There are two interpretations of art in Plato:
1. Art is a copy of nature which is an imperfect copy of eternal form, ergo, art is dubious; it is likely to lead us away from the ideal. Art is, on this view, even more of an illusion than the existing world from which it is taken. The essential world is immaterial, but real. From this Platonic dichotomy comes the existentialists’ problem of existence versus essence.
2. Rather than being an imperfect copy of nature, which, by Plato’s definition, is inferior to the essential realm of pure form, art is said to be divinely inspired and thus a purer vision of reality than empirical knowledge.
Greek metaphysics was pervasive in the ancient near east. In the Bible there is evidence of conflict between Hellenic and Hebrew thought. Jesus often seems to be caught between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who were the liberals and the conservatives of his time. The Sadducees were accommodating to cultural trends, which among the intelligentsia tended to be Hellenic. The Pharisees maintained resistance to Greek influence. But there was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. Philo’s works are an attempt at synthesis of Greek metaphysics and Hebrew thought.
By Augustine’s era, especially around Alexandria in Egypt, a philosophy called NeoPlationism was among the prevailing ideologies. The core of this philosophy is a repudiation of the material world. Two opposed corollaries were deduced from the NeoPlatonic idea that the material world is inferior to the spiritual realm:
1. Acetic renunciation of the world and the flesh.
2. Libertine indulgence of the flesh.
Plotinus, the most notable exponent of NeoPlatonism, and one of Augustine's teachers, was an acetic of the former type, unkempt and unwashed. There have been and are many Gnostic sects, and they tend to be NeoPlatonic. As opposed to moden agnostics who claim not to be able to know anything about God, the ancient gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge of the eternal transcendent reality. Some of them despised the world and the flesh. Others indulged in sexual libertinism in the belief that it didn’t matter if one abused the flesh, since it is only transitory.
All of this muddled conceptual theology was and is a challenge to a clear understanding of the Christian idea of the Incarnation of God in human flesh. The Gospels add to the dilemma when they quote Jesus in eschatological sayings about taking up the cross and following him even to the detriment of one’s safety and familial obligations. For example, he says, If any man would come after me, he must hate his mother and father and even his own life.
The Incarnation of God in human flesh resolves some problems associated with the Platonic and NeoPlatonic dualism between the existing world and an eternal transcendent realm. During the Christological controversies of the third and fourth centuries many attempts were made to conceptualize the Incarnation and the Trinity. After the passage of many centuries, Kierkegaard argued that it is impossible to conceive an eternal transcendent God becoming existential, material, and time bound. Existence preceeds essence for existing individuals, so we can only make a leap of faith. There is much more in Kierkegaard about the scandal of God as man that leads to offense or the liberation of faith.
How does this help us deal with the musical controversies in our churches?
1. It should elevate the value of art in worship. If God can be incarnate in human flesh, the sensory medium of art is not inferior to the rational exposition of doctrine.
2. It should negate the idea that it is irrelevant how we worship. In many respects, the medium of our worship is the message.
3. It should increase our regard for art that has proved its worth by enduring through many centuries. Culture is cumulative. Excellence is built on many stages of discovery and adaptation.
4. It should increase the value of emotion, because the abstract presentation of doctrine is not by virtue of its rational format superior to human experience.
5. It should encourage freedom and not rigid conformity to idealized form.
6. It should increase our regard for the human body and affirm beauty.
7. It should promote diversity of understanding of beauty without making all things relative to current fashion.
8. It should encourage love of life, the created world, and other people.
9. It should affirm our individual aspirations and uncontaminated desire.
10. It should make enlightened self expression acceptable to God. Self denial in this interpretation is denial of the destructive and sinful desires to which we are prone. Being all we can be is the best way to serve God and inspire others.
See also: http://church-alienation.blogspot.com/2005/04/all-shook-up-music-passion-and.html