Chorint: Librettist Lehnert on interreligious choral music
The 5th interreligious choral music days, ChorInt (October 23-27, 2019), have this year, on the occasion of the forthcoming laying of the foundation stone of the House of One, taken music in intercultural dialogue as their theme. The highlight of the four-day choral music days will be a world premiere on Saturday, 26 October: The oratorio scenes "In deserted land without a way". The poet and theologian Christian Lehnert and the composer Saad Thamir have joined forces and dared a new interpretation of Lessing's Parable of the Ring (Nathan the Wise) with this work.
In the interview Christian Lehnert talks about the deep relationship of the three Abrahamitic religions and the return of religious consciousness.
Mr. Lehnert, you called your libretto "In a desert country without a way". What means desert to you?
Desert is a landscape on the border of habitation. But it is also a special place in the great myths of the world religions, which contains two things: the highest degree of homelessness and emptiness as well as the highest degree of closeness to transcendence. The desert is the place of revelation, not only in the Bible. Mohammed, for example, retreats into the desert in a life crisis. The Torah describes how the people of Israel wandered through the desert for 40 years after their expulsion from Egypt.
The starting point of your work was the Parable of the Ring from G.E.Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". What led you from there into the desert?
As popular as the ring parable is, it has a certain weakness in our time. It is based on the assumption that an authority - in this case in the person of Sultan Saladin - looks from above at the three religions and decides which is the true one. For Lessing as an Enlightenment philosopher, human reason stands above religion. This position has become rather difficult for us contemporaries.
After the many ideological quakes of the 20th century and the realization of man's manipulability, we are also sceptical about reason. Moreover, in many places in the world we experience a return of religious consciousness. But religions elude the judgement of reason in their self-understanding, because they can only be understood from within. One cannot take a neutral stand against religion. It can be affirmed or denied, but there is no neutrality. There is no instance that judges objectively. We have lost this site since Lessing.
The central message is the search for togetherness, understanding.
My way out, therefore, was to move away from the parable motivically and to look where the religions meet that are gathered in the House of One. They meet in certain images of God and in narrative contexts. They all have their core in the desert.
Does the picture also have to do with your own experiences as a person in a religious desert, as it was the former GDR?
I did not grow up religious at all. I first saw a church from the inside at the age of about fifteen. I was quite a child of the GDR. In Marxism, however, religion is subtly hidden. People believed in the meaning of history and in the salvation of mankind in a paradisiacal state called communism. It was shown almost ecclesiastically in the form of a party, was liturgically staged at party congresses, similar to a divine service. One cannot say that the people in the GDR grew up nonreligiously.
Today, the new right seems to assume this role of the saviour.
Yes, right-wing radicalism also has something quasi-religious about it. At the moment, when in modern times a religious reference is, so to speak, removed from society, questions of meaning arise to a much greater extent and must be answered socially and politically. Therefore, modern societies have a tendency to target the end of history, a Golden Age, redemption, paradise. An apocalyptic dimension will be introduced into political discourses. A right narrative sounds very simple: when the people and race are finally pure, people return home to themselves and to healthy conditions. Such dangerous enthusiasm shows how religion is subliminally present in politics.
According to this explanation, we live in a highly religious time.
I regard secularisation as a sham. A closer look reveals many question marks. Often only the forms change, but people are still religious in a certain sense. Bonds decrease, but religious energies do not. By the way, no world view can do without statements of faith.
While reading your libretto, one realizes that there are more similarities between religious people in the Holy Books than in today's real life between religious people.
Today, the experience of difference and strangeness is at the forefront. As a rule, the focus is not on religious but on cultural questions. Oriental Christians are therefore perceived no less foreign as Muslims. I think that the three religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity are deeply related. Nevertheless, there are serious differences, for example in the image of God.
In Christianity there is the triune God: Jesus reveals himself completely as a human being, remains one with God the Creator, and the Creator is called Holy Spirit in his power of action. These are three persons in one. Islam rejects this completely. Behind this is the fact that Christianity looks more closely at how God shows Himself, but Islam emphasizes more strongly the divine transcendence.
The motif of breath appears again and again in your works, also in this one, even if only marginally. What does the picture stand for?
Wind, Holy Spirit is an old biblical metaphor. The nice thing is that in the Bible - and this also applies to the Koran, by the way - these things sound much less abstract than they do to us today. This shows how much more sensual religion was felt. God is present, present like the wind. That is a very strong picture.
And what does it stand for for you personally?
The phenomenon of the wind, the breath, is also important to me because it is something profoundly inner, the very own sign of life, and at the same time something external. It is a sign that man is never self-contained, but always owes himself to a living space outside himself. Inside and outside, opening and closing, the whole a river.
This can also be wonderfully translated into music, above all into singing.
In singing breath becomes form, sound. And to this there comes the desert. Anyone who has ever wandered in a desert knows how strong the wind can be heard there, how rich in nuances. I know it from the Sinai: the more monotonous the landscape, the sharper the hearing becomes.
The end of your oratorical scenes remains open, life as eternal search.
That's wonderful! It is always said that religion is something closed, religion would explain life, would give security and shelter. But the real essence of religion is uncertainty: that we are not quite at home in ourselves. Man is a question to himself. Above all religion expresses that - what exceeds us, a transcendence, a walking, a locomotion into something that I do not yet know or understand or have. In a way, this openness of searching is the core. If I already knew what God is, I would not need to be religious. You have to go into the desert to hear.