Is There Bluegrass in Heaven?
Ricky Skaggs and Process Theology
by Jay McDaniel
Bluegrass, Mountain, and Country Music
Is there Bluegrass in Heaven?
Yes, there is bluegrass music in heaven. There are banjos, too. The banjos come all the way from West Africa, where they originated.
Do you doubt me? Let the three boys from New Jersey -- Jonny, Robbie and Tommy Mizzon -- give us a taste of heavenly hopes. I suspect that, for them, bluegrass is what heaven sounds like.
Or at least part of what heaven tastes like. Yes, there are other kinds of music, too. For my part, I am hoping for a little Japanese flute music and John Coltrane. My neighbor wants Ravi Shankar and Samba music. My cats are pretty sure there's a lot of constant purring. In the house of heaven there are many concerts, each tailored to the sounds needed by the ears at hand.
At least this is one way of understanding the idea of God's consequent nature in process theology. It's an ongoing chorus in which all sounds are heard by One in whom all sounds dwell, woven into a harmony for collective foot-tapping.
Ricky Skaggs and Bluegrass Spirituality
In the United States, one of the best and most influential bluegrass musicians is Ricky Skaggs. He plays the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and, of course, the banjo. He offers some ideas for us to consider about bluegrass and spirituality.
As you learn from the interview above, Ricky is a sincere, humble, compassionate evangelical Christian.
He is not naive about the world around us and the worlds within us. "There is an evil at work all the time." This evil takes the form of dead babies and, for some, constant sorrow. There is no need to hide from the dark side of life. Crucifixions are real, and they occur all the time, on a daily basis, all over the world. Go to Syria, go to India, go to Arizona, go to Connecticut.
Sometimes the banjo can help us hear the moaning. Listen to the mountain music of Abigail Washburn in the Tiny Desk concert at the bottom. Sometimes we seek, but cannot quite find the Sea of Refuge, where everyone is protected. Sometimes paradise seems lost, not found. The banjo can help us lament, too.
But Ricky Skaggs thinks that there is an approach we can take in life, a perspective on things, that is hopeful, that looks on the sunny side of life, regardless of how many paradises have been lost. This sunny side is not a place but an attitude. It knows the reality of sorrow but also seeks the sunlight at the end of tunnels.
Process theologians speak of this sunlight as God's initial aims: those fresh possibilities, available in each moment, and relative to each moment, which offer a hopeful response, relative to the situation at hand. God is sunlight.
Is Christ the Sunlight of the World?
Ricky Skaggs speaks of this sunlight as Christ. He believes that Christ is the light and the truth of our world. Christ is the sunlight.
Christian Process theologians -- not Jewish or Hindu or Muslim process theologians, but Christian process theologians -- can agree with Ricky Skaggs.
Years ago the Christian process theologian, John B. Cobb, Jr., wrote a book called Christ in a Pluralistic Age in which he invited Christians to think of Christ, not simply as the historical Jesus who lived for a short time on earth, but also as the energizing Wisdom of God, continuously at work in the world in a hope-giving way. This energizing Wisdom -- this Logos, to use the language of the Gospel of John, has been part of God from the beginning of time and which is the light of all people. According to Cobb, this light was revealed in Jesus but not exhausted by Jesus. Jesus was a magnifying glass through which the light was revealed and he set in motion a hope, a kind of faith, to which many in the world are rightly drawn. For John Cobb, Christianity is not having faith in Jesus, it is sharing in the faith of Jesus. It is openness to God's wisdom, receptivity to the Sunlight.
Many Names for the Sunlight
There are readers of this website who have other names for the sunlight. Some are Jewish, some are Hindu, some are Buddhist, some are Muslim, some are spiritual but not religious.
If we are among them, we cringe when we hear Ricky Skaggs speak of Christ as the Light, as if there can be no other name by which the Light can be recognized. We recognize that much harm has been done in our world by people who are sure that they, and they alone, have the right name for the sunlight.
Indeed, there are readers of this website who distrust or even despise religion for its divisiveness and superstition. If we are among them, we see Ricky Skaggs as a nice person, but also as illustrative of the divisiveness that is so often fostered by fervent believers. We like his music but not his theology.
At JJB we believe that everyone deserves a place at the table of friendship. This includes those who despise religion and those who embrace it. This includes liberal Protestants who cringe when they hear Ricky Skaggs say that Christ is the truth, and it includes evangelical Protestants whose hearts are warmed by his honesty of conviction.
At the table of interfaith dialog there can be disagreements. Buddhists speak of the importance of right speech. Right speech can include honest speech, uttered with a humble heart.
The Sunlight Energy
In any case, all can agree that there is something in bluegrass music which is revelatory of a sunlight principle in life which is operative everywhere and which is indeed a light that enlightens all people.
Many experience this energy as a calling, a sound, a voice, inside the heart but more than the heart and more than all hearts added together. It is indeed a divine Wisdom.
As an evangelical Christian, Ricky Skaggs highlights the personal and transformative side of the Wisdom. He feels called by the Wisdom, called by Christ, to use his talents for the sake of goodness in the world.
Today the Sunlight also calls in other, more collective ways. It calls Americans to put aside their gun-preoccupied ways and turn to peace, to put aside their need to be "Number One" and accept, in humility, their place in a larger network of nations and peoples. It calls Chinese to humbly acknowledge the internal violence of their own past and remember the victims of the cultural revolution and the un-great leap forward. It calls the people of all religions to enter into interfaith dialogue and learn with one another. It calls humanity to take its place in the larger web of life and work with creation to build small, sustainable communities that embody the spirit of ecological civilizations. Always the Sunlight is calling, and never does it abandon its people.
This is the deeper meaning of covenant in the Jewish tradition. The Sunlight has made a covenant with creation to take the side of life and love over death and sorrow. In truth the Sunlight has made multiple covenants on the side of life, as revealed in the wisdom traditions of the world as they invite hope in the midst of despair. This doesn't mean there won't be sorrow in life. But there needn't be constant sorrow.
Faith and Foot-Tapping
Faith is not blind optimism. But it is not congenital pessimism either. It is having the freedom and courage to listen to bluegrass and stay tuned to its hopeful invitations, inside the individual and collective heart, no matter what happens. In the spirit of Ricky Skaggs, it does not hide from the sorrows, but it does not get trapped by them either.
Sometimes there can be no words for this faith. Just the listening. You may or may not have a gospel to proclaim. But you can tap your feet and, in times of sorrow, keep tapping.
Foot tapping is an act of faith practiced by the body. Call it foot-faith. It is a way of saying, "I'll keep going, no matter what sorrows I face. I am animated by a deeper rhythm."
A Zen master was asked what it's light to be enlightened. He said: "Nothing special, but when I fall down I get up again"
Getting up again, even with only a tapping of the feet, is a form of heaven. There's a rhythm to it that reverberates throughout the mountains, all the way to the heavens. When it reaches the heavens it then returns to the earth in the form of music, including, of course, bluegrass music. As Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality, the "love in heaven floods back into the world." It's a covenant, you know.