Musically Speaking of Ethics

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 What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter


[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.

Academically Adrift without a Rudder

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“Civilization is doomed unless the hearts and minds of man can be changed, and unless we can bring about a moral, intellectual and spiritual reformation.”

 

 – Robert Maynard Hutchins, Journal of Higher Education (1947)

    

    “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” This tit-for-tat describes the facile, unwritten social contracts that often develop between professors and college students. Does this tired compromise signal a stalemate in the struggle of college students and their teachers to eke out space for the demands on their time outside the classroom? If so, it is a sad surrender in the battle to foster academic and personal growth in higher education. George Kuh calls this campus stalemate a disengagement compact—a tacit agreement wherein professors say, “I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”[1] Like a prickly weed, this compact takes root wherever it can, and infiltrates our institutions, crowding out the covenant of learning that inspires the goals of our colleges and universities to nurture the personal and intellectual growth of the ascendant generation.

 In their new book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa tell the story of how the  disengagement compact is eroding the mission critical capacities of our colleges and universities to get their job done:

 [T]he future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively. Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.[2]

 Academically Adrift serves as the latest signal flare to be launched over the drifting boats of academia, calling attention to the distress in institutions of higher education and calling for help to get them back on course.

 How did we manage to lose our way, and why do we allow so many students and courses to run adrift? There are many explanations, to be sure: economic pressures upon students and schools, overworked faculty, overhyped expectations that college should be a rite of passage for everyone in our highly competitive society, and the trend toward extended adolescence in our culture. I would like to set those issues aside for a moment in order to pay attention here to one specific fundamental factor which might deliver the deepest blow of all: the drift away from moral education as the raison d’être for a university.

 As Arum and Roksa note rightly, there has been a poignant shift in organizational missions away from “the responsibility of providing academic and moral guidance to young adults in their charge.”[3] To chart a course of personal growth in the absence of moral guidance is like sailing a boat without a rudder; there isn’t much you can do but to drift along wherever the tide and the wind carry you, hoping idly that all turns out for the best. But hope is not a strategy.

 George Marsden warns that this drift away from the mandate of morality in higher education has placed our institutions “in the midst of a moral crisis.”[4] This crisis results from the loss of consensus in our society that there exists some shared commitment to a greater moral reality that transcends tolerance of diverse ideas as end-all-and-be-all of moral virtues. We might as well say that the greatest value in the design of a boat is that it be rudderless, because after all, it matters little which way the boat goes, so long as it does not tack into any prevailing winds of cultural pressure. With tolerance alone as our guiding star, and relativism as our chart, we seem to have slipped quietly and subtly into the habit of launching students adrift on rudderless boats, hoping that no one will notice so long as the passengers on deck are having fun, and the faculty can be spared enough time in their cabins below decks to pay attention to their own pursuits.

 Here we see how the seeds of the disengagement compact have taken root and sprouted in the fallow soil of moral crisis. There is a vicious cycle at work here.  When an institution of higher learning loses its ability to steer a course of moral direction and nurture the ethical growth of its students, disengagement will emerge as the winning strategy. Since there is no longer any consensus to provide a unifying direction of moral development to be shared among faculty and students, individual preference becomes the default choice of moral virtues. Relativism trumps calling as the notion that ascribes ultimate dignity to persons and institutions called according to a higher purpose.  

 In the absence of a higher purpose (or teleological end or eschatological consummation, take your pick), the winning strategy is to merely give the students, parents and employers what they want. That’s common sense. This explains why students emphasize “social learning” (i.e., “fun”) as a priority, over and above studying (i.e., “work”).[5] So long as the job market is ready to accept the product, and the students are having fun, the institution can stay afloat and no one is the worse off. This pragmatic strategy of appeasement avoids the issue of moral direction and reinforces the vicious cycle which generates the disengagement compact between faculty and students.

 If permitted to go on long enough, this vicious cycle erodes the inherent capacity of the institution to nurture the moral development and integrity of students in a manner that would prepare them to take responsibility for the ethical dilemmas that await them. Moral education is no longer seen to provide a defining purpose worthy for its own sake, and ethics courses are viewed as add-ons to vocational degrees. In deference to the prevailing winds of relativism, rudders are seen to be unnecessary on the ship of higher education. Like religion and altruism, moral education is taken to be an evolutionary spandrel, which is no longer central to survival of the individual or to the social purpose of institutions of higher education. Let a thousand rudderless dinghies launch therefore, because no one cares where the ship was going anyway.

 This is why I teach ethics in a school that believes in the spiritual reality of faith, calling and the moral significance of personal integrity. Certainly, we face the same financial challenges and cultural pressures as every other university, yet we have a reason and a hope that transcends those pressures and gives us a rudder by which to steer.

 
 
 
 


 

[1] George Kuh, “What We Are Learning About Student Engagement,” Change 35 (2003): 28.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.

[3] Academically Adrift, 13. Arum and Roksa cite the analysis of historian Julie Reuben to make this case; The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423-24.

[5] “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience.” This is the well documented conclusion of several studies; Academically Adrift, 59.

The Hole in our Gospel of Work

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(A Portrait of the Artist as a young John Galt)

   Who is John Galt? That’s the question which pulses through the heart of Atlas Shrugged, the massive novel by Ayn Rand that became my personal manifesto during college as I wrestled with the meaning of life, and sought to discover who I was as an adult. John Galt became my heroic alter ego—a rugged individualist who created new technology and built entrepreneurial companies to bring products to market, all for the sake of human achievement and progress.

In a sense, I became John Galt, claiming his ideals as my own. I patterned my life and goals on his. Atlas Shrugged gave me a ringing endorsement for my ambitions. Work became for me an avenue to achievement and success; I began to define myself by what I produced, as a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and businessman. I developed new products and co-founded a company, earned patents, raised venture capital, managed teams of people, and got my picture in the newspaper. It was a wild, fun ride.

But through it all, there lingered in the back of my mind a worry that something was missing in the world of John Galt. To place absolute value on productivity reduced life to a balance sheet which held no place for intangibles like compassion and sympathy. Love seemed not to enter into the equation. I worried about how to place a value upon a life, or upon the experiences, and even suffering, of people whose worth couldn’t be measured by the standards of economic efficiency. Yet, I remained convinced by the example of John Galt that selfishness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that selfishness (or if you prefer, self-concern, or love of self) can produce all kinds of good things for humankind. That’s how profit serves the common good. But to treat selfishness as an absolute good is an entirely different matter. The absolutism of John Galt seems to have a hole in it. Love and mercy don’t seem to be accounted for in the “gospel” according to John Galt (read, Ayn Rand).

This is precisely the dilemma confronted by the biblical author of Ecclesiastes. The expectation that we might find out the meaning of life through personal achievement and the things produced by working is a “vanity of vanities”; it’s like “chasing after the wind” [Eccl. 1:2, 14…]. The problem is that the meaning of life and the purpose of work are not to be found in the act of work itself, but rather in the relational context of our work.  “What do you do for a living?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “What (or Who) makes your work life-giving?”

I can identify with the writer of Ecclesiastes. I was in mid-life before I finally discovered the only hope to enjoy meaningful work without “chasing after the wind”. The only answer I’ve ever found to that dilemma is to live in relationship with the creator God who loves you and me, and who designed us for work—the God who is, the God who is Love, the God we know in and through Christ Jesus.

When our work is celebrated as an expression of who God made us to be, it has meaning. When work serves God’s love for ourselves, for our neighbors and for all creation, it is life-giving, and takes on eternal value. The meaning lies in the relationships which make work valuable. Work has meaning when we see it as part of the story God is telling through us. Living by faith is the source of joy in our work. We don’t find our meaning by going to work, but rather, we bring the meaning of work with us when we enter into it in faith. In faith we discover that work is joyful, because its ultimate value exists in relationship. Here is the impact of the Gospel upon our work—our true, life-giving identity is found not in our job, but in Christ who makes our job meaningful. This is our secret identity as workers—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col. 1:27; 3:3,4]—which we bring to work and which redeems our work to the glory of God. The only way to lead a life which integrates purposeful work, ambition and love, is to live by faith. To discover our secret identity in Christ is to find the path to integrate our faith and work; this is where  we will find the Gospel at work.

Humus Sapiens, Part IV

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Ascension Sunday, 2009

What gives meaning? Order.

What gives order? Direction.

What gives direction? Purpose.

What gives purpose?  Wrong Question.

     Who gives purpose.

 egan_melissa-stargazing

In our previous essay, we looked at the human capacity to discern order.  Order is in the eye of the beholder, however.  Two people can look at the same stars and see different orders.  One might see the outline of a bear in a constellation.  Another might see a big dipper.  Similarly one person might see a star as a massive, photon-spewing ball of atomic nuclei held together by gravitational force.  Another might see that same massive photon-spewing ball within the larger context of a universe created by the Living God.  The order is not within the arrangement of particles themselves, but rather the order is in the meaning discerned by the observer.

This is why we say that religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  There is direction to it.  There is purpose.  And the purpose lies outside the object.  Meaning will always transcend the particles and the events of their interactions.  Meaning requires a greater context in which to discern purpose.  That is the realm of religion-the transcendent realm, the realm beyond the meaningless collision of particles. 

This is the realm in which events have meaning because they are contingent upon a purpose which lends order to what would otherwise be purposeless and random.  And as we peel the next layer of the onion, and seek the source of purpose, we ask where purpose comes from.  Purpose comes from persons.  A persons lives, creates and designs with intent.  If purpose could exist in an impersonal something, a ‘what’, then that ‘what’ would not transcend itself.  It would be without intent or the capacity to design & create.  That’s why “what gives purpose?” is the wrong question.  The right question is “Who?”

That ‘who’ is either me, or us, or God, or all three.  If it’s just you and me, and if we are part of the ‘what’ of creation-random fluctuations in space-time-then that’s not much of a purpose.  Here we see why there is a great divide between theological and non-theological interpretation of the orders within creation.  Theological interpretation can and must discern order in creation, precisely because the creation exists within the context of the living God.  Indeed, this theological interpretation looks like a closed circle of thought to those who stand outside it, looking in. But it is not a closed-minded circle of knowledge.  To the contrary, it is the only circle which can logically and rationally claim to possess knowledge of the meaning of it all, even though that meaning remains shrouded in mystery and only partially discernable.  To stand outside the theological circle, looking in, is not merely a stance which finds no hope in theology.  Even worse, it is to adopt a stance that finds no hope in any discernable purpose, from any source.  Purpose is to be found in the ‘who?’ not the ‘what?’ of creation, and this is the realm of the theological circle-to wrestle with the ‘who?’ question.

Karl Barth reminds us of this distinction which belongs to the theological circle of knowledge-

The distinction between this order and what is customarily called “order of creation” elsewhere is clear and irreconcilable. To be aware of this order we do not leave the closed circle of theological knowledge. We do not in some way read off this order where we just think we find it. We do not understand it at all as an order which can be discovered by us, but as one which has itself sought us out in the grace of God in Jesus Christ revealed in His Word, disclosing itself to us as such where we for our part could neither perceive nor find it. We not merely suppose it; we see and know it. We do so in the secret of revelation and faith, but in this way really and authoritatively.[1]

When the meaning of creation is revealed to us, we see and know.               When our eyes see that which by grace is revealed by the one who beholds us,  then we have a reason to say, “seeing is believing.”


[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics  III/4, 45.

Further reflecting on the difference between the “corridors of faith” depicted by William James and C. S. Lewis (see my “Hall Pass”, 17 September 2008), I wonder what life would be like in the “rooms” leading off the halls of James’s and Lewis’s imaginations. What would be their distinctive marks of character?  Would I enjoy living there?  Or would they be “nice places to visit, but not to live?”

At first glance, we notice that both James and Lewis acknowledge wide variation in the rooms leading off their corridors.  As James said, it matters not what takes place in the rooms, whether they be places for atheism or prayer or chemistry or metaphysics.  And Lewis’s hall similarly leads into very different sorts of rooms, where language, aesthetics, norms and customs vary widely.  Nonetheless, the rooms of each corridor do share common traits, and we must look to what characteristics they hold in common if we are to understand the significance of either James’s mere ‘pragmatism’ or Lewis’s mere Christianity. We must peer into the rooms and discern their quality of life, for it is in the rooms that life is lived; it is in the rooms that the fruit of our labors is produced and harvested.

 Perhaps the most obvious difference between James’s and Lewis’s depictions is that James’s rooms are private rooms, peopled by individuals pursuing their independent sciences, philosophies and worldviews.  Lewis’s rooms, however, house communities of people sharing life.

James explicitly describes his “rooms” of pragmatism in terms of individual pursuits-“In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties…”, and so on.  And this makes perfect sense, given that the individual pursuits matter not.  Indeed one person’s pragmatic pursuits and beliefs must not hold sway over any other person’s pursuits or beliefs, for that would open the door to dogma and dogmatic teaching.  James’s corridor of pragmatism can thus lead to any pursuit, any worldview, so long as it “works”, so long as it suits the individual pursuing it.  James’s corridor thus is perfectly suited to the postmodern mantra of “whatever works for you.” Relativism rules, because relativism is the antidote to noxious dogma. In this regard James truly was ahead of his time, for his “Whatever!” trumps “credo.”

 Lewis, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that life takes place in community.  The “rooms” in his metaphor are all communities of faith. There is no room for solitary confinement.  Much as people can and do disagree in his rooms, even on important matters of faith and dogma, people will also be held accountable to their community and to their shared faith, and even in an important sense people in each room are accountable to the others in all the other rooms.

Herein lies a sharp challenge for faith: How can a faith community tolerate internal disagreements over dogma, let alone find a way to get along with the secular community around them?  Such disagreements are decidedly impractical, are they not?  The Christian life therefore stands as antithesis to pragmatism.  It is patently impractical, non-pragmatic, and even non-conformist, by the standards of James’s ‘mere pragmatism.’[1]  No wonder James held such antipathy toward Christianity! Yet, this will be a defining mark of Christian faith, if Christianity is true-communities of faith will live out their beliefs by honoring God above all, even above dogma.  And they will find a way to do it that invites others in to share their fellowship; in Lewis’s metaphor, people will perennially invite outsiders into their particular “rooms” of community and faith.

The Christian life therefore presents the world with something strange-a community of belief that holds something as more important than, shall we say, more sacred even, than their own ability to articulate a shared dogma.   This will be the defining mark of Christian faith, over and against pragmatism, and it can only be expressed in the form of witness among a worshiping community.  Barth rightly explains why Christian belief is inseparable from life lived as a witness to belief-

Because the election of Jesus Christ is the truth, then the difference of those who are chosen in Him (their calling) is the witness to the truth besides which there is no other. There and there alone the truth is testified-there and there alone it finds expression…[2]

And what will this witness look like?  How will this nonconformist, zealous Christian life appear to others who are both inside and outside the faith community?  Strange?  Yes, but strangely human:

It is thus most striking that he [a Christian] presents himself to other men of the world as a nonconformist, as one who is zealous for God’s honor, as a witness to what he, who is also a man of the world, has to advocate to others of his kind.  He does this by offering to them the image of a strangely human person. [3]

 

 


[1] Karl Barth elaborates on this impractical and non-conformist character in The Christian Life: “Hence he can have not practical use for enterprises that still compete with the knowledge of God in the world”, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 203.

[2] Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church Dogmatics, II/2 (345).

[3] Barth, The Christian Life, (Eerdmans, 1981; T&T Clark, 2004) p. 204.