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Ordinary Time 2017

11 May 2017
Aquinas, Thomas - on electronic organs, part 1

For too long we have let the electronic organ manufacturers set the tone and substance of this conversation ("It's less expensive!" "It sounds just as good!" "Not even organists can tell the difference!" "The technology will amaze you!"). The substance of the conversation really revolves around a sales pitch rather than theological considerations.

But I think there has to be something more to this, especially when it comes to acquiring an instrument for a church. What about theology? What is our theology of art, architecture, and beauty in the church? Are electronic organs truly beautiful?


Lately I've really been enjoying a podcast called The Liturgy Guys, a podcast on liturgy from a Roman Catholic perspective from the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois.

I went back to re-listen to Episode 25: "Beauty and the Feast, Part 1" because I thought it might be able to inform our thinking on electronic organs.

This episode offers an overview of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas's theology of beauty.

Beauty, according to Aquinas, has three constituent parts: integritas, consonantia, and claritas.

In part 1 of this essay I would like to address the first element: integritas

From the Liturgy Guys podcast:

A beautiful thing reveals what it is, and a thing can't reveal what it is if it doesn't have all the things it's supposed to have. I mean, imagine: it's the first time you've ever seen a car and there are no wheels on it. You haven't seen the fullness of "car" because wheels are a component element of "car".

…Anything without all of its stuff, all of its parts, is not revealing itself to you. That's what Thomas calls integritas or "integrity" – wholeness.

…A thing has to have everything it has to have in order to reveal what it is.

So, according to the Thomasian definition of integritas, are electronic organs beautiful? Do they have integritas?

An electronic organ cannot reveal what it is because it is pretending to be something that it's not.

In my essay about electronic organs last week I chose the word integrity to draw attention to what I see as the fundamental problem with these instruments; according to Aquinas's definition of integritas electronic organs are not whole.

Even though electronic organs attempt to mimic the sounds of pipes, they lack pipes themselves. An electronic organ doesn't "have all the things it's supposed to have". It doesn't have all of its parts. It cannot reveal what it is because it is pretending to be something that it's not.


Now, before you and Thomas Aquinas accuse me of being a Luddite, or aloof, or arrogant, or impractical (all accusations I probably deserve), let's acknowledge the reality that many churches already own and use electronic instruments in their worship. And others are considering purchasing them.

And furthermore, let me state unequivocally that this line of amateur theological inquiry is not meant to be a personal attack on those who preside over electronic organs. The instrument doesn't make the musician.

I believe we are all – together – seeking to "perfect the praises offered by your people on earth," as the famous prayer on page 819 of the BCP puts it.

God can be praised with whatever we have at hand.

But in spite of this, I think it is high time to take a bold, principled stand in defense of beauty in the liturgy, including the preference for real pipe organs.

In her recent essay on the topic of electronic organs Mary Davenport Davis asks,

"What if that's what God wants from us in this generation: to choose what is ugly and real over what is beautiful and fake? (I don't believe that's actually the choice, most of the time; I trust the ingenuity and wisdom of the church musicians in my life to create beauty from whatever God gives us.)"

Ultimately Mary comes down on the side of the real – but could something be "ugly and real"?

My mind flashes once again to that archetypal 1999 film of the Information Age, The Matrix. After taking the red pill and seeing the "real world", the cinematography and the costumes are drab, dull, gray, dirty. But the point here is that the "real world" is devoid of illusion. The illusion provided by "the Matrix" is certainly attractive, but part of its purpose is to mask the illusion itself (it is the "beautiful and fake"). And the arrival into that "real world" with all of its "realness" is something to be celebrated.

From the Liturgy Guys podcast again: "…Properly speaking, there's no such thing as ugly. There's beautiful and there's less beautiful. The only ugly thing is non-being."

When we choose the fantasy provided by the electronic organ, we choose just that: a fantasy. An illusion.

The electronic organ, then, cannot be ugly. We are talking about it, and it is, therefore it must be. And we have to admit that digital technology hooked up to loudspeakers does still deal with the laws of physics of this created sphere. But given that the electronic organ does not have integritas in the Thomasian sense it is lacking in beauty. It is something less beautiful.

When we choose the real, however, we choose the beautiful.

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