Music as a Metaphor for God

So I have a friend, a dear friend in fact, someone I respect and admire. When the subject of religion comes up, he half-jokingly and half proudly will declare himself an agnostic when it comes to notions of God and atheist when it comes to organized religion. He points out regularly in these discussions how the Abrahamic view of God is faulty and even dangerous and how organized religion has hindered progress more than its helped.

He is one of many and often has good points. The religion of Jesus, for example, often acts exactly the opposite as Jesus and to what he taught. Religion too often has become ideology and has been behind too many a conflict. It brings to mind that Gandhi quote that is quite common to hear. “I like Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

At the same time, my friend loves music. This love reaches the level of the spiritual. It is sacred to him. Music provides him so much meaning, comfort, and joy. It is as essential to him as God is to others.

Whereas my friend and I disagree when it comes to religion and God, when it comes to music we are in sync. There is common ground there. Music is sacred to me, essential, a source of meaning, comfort, and joy.

This interesting dynamic of otherwise irreligious or even non-spiritual folks loving music on such a fundamental level got me really thinking this week. It got me pondering the notion that maybe for some music is akin to God. Music represents something integral, vital, something consistently there for them when they need it.

What if music is another way to describe, point to, get at what is ultimate, which some call God?

There is some precedence for this idea. Music and religion are closely tied to each other. In the Bible, music is frequently mentioned as a vehicle for worshiping God, as a means to recall God’s gifts in the faithfuls' lives, to remember the joy given from God.

Hymns, psalms, praise songs are a part of the Jewish tradition described in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament. The same continues in the New Testament. That we sing hymns and songs in this church connects all the way back to the early church and even before to Christianity’s Jewish ancestors.

Music is similarly important in Islam, at least in the musical reciting of the Quran. Buddhism has chanting and percussive instruments that accompany chanting. Hinduism has a long history of sacred music.

Music and religion all over the world are inextricably linked. And it’s been that way from the very beginning.

Even philosophy, religion’s secular cousin, has an important strand of thought on music. I won’t go into it here, but look up Pythagoras and music and you’ll see what I mean.

So music and religion are tied at the hip, as they say.

But I tend to think it goes even deeper than that. Religion and music are not only tied together, but they come from the same place, from the space of the spirit, from the mind of God.

I’d dare say that Music is one of the most perfect metaphors for God we have.

What is a metaphor? Well, a metaphor is a literary device that seeks to describe, show, elucidate a subject not in a literal way as you’d find in a dictionary but in a way that is poetic, literary. An old example of a metaphor is this – Love is a rose. Of course, love is not a rose. But the idea of a rose helps us to understand what love is.

Well, music is a perfect metaphor for God. God is perfected music, for example.

I ask you to bring to mind your favorite piece of music or one of them. Just sit with it a bit. Now, let us probe why music is a perfect metaphor for God.

First of all, music is intangible. You cannot see music. Yes, you can see someone playing music, someone hitting organ keys, like Violet just did, someone blowing air into a sax, trumpet or harmonica, someone strumming a guitar, or striking drums. But you’re not seeing music itself. There are no printed musical notes floating in the air like you’d see pictured in a comic strip. You hear music, not see it.

So, we hear music. But we can also hear a garbage truck crushing trash or wind whistling through an old building. What makes music a special kind of sound?

It is the feeling, the experience of the music in your mind and heart that separates music from other sounds. But that feeling, that experience of music that makes music so special, is intangible.

God is similar. We cannot see God. We don’t hear God in the same way as we hear someone talking to us at a party, using their mouth and their vocal chords. God does not have a mouth or vocal chords. Even those who say they hear God’s still small voice, for example, mean it differently. We sense God, we experience God in our hearts. Like music, experiencing God’s presence is more than rational. 

If God or music are only rational, if we simply intellectually conceive of God or music, we are missing something essential to what music or religion is all about.

Okay, so let us go back to our favorite piece of music. Bring it back to your mind. Try to experience that music in your heart. If you listen closely enough, you can hear something rather profound about music. 

Music is a great uniter. Yes, it unites those who are different and even in opposition a lot. There are plenty of examples of cultural differences and divisions bridged by music. I think about this Palestinian/Israeli chamber orchestra who do just that – bridge the divide through music. Maybe members of Congress should think about all learning to play instruments and creating a marching band.

Maybe the reason music is so good at this is because music includes within it the gift of harmony. What is harmony? What does it do? Well, harmony takes a diversity of notes and unites it into one sound or one song. In other words, music makes real e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Multiple notes, rhythms, instruments, melodies and harmonies can be put together to make one song, one piece of music.

God does the same thing, right? Think about the Trinity. The Trinity is a harmonious trio of Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. One music with 3 equal and interrelating parts.

And for you Unitarians out there, who believe God is one, well, if God is in all, as Ephesians 4:6 says and if God is understood and seen in Creation, as Romans 1:16 says, then God is like the singular melody moving in the universe, uniting the universe with all its diversity and multiplicity into one song. God is a melody playing through the many layers of sound, enabling all sound to move together in one sacred hymn.

Some don’t see this at all, I know. Some may see these thoughts as merely sappy rhetoric. Some, on the other hand, think God to be a real, literal big man upstairs in heaven. Some think God to be a fictional character created by the human mind. And some think music to be simply sound waves that sound “pertty” and that’s all. And that’s okay, I guess.

But could it be for those who, like my friend, find in music something most meaningful, something as close to sacred as something can get, as something that creates, sustains, and enhances human community, could it be for those who see music as essential to their lives, that music is just a gateway to getting at God. Could it be that music and their experience of music is akin to spiritual faith, their deep, soulful experience of music assimilating the experience of God?

Maybe music is a safer, less baggage-laden, less abused and, on a positive note, more open word for God?

It seems to me that indeed some people’s deep love and appreciation for music reaches the level of spiritual faith.

I am not making a value judgment here. I am not saying this is a bad thing necessarily. God works in mysterious ways, as they say, and so who I am to say. What I wonder though is how to open the doors of church to them, how to invite them to share in community with us.

You might remember a couple years back a piece on NPR about this crazy venture in Albuquerque, NM called the Church of Beethoven. As the story goes, a classical musician by the name of Felix Wurman, who played in the local symphony had an idea pop in his head as he performed at a church one Sunday. He thought what if instead of the music being more secondary and background to the service it became central and the focus? It seemed to him the music invoked more spiritual depth than the sermon or the other parts of the sermon. So he tried to make his thought – which was to have music be the focus and poetry and quiet prayer surrounding it -- a reality. The Church of Beethoven was born. And it has been a huge success and spread to other cities.

Now , as a complete replacement for the real mission of the Church – spreading the love of God – the church of Beethoven is not enough and is not advised. But I think it points to the fact that people yearn for sacred experiences and sacred community. The role of a church community is to foster both. And lofty words or discursive notions don’t always get people there. If something like the Church of Beethoven can teach us to learn the importance of simplicity, listening, and less intellectualism, then something good has happened.

As for what would Beethoven think of a church in his name, well, I will answer with a prayer attributed to him and let you be the guide. And this prayer will be a good way to end the words of this sermon.

"O God, give me strength to be victorious over myself. Guide my spirit; raise me from these dark depths that my soul, transported through Your wisdom, may fearlessly struggle in fiery flight; for You alone understand and You alone can inspire me.

One more thing. We praise Your goodness that You have left nothing undone to draw us to Yourself; but one thing we ask of You, O God; that You not cease Your work in our improvement. Let us tend toward You, no matter by what means, and be fruitful in good works." 



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