth.
The painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) also decided to use the “mystical absolute” of chance to direct his painting. He is famous for laying canvases on the floor, and allowing paint to randomly drip on them. Because of the atheistic philosophical message that lied behind the ugly drip paintings, many saw this as brilliant. But at the end of the day, very few people’s eyes actually crave to stare at random drops of paint on a canvas. When artists buy into thought below the line of despair, this is the type of thing that happens. The artists of the Renaissance painted their worldview, which was fairly biblical. Painting, sculpture, and architecture were ways to communicate the biblical stories and truth to the masses. Well, these atheist artists that live below the line of despair choose to communicate their belief and story with these bizarre paintings that are sore on the eyes.
Perhaps it is noteworthy that we can stare for hours at paintings that reflect the biblical worldview. We can appreciate their beauty and we intrinsically appreciate the order and design behind them. Yet, when it comes to the “religious/philosophical” message of the atheist artists, we can only bare to look for a short time. We cannot appreciate disjointed chaotic expressions. Maybe this is simply one more reality screaming in the face of such artists, and yet it is a reality they choose to suppress. We are what the Bible says we are, and this is why we appreciate art and music consistent with the biblical worldview of order and design. If we were really products of chance, then we should be able to enjoy these “chance-based” artistic productions. Since we are made in the image of God, we cannot enjoy these things. Instead, we can only mourn for the tortured souls that put such chaos on canvas. Sadly, Jackson Pollock became entirely hopeless after he exhausted what could be done in art with his “chance” method. In 1956, he committed suicide. This is the frustration that comes from trying to consistently live as though the Bible is not true. Most forms of mysticism falsely help people avoid the despair, but Pollock was able to find no such relief.
In terms of literature, we can return to Henry Miller (1891-1980) of whom I wrote of before. He originally intended to use his gift of writing to destroying meaning in general, especially with regard to sex. So he wrote extremely dirty things meant to defile the mind and trivialize meaning where it mattered greatly. Yet, later in life, he changed his position. In fact, if one were not a careful reader, they might assume he became a Christian. He started using Christian words, biblical imagery, and he certainly became focused on spiritual matters. He even quoted Scripture. Like Salvador Dali, he saw spiritual significance in the dematerialization of matter into energy. He began to believe the ultimate reality was certainly spiritual, and that meaning does in fact exist. However, his faith was in pantheism. He believed the universe itself is the divine reality, and we are just part of it. Individual man does not matter, but we are just one small part of the whole. As I said in previous posts, this is not too far off from Eastern Hinduism. Francsis Schaeffer sums up Miller by writing, “He is doing the same as Salvador Dali and the new theologians—namely, using Christians symbols to give an illusion of meaning to an impersonal world which has no real place for man.”
Sadly, this mysticism did not spare theology. Just like dichotomy infiltrated theology after it captured the other disciplines, so too did mysticism. Next time I will focus on what Schaeffer calls the new theology.