Music and Religion

Desiring Music, part 2

The desire for music is a desire for truth, a desire to see the world rightly at last, as much as it is a desire for beauty. Of course, as John Keats told us, they are the same thing:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty," -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The desire for spirituality is also, like music, a desire to somehow see the world truly and rightly – as words alone cannot tell it. I use words like one-ness, connection, transcendence, dropping away of the sense of a separate self, acceptance, presence, mystery, and wonder. Other preachers include words like God and heaven. And we can argue about the words because they are words. The directly experienced, if we see it, exposes the paltry inadequacy of all those words.

The prominent role of music in religion is not an accident. Religion probably emerged in human evolution because of competition between tribes. To survive required success in defense and battle. Success in battle required high social cohesion. Tribal cohesion was facilitated by sharing of rituals, participating together in ritualized behavior -- and the sharing of stories about the origin of your people – and the sharing of music.

One of the most obvious features of music the world over is that it tends to be a group activity. Groups make music together more readily, more easily and naturally, and more often than a group can paint a painting or write a poem. The only other art form that is so given to creating in groups is dance – and dance is so intertwined with music that some cultures make no distinction. They have the same word for both music and dance. And even when there is just a solitary performer, music commonly happens in contexts and places that foster a sense of cohesion among the audience and with the performer. Music psychologist Juan Roederer says music is
“a means of establishing behavioral coherency in masses of people. In the distant past this would indeed have had an important survival value, as an increasingly complex human environment demanded coherent, collective actions on the parts of groups of human society.”
Rhythmic sounds are a great way to get people to clap or drum along, synchronizing and coordinating their activity. Many of you have had vivid experience of music promoting a lasting sense of togetherness. Notes Phillip Ball:
“Adolescent subcultures establish their identity through allegiance and shared listening to specific modes of music.”
The signature event of the 1960s was a music festival called Woodstock, a couple hours up the road from here. It brought together 400 thousand people with a resolve to live in . . . harmony.

If religion originates in the tribal need for social cohesion, and music is also a very powerful force in connecting people together, then it’s no wonder that music and religion are as intertwined as they are, from the church music so prominent in the history of European music, to drumming and dancing at religious festivals in cultures all over the world. According to Johann Sebastian Bach:
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of god and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”
Our hymn #36 (in Singing the Living Tradition) begins:
“When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
The language of Bach’s religious tradition, echoed in our hymn – glorifying God in music – is an attempt to point to a certain kind of experience. Bach’s language doesn’t work for all of us, but the experience that language is trying to point toward is something for all of us. The words are an attempt to point toward an experience of dropping your separate, isolated and isolating concerns, your defenses – submerging in a wider reality, connecting outside yourself -- simply loving this life and this world in its infinity and ultimate unknowability – for then such adoration will leave no room for the pride that separates us.

And we do so desire to transcend that separation – to open ourselves to a way of presence in which every sight and sound is there for the purpose of joining with us in celebration: "It is as though the whole creation cried alleluia!"

The brain’s capacity for musical experience and its capacity for spiritual experience both involve feelings and awarenesses outside the realm of words and reason, outside of any conscious purpose other than itself. Though they ultimately touch the wordless, we quickly begin constructing words all around them – words to describe related parts that can be described. Both musical and spiritual experience connect us with others, and then feed upon that connection to grow more intense.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 1: Music: More Real than Reality
Part 3: Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly

1 comment:

  1. Music and religion have the great of commons. It brings us the meaningful of music for religion and it is also has for music too.