St Andrew's X: The ultimate factor of life

St Andrew's X

Sitting in the coffee shop this morning while catching up with a friend who’s been out of town, the lilting chorus of “Hallelujah!” began raining from the ceiling-mounted speakers, spilling into my consciousness, and interrupting our conversation, as the word shone through the high-decibel din of the noisy university crowd.  I hadn’t heard a single other thing played on the radio the whole time my friend and I sat there with our cappuccino and hot chocolate.  But that word snapped me to attention.  I stopped and said, “Listen!”  How does this softly sung word have such power to dominate the din?

Of course one answer is, “It’s the X-Factor”.  This national icon of British TV staged Leonard Cohen’s song as the grand finale, and it’s become the instant mega-hit of Christmas. It was about the fifth time I’ve heard that song in public over the past two days.  But of course there’s more to it than that.  Cohen himself answers, “It’s got a good chorus.”[1]  But of course there’s more to it than that, too. 

How is it that this nation which in the main treats biblical faith as a bygone, having tossed it aside like a child’s outgrown clothing, enjoys the chorus of Hallelujah’s so much?  My friend pointed out that it’s considered a “secular” song.  Well, he has a point there.  The version sung on X-Factor left out some of the more religious biblical verses.  But it also included some.  And the chorus of course, meaning “Praise God!” is the only part that most people know by heart.  Have they read Cohen’s lyrics?  It’s about King David and other biblical heroes, and although there are well over 100 different recorded versions in play, Cohen himself has closed it with this verse:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

That’s nothing less than amazing Grace: redemption and praise to the Lord, in spite of our failures in life.

And so, I know there is something more to it.  Something more than X-Factor hustling, something more than air time, something more than secularization can achieve.  That one-word chorus, sung over and over again, is something more.  It’s a word that sums up a whole life’s hope.  It’s word that can sum up the human hunger for hope in a world of hurt.  A word that finds beauty in life starved for worship.  A word that reminds us that every human being was created to praise God.  No matter which version of the song’s verses is sung, “Hallelujah” sums it all up.  Like Cohen says, “It’s got a good chorus.” 

 


[1] Neil McCormick, “Hallelujah: the Perfect Christmas song”, Telegraph, 17 December 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3814916/Hallelujah–the-perfect-Christmas-song.html

Please permit me a flight of fancy if you will, for I would like to indulge in a moment of preposterous anachronistic dialog.  You see, I should like to stand up and speak in defense of poor Euthyphro.  Euthyphro, you may recall, was the noble young Athenian whom Socrates encountered outside the court of justice. Being himself on trial, and old enough to be Euthyphro’s father, Socrates is rightly shocked by Euthyphro’s determination to bring down the heavy hand of judgment upon his own father, for having murdered a serf.  The young man confidently claims to be acting in all piety, showing no mercy on his father.  In Plato’s telling of the dialog Socrates makes a mince pie of Euthyphro’s self-righteous claim to know right from wrong with “exact knowledge of all such matters.” [1]  Euthyphro bases his claim on perfect knowledge and perfect righteousness on his understanding of piety as “that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.”  At this point Socrates proceeds to finely grate Euthyphro’s piety into a pile of empty phrases.  Deftly deploying his famed ‘Socratic method’, he points out the logical flaws in Euthyphro’s position, mired as it is in the incoherent idea that perfect piety can be found in the contradictory wills of the pantheon of Greek gods.  Socrates frames the decisive question thus-

 “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”

 Of course this is the age-old question of whether divine command theory can carry any water as a viable theory of moral philosophy.[2]  I have to say, I find the contemporary philosophical treatments of this question rather dry reading, compared to the following long-lost scrap of anachronistic, ancient-future dialog, which I have just discovered lurking in the flickering synapses of my imagination.  Plato’s publishers no doubt would have considered such stuff sacrilegious, and cut it out, but here for the first time we can read the rest of the story…

SOCRATES: Well it seems justice will sadly elude me once again, for poor Euthyphro cannot seem to answer the dilemmas inherent in my question, ‘whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’

 EUTHYPHRO’S ADVOCATE [played by me]: Very good, Socrates; you have given me the sort of question which I wanted.  But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

 SOCRATES: Of course.

 EA: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. Piety must be defined in terms of two extreme opposites defined within arguments forbidding the excluded middle?  Was not that said?

 SOCRATES: It was.  Well,…  um, I think.

 EA: Good heavens, Socrates! And is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in prescribing the epistemic ground rules of morality upon which the gods are permitted to play for the prize of your pleasure?

SOCRATES: The best of Socrates, and that which distinguishes him, Honorable Advocate, from other men, is his exact knowledge and privilege in all such matters. What good could I possibly have been to my student Plato without such assured speech?

 EA: Indeed, many will be sure to listen to such a silver tongue as your able pupil Plato has given you.  There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: ‘Well, and what if Socrates does prove to me that all the gods regarded the epistemic ground rules to be just as he has stated them?  What if he really does have privileged knowledge of the nature of piety and impiety?’  Such notion should give me pause.

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Yet, as I recall you saying just a moment ago, did you not admonish dear Euthyphro that “Any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers.” Do you not agree that you said this?

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Yes, and did you not also speak truly in saying, “That which is loved is in some state either of becoming or suffering?”

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: And so, it is true, as you said, that “the state of being loved follows the act of being loved, and not the act the state”?  Is that right?

 SOCRATES: True.

 EA: Then does your argument necessarily rest on the presumption that the act of loving, and the existence of the thing which is loved, belong to two distinct categories, each definable apart from the action or essence of the other?

 SOCRATES: Certainly.

 EA: Dear Socrates, have the gods revealed that presumption to you?

 SOCRATES: Certainly not. Why should I entrust them with such duty?

 EA: Indeed.  And yet, what if the gods were not susceptible to inconsolable disagreements, and mired in analogies of human reason, but rather were united in one being even while maintaining their healthy discourse, yet in a manner which bespoke meaning into the terms of discussion, even creating the terms of discussion, we might say, in a fashion which simultaneously conferred and admired with spontaneous affection the presence of each other?  And what if we could also be so loved, even as they loved each other?

 SOCRATES: That indeed is an idea which no human myth has ever conspired to propagate into the realm of logic and jurisprudence.  Why in such a case, we should have to call all our quarreling gods a sacrilegious cabal and turn instead to worship a wholly other kind of god in spirit and in truth.

 EA: Quite.  And how might you express the nature of such a God?

 SOCRATES: I really do not know, dear Advocate, how to express it. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us. [Sighs.]

 EA: Would that your silver tongue could further expound in this vein, for you are quickening my spirit and anticipation of something quite profound.  What say you?

 …silence…

 EA: oh, and Socrates, one other notion came into my mind during your silence just now…  Might not the existence of such a God render the whole notion of the excluded middle in such matters wholly irrelevant to God’s very being?

Third Sunday of Advent


 [1] Plato, Euthyphro, in Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1937.  Also: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642.txt

 [2] William J. Wainwright, Religion and Morality (Hants, England: Ashgate, 2005). See especially chapter 5.