Enter the Humans – 2

Ask the Beasts Schubert sonata
The wild forces of nature, created within us, have the power to set us free…

Early in chapter 9  – ‘Enter the Humans’ Elizabeth Johnson writes,

Cave art from 35,000-15,000 years ago shows that the creative human spirit was already formed, giving our species self-consciousness, language, and fluidity of behavior. Our consciousness was already rich with self-reflective, symbolic, and linguistic abilities.

With our imaginations we can dissect and reassemble a vocabulary of tangible symbols; with our languages we can pass ideas from one mind to another; and through our cultures we pass ideas and inventions from one generation to the next. (summarizing Ask the Beasts, pages 236-240)

As Johnson approaches the end of Ask the Beasts, she argues that the fate of our world depends on our ability to develop a common vocabulary – a language that can help us pass facts, ideas, and values from one mind to another – for the sake of the earth itself.

Most of us grew up in an era when Catholics still could not share ideas with Protestants, when Christians still refused to be in dialogue with Jews. Our own generation was born around World War II – which included the Holocaust, which (defined very simply) sought to eliminate those human beings whose ideas and heritage were different from the majority.

Now, the differences between Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, seem almost minor. Now, it is not just varieties of the human species that are endangered, but every species and the planet we all live on. There is a great need for common action, but we still are learning how to talk with each other.

For a common cause,

Can scientists find a language to help them communicate with non-scientists?

It seems clear that many scientists today are working diligently to communicate their discoveries and theories to non-scientists.

Can believers find a language that includes non-believers in the discussion?

It also seems clear that many believers are still unwilling to communicate with believers from other traditions – let alone non-believers. 

Our ongoing discussions of Ask the Beasts have led us to explore the variety of ‘languages’ we humans use to describe the world we live in – the languages of science, of theology, of poetry, of art.  This Thursday our alternate ‘language’ will not be poetry or art, but music.

Like all languages, music has distinct vocabularies and has developed out of very different cultural traditions – but the language of music has the potential to open every human spirit to new ideas and deeper appreciation for the world we all live in.

Thursday we’ll be hearing a movement from one of Franz Schubert’s sonatas.  In ‘Looking for Schubert’ John Lienhard writes that Schubert tells us that

“The wild forces of nature, created within us, have the power to set us free.”

We hope ‘Looking for Schubert’ will whet your appetite for more Schubert.


by John H. Lienhard

On Tuesday, I read a New York Times review of a Symposium on Schubert The Man: Myth vs. Reality. Now, two days later, I’ve met a very different Schubert. I’ve just heard the German lieder singer, Michael Schopper, sing the Schwanengesang cycle.

The New York Symposium was a post-modern dissection of Schubert. It ended with a two-hour analysis of Schubert’s sexual preferences. Was he gay or straight? One participant found a homosexual agenda in his Unfinished Symphony. Another plumbed the profundity of his heroic suffering and isolation.

Now I’ve met Schubert himself and all that stuff has washed away. For two hours Schubert has added his huge musical dimension to the works of six German Romantic poets. For two hours he’s told us what we really need to know.

The poems dealt with themes of unrequited love and human pain. That’s what German Romantic poets liked to talk about, but Schubert has gone in a different direction. Something else entirely rose out of the music and touched me tonight.

This was the age when great iron machines rose up over Europe. It was an age in which we rebuilt nature. That’s what the Romantic mind was all about. The Romantics said that nature rises within us. For the Romantic poet, and for Schubert, nature was expanded. Waterfalls were higher, darkness more terrifying, light brighter, thunder louder. Forests were deeper and more mysterious in our minds than in the real world.

Tonight I met nature, far larger than life. Schubert created a world of murm’ring brooks and moaning winds. I could smell the forest humus. I could feel leaves crunch under my feet.

Science and technology responded to the Romantics with the grandest creative upwelling the world has ever seen. Already the Romantic vision of nature had started to include locomotives and the boiling smoke of collieries. Already that creative vision had given us both Frankenstein and Goethe’s Faust.

Up on the stage, singer, poet, and Schubert all tell us that the wild forces of nature, created within us, have the power to set us free. Listen to the words:

. . . Stilled by the breath of the spirit.
We feel the creative breath
Pervade our souls.
The rushing of the wind, God’s own wings,
Deep in the dark night of the forest;
Free from all restraints
The power of thought soars; . . .

Schubert answers his dissectors with powerful force. Look inside your own minds, he says. Look upon your own nature. For that’s where you’ll find the truth. That is where you shall recreate the earth.

from Engines of Our Ingenuity: Looking for Schubert
by John Lienhard, University of Houston

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