We eat because we are hungry; we sleep because we are tired. But there are many other things we do without a clear sense of why we do them. Each year I teach a course on theological aesthetics, and one of the questions I pose at the beginning of the semester is, "Why do human beings sing?"
Many answers are given: We sing to mark important occasions, to pass time while working, to simply enjoy ourselves. We could also give rationales based in history, sociology, psychology, or biology. But my students answer with a fair degree of unanimity. "We sing," they say, "to express how we feel."
In the fourth century, the church father Athanasius (293–376) articulated a different understanding of singing. It includes self-expression, but Athanasius believed singing is centrally a spiritual discipline—an important practice in Christian spiritual formation, and a means of growing in the life of faith.
In a letter to his friend Marcellinus, Athanasius enthusiastically commends the Book of Psalms and provides guidance for reading the Psalms devotionally. Of course, Athanasius recognized that each portion of Scripture is valuable and makes its own contribution to the life of faith. The Book of Psalms, however, has a unique place in Christian devotions, something that was true in Athanasius' time and remained so across centuries of monastic practice and worship. Athanasius suggests that the Psalms are so spiritually significant precisely because they are not simply read or spoken but sung. But why is singing valuable?
The Art of Imitation
For most of my students, singing is a means of expression—a way of drawing out what is in us (the ex in expression). Athanasius very nearly ...1