Music As a Metaphor for God

I have a friend, a dear friend in fact, someone I respect and admire. I’ll call him as I often do, G. When rarely the subject of religion comes up, G half-jokingly and half-proudly will declare himself a non-believer and anti-organized religion. He’d agree with Gandhi who’s been purported as saying, “I like Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

At the same time, G profoundly loves music, Gospel music included. This love reaches the level of the sacred to him. Music provides him meaning, comfort, and joy, as essential to him as God is to others.

G and I disagree when it comes to religion and God. But 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.

And G and I agree on the spiritual and musical genius of John Coltrane who composed and performed the musical masterpiece called A Love Supreme. The 4th and final movement of A Love Supreme ends with this Psalm in song.

This interesting dynamic of otherwise irreligious folks loving music on such a fundamental, spiritual level, it makes me wonder. Maybe for some music is akin to God. Music represents something integral, vital, something consistently there for them when they need it.

Indeed, for some, music is a kind of divine touchstone. Music is divine.

I can see how music for some folks points to and gets at what is most ultimate, most powerful, most beautiful.

After all, to me, music is one of the best metaphors for God we have.

Like God, you cannot see music with the naked eye. Yes, you can see musical instruments and someone playing music, someone hitting organ keys, someone blowing air into a sax, trumpet or harmonica, someone strumming a guitar, or striking drums. But you’re not seeing the sound of music itself. Printed musical notes don’t really float in the air like you’d see pictured in a comic strip.

You hear music, not see it.

Okay, 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 it so special, that sense in your soul is intangible.

God is similar. We cannot see God. We don’t even hear God. God does not have a mouth or vocal cords. 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 with music, experiencing God’s presence is more than rational. 

If God or music were only rational, if we simply intellectually conceived of God or music, we would be missing something essential to what music or religion is all about.

Here’s another parallel. Music like religion at its best is a great uniter. Like nothing else, music can unite people, even those who are rather different or in opposition. There are plenty of examples of music bridging cultural differences and divisions. I think about this Palestinian/Israeli chamber orchestra who do just that – bridge divides through music.

Maybe the reason music is so good at unifying people is that music includes within it the gift of harmony.

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? God is a Sacred Trio of Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. One music with three equal and interrelating parts.

Even if the Trinity is difficult for you, how about this?

God is like the singular melody moving in the universe, uniting the universe with all its diversity and myriad things into one song. God is a singular melody replete with many layers of sound, enabling all those layers of sound to move together in one sacred hymn.

Could it be for those who, like my friend, find in music something most meaningful, something sacred, 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 way to actualize God.

Could it be that music and the experience of music is akin to spiritual faith, a deep, soulful experience of music assimilating the experience of God?

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

What is clear, for many, the deep love and appreciation for music reaches the level of spiritual faith.

You might remember some years back about this crazy venture in Albuquerque, NM called the Church of Beethoven. In 2008, a classical musician by the name of Felix Wurman, who played in the local symphony and as a church musician had an idea. He thought, what if the music that is more secondary and background to Sunday service became the central focus? It seemed to him the music often invoked more spiritual depth than the sermon or other parts of the service. So he tried to make his idea to have a Sunday service with just music a reality. The Church of Beethoven was born. And it was 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 the concept itself points to something significant: people, even the most non-religious among us, yearn for sacred experiences and sacred community. The role of a church community is to foster both – sacred experiences and community. And lofty words or heady theology don’t always get folks there.

The Church of Beethoven has things to teach us. That music equals the divine for many has things to teach us: the importance of simplicity, of listening, of internalizing beauty. The importance of a holistic spirituality that touches the heart and not just the head. The importance of incorporating different ways to point to the divine.

As for what Beethoven would think of a church in his name, well, I will answer with a prayer attributed to him and let you answer for yourself. 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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