Spring 2017 Colloquium Series: Sounding Culture from the Pulpit

May 5, 2017

Tanvi Solanki

On May 5, 2017, Tanvi Solanki (Cornell University) concluded this year’s IGCS Colloquium Series with a paper titled: “Sounding Culture from the Pulpit.” Solanki’s research draws on a range of discourses to consider how the medium of sound features prominently in Herder’s theological and cultural writings. Central to her inquiry was Herder’s development of a phenomenological theory of acoustics, which he thought could be used to strengthen the bonds of religious community in Weimar and beyond.  According to Solanki, Herder thought that sound had a vitalizing effect on religious congregations, and he believed the voice of God could become audible through the hymns and sermons delivered in church.  Teaching people how to listen properly was a critical part of Herder’s pedagogy of the ear, a training that demanded the eye take a subordinate role in religious experience.  Herder also extended his theory of sound to reading practices, in which a person reading the Bible ideally learns to read as if the words on the page were being spoken.  The desired aim of this type of reading was to produce a lively encounter with scripture that offered an alternative to prevailing philological practices, which tended to produce more reflective religious experiences.  Solanki went on to argue that Herder distinguished himself from other theologians by investing his theology of sound with a capacity to establish national identities, in which the Christian community was no longer conceived as “universal,” but could be imagined as distinctly German or at least localized in existing cultural customs and practices.

After offering an incisive exposition of Herder’s theory, Solanki criticized its latent idealism. Specifically, Solanki took issue with Herder’s assumption that applying his theory of sound to homiletics would necessarily have an equalizing effect on his religious community.  She pointed out the practical limitations of Herder’s theology of sound by examining the physical and social architectures of the Stadtkirche where he preached. Without a way to amplify the voice of the preacher, less fortunate members of the congregation seated at the back of the church would have heard only a faint, muffled noise rather than a fully audible sermon.  Rather than equalizing the social field, the architecture of the church reinforced established hierarchies, offering the wealthy and educated church members seated at the front of the church greater access to the preacher’s voice. (Matthew Stoltz)