A musicologist’s perspective on the power of speculative theology

09.14.2020 | The Maxwell Institute

Hannah CJ McLaughlin is a Doctoral student in Musicology at Princeton University, where she studies late pieces by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Hannah loves choral singing and new music: the wackier, the better. This post is part of a series of reflections about the 2019 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar. See the rest here.

I noticed several themes emerge as the most recent Latter-day Saint Theological Seminar unfolded. Many of them, of course, had to do with the scriptural topic at hand. As we studied Doctrine and Covenants 25, we made countless discoveries about Emma Smith, the power of revelation, the fluid nature of scripture, the complex issue of gender within the early Church. . . the list goes on and on.

But one of the strongest undercurrents of the Seminar had less to do with D&C 25 itself, and more to do with the whole enterprise of holding such an event in the first place. This was, after all, a “Theology Seminar,” where we were invited to “think like theologians.” But what exactly did that mean? Even if I did know what it meant, how could it help me, a music historian?

My transformation began on day one, the evening we arrived. Once the eight of us convened at Union Theological Seminary, Joseph Spencer introduced the notion of speculative theology. This form of theology, he explained, was not a traditional branch of scriptural scholarship, but rather an experimental mode of doctrinal study. Theology becomes speculative, Spencer argued, when it moves beyond a scripture’s descriptive and normative elements and broaches its emergent potential. Instead of dealing with how past and present communities derive meaning from sacred verse, speculative theology seeks new meanings, while also contemplating the emergent communities for which those new meanings might apply. Drawing from the word’s Latin root speculat, “to observe from a vantage point,” speculative theology is the process of finding or creating new and unfamiliar vantage points from which we can observe spiritual truth. It is finding the not-here and the not-yet of theological texts.

This approach threw me for a loop. The ensuing weeks brought challenge after challenge as I attempted to practice this speculative approach. As the days passed, I wrestled with Latter-day Saint scripture in ways I never had before. Though often viewed reductively as “the music chapter” or “the Emma Smith chapter,” D&C 25 is, in truth, a complex theological jewel-case. Grasping the nuances of this section was a task well beyond the scope of historical musicology. I often experienced a sort of “rewarding frustration,” concluding at one point that this Seminar was indeed a learning opportunity—one in which I learned that I was, in fact, a musicologist and not a theologian.

But again: What exactly is a theologian, anyway? Better yet, what is a musicologist? I, for one, always saw musicology from a historical angle.  I spend much of my days sifting through archives, occupying my time less with “the music itself” and more with the letters, articles, dates, and other ephemera surrounding a musical work which place it within a larger cultural context. I thus found myself more engaged with the history of “Mormon hymnody” than I was with its theological justification.  At least at first.

But there is another side of musicology, one with which I rarely identify: music theory. This is the study of the syntactical and formal compositional structures within a piece music. It deals with what goes on in the “black-and-white” of a score: melodic contours, rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions, etc. Unlike historical musicology, music theory bypasses the non-musical contexts surrounding a work, seeking truth from within “the music itself.” Though they are often placed in conflict with each other, both disciplines bring valuable perspectives.

One of music theory’s unique benefits is how it explores the possibilities within music. While history tends to focus on what music has done, theory anticipates what music can do, be it now, then, someday, or perhaps only ever within the imagination. Thus, music theory can also be speculative, inhabiting the not-here and the not-yet of music. Once I realized this, the “way in” to speculative theology opened up to me.

I find now that theology and music scholarship in fact have much in common. Both seek to derive truth from a text. Both deal with interpretation and perception. Both must grapple with historical placement. Yet both also have the potential to crack the positivist, totalizing shell of history to discover new truths and generate new emergent meanings. This kind of scholarly inquiry carries great power, as our papers will hopefully demonstrate. This lesson continues to benefit me as I continue to seek truth through music.

Long live speculative scholarship, in all its forms!