Thursday, July 30, 2009

The One and The Many

One of the central philosophical questions for which only Christianity, of all the world's religions, offers a viable answer is the problem of The One and The Many.

There are various statements of this problem, but all of them involve the relation between essential oneness and essential diversity. In almost all philosophical systems, either the principle of The One takes precedence, or else the principle of The Many takes first priority.

Not only does Christianity "solve" this problem (to the extent that we can sanely say that a Mystery is ever "solved"), but it solves it by understanding this issue as being at the center of the identity of God Himself.

In the doctrine of the Trinity, there is diversity and differentiation (the Many) in the context of essential Oneness. So critical is this issue to the survival of the Christian faith, that tightly written statements have been formulated to protect either aspect (the One or the Many) from overshadowing the other. For the Many to take inordinate precedence would mean tri-theism, and for the One to do so would yield a radican monism. Nowhere is this balance so delicately and painstakingly spelled out than in the Athanasian Creed.

But I'm not here to talk about theology today. I want to write about musical bands. I'm in a band, and I like to listen to bands. It is my contention that the "band" is such a successful concept precisely because it, too, solves the problem of the One and the Many. Once, during a visit to Austin, Texas, I heard two bands play, and they illustrate the right and wrong ways for bands to be. First, I went down some steps into a large, dank beer hall, in which the worst blues band I've ever heard was playing. Each musician was competent at his instrument, but each thought himself a God. Instead, they were godawful. The goal of each musician seemed to be to drown out all of the others. You heard, essentially, four continual, competing solos. There was no harmony as these four "gods" waged sonic warfare against each other and their audience.

I did not stay there long. Shortly after this, I stumbled upon a streetcorner band. In this trio the instruments (vocal, guitar, and accordion) blended in a generous, gracious, playful, creative, complex and harmonious fashion. The Oneness was evident, though you could pick out the individual parts. It gave me a very similar feeling to the one I received listening to King's X (another trio) one evening at a place called Jezebel's, in Anaheim, California.

To watch a well-oiled and harmonious band of musicians (whatever the number of them) is to watch a little picture of the relation and unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. And these little pictures are written everywhere around us. Thanks be to God!