God, Music, and the Limits to Analogy


This is a cross-post from the “Next Great Awakening” series at http://www.harmonicminer.com. I hope you’ll check out the whole series at that link.

As I’ve written elsewhere, God is the Being who exists alone in His category… whatever that might be. We know a little. We are tempted to say that God is infinitely present, powerful, intelligent, and good. These ideas are more Greek than anything, because they were in love with philosophical absolutes. But using those categories can deceive us if we are incautious, because it allows us to pretend that we know more than we do. In His initial communication with humans, God seems not to have tried to “name” Himself, or describe Himself, or apply adjectives to Himself in an attempt to make Himself known to His people. He said, “I am who I am,” or, “I will be who I will be,” or, “I am that I am,” depending on whose translation you believe. He made Himself known by His deeds more than by His self-description, though there isn’t necessarily a rigid line between the two. Start reading from Genesis 1, and notice how long it is before God applies adjectives to Himself.

The Scripture simply points out that God is above everything else that can be named in any of those categories, far, far above, and leaves it at that. It does not say precisely that God knows everything (and how humans could even understand what it means to make the statement is beyond me…). What is “everything”? Everything that can be known? Everything that matters? Everything that will ever be? Everything that might have been? There are things that fit in one of these categories, but perhaps not in another. Does God know anything that cannot be known? It seems to me that to claim there is nothing that God does not know is as much a statement about the nature of reality as it is about the nature of God, and it places limits on the type of reality God is “allowed” to have created, according to our theories. That’s what’s behind the old kid’s question, “Can God make a rock so big that He can’t lift it?” In other words, there can be conflicts between infinite characteristics, as we understand infinities. If God knows everything, particularly the future in an exhaustive way, does it have to mean that he wasn’t powerful enough to make a Universe where He didn’t? Or is it merely that He decided not to make such a universe? Could God destroy the universe, then forget He ever made it? If not, his power is limited. If He could do this, His knowledge would be limited after He forgot having made the universe. Do we limit God (our understanding of Him, that is) by insisting on infinities whose definition and nature we cannot grasp?

Nowhere does scripture tell us that God is only enormously, or “infinitely,” powerful, intelligent, good, just, loving, immortal, present, etc. Those are only the “aspects of God” that relate to humans directly, because there is some analogy from these “attributes of God” to the far lesser parallels in human beings. That is, humans are present in a place, have some intelligence, some power, some moral status, some lifetime, etc., so the parallel of “God’s version” of those characteristics may tell us something about both ourselves and Him. But the Orthodox remind us that God is other from us, and probably has unseen, unknowable, and unguessable aspects, attributes, and character that may interact within the Godhead in various ways, including with those attributes listed above, in ways that again demonstrate the folly of humans trying to think they have “captured” God with some set of concepts.

God is a PERSON, who has graciously allowed us to know what is surely only a small part of his essence or character, in those attributes we can imagine, and to which we can relate in our finiteness. And that is what makes the Incarnation so completely breathtaking. The Incarnation was a huge sacrifice in itself, before there was a Crucifixion. He shed so much of that Magnificence to become one of us, and disclose Himself to us more fully. Could this life be merely a sort of boot camp, to prepare us to accept more of His self-disclosure in the next?

A very poor analogy might be that many of us engage in occupations or recreational activities that we literally could not explain to a person from five thousand years ago, and any attempt to make the explanation would be bound to create misunderstanding. I suspect our attempts to “describe” God aren’t much better. We can say what He did, and we can say what He reveals to us (in scripture, in the “general” revelation of nature, and via the Spirit), but we cannot say with either precision or completeness what He IS, only that He is.

Of course, some of the contradictions mentioned earlier, caused by dueling infinities, are perhaps less real than apparent. We simply don’t know. We can manipulate concepts of “infinities” mathematically, and symbolically, but that doesn’t mean humans can grasp them. We should exercise some degree of humility. God is unique, and probably “infinite” in some sense(s), but we don’t really know what that means, and while it may comfort us to say it, it is probably semantically null. We, on the other hand, are exceedingly finite, marginally stupid, and pretty weak. From this flows a basic principle.

Analogies involving humans and God flow basically in only one way, and produce distortions, ranging from risible to terrible, when applied in the wrong direction. We can “compare” ourselves to God in a meaningful way, but we cannot compare God to ourselves without committing a very fundamental category error. There may be small exceptions to this. We may learn something about love by watching humans interact, and from that we may speculate about God’s love. But since every human aspect is finite, when our reasoning involves trying to place limits on God that flow from our human perceptions of each other, and from what we understand of the nature of “knowledge,” or “power,” or “justice,” or “love,” we have surely erred.

What passes for skeptical argument against the existence of God, the goodness of God, or the power of God usually flows from trying to place human limits on God, that is, analogizing from humanity to God, or from the creation itself to God. But it all flows the other way. We are what we are because God is what He is. Creation is what it is for the same reasons. This is why it’s so ludicrous for naturalists to sneer at the notion that God might have made the entire universe just for us. They want to know, why is it so ridiculously huge? Why spend 13.7 billion years getting it ready for us? But surely our understanding of God’s motives in this instance is limited by how humans do things, and how they have to do them. On the other hand, if you happen to be God, taking 13.7 billion years to get the place ready for the renters may just seem like a good way to do things, satisfying some “aesthetic” sensibility or concept. And really now, is there any reason to think the universe seems all that huge to God? Is He impressed with the size of it? Is He awed with Himself and the Creation? It’s pretty foolish to impose human categories and “sense of scale” onto God.

I expect that ants are awed with the size of the White House lawn. I suppose I would be too, if I had to mow it.

Failed arguments made by skeptics about God usually take the form, “If God was good, then He would….”, or “If God was all powerful then He would have….”, or “If God knew everything then he would have…”, and so on. Such arguments usually assume that God is a super nice man with a big brain and lots of power. Humans are simply incapable of grasping who God is, apart from his self-revelation, and we don’t help the situation by applying the same logic as a 10 yr old speculating about what he’d do if he was immortal, super-good, super-powerful and super-smart. (“Daddy, if you could have any super-power you wanted, what would it be?”)

One way to say this is that even if we attempt to “analyze” God in a functional way, we could not move from that analysis to a resynthesis of Him, because whatever parts or aspects of God we can separate out do not add up to the PERSON that He is.

And now, for a bit of pure conjecture. I think God may have given us something that is shared by most humans and all societies, a thing whose nature and characteristics make it analogically similar to God in certain ways. That thing is music. The nature of the similarity is that just as God is the sole inhabitant of His “category” (superintelligent, superpowerful, superpresent, immortal creator of the universe, able to move in and inhabit all dimensions of space and time simultaneously, as well as outside of them, etc.), music seems to inhabit its own category without even a kissin’ cousin in other human endeavors. I am not saying that “music is like God” or “God is like music.” I am saying that each is the sole member of its “set.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the uniqueness of music. It is often thought to be analogous to art, mathematics, language, or communication, but the analogies actually flow the other way. It seems to me that people try to dignify many other disciplines and activities by analogizing them to music. We speak of two basketball players who are “making beautiful music together,” the “harmonization of texts,” the “counterpoint of ideas,” the “rhythm of dialog,” and so on. Mathematicians seem especially fond of musical metaphors for their own work. Even theologians create “harmonies of the gospels.”

I suspect that most people who have only a casual awareness of music will find all of this a bit difficult to absorb, particularly if they have not thought deeply about all the things that they “know” about music without fully “knowing” that they do. But professional musicians with academic training will understand a little better. If, to you, music is just singing or playing an instrument, or going to a concert, you may not fully appreciate the intellectual subtleties, expressive nuances, the internalized structure, the great precision and perceptual skills that are involved in the higher levels of musical endeavor. Yet, with all of these aspects, music is just one thing. It is a single integrated and integrating thing, which requires all of these human capacities to be integrated in it, but exceeds the sum of its parts. It is mysteriously “other” in human life, not much like anything else at all. When we attempt to pull out music’s different aspects, and try to account for music as merely the sum total of its various aspects, we make the same error as trying to resynthesize God out of the analysis of His aspects. (It is, by the way, similar to the error of trying to account for human beings as the sum total and interaction of our cells, DNA, etc., as if we are merely a meta-effect of our parts.)

None of this means that it is a bad idea to analyze what we can of God, or of music. It means we should be humble about it, accepting that there is a whole which we cannot vivisect in order to truly understand it. While we cannot kill God by making this analysis, we can certainly kill our experience of God by believing too much in our analysis, and not enough in the person of God. And if we believe that our analysis of various aspects of music has somehow captured its essence, we run the risk of killing our ability to experience it properly, as well.

One other observation about music: essentially every other “advanced human activity” has its roots in something far simpler, and immediately practical and useful for survival in that first, simplest expression. Art may have grown from the ability to scratch in the dirt to create simple representations (“Johnny, if you see one of these, run!”), the ability to shape clay to make pots, the making of clothing from animal skins and fibrous plants, the making of weapons (stone flaking) and so on. The utility of even very simple language for cooperation in practical tasks is obvious. If you can count, you can estimate the number of animals in the herd, the number of opponents you face, or the amount of food you need for the winter. If you can measure, you can judge how much water to carry, how long the spear should be, and so on. Dancing developed and celebrated the skills of hunters, warriors, and possibly those seeking a mate. If you can dance, you’re healthy and coordinated, and more desirable.

What can you do if you can sing? Or if you can tell if someone else is “doing it right”? Or if you’ve spent your time learning to play the lute, or the flute, instead of how to throw spears or make clothing? And how is that immediately useful? What benefit does it confer? From what simpler ability that IS useful for survival does music spring?

Music is the most useless of human activities, yet paradoxically, the mastery of it requires great coordination, sensitive aural perceptions, truly incredible amounts of practice (putting almost anything else to shame in the precision it requires), intellectual power and subtlety. It literally takes a lifetime, in a way that most other things do not, to master it. And even then, there is always something new to learn. This new learning is NOT merely additional facts and knowledge, or additional skills, though those things are true, too, but uniquely musical learning/development/growth that reflects the characteristically integrative nature of music, with a bit of “new learning” involving facts, relationships or theories, skills, perceptions, etc., all related to an internalized musical structure that resists being pulled apart into its components.

More discussion of this is at the links on art, mathematics, language, and communication.

Did God make us love music, and want to do it, so that we would train our minds, coordination, perceptions, and so on, “saving them” in culture, so to speak, for a later time when such precision would be required? Are there new skills and capacities humans will develop in coming centuries or millennia, of which music is a mere hint, or perhaps only a part, in the same way that the ability to scratch in the dirt and recognize simple signs and pictographic images was a mere hint of the richness of written language and mathematics, that would not be developed for many thousands of years? What capacities has God built into us, of which we know nothing yet?

Music is a uniquely integrative thing, involving at its highest levels nearly every intellectual, physical, perceptual and expressive capacity of a human being, all integrated around a single thing/activity/experience. At its best, it uses essentially all of a person to “do” it. All of which gives rise to another speculation: did God make us love music, and create the capacity for it, so that His people would be able to use it to preserve the oral tradition of His revelation and historical activity among them, until they developed the tools to write it all down?

I memorized 150 lines of Wordsworth in high school, and it’s all gone now. But I still know the words to any song that I sing once a month or so. I am quite confident that my children sing the same words to many songs that were sung in the 19th century, and have little doubt that their grandchildren will do the same. To me, this makes the notion of a very reliable and accurate “oral tradition” far more likely than it may seem at first glance.

To the main point: music may be an example of a thing that is “alone in its category,” and reminding ourselves of the limitations on analogies between music and art, math, language or communication may help us avoid the far more serious error of seeing God as a really big, powerful, smart, good, immortal human, as if we “share a category” with Him. And perhaps that’s what makes music such an appropriate vehicle for the worship of God.

A theologian friend of mine who read a draft of this post had another comment, that “God is personal, and music is personal.” I think the idea is to remind us that God is not merely the embodiment of infinite principles, but rather is the Person from whom those principles flow. The analogy of music to this is that music is one thing, a personal thing, that can only be done by and with persons, but out of which all these other relationships flow involving perception, skills, intellect, expression, etc.

As interesting as speculation about music’s role in the preservation of the revelation and history may be, the first mention of music in the Bible involves Jubal, an instrumentalist. So choral directors should not be too smug.

But: can you imagine getting to hear Jesus sing?

There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. But they would be tears of inexpressible joy.

I have the feeling that, being Jesus, He would soon be inviting us to sing and play along.

4 thoughts on “God, Music, and the Limits to Analogy

  1. Good wordsmanship bro. a few grains of salt:

    God is All that is In All.
    To say that God knows everything means that God is, and is the source of, all thought and thoughts. And He is constantly applauding the infinitely creative ways that we put those thoughts together.
    To say that God's Incarnation was a sacrifice is strictly a human perspective. There is no uppering or lowering with God, which is part of what it means to be Everywhere.
    God has endless faith in us.
    God has genuine, affectionate interest in us.
    We should behave the same way towards our neighbors.

    Categorizing human creativity of any kind is an oxymoron.
    Music reminds us that we are spiritual beings dreaming in a physical reality.
    Work brings us satisfaction, Play brings us pleasure. Both completely define each other.
    Music is effortless pleasure for some, diligent work for others.
    Still, if you are not talking, you're singing.
    If you are not writing, you're drawing.
    Music, or creative expression of any kind, can be recorded and played back. But it can never be captured. Creativity can only be experienced at that very instant in which it is being expressed. The same is true with spirituality, by the way.
    Humans need Play in order to survive. In other words, we must listen to music.

  2. "To say that God's Incarnation was a sacrifice is strictly a human perspective. "

    Umm… maybe… but it's also a scriptural perspective, which is why I linked that phrase in the post to the Biblegateway. Run down the link and see what you think.

  3. "Umm… maybe… but it's also a scriptural perspective, which is why I linked that phrase in the post to the Biblegateway."

    Thank you. I clicked. Classic, inspiring words. A subject of many a fiery sermon.
    Comment on Philippian letter:

    Is it a humble act to inspire humility? I'm not sure of the answer. Whenever I've read this and similar inspirational essays from Paul, I get the sneaky suspicion that I'm being politely commanded to do something or to behave a certain way. This is all fine and dandy, and maybe it's just me but; is it the nature of humility to be inspiring, or demanding? I don't think Jesus humbled himself with the intention that it would then give him, or others the authority to command us to go and do likewise. That said, I'm not so sure he intended to inspire us either, although he certainly inspired Paul. Jesus was simply humbled by his affectionate interest in us. Humility is an attitude borne of love. Read carefully: humility is no big deal(?).

    Re: human perspective

    Human perspective tends to be an "uppering and lowering" kind of perspective. God's is not. Therefore, we humans naturally place God's perspective "above" our own, where God does not. To God, there's nothing inferior about human perspective, even if it is "imperfect". All perspective is equally valuable from God's perspective, which allows it to eventually approach perfection. God's "highest denominator" type of perspective which I am proposing comes from grace; which to me means unwarranted, irrational favor (from my perspective). God places only the highest value on each and every part of Creation. Unfortunately, that is nearly impossible for humans, especially Westerners to perceive (maybe not for the Buddhists). So we choose to see things as higher and lower.
    Of course, the notion of God's Sacrifice is a scriptural one. Scripture is a Divinely inspired, human perspective. It was written for us. Perhaps scripture is a good example of equally valued perspectives (or combined perspectives if you'd like)?
    Obviously it's a little silly to attempt to possess or live by God's Perspective. We must put together reality in a practical way. But we also have this natural urge to pursue "Perfection" (Matthew 5, especially the last part), or "find God". To relieve some of the tension there, I just think it helps to remember that God is pursuing and "finding" us as well.
    I assume you've heard this all before.

  4. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve been thinking a lot along similar lines lately about music and my faith. The comparisons between them and other things are indeed very shallow at best. And that’s what makes music unique is that there isn’t a good way to compare it to other things. I’ve always heard around other musicians that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a funny comparison, but as another comparison involving music, it only hints at the deeper problem of people trying talk about music in relation to other arts or activities. Music is precisely different in many of the ways you describe in the post from other activities by nature.

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