Peter C. Bouteneff

Published On


Page Range

pp. 41–54


  • English

Print Length

14 pages

2. Cross and Consolation

Music’s Empathic Spirituality

This chapter seeks to explore the assertion that “music is the most spiritual of the arts” by focusing on some aspects of its capacity to render and evoke the transcendent. It begins by pointing out the evident power of music more generally speaking, its effect on the human body and soul. It then attempts to make inroads into understanding the inevitably broad concept of ‘spirituality,’ with reference especially to music. And sometimes people equate music’s overall power with spiritual power. Among the factors that might quantify and particularize the spiritual power of music is the texts to which it is set, or out of which it comes, notably when the text is explicitly sacred, i.e., consciously dedicated to the praise and awe of transcendent reality, whether personal or not. But another, more affective marker is music’s capacity to reflect the range of human experience, from suffering to joy. Some of the music that most commonly evokes the descriptive of ‘spiritual’ is that which—with or without sacred text—does best at evoking human feeling, perhaps suffering even more than joy. A concluding case study of Arvo Pärt’s music helps illustrate this phenomenon. This chapter argues that one reason that listeners, whether secular or religious, find Pärt’s music spiritually evocative is its capacity to ‘listen to its listeners’ and somehow, mysteriously, to empathize with them in their grief, and indicate paths towards hope.


Peter C. Bouteneff

Professor of Systematic Theology and Kulik Professor of Sacred Arts at Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

Peter C. Bouteneff is Professor of Systematic Theology and Kulik Professor of Sacred Arts at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where he is also founding director of the Institute of Sacred Arts. His publications include Sweeter than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth (2006), Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence (2015), and How to Be a Sinner: Finding Yourself in the Language of Repentance (2018).