Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why the Title "Modalities"?

For me the word modalities first suggests musical modes—Lydian, flamenco, blues, and countless others. Modes add zest to our music, so often served up in plain major or minor. I feel the need for more zest especially in church music. Thank goodness for jazz. I wish that music across our culture would more generously embrace tonal modalities.

For psychologists modalities sometimes refers to the pathways of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching that provide our perceptions. William Wordsworth lamented his society's "outrageous thirst after degrading stimulation." I wish that we might scale back our society's entertainments to levels of stimulation less outrageous, by wholehearted support of entertainment more commensurate with our miraculous pathways of perception.

For philosophers modalities sometimes means the logical alternatives of possibility and impossibility, necessity and contingency. I wish that I could follow their arguments.

Yet on the shelf I reserve for books that have fundamentally shaped my life, one philosopher has a privileged place. Baruch Spinoza in his Ethics speaks of all things in the universe as modalities of God. All individual things, including persons, are "modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner...an infinite number of things in infinite ways." For Spinoza, God is all and God is infinite.

Spinoza echoes portions of the book that stands at the head of my special shelf, the Bible:

      We could say more [about God] but could never say enough;
          let the final word be: He is the all. (Ecclesiasticus 43:27)

      How weighty to me are your thoughts O God!
          How vast is the sum of them!
      I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
          I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:18)

Shelved next to my copy of Spinoza is The Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards. I remember the moment of astonishment during my graduate-school years when I first came across Edwards' kaleidoscopic imagery of God as all and infinite:
God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being, but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.
With Edwards, in my own less rapturous way, I also sense God as all and infinite. With Spinoza I believe that all things are modalities of God in infinite variety, and all united, profoundly and ineluctably.

All this opens a pretty wide range of possible topics for this Modalities blog: everything. We'll focus on subjects in the spectrum from favorite music to sacred cosmos. Thanks for looking in.