Psalm Recitation and Post-Secular Time: Augustine, the iPod, and Psalm 90

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The Whitestone Foundation

Psalm 90 accommodates multiple understandings and experiences of time, but its compositional coherence balances this diversity with unity. Practices of recitation, reading, and reflection on the Psalms accommodate this unity in diversity, naming but not resolving perennial questions about time. In the end what we have are complex selves, complex traditions, and complex texts interacting with each other. If there is any coherence in this complexity, it has to do with fictions and metaphors of coherence: spatial unity of the text, continuity of tradition, and unity of the self. Like all reading, the recitation of psalms is ultimately an aesthetic, subjective experience, though traditional instruction and ritual give this aesthetic a social dimension. As embodied recitation, the psalm affords an aesthetic not of private escape or disinterestedness but of embeddedness in history and social practice. The structure of Psalm 90, particularly with the framing repetition of terms “return” in vv. 3 and 13, along with the four imperatives in vv. 12-14 and the three jussives in vv. 14-17, lends the text unity without certain closure.

Augustine’s Confessions contains abstract discussions of time, but this abstraction arises within a tradition of biblical reading and recitation. Secular philosophy, religious studies, and biblical scholarship commonly overlook biblical reading and recitation in Augustine’s thought and in biblical traditions more broadly. This oversight reflects a modern tendency to separate religion, typically construed as “faith” or belief, from the secular domains of reasoning on the one hand and aesthetics on the other. The modern reception of Psalm 90 splits in these two directions, one reading the text mostly as a meditation on human and divine time, and the other as an object for musical expression and enjoyment. The Psalms and their history, particularly traditions of recitation, resist both extremes of abstract thought and embodied desire. Beyond the false dichotomy of sacred and secular time, practices of recitation were always already post-secular.

Psalms, unity, Augustine's Confessions, abstract, secular
Britt, B. “Psalm Recitation and Post-Secular Time: Augustine, the iPod, and Psalm 90,” in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory vol. 12 no. 2 (Fall 2012): 122-147.